Health Services

Pfiesteria Monitoring

Pfiesteria piscicida is a toxic dinoflagellate (a type of phytoplankton or microalgae) that has been implicated in recent years in causing fish kills in brackish coastal waters from North Carolina to Delaware. The organism has a complex life cycle that includes numerous different morphological forms, some of which produce toxins. Sampling done from 1998-2004 documented the presence of Pfiesteria in a number of Suffolk County embayments.

What causes Pfiesteria to grow and become toxic?
The conditions that result in toxin production by Pfiesteria, although not well understood, include the presence of large schools of fish, warm temperatures, brackish salinity, poorly flushed waters, and high nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) concentrations.

Does Pfiesteria have any public health effects?
Preliminary investigations suggest that exposure to waters where toxic forms of the organism are present may also cause human health effects, including headache, nausea, skin irritation, difficulty breathing, memory loss and confusion.

Is monitoring currently being done to test for Pfiesteria in Suffolk County?
In an attempt to provide a more complete picture of the organism’s distribution and temporal variations in Suffolk county waters, the Office of Ecology conducted a Pfiesteria monitoring program from 1998-2004. Samples were collected during summer months at 62 sites around the county and forwarded to the University of North Carolina for analysis.

Results of the study found Pfiesteria to be relatively common in Suffolk County waters, although no blooms were observed and evidence of Pfiesteria-related fish or human health problems was not apparent.  These results were in agreement with other studies that suggested the colder temperatures of Long Island waters are not optimal for Pfiesteria bloom formation and toxin production.  With this in mind, subsequent monitoring has not been conducted.

Where can I get more information on Pfiesteria?
For more information on Pfiesteria, visit any of the links below or contact the Office of Ecology at (631) 852-5760.

Links and References

Rublee, P.A., R. Nuzzi, R. Waters, and J.M. Burkholder. 2006. Pfiesteria piscicida and Pfiesteria shumwayae in coastal waters of Long Island, New York, U.S.A. Harmful Algae 5:374-379.