Flying low over the Chesapeake Bay, it’s not actually the water that draws your attention—except for the sporadic glint of sunlight reflected off of its calm surface. Instead, it’s the patchwork landscape and the rate at which a quiet farm field gives way to grids of streets or wriggling stretches of wetlands.
And there’s another reason to pay attention to all that land: because the Chesapeake Bay is so shallow—its average depth is just 21 feet—and because so much land area feeds into it, the health of the Bay depends greatly on how the land is treated.
With the support of a volunteer pilot from the nonprofit organization LightHawk, we took a look around the northern edges of the Chesapeake Bay to see some of the ways the land has been shaped by the people living there.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page
Photographs and text by Will Parson
Oyster populations throughout Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay have generally improved over the past decade, according to a report from the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR). But while oysters within state-designated sanctuaries have continued to thrive in recent years, populations in areas open to harvest have declined.
Three types of oyster management areas are designated in Maryland: active aquaculture, or oyster farming; sanctuaries, where harvesting is not allowed; and Public Shellfish Fishery Areas, or PSFAs, which are open to public harvesting.
Low disease mortality combined with successful reproductive seasons in 2010 and 2012 helped boost populations of the Bay’s iconic bivalve in both fished and sanctuary areas. But as oyster biomass in sanctuaries continued to increase through 2014 and 2015, populations in areas open to fishing declined in those years. According to the report, this is likely due to the harvest of those oysters born in 2010 and 2012—inside the sanctuaries, these older oysters were continuing to grow and reproduce.
In 2010, Maryland adopted an updated oyster management plan, expanding the range of sanctuaries and designating areas to remain open to harvest. The study marks the first evaluation in DNR’s commitment to review the plan’s effectiveness every five years and to propose adjustments if necessary. But the report suggests it’s too early to conclude that oyster restoration efforts have been successful.
“Given the complexity of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, five years has not been long enough to show how oyster populations respond to the absence of harvest,” the report states. Still, the report recommends making adjustments to current sanctuary boundaries, while continuing to maintain sanctuaries in 20 to 30 percent of the Maryland portion of the Bay.
The State Oyster Advisory Commission, a 23-member group created to advise DNR on oyster-related matters, is expected to review the report and make recommendations on the state’s oyster restoration efforts, including postponed work in the Tred Avon River.
The report is available on the Maryland Department of Natural Resources website.
On July 19, 2016, the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality hosted a roundtable on natural resource investments in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The group discussed ways that private capital and markets can be involved in addressing the watershed’s natural resources challenges such as water quality and habitat protection.
Chesapeake Bay Program officials were in attendance to discuss such topics such as agricultural nutrients, urban stormwater and financing opportunities. Sessions highlighted innovative projects and programs in development—including their challenges and opportunities—and specific actions to take which would increase incentives and reduce barriers.
The roundtable participants included officials from the District of Columbia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and local governments. Federal agencies in attendance included the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Agriculture, Army Corps of Engineers and Office of Management and Budget. There also were numerous representatives from non-governmental organizations and private investment companies.
Dr. Bill Harman, Director of the State University of New York (SUNY) at Oneonta Biological Field Station in Cooperstown, New York, holds a flip-flop recovered from Otsego Lake and covered with invasive zebra mussels.
Zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha) are freshwater bivalves found in lakes, rivers, streams and reservoirs. Native to Europe, zebra mussels were found in the Great Lakes region in 1988 and later discovered in the upper Susquehanna River in 2002. Since then, the invasive mussel has spread further into the Chesapeake region’s rivers and streams. In 2011, the mussel was spotted for the first time in the Eastern Shore’s Sassafras River. And in 2015, two watermen found zebra mussels colonizing on their fishing gear in the Susquehanna Flats.
Efficient filter-feeders, zebra mussels can remove a lot of plankton—an important food source for other critters—from the water. They also attach themselves to native mussels and to manmade structures, clogging intake pipes and encrusting boat hulls and buoys. Scraping, power-washing and chemical treatments can be used to control zebra mussels, but once a population has been established, it can be almost impossible to eradicate.
To prevent the spread of zebra mussels and other invasive species, make sure boat hulls, trailers and other equipment are thoroughly cleaned before moving them to a new body of water.
Image by Will Parson