Academic journal article Human Organization

Culture, Politics, and Toxic Dinoflagellate Blooms: The Anthropology of Pfiesteria

Academic journal article Human Organization

Culture, Politics, and Toxic Dinoflagellate Blooms: The Anthropology of Pfiesteria

Article excerpt

Applied anthropologists have joined forces with biological scientists in studying the community and health effects of toxic dinoflagellate blooms. This paper presents findings from a number of investigations of the cultural, political, and health consequences of Pfiesteria blooms. We argue that a unique role for applied anthropology is to identify the cultural models of pollution and health that individuals draw upon to understand complex environmental problems such as dinoflagellate blooms. We also argue that anthropology must consider the political factors that sharpen stakeholder interest in environmental events and that lead to competing policies and initiatives for natural resource management and use. We review prior studies dealing with Pfiesteria, discuss our field research, and conclude with recommendations for applying a holistic approach to the study of blooms and related environmental problems.

Key words: environmental anthropology, cultural models, political ecology, toxic blooms, policy

During the summer of 1997, citizens of the MidAtlantic states were subjected to intense media coverage regarding the occurrence of a toxic dinoflagellate in several of their waterways. Linked to a number of fish kills, and with largely uncertain consequences for human health, the presence of Pfiesteria piscicida was of immediate interest to biological and medical researchers, some of whom had established the existence of Pfiesteria several years earlier. Although the cultural implications of Pfiesteria were not nearly so obvious, we have been impressed with the rapidity by which several anthropologists independently responded to what had quickly become an environmental "crisis." That they approached an "anthropology of Pfiesteria" from different perspectives and quite likely with different objectives in mind is testimony to the reach and broad concerns of the discipline, as well as to the varied professional and political contexts in which these anthropologists (including ourselves) were working. As is the usual case, the results of their research have been presented as independently as they were initially conceived. What we have attempted here is to place these endeavors in a somewhat larger context, to augment the work with some conclusions drawn from our own continuing research, and to propose some future avenues of inquiry. We believe that what can be learned from this experience speaks more generally to a large number of instances in which the relationships between science and decision making are less than perfect.

Pfiesteria is a recently identified toxic dinoflagellate implicated as a cause of high fish mortality and morbidity in North Carolina and Maryland estuarine waters. First identified in laboratory aquaria in 1988 (Burkholder et al. 1992), a Pfiesteria bloom was subsequently linked with a fish kill on the Pamlico River in North Carolina in 1991, where an estimated one million Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannous) died (Burkholder et al. 1992). Between 1991 and 1993, Pfiesteria piscicida was identified at some 21 fish kills in North Carolina and implicated as the causal agent in approximately half of these events (Burkholder, Glasgow, and Hobbs 1995). Since that time, Pfiesteria has been linked with repeated fish kills in North Carolina waters, including a recent event that affected some 500,000 fish in the Neuse Estuary in the summer of 1998 (Burkholder et al. 1999, cited in Oldach, Grattan, and Morris 1999). P piscicida was first detected in Chesapeake Bay tributaries in 1993 (Lewitus et al. 1995). In the late summer and early fall of 1997, several fish-kill events occurred in estuarine tributaries on Maryland's Eastern Shore (the Pocomoke, Manokin, and Chicamacomico Rivers) (Magnien, Burkholder, and Glasgow 1998, cited in Oldach, Grattan, and Morris 1999). In both states, Pfiesteria blooms have been accompaned by intense media coverage, widespread public concern, and a vigorous scientific and public policy response. …

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