As we know from our years at school, it is important to measure our progress, whether it pertains to our ability to learn and use information or to our work restoring water quality. Over the past 30 years, many non-governmental organizations, academic institutions and even individuals have used grades to measure how well we are doing in correcting environmental problems. In Maryland, former state Sen. Bernie Fowler uses his annual Paxtuent River Wade-In to bring attention to the need for continued vigilance on cleaning up our waterways. As a youth, Sen. Fowler could wade into the Patuxent up to his chest and still see his sneakers; this is now his modern-day yardstick, known as the “Sneaker Index.”
Each year, Sen. Fowler wades into the Patuxent until he can no longer see his shoes. He comes out of the river and measures the water line on his denim overalls. Over the years, this number has become the “grade” for the river’s water quality. A number of other organizations publish similar report cards for different water bodies. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Blue Water Baltimore and others have developed sophisticated methods of measuring the health of our waterways, issuing letter grades to show how well or how poorly our efforts are working to improve the environment.
But, just like our report cards from school, water quality report cards don’t tell the whole story. While they can tell us what conditions are right now—whether we did well or poorly in a particular course or over the school year—there are a lot of factors that can influence a waterway’s score from one year to the next. We are making progress, although at times we may see setbacks. And as Sen. Fowler reminds us each year, we must stick to it, redouble our efforts and work even harder if we want to get and keep a passing grade.
For close to a decade, scientists and volunteers have spent their springs at the Nanticoke Shad Hatchery, working to rebuild populations of American shad.
In this small building near Bethel, Del., hundreds of thousands of American shad are raised each year before they are returned to their native spawning grounds in the Nanticoke River. This spring, the hatchery stocked about 558,000 fish to the waterway.
In the early 1900s, excessive commercial harvests took a heavy toll on American shad. Over the past century, poor water quality and the construction of dams that restrict the anadromous fish’s access to upstream spawning grounds have caused shad populations to decline.
Today, restoration efforts are giving American shad a much-needed population boost. Restocking programs across the Chesapeake Bay watershed—combined with harvest restrictions, improved water quality and the removal of dams—are critical to the re-establishment of the species.
American shad spend most of their lives in brackish and saltwater before returning to their birth waters to spawn. The Nanticoke Shad Hatchery collects its brood stock directly from the Nanticoke River and its Deep Creek tributary to ensure adult fish will return to the waterway and to preserve the genetic integrity of the local shad population.
Throughout the spring spawning season, which runs from mid-March through April, mature shad that are held in the hatchery’s closely monitored, 3,500-gallon spawning tanks periodically release eggs and sperm.
On the morning after an overnight spawning event, pea-sized eggs are filtered into an egg collection tank.
“Bad eggs” are removed from the tank before fertilized eggs are measured by volume and placed in incubation jars to grow.
Eggs that survive to the “eyed” stage are moved to one of four culture tanks, where they will hatch into larval fish within a week.
After a few more days spent in the safety of the culture tanks, the larval fish absorb their nutritive yolk sac and transform into fry that are ready to feed on their own in their natural habitat.
Before the hatchery-produced fish are released into the Nanticoke River, scientists mark them with oxytetracycline. Tracking the fish will allow scientists to gauge their survival and stocking success over time.
Six years of sampling surveys on the Nanticoke River show that adult American shad abundance has increased, while the number of hatchery-produced juveniles has decreased. According to hatchery manager Mike Stengl, this suggests the hatchery is succeeding in its long-term goal: to reduce the percentage of hatchery-grown fish in the river and encourage the wild population to spawn on its own.
Success at the Nanticoke Shad Hatchery and at other hatcheries across the region are giving American shad a second chance at survival in the watershed.
View more photos on the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Natural gas resources underlie almost half of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, but some of the regulations that govern Bay cleanup do not take extraction-related pollution into account.
According to the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC), more research is needed to track the environmental effects of natural gas extraction and to help jurisdictions determine whether or not they must implement conservation practices to offset potential pollution loads and meet the Bay pollution diet.
Image courtesy WCN24/7/Flickr
The pollution diet, or Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), limits the amount of nutrient and sediment pollution that can enter the Bay from across the watershed. According to STAC, hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” has the potential to change local pollution loads, as natural gas extraction increases the erosion of sediment into local rivers and withdraws water from area sources, altering aquatic habitat and river flow.
In a factsheet released this week, STAC outlines the recommendations that the panel made following a workshop on shale gas development. STAC recommends that the Bay Program incorporate natural gas drilling into the Bay Watershed Model, which estimates the amount of nutrients and sediment reaching the Bay. STAC also recommends that the industry, scientific and policy-making communities continue to research shale gas development and implement conservation practices to lower natural gas extraction’s cumulative impact on the Bay.
Read more about the environmental effects of shale gas development in the watershed.
On a quiet cove in Southern Maryland, a series of orange and white markers declares a stretch of water off limits to fishing. Under the surface sits spawning habitat for largemouth bass, a fish that contributes millions of dollars to the region’s economy each year and for whom two such sanctuaries have been established in the state. Here, the fish are protected from recreational anglers each spring and studied by scientists hoping to learn more about them and their habitat needs.
The largemouth bass can be found across the watershed and is considered one of the most popular sport fishes in the United States. While regional populations are strong, a changing Chesapeake Bay—think rising water temperatures, disappearing grasses and the continued arrival of invasive species—is changing bass habitat and could have an effect on future fish.
For decades, scientists with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have collected data on the distribution of largemouth bass, tracking the species and monitoring the state’s two sanctuaries in order to gather the knowledge needed to keep the fishery sustainable. Established in 2010 on the Chicamuxen and Nanjemoy creeks, both of which flow into the Potomac River, these sanctuaries have been fortified with plastic pipes meant to serve as spawning structures. And, it seems, these sanctuaries are in high demand during spawning season.
On an overcast day in April, three members of the DNR Tidal Bass Survey team—Joseph Love, Tim Groves and Branson Williams—are surveying the sanctuary in Chicamuxen Creek. Groves flips a switch and the vessel starts to send electrical currents into the water, stunning fish for capture by the scientists on board. The previous day, the team caught, tagged and released 20 bass; this morning, the men catch 19, none of which were tagged the day before.
“This [lack of recaptures] indicates that we have quite a few bass out here,” said Love, Tidal Bass Manager.
Indeed, the state’s largemouth bass fishery “is pretty doggone good,” Love continued. “That said, we recognize that the ecosystem is changing. And I don’t think anybody wants to rest on the laurels of a great fishery.”
As Love and his team learn how largemouth bass are using the state’s sanctuaries, they can work to improve the sanctuaries’ function and move to protect them and similar habitats from further development or disturbance.
“We can speculate where the best coves are, but this is the ground truthing that we need to do,” Love said.
In the fall, the team will return to the cove to count juvenile bass and report on juvenile-to-adult population ratios. While the assessment of the state’s sanctuaries is a small-scale project, it is one “aimed at the bigger picture,” Love said.
Love’s team is “doing what we can to improve the use of these coves by bass.” And protecting bass habitat and improving water quality will have a positive effect on the coves overall, creating healthier systems for neighboring plants and animals.
“By protecting these important areas, we are also protecting the larger ecosystem,” Love said.
Photos by Jenna Valente. To view more, visit our Flickr set.