A recent assessment of Superstorm Sandy shows the hurricane did less damage to the Chesapeake Bay than some feared, thanks in large part to its timing and track.
According to a University of Maryland report, the late-October hurricane whose path traveled north of the Bay had “ephemeral” impacts on Bay water quality—especially when compared to past storms.
The summertime arrival of Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972, for instance, coincided with a critical growing period for oysters, crabs and underwater grasses, and had a damaging effect on all three. But because Sandy arrived in the fall, the nutrients and sediment that it sent into the Bay were unable to fuel harmful algae blooms or damage the underwater grasses that had already begun to die back for the season. And while Tropical Storm Lee in 2011 brought heavy rainfall and a large plume of sediment to the Susquehanna River, the bulk of Sandy’s rainfall was concentrated elsewhere, meaning minimal scouring of sediment from behind the Conowingo Dam and “virtually no sediment plume” in the Upper Bay.
These findings echo those released in November by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
Read more about the ecological impacts of Sandy on the Chesapeake Bay.
On one of the last remaining islands of the Chesapeake Bay, generations of working watermen have found a home.
Settled in the late seventeenth century, Tangier Island spans a five-mile stretch of water and has never supported more than 1,500 people. Its small size and relative isolation have allowed its residents to maintain a close connection to the past, keeping old customs and a distinct Tidewater dialect alive.
Modern families—with surnames like Crockett, Pruitt, Parks and Dise—can trace their lineage back hundreds of years, and the island’s economy remains tied to the harvest of crabs, fish and oysters. But these tenuous traditions are threatened by worsening water quality and sea-level rise.
In December, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team called together decision-makers and watermen for a shared meal and stakeholders’ discussion at one of Tangier Island’s four sit-down restaurants.
Watermen from Tangier and neighboring Smith Island spoke of the problems they see in and on the Bay and how they might be more involved in the management decisions that directly impact their livelihoods.
Held in the community in which these watermen live and work, the meeting allowed many of them to speak and be heard in a new and significant way.
One of the most pressing problems for the watermen is the flow of sediment into the Bay. As sediment runs off of land and into the water, sand and silt block sunlight from reaching the grass beds that offer shedding blue crabs refuge when their soft shells make them most vulnerable.
Soft-shell crabs are critical to the Tangier Island economy. And a loss of grass beds—which one waterman called “the life blood of the Chesapeake Bay”—could mean a loss of soft-shell crabs. “The habitat,” a second waterman said. “It just ain’t there.”
Seawalls have been put in place to slow the erosion of the island. But as sea levels rise, the land sinks and storms like Sandy, Irene and Isabel grow stronger and more frequent, Tangier continues to wash away.
The northernmost portion of Tangier Island is called Uppards. Once home to a store, a school, a church and a collection of homes, the life of Uppards has disappeared, leaving behind one tumbledown trailer and stretches of marsh, sand and beach.
In October, a small cemetery was uncovered on Uppards by the winds and waves of Superstorm Sandy. Headstones in the graveyard bear the common surname Pruitt. The once-buried bones of those who died in the 1880s are now visible aboveground.
This fall, Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell and officials from the Army Corps of Engineers pledged to build a $4.2 million jetty that will protect the island’s harbor. Some see the long-awaited initiative as a beacon of hope, while others believe it serves only to slow inevitable erosion.
As Tangier Island shrinks, the costs of fuel and gear and living rise, placing further pressure on the island’s aging watermen.
But what career alternatives does a waterman have? Some take jobs aboard tug boats. Other host tours for visitors from the mainland. And still others have found work as captains and educators at island study centers operated by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
But most Tangier residents would find it difficult to obtain work off the island, where a 45-minute ride on a ferry or mail boat is needed to make it to the nearest town. One waterman lamented this lack of options: “We don’t have the opportunity to get a land job.”
A dependence on the fish and shellfish of the Bay has created a conservation ethic in many Tangier watermen, including Tangier Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge. Eskridge spoke of the importance of restoration efforts in a time of environmental change, and of preserving natural resources in order to preserve Tangier careers and culture: “A sustainable resource is more important to a waterman than anyone else.”
Access high-resolution images of Tangier Island on the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
The federal agencies leading the watershed-wide endeavor to restore the Chesapeake Bay have outlined next year’s cleanup and restoration efforts in a 2013 action plan.
The work that the Federal Leadership Committee for the Chesapeake Bay has set out for fiscal year 2013 will build on established projects and begin new initiatives to restore clean water, recover habitat, sustain fish and wildlife, and boost land conservation and public access across the watershed. Supporting efforts will also expand citizen stewardship, respond to climate change and strengthen science.
The 2013 action plan includes a list of tangible efforts that federal agencies and state and local partners have pledged to undertake, from monitoring the return of migratory fish to streams in which passage barriers have been removed to helping landowners implement conservation practices on farms and in forests.
The action plan is meant to meet the goals set forth in the federal Strategy for Protecting and Restoring the Bay, which in 2009 called for the restoration and protection of the watershed. Close to half a billion dollars has been requested for the work outlined in the plan; the plan will be followed this spring with a progress report.
The harvest of menhaden along the Atlantic coast will be cut by 20 percent, following a controversial decision made by the fifteen-state board that regulates near-shore fishing.
Thirteen regulators voted in favor of the harvest reduction in a heated meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), held last week in a Baltimore hotel ballroom crowded with hundreds of activists clad in “Fight for Menhaden” buttons and shirts.
Often called “the most important fish in the sea,” menhaden are filter feeders that play an important role in clean water and form a critical link in the Chesapeake Bay food chain. The ASMFC received thousands of comments from individuals and organizations in support of conserving the likely-overfished species whose abundance is at an all-time low.
Three states, including Virginia, voted against the cut. Virginia is home to the coast’s last remaining menhaden processing plant, which turns menhaden into animal feed, fertilizer and fish oil, and which is responsible for 80 percent of the current coast-wide harvest.
Virginia officials argued for a less severe reduction and warned that a large cut could hurt the state’s economy and lead to job losses at its Reedville plant, which is operated by Omega Protein, Inc. A number of Virginia fishermen employed by the Texas-based company attended the management meeting and stood, arms crossed, in silent protest of the reduction.
The first-ever coast-wide limit on menhaden harvest will go into effect in 2013 and remain in place until the next stock assessment, scheduled for 2014.