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Chesapeake Bay News


Photo of the Week: Glimpse geologic history at Seneca Rocks

Seneca Rocks rises above the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River in Pendleton County, West Virginia, after sunset on April 28. The only “true peak”—that is, inaccessible except by rock climbing techniques—on the East Coast, the site is popular with rock climbers. Today, a walkable trail of steps and switchbacks leads to an observation deck, allowing those who prefer not to rock climb an overlook of the river valley.

One of the best-known landmarks in West Virginia, Seneca Rocks sits on the western edge of the Wills Mountain Anticline—a geologic ridge formed more than 200 million years ago that extends from southern Pennsylvania, through Maryland and West Virginia, and into Virginia. The peak itself consists of layers of sedimentary rock that were upheaved and turned on their side, creating the characteristic sheer rock faces. Millions of years weathered away layers of softer rock, revealing vertical layers of the erosion-resistant Tuscarora sandstone characteristic of many formations in eastern West Virginia.

From a human’s perspective, geologic changes take place at an unfathomably slow pace, unlikely to be noticed over the span of one’s lifetime. At Seneca Rocks, however, one such change took place very quickly, in a highly noticeable way.

For years, a thin rock spire known as the Gendarme—French for “pinnacle” and a term used by rock climbers to refer to freestanding rock formations—stood precariously between the north and south peaks. But on October 29, 1987, at 3:27 p.m., the 25-foot-tall, 20-ton slab finally fell to the ground. No hikers were harmed, but witnesses in the area described seeing “a huge cloud of dust and flying debris” and hearing a sound similar to “the Navy fighter jets from Norfolk” that would frequently take practice runs over the area.

Learn more about Seneca Rocks.

Image by Will Parson

Stephanie Smith's avatar
About Stephanie Smith - Stephanie is the Web Content Manager at the Chesapeake Bay Program. A native of the Midwest, she received her Bachelor’s in Professional Writing from Purdue University and Master of Science degree from the University of Michigan. Stephanie’s lifelong love of nature motivates her to explore solutions to environmental problems and teach others what they can do to help.


Photo of the Week: As waters warm, herring’s long journey begins

Alewives swim against the current in a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay in Cecil County, Maryland, where thousands of river herring gathered to spawn on April 20, 2017.

River herring—alewives and their close relatives, blueback herring—are anadromous: as adults, they live off the Atlantic coast, but they return to freshwater to spawn. For the most part, river herring return to the same streams in which they were born. Scientists aren’t quite sure how the fish manage this migratory feat, but tend to attribute their homing instincts to a sensitivity to polarized light, magnetic signals and the unique characteristics of the waters where they were born.

As water temperatures warm and days lengthen each spring, river herring are spurred to begin their spawning runs. Years ago, some rivers seemed to turn silver or appeared to flow backwards as millions of river herring migrated upstream. The river herring fishery was once one of the most valuable in the Bay—alewives can be eaten fresh, smoked, salted or pickled, as well as used for pet food, as bait for lobster and snow crab or in fishmeal and fish oil. But habitat loss, harvest pressure and migration-restricting barriers like dams and culverts led to a sharp drop in river herring abundance, resulting in harvest moratoriums in Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River, as well as other states along the East Coast.

These days, river herring populations continue to struggle, and adults must navigate a maze of obstacles to reach their spawning grounds. Sometimes their long journey ends at a dam or other barrier that blocks their access to upstream habitat. By clearing blocked waterways, or by installing fish ladders and lifts that help fish get over or around larger barriers, managers can help river herring recover. “Last month they were out in the Atlantic Ocean somewhere,” said Jim Thompson, a fisheries biologist with the state of Maryland, as he observed last week’s spawning run. “That’s why it’s really important to build these [fish] ladders or take these dams out to get them over that last little speed bump so they can spawn.”

Learn more about the Chesapeake Bay Program’s work to open the region’s streams to the migration of fish.

Image by Will Parson

Stephanie Smith's avatar
About Stephanie Smith - Stephanie is the Web Content Manager at the Chesapeake Bay Program. A native of the Midwest, she received her Bachelor’s in Professional Writing from Purdue University and Master of Science degree from the University of Michigan. Stephanie’s lifelong love of nature motivates her to explore solutions to environmental problems and teach others what they can do to help.


More than 97,000 acres of underwater grasses recorded in Chesapeake Bay

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources leads a workshop on the Susquehanna Flats near Havre de Grace, Md., to show how to identify and monitor various species of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) that live in the Chesapeake Bay on July 25, 2016.

An estimated 97,433 acres of underwater grasses were mapped in the Chesapeake Bay in 2016, the highest amount ever recorded in more than 30 years of aerial surveys by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. The total marks a 53 percent achievement of the 185,000-acre goal adopted by Chesapeake Bay Program partners in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.

In addition, even more underwater grasses likely grew in the region than the estimate suggests. Due to weather conditions and security restrictions, researchers were unable to collect aerial imagery over a portion of the Potomac River. In 2015, the portion supported almost 2,000 acres of grasses, and trends suggest that—had it been mapped—the area would have put the Bay-wide total at 99,409 acres.

At 97,433 acres, underwater grass abundance in 2016 was the highest amount ever recorded by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Experts attribute the rise in underwater grass abundance to a strong increase in the tidal freshwater and moderately salty regions of the Bay, with widgeon grass in particular expanding in the latter region. However, because widgeon grass is a “boom and bust” species—its abundance can rise and fall from year to year—a widgeon-dominant spike is not guaranteed to persist in future seasons.

Underwater grasses—also known as “submerged aquatic vegetation,” or SAV—are critical to the Bay ecosystem. They provide food for small invertebrates and migratory waterfowl and maintain clear and healthy waters by absorbing nutrients, trapping sediment and slowing shoreline erosion. Although sensitive to pollution, underwater grasses are quick to respond to improvements in water quality, making their abundance a good indicator of Bay health.

“As a bay grass biologist, it is thrilling to see SAV recovering in the Chesapeake. Bay grasses exceeded our 2017 midterm goal of 90,000 acres for the second year, with reports of recovering SAV species diversity in areas throughout the Bay as well,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Biologist and Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Workgroup Chair Brooke Landry in a media release. “With continuing commitments to further reduce pollutants entering the Bay’s waters, I believe it’s possible to reach records every year and foster thriving SAV beds throughout the Bay—SAV beds that will promote ecological resilience and provide economic and recreational opportunities for generations to come.”

A sea nettle floats in the Severn River Sanctuary in Anne Arundel County, Md., on July 10, 2016.

Because grass beds provide shelter for young fish and blue crabs, underwater grass abundance is also one of several factors influencing the health and stability of blue crab populations. Earlier this month, data collected by Maryland and Virginia through the Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey showed that, while the overall blue crab population fell 18 percent between 2016 and 2017, the abundance of adult female crabs increased from 194 million to 215 million: the highest amount ever recorded by the Winter Dredge Survey.

In addition to financially supporting the aerial surveys used to monitor underwater grasses, the Chesapeake Bay Program has funded a citizen science project in which local riverkeepers, watershed organizations and volunteers can collect data on underwater grasses. As part of this project, Chesapeake Commons is expanding its Water Reporter app to include underwater grass monitoring features. By downloading the app and joining the Chesapeake Bay SAV Watchers group, anyone with a smartphone can help monitor underwater grasses whenever and wherever they are on the water.

Images by Will Parson


Chesapeake Bay Environmental Literacy Summit: Education gets outside

Nestled between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland, the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center boasts native gardens, picturesque benches next to flowering trees that hum with bees, study sites for the center’s biologists and plenty of rivers, forests and walking trails for the public. Last Wednesday, the refuge played a role in ensuring a new generation of research scientists and nature lovers by hosting the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Leadership Summit on Environmental Literacy.

An educator from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) shows students how to conduct a cast net survey at CBF’s headquarters in Annapolis, Md., last year. Outdoor environmental learning activities known as Meaningful Watershed Education Experiences have been shown to increase overall academic performance.

The summit centered on the environmental literacy outcome of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, in which Bay Program partners—which include federal and state agencies, local governments, non-profit organizations, communities and academic institutions—committed to the goal to “enable every student in the region to graduate with the knowledge and skills to act responsibly to protect and restore their local watershed.”

Attendees were delegates from the education departments, environmental or natural resource departments and school districts of D.C., Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. Representatives from federal agencies, nonprofits, outdoor centers, and educational organizations throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed joined in discussion and collaborated at each table. 

Remarks from Nick DiPasquale, Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, and Brad Knudsen, Patuxent Research Refuge Manager, kicked off the day. Both began by reminiscing spending sunrise-to-sunset childhood days playing outdoors, with Knudsen expressing concern over whether today’s children would be able to do the same.

“Most kids now experience the outdoors through sports,” Knudsen said. “Sports are great, but what are the odds that at 60 they’ll still be playing soccer? If they are exposed to birdwatching, nature hikes, [nature becomes] a lifelong love and activity.”

Fourth grade students from Granby Elementary School in Norfolk, Va., learn how to measure water quality aboard the Elizabeth River Project’s Learning Barge in 2015.

To give today’s children outdoor memories and ensure a robust outdoors in which to have them, education leaders from across the watershed shared stories and discussed how to foster success in each jurisdiction. “Me – We” is the handily descriptive pronunciation for Meaningful Watershed Education Experiences (MWEE), the formal environmental education component in place in elementary, middle and high schools and which has been shown to increase overall academic performance. MWEEs—which last weeks to months and morph from classroom learning to outdoor experiences and back again—give students a sense of place within the watershed as a whole, while providing real-world applications for science, math, history, reading and art.

The afternoon concluded with attendees discussing how best to tackle environmental literacy in their particular locality. A major component of environmental literacy is establishing a sense of the full watershed. Covering some 64,000 square miles, the Chesapeake Bay watershed stretches from New York down to Virginia and includes land-locked areas of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. A school in coastal Virginia might create a Bay-focused MWEE in partnership with a local nonprofit, while a class in rural Pennsylvania might work with a local farm, a conservancy and their conservation district to develop a sense of pollution prevention and groundwater protection on their own school grounds. Watershed protection works when people understand the interworking nature of the system and decide to act locally: each area taking pride in their own land, their own streams, their local community. Environmentally literate citizens result in healthier communities; healthier local communities result in a healthier bay.

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