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Chesapeake Bay News


Photo Essay: American shad make their incredible journey

An American shad, second from bottom-center, swims past a fish-counting window at Conowingo Dam in Darlington, Md., on May 8, 2015. A worker holds counters in both hands—one for gizzard shad and one for American shad.

Though they spend most of their lives at sea, American shad are nonetheless dependent on the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay every spring. They are the largest of five species of river herring that swim upstream to spawn in freshwater, a fact that once made them easy pickings for nearby residents. Native Americans and European colonists—tipped off to the shad’s return by the blooming of the aptly-named shadbush—would use baskets, nets and traps to catch the fish.

But population growth put more pressure on the species, and the construction of dams and other structures blocked migrations to shad habitat. The 1980s and 90s saw the closure of commercial shad fisheries in Maryland and Virginia.

Fisheries biologist Chris Avalos from Normandeau Associates Environmental Consultants watches a hopper bucket raise roughly 3,500 fish—mostly gizzard shad—at Conowingo Dam's east fish lift in Cecil County, Md., on May 8, 2015. Fish passage facilities at four hydroelectric dams on the lower Susquehanna River allow American shad to spawn upstream.

Gizzard shad are released from the hopper at the top of the east fish lift at Conowingo Dam.

To see the efforts of shad restoration today, one can simply follow the shad as they make the same upstream migration they always have. First efforts tap into the same seasonal migration. Adult shad are caught just before spawning, and their fertilized eggs are sent to hatcheries to help restock tributaries. Some dams have been removed, while others, like Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River, have implemented fish lifts or other measures to allow shad and other anadromous species to pass. Between 1989 and 2015, more than 3,300 miles of fish passage were opened in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

By 2014, shad numbers in some tributaries had improved significantly. Shad were above targets in the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers, though they were less established in the lower James and York and negligible in the upper James and Susquehanna.

Jim Davis, operator of the west fish lift at Conowingo Dam, pulls up an American shad in a holding tank. The west lift is primarily used for research purposes.

A crew from Maryland Department of Natural Resources catches shad for the American Shad Study at Conowingo Dam in Darlington, Md., on May 8, 2015. The entrance to the east fish lift is visible in the background.

A worker from Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries squeezes unfertilized eggs from a female shad caught on the Potomac River near Dogue Creek on April 12, 2012. (Photo by Steve Droter/Chesapeake Bay Program)

Fisheries Biologist Joshua Tryninewski walks among tanks holding juvenile American shad at the Van Dyke Research Station for Anadromous Fishes in Port Royal, Pa., on May 18, 2015. Since 1976 the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has operated the seasonal station to help restore shad to the Susquehanna River Basin.

American shad larvae start to hatch from eggs collected from the Potomac River at Van Dyke Research Station for Anadromous Fishes in Port Royal, Pa., on May 18, 2015. The station held roughly 2.2 million American shad fry in 2015, which was down from the year before, according to Fisheries Biologist Joshua Tryninewski. The station can hold roughly 10–20 million fry.

Hatching larvae fall from a container holding eggs into a larger holding tank at Van Dyke Research Station for Anadromous Fishes in Port Royal, Pa., on May 18, 2015. "They're pretty delicate fish," said Fisheries Biologist Joshua Tryninewski, who manages the station.

At about 20 days old, American shad fry are roughly two centimeters long at Van Dyke Research Station for Anadromous Fishes in Port Royal, Pa., on May 18, 2015.

American shad from the Van Dyke Research Station for Anadromous Fishes in Port Royal, Pa., are released nearby into the Juniata River. The hope is that the shad will grow up and return to the Juniata River to spawn on their own.

To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page

Photos and text by Will Parson

Will Parson's avatar
About Will Parson - Will is the Multimedia Specialist for the Chesapeake Bay Program. A native of Bakersfield, California, he acquired an interest in photojournalism while studying ecology and evolution at University of California, San Diego. He pursued stories about water and culture as a graduate student at Ohio University's School of Visual Communication, and as an intern at several newspapers in New England before landing in Maryland.


Chester River receives “C+” on latest report card

The Chester River Association (CRA) measured a slight improvement in the health of the Chester River in 2015, giving the waterway a “C+” on its latest report card. While the grade is step up from 2014’s “C” score, nutrient and sediment pollution continues to threaten many of the creeks and streams that flow into the river.

The Sultana Education Foundation’s iconic schooner, center, is docked on the Chester River in Chestertown, Md., on March 11, 2016.

CRA assesses the river’s overall health based on water clarity, dissolved oxygen levels and nutrient pollution, as well as algae levels in the tidal portions of the waterway. Although progress is encouraging, the report notes there is much restoration work left to be done, particularly in upstream portions of the watershed.

Highlighted in the report is the importance of land use on local water quality. CRA has found that areas with installed restoration projects—Riley’s Mill, Corsica Creeks and Radcliffe Creek—have shown consistent improvements in water quality.

For more information, visit the Chester River Association’s website.


Microplastic pollution could threaten underwater life, report finds

More research is needed to understand the effects that nearly imperceptible bits of plastic, called “microplastics,” could have on underwater life in the Chesapeake Bay, according to a report from an advisory committee of scientific experts.

Microplastics from the Patapsco River are pictured at the laboratory of Dr. Lance Yonkos in the Department of Environmental Science & Technology at the University of Maryland in College Park, Md., on Feb. 6, 2015.

In response to growing concern surrounding microplastic pollution, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) was asked by the Chesapeake Bay Commission—a tri-state legislative body representing Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia—to investigate the issue. The resulting technical report provides information on the fate and transport of microplastics, potential impacts on wildlife, treatment options and the urgency of the issue.

Estimates suggest trillions of pieces of plastic persist in surface waters around the globe, including in the Chesapeake Bay. At five millimeters or less in size, much of this pollution is classified as microplastic. A subset of this category is microbeads: plastic particles roughly the width of a strand of hair that can be found in products like face wash, cosmetics and cleaning supplies.

Although the panel found more information is needed to understand the impacts of microplastics on underwater life, research is growing. Among the concerns is the ability of microplastics to accumulate chemical contaminants from the surrounding water, potentially exposing aquatic plants and animals to harmful chemicals.

According to the report, the simplicity of removing microbeads from products has helped propel regulations like the federal Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, which requires companies to stop using the beads in their products by 2017. But the report stresses that microbeads are just one type of microplastic, and that solving the greater issue would require the management of more than microbeads alone.

For a close-up look at microplastics from the Chesapeake Bay region, view our photo essay.

The report, Technical Review of Microbeads/Microplastics in the Chesapeake Bay, is available on the STAC website.


Data show drop in estimated nutrient, sediment loads entering Chesapeake Bay

Water quality modeling experts have announced a drop in estimated nutrient and sediment loads entering the Chesapeake Bay. Computer simulations show that pollution controls put in place between 2009 and 2015 have reduced the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment entering the Bay by eight, 20 and seven percent. During the 2014 to 2015 reporting period alone, these controls reduced nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment loads by three, three and four percent. Experts attribute this drop to significant reductions of nitrogen and phosphorus in the wastewater sector, reductions in the atmospheric deposition of nitrogen as a result of the Clean Air Act and the increased implementation of agricultural conservation practices. Improved reporting and enhanced crediting of these practices have also generated a more accurate picture of the pollution entering rivers and streams from this sector.

Excess nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment impair water quality: nutrients can fuel the growth of algae blooms that lead to low-oxygen “dead zones,” while sediment can block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and suffocate shellfish. The pollution load estimates discussed here are one in a suite of tools used to track progress toward our clean water goals, which include the pollution-reducing commitments of the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load.

Our partners have worked to reduce nutrient pollution in the wastewater sector. Technological upgrades at Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant in Washington, D.C., accounted for a significant portion of the nitrogen reductions made in the wastewater sector between 2014 and 2015.

Nutrient reductions in the wastewater sector account for 41 percent of the estimated Bay-wide nitrogen reductions and 38 percent of the estimated Bay-wide phosphorus reductions that took place between 2014 and 2015. Indeed, many large municipal wastewater treatment plants are removing more nitrogen from effluent than it was previously thought technology would allow. 

Between 2014 and 2015, cover crops in some parts of the watershed saw improved reporting. This allows our computer simulations to show a more accurate picture of the pollution entering—or staying out of—rivers and streams from the agricultural sector.

Our picture of agricultural best management practices has also changed: cover crops have seen improved reporting, conservation tillage has seen increased implementation and nutrient management plans have become associated with increased nutrient reductions. Improved reporting and enhanced crediting allow computer simulations to show a more accurate picture of the pollution entering rivers and streams from the agricultural sector.

By incorporating the best available data into our computer simulations, we gain a more accurate picture of pollution in the watershed. This gives us a better understanding of the actions that are needed to restore water quality in our work toward an environmentally and economically sustainable watershed.

Learn more.

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