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Chesapeake Bay News

Jul
26
2017

Hunters, anglers, and water quality

Fisherman Greg Wilson, left, and hunter Vic Hurst, right, converse and stay hydrated while walking the Stroud Water Research Center grounds July 19, 2017.

As Matt Ehrhart of the Stroud Water Research Center explains the movements of macroinvertebrates in a forested freshwater stream, four feet away, Vic and Greg aren’t listening. Vic Hurst is a dairy owner, hunter and all-around sportsman. Greg Wilson is an avid fisherman, and they’re excitedly discussing the trout potential of the Pennsylvania creek by which they stand.

“The grass roots of a meadow grab more sediment and narrow the channel” by depositing eroded land, explains Wilson. Forests, on the other hand, help the channel widen, drop the water temperature and improve the clarity and quality of the stream. “He likes it because of the bugs,” Wilson gestures to Ehrhart, and flashes a good-natured smile as Matt tips his chin back in a friendly hello. “I like the diversity with all the deep pools.”

A forested area borders a meadow on the Stroud campus.  Research experiments are conducted as natives and invasives vie for growth on the extensive grounds.

Sportsmen and conservationists both have an interest in healthy, thriving habitats, but they rarely get the chance to meet together. They were able to do just that at a sportsmen’s listening session on July 19, held by the Chesapeake Bay Program and Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay at the Stroud Water Research Center in Avondale, Pennsylvania.

The morning began with this walk through the Stroud Center grounds, conversation morphing seamlessly from group discussion to breakout chats between two or three people. In the afternoon, all participants regrouped indoors, reviewing what came up over the walk and discussing how they could work better together in the future.

“I’ve hunted and fished my whole life,” Hurst said. “The ideal summer evening was my .22 rifle over my shoulder, a fishing rod and my dog. I grew up hunting on the farm.”

“[Conservation involvement] happens organically,” Hurst goes on to explain. “We get out there and see the runoff, the high temperatures creating algae blooms and the fish leave. We fish for suspended bass because there is no oxygen on the bottom and the surface is too dirty from runoff. You get to the point where you feel you have to do something about it.”

An experiment along the streambank at Stroud.  Water temperature and changes in the amount of sunlight received affect the types of algae that will grow and the diatoms present in the stream.

He and Wilson have known each other for years but had never, as Hurst put it, “hooked together along these lines.” Hurst is a proponent of having forested areas along bodies of water—called riparian buffers—and sees the benefit to both fishing and hunting.

Wilson was brought to the table by the state of a stream near which he lived, which was severely polluted. “You’d eat a caught trout and it would taste like oil,” he spat. Rather than alleviate the symptoms through methods such as stocking a poorly performing stream, Wilson was intent on rectifying the situation. Apparently, the sport is lost with the transplanted stock fish.

“I don’t have a lot of interest in stocked trout. I travel to find wild fish. Why do I have to drive three hours to go fishing? I want to do it here,” Wilson insisted. “I wish they’d put more money into conservation efforts than into fish stocking, personally.”

Grasses and forbs thrive in the sunlit meadow as trees create a shaded forest in the background.  Sportsmen at the session unanimously agreed that considering the entire habitat, rather than concentrating on discrete parts, is crucial to conservation.

When placed along the borders of farms, riparian buffers can trap runoff from fields and replenish the groundwater for the land as well. Most Pennsylvanians are familiar with the surge of a stream after storms and the impact of that occurrence on farmlands. Hurst has observed the effects firsthand, reminiscing on childhood memories alongside his farmer father.

“After a cloud burst, the stream would be chocolate milk,” Hurst lamented. “I remember my dad being so upset and saying, ‘That’s our topsoil.’”

Today, Hurst and his neighbors have all put in buffers and undertaken other farming practices to improve their soil, such as contour farming—farming perpendicular to the slope of the land to keep stormwater from stripping the field —cover crops and no-till practices, which cut down on maintenance costs and encourage beneficial organisms to thrive. After a rainfall, they see a much more mild change in the rise and fall of their shared stream as the soil around it soaks up the groundwater.

“During a storm, that stream remains clear,” Hurst emphasizes, and then goes on to talk about the added benefits to his cattle health and financial bottom line. “We have seen such a dramatic [improvement] that we don’t even need to treat our water anymore.”

Forest buffers and native plants are encouraged not just as environmental best practices: they provide a secondary venture that particularly thrilled the hunters in attendance. Restored streams naturally teeming with wild fish and forests chock full of 160-inch whitetail deer are powerful draws for sportsmen—and a new, potentially lucrative source of income for landowners. A farmer in central Pennsylvania improved the quality of his land to such a degree that he charges admittance to hunters and fishermen at the rate of several hundred dollars a day.

Streams course through the grounds of Stroud.  Understanding the interactions between water quality, land quality, plants, and animals is a large part of the conservation and restoration work being undertaken in the environmental field today.

Speaking as both a sportsman and a conservationist, Ehrhart stressed the importance of the habitat as a whole, rather than discrete terms like “nutrient reduction” or “water quality.”

“When you talk to guys, they do tell you their cows are healthier not lounging in the water, but they’re really excited about the other pieces,” Ehrhart explained. “They love birds; they’re seeing birds they haven’t seen in a while. [The landowners] are watching deer tracks appear in their buffer and get excited realizing they’re going to be able to hunt on their property for the first time in generations. Those intangible benefits are what landowners end up caring about the most.”

As the meeting came to an end, the many areas of overlap and crossover between sportsmen and conservation had barely begun to be explored. The meeting highlighted the importance of different kinds of groups coming together in collaboration—but what of economic growth? With an eye to targeting sportsmen, there was a high level of excitement among the locals on the prospect of turning small Pennsylvanian hamlets into economically thriving destination towns through environmental restoration.

Plans are underway for a larger sportsmen’s forum to be held in the fall. Keep an eye on the Alliance’s ForumPlus page or contact jmitchell@allianceforthebay.org if interested.

Caitlyn Johnstone's avatar
About Caitlyn Johnstone - Caitlyn is the Outreach Coordinator at the Chesapeake Bay Program. She earned her Bachelor's in English and Behavioral Psychology at WVU Eberly Honors College, where she fed her interest in the relationship between human behavior and the natural world. Caitlyn continues that passion on her native Eastern Shore by seeking comprehensive strategies to human and environmental wellbeing.



Jul
21
2017

Photo of the Week: Underwater grasses get support from citizen scientists

Brooke Landry of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) shows Choptank Riverkeeper Matthew Pluta and Chesapeake Conservation Corps intern Keitasha Royal how to survey underwater grasses along the Choptank River on Monday.

The project is part of a collaboration with DNR and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, through which the Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy is working to study and map local underwater grass beds. Volunteers can use their own kayaks and canoes to monitor the location, health and species of underwater grasses growing throughout the Midshore region’s shallow waters, including the Choptank River. Combining that data with other survey sources helps scientists at DNR and VIMS track the status of underwater grasses throughout the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

As part of a similar effort, Chesapeake Commons—with funding from the Chesapeake Bay Program—recently expanded its Water Reporter app to allow citizen scientists to report when they see underwater grasses. Anyone with a smartphone can download the app, join the Chesapeake Bay SAV Watchers group and help monitor underwater grasses—whenever and wherever they are on the water.

Learn more about our partners’ work to restore underwater grasses.


Image by Skyler Ballard

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.



Jul
18
2017

Five types of underwater grasses found in the Chesapeake Bay

The plants that grow in the shallow waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers, streams and creeks are a critical part of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. Known as underwater grasses or submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), they improve water quality by reducing erosion, trapping loose sediment and absorbing nutrient pollution. During photosynthesis, they add the dissolved oxygen to the water underwater critters need to survive. They also serve as habitat for vulnerable young fish and crabs and provide food for migrating waterfowl.

Below, learn about five types of underwater grasses that are found in the Chesapeake Bay.

The long, ribbon-like leaves of eelgrass (Zostera marina) provide habitat for tiny invertebrates, like hermit crabs. (Image by Luke McGuff/Flickr)

Eelgrass
This underwater grass prefers the saltier waters of the middle and lower Chesapeake Bay, making it one of the dominant species in the Virginia portion of the Bay. Its long, ribbon-like leaves can grow up to four feet long, but vary in size depending on the plant’s location.

Eelgrass provides important habitat for blue crabs: juveniles and molting adults forage for food and hide from predators among eelgrass beds. But warming water temperatures resulting from changes in climate may threaten future eelgrass abundance, as this sensitive plant becomes distressed when waters are warmer than 86 degrees Fahrenheit for long periods of time.

The thread-like widgeon grass (Ruppia maritima) prefers salty waters, making it one of the dominant underwater grasses found in the Virginia portion of the Bay.

Widgeon Grass
The delicate, thread-like widgeon grass prefers saltier waters, ranging from the slightly brackish upper Bay through to the saltier lower portion. Like eelgrass, it is one of the dominant underwater grass species found in the Virginia portion of the Bay. Widgeon grass is also known as ditch grass, because it sometimes grows on land in the ditches alongside roads and farm fields.

In recent years, a strong increase in the amount of widgeon grass has helped the Bay reach record acreages of underwater grass beds. However, because widgeon grass is a “boom and bust” species—its abundance can rise and fall from year to year—scientists caution that a widgeon-dominant spike is not guaranteed to last.

Distinctive yellow, star-like flowers are what give water stargrass (Heteranthera dubia) its name.

Water Stargrass
Perhaps one of the prettiest underwater grasses, water stargrass is named for the distinctive yellow, star-like flowers that bloom along its freely-branching stems. It grows in the fresh waters of the upper Bay and in tributaries throughout the region.

If water stargrass washes ashore, it can sometimes grow on land; the terrestrial form also produces the characteristic flowers, but its leaves are small and leathery. This form of water stargrass is sometimes called the mud plantain.

The invasive hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata) can be distinguished from other, native underwater grasses by the teeth along the edges of its leaves. (Image by ta ton/Shutterstock)

Hydrilla
The invasive hydrilla grows in freshwater portions of the Bay and its tributaries, although it has also been found in some saltier waters. Its long, branching stems are covered in tiny leaves with teeth along the edges. Because hydrilla does not need as much light as other underwater grasses, it can be found in murkier waters with more sediment pollution.

Introduced to the United States in the 1960s through the aquarium trade, hydrilla was first detected in the Chesapeake Bay region when it was found in the Potomac River near Washington, D.C., in 1982. Within a decade, it had grown to cover 3,000 acres of the river.

Wild celery (Vallisneria americana) can be distinguished from eelgrass by the light green stripe running down the center of each leaf.

Wild Celery
Similar in appearance to eelgrass, the long, ribbon-like leaves of wild celery can be distinguished by the light green stripe running down the center of each leaf. Wild celery grows in fresh and slightly salty waters throughout the region, including the upper Chesapeake Bay and its tidal and non-tidal tributaries. Hardier than other underwater grasses, wild celery can withstand disturbance from waves and is more tolerant of murky, pollutant-rich waters.

Many underwater grasses serve as an important food source for critters, but wild celery’s buds and roots are particularly important to waterfowl as they migrate and overwinter in the Bay region. In fact, the scientific name for the canvasback, Aythya valisineria, comes from the first part of wild celery’s scientific name, Vallisneria americana.

 

Underwater grasses are sensitive to pollution: as excess nutrients and sediment flow into the Bay, low-oxygen dead zones and cloudy waters deprive the plants of the oxygen and sunlight they need to survive. In the 1950s and 60s, declining water quality caused many underwater grass beds—which once grew so thick that boats were unable to move through them—to disappear.

Today, Chesapeake Bay Program partners are working to restore underwater grasses across the estuary. Last year, more than 97,000 acres of underwater grasses were recorded, marking a 53 percent achievement of our partners’ 185,000-acre goal.

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.



Jul
14
2017

A walk in the edible woods

Lincoln Smith, founder of Forested, a food forest in Bowie, Md., inspects a tree while giving a tour of his land on July 6. Over the five years that Smith has been renting the ten acres from a local church, he has transformed it into a multistory food forest that produces diverse crops and provides food for the community.

Imagine a forest garden, where the best of both farming and forestry combine to form an ecosystem that gives back to the land. Figs, pomegranates, pineapple guavas,  mulberries, leafy greens, mushrooms and raspberry brambles grow and are harvested in harmony with shady canopies and a wide array of other edible plants, and the environment benefits from the forested landscape. What you may not imagine is that you can find this forest agriculture paradise in a quiet, suburban cul-de-sac in Bowie, Maryland.

Just past the cheerful mailboxes and carefully trimmed lawns of its host neighborhood sits the forest garden, a ten-acre demonstration site founded in 2011 by Lincoln Smith through a grant from the District of Columbia Urban Forestry Administration and Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Smith designs forest gardens and teaches courses on production ecosystems through his organization, Forested, LLC.

Goldenseal, a plant valued for its medicinal properties, grows in Smith’s forest farm.

Stepping inside the rustic gate, you are greeted to an array of edible plants, both of the standard and unexpected variety. Oak trees make up a portion of the canopy, providing all of the traditional benefits of trees such as improving air quality, retaining water and providing shade, however they also supply a surprising staple: starch. In terms of production and space, acorns produce as much as or more food per acre than wheat. It is this kind of information that Smith hopes will get people thinking differently about food. Helping him to do that in a delicious way is Michael Costa, head chef for the Washington, D.C., restaurant Zaytinya.

Food Forest Feasts are held twice a year at Forested and feature dishes created from the forest abundance. All over the forest garden, special emphasis is given to species that grow wild. A species of grapevine growing all over the garden is embraced as a food source and used by Chef Costa to create dolmas from the leaves. Fresh wine cap, shitake and oyster mushrooms feature in the meals. Spice bush is used to make a vinegar, sumac for a lemon spice.

Smith picks Wine Cap mushrooms of several maturity stages growing in a mulched patch of ground inside the forest. Due to their quick growth rate, Smith tries to check on the wine caps, or Stropharia Rugosoannulata, twice a day during harvest season.

Designed as a space for the community to be enriched, Forested’s forest garden is always open to the public. The land is owned by a local church, and the steps Smith had to take in order to rent it perfectly fit with his concept of urban forest agriculture. “I had to go to every home in the neighborhood,” he laughs, spreading his arms over the tops of kale and indicating the homes nearby.

Community members go to the garden to learn about edible forestry, paint the landscape, help with the harvest or just take their dogs on a leisurely stroll. “The longer we’re here,” says Smith with quiet pride, “the more the local community seems to understand and appreciate the project.”

A close up of perennial asparagus as it grows in a sunny vegetable patch of the forest garden. The delicate, fern-like foliage grows throughout the summer before dying back to make way for fresh, harvestable asparagus shoots the following spring.

If the forest garden is well-integrated with the human community, its relationship among the winged, crawling and rooted community is even more impressive. Take, for instance, the resident flock of ducks, whose grazing area rotates so they can forage throughout the garden. When harlequin bugs become a problem for the brassicas—crunchy vegetables like cabbages and radishes—the ducks are set loose to thin out the pests. Comfrey and dandelions are also a favorite snack of the ducks, who in turn spread nutrients as the comfrey and dandelions pass through their digestive systems.

Thanks to the biodiversity encouraged by a healthy ecosystem, pests like the invasive Japanese beetle meet some formidable foes at Forested. Scolia dubia, a native and beautiful blue-winged wasp, preys on the beetle. And wheel bugs are given a free pass to feast on the mulberry crop, in exchange for providing a valuable service in actively liquefying Japanese beetles. There are complex interactions to an ecosystem, which when working in harmony produce a beautiful, living landscape.

With the forest garden now in its sixth year, it is beginning to generate its own prizes outside, or ahead of, the man-made design. Jack-in-the-pulpit, sassafras and jewelweed now all grow unbidden. Will the herbalist begin creating jewelweed salves for bug bites and other irritations? Will they use that sassafras to create root beer? When the biosphere is diverse, it builds its own potential.

Smith tends a mulberry tree amidst his forest farm. The farm is maintained by him as well as neighbors, other volunteers and members of the forest’s Community Supported Agriculture program, or CSA, whose customers receive produce from the farm.

Food forests provide a wide variety of sustenance in a small space, and hit that double mark of community space and environmental improvement. Forested recently worked on a project to design a new food forest for the city of Hyattsville in Prince George’s County, and discussion is underway for additional gardens. Given all the intertwined benefits, it is no surprise that many are excited to implement forest gardens into urban settings.

Caitlyn Johnstone's avatar
About Caitlyn Johnstone - Caitlyn is the Outreach Coordinator at the Chesapeake Bay Program. She earned her Bachelor's in English and Behavioral Psychology at WVU Eberly Honors College, where she fed her interest in the relationship between human behavior and the natural world. Caitlyn continues that passion on her native Eastern Shore by seeking comprehensive strategies to human and environmental wellbeing.



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