When you imagine fish in the Chesapeake Bay, top predators probably come to mind. But the most important fish in the Bay weighs no more than a pair of playing cards, measures no longer than the width of your hand and is more abundant than any other fish that calls the Chesapeake home.
The bay anchovy (Anchoa mitchilli) can be found in great numbers along the Atlantic coast and in all parts of the Chesapeake Bay. “It is the single most abundant fish on the east coast of North America," said fisheries scientist Ed Houde. “That in itself says something about its importance.”
Because it is such an oft-consumed prey item for so many predators, the bay anchovy is considered a forage fish. But the bay anchovy stands out among forage species. Scientists have long known, for instance, that the bay anchovy is a major source of energy fueling the growth and production of predators in the Chesapeake, and can even comprise up to 90 percent of the diets of predatory fish in the fall. A recent investigation into the diets of five predatory fish found that the bay anchovy was the fishes’ most common prey, confirming the bay anchovy is the most important forage species in the Bay ecosystem.
“We’ve studied the production and consumption of bay anchovy in the Chesapeake Bay, and the numbers are impressive,” said Houde, who worked at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory for more than 35 years and served as the institution’s Vice President for Education before retiring in July 2016. According to Houde, about 50,000 tons of bay anchovy can be found in this estuary at any given time—but an average of 458,000 tons are produced here each year. “That means a huge amount is being eaten and is fueling the production of Bay predators,” Houde said.
According to Houde, several characteristics make the bay anchovy the perfect prey fish. First, it’s a small fish, which means a range of predators both big and small can fit the fish into their mouths. Second, it’s a fecund fish, which means it spawns large numbers of eggs; eggs, larvae, juveniles and adults are eaten by predators. Third, there are a lot of them, almost everywhere, all the time. While other prey species may only inhabit certain areas of the Bay at certain times of year, the bay anchovy is generally available throughout the Bay most of the year.
Indeed, the bay anchovy is surprisingly tolerant of both the normal fluctuations observed in an estuarine environment and the hostile conditions that can occur when this environment is stressed. Through laboratory experiments and field work, Houde and his students have found that low dissolved oxygen, for instance, may not impact the bay anchovy like it impacts many other species. Areas of low dissolved oxygen—which occur in the Bay each summer, and which can suffocate shellfish and other organisms living on or near the bottom—seem to affect the distribution of bay anchovy but not their death rates, driving adults into the lower portion of the Bay. Coincidentally, it is in this portion of the Chesapeake that bay anchovy larvae and young are most likely to thrive. It may seem counterintuitive, but in this way, low dissolved oxygen can enhance the bay anchovy’s reproductive success.
“This is not an argument to support benefits of low dissolved oxygen in the Bay,” Houde cautioned. “But in the case of the anchovy, it does seem to promote conditions that increase its productivity.”
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources and Virginia Institute of Marine Science have gathered survey data on bay anchovy abundance for decades, and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science has also tracked this number as an indicator of Bay health. While bay anchovy populations fluctuate seasonally and annually and the fish is less abundant now than in the decades before 1990, Houde does not believe the bay anchovy has declined since the mid-1990s.
That said, Houde acknowledges that there must be environmental thresholds the bay anchovy cannot successfully cross. Little research has been done into the effects that chemical contaminants could have on the fish, and environmental conditions that lower plankton productivity—the mainstay of the bay anchovy’s diet—could have substantial effects on anchovy production and abundance.
How can we ensure the continued abundance of the most important fish in the Bay? “Ensuring the bay anchovy population remains healthy depends on keeping estuaries healthy,” Houde said. “Good water quality that supports abundant zooplankton to fuel anchovy production is what we need to maintain the health of anchovies. That’s not so different from [protecting] most of the things in the Bay.”
Through the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, the Chesapeake Bay Program has committed to improving our understanding of the role of forage species in the Bay. Learn about our work to develop a strategy for assessing the Bay’s forage base.
Paddlers travel on the Potomac River where it meets the Shenandoah River at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Described by Thomas Jefferson as “perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature,” the town offers views of three states: West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland.
This scenic spot offers not only boundless natural beauty, but a rich piece of national history. The town was named for Robert Harper, a Quaker from Pennsylvania who in 1747 was sent to erect a mission house in the Shenandoah Valley. On his way, he passed through “The Hole”—the gap in the mountains where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet. He recognized the value of the site for water power and transportation, purchased 126 acres of land at the site, then established a mill and began operating a ferry across the Potomac.
In 1799, construction began on the Harpers Ferry Armory, which produced more than 600,000 muskets, rifles and pistols before 1859, when one of the most famous events in Harpers Ferry history—and indeed, United States history—occurred. Abolitionist activist John Brown and 21 companions led a raid on the armory, hoping to seize weapons from the warehouse to initiate a slave uprising throughout the South. The attempted takeover of the armory was unsuccessful, however, and the event stoked the already tense relationship between the North and South, ultimately hastening the onset of the Civil War.
Today, the town is home to a national historic park where visitors can explore the historic town, visit museums and battlefields or hike the nearby mountains. It’s also home to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and is known to hikers as the “psychological halfway point” of the 2,190 mile Appalachian Trail.
Image by Will Parson
Two efforts in the Chesapeake Bay watershed will receive close to $110,000 in funding through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Urban Waters Small Grants Program, which supports individuals and organizations in urban areas working to restore their local waterways.
The Anacostia Watershed Society, based in Bladensburg, Maryland, will educate and train 40 middle schoolers from low-income communities in the District of Columbia. With 10-week programs in the fall and spring, students will learn about stormwater runoff through a variety of activities, including canoe trips along the Anacostia River, tours of green infrastructure projects and hands-on restoration.
Virginia Commonwealth University will develop a community greening and green infrastructure plan for its two campuses in downtown Richmond, Virginia, as well as the Richmond Arts District. The partnership-focused effort will begin with an assessment of structures and locations that would support green infrastructure projects. Then, community meetings and an educational awareness campaign will inform residents of local water quality issues, obtain their feedback on the plan’s development and suggest ways they can reduce stormwater runoff.
Since its creation in 2012, the Urban Waters Small Grants Program has awarded close to $6.6 million to 114 organizations across the United States. Grants are awarded every two years, with individual awards up to $60,000. In addition to the two projects inside the Bay watershed, the program will fund projects from 20 organizations in 16 other states.
Across the Chesapeake Bay region, an average of 100 acres of forest are lost each day, which can mean less habitat for wildlife and more pollution flowing into rivers and streams. Conserving forests is crucial in protecting clean water and vital habitats, which is why the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay works to honor those who have made it their mission to protect these important landscapes. At its eleventh annual Chesapeake Watershed Forum, the nonprofit, with support from the U.S. Forest Service, recognized four Chesapeake Forest Champions: a coordinator of streamside forest buffers, a partnership planting trees in Maryland’s Allegany County, a landowner duo providing habitat to wildlife and a leader in Pennsylvania forest stewardship.
Anne Marie Clark, Watershed Coordinator of the Robert E. Lee Soil and Water Conservation District, was named Most Effective at Engaging the Public for her work establishing streamside forest buffers in Amherst County, Virginia. By implementing 28 buffer projects through the Amherst Tree Buffer Program, she has helped to plant thousands of trees. But Clark does more than just plant: she also returns to each site to check on the trees’ health, helping her projects meet an average survival rate of 90 percent.
A group of partners in Allegany County, Maryland, was honored with Greatest On-the-Ground Impact. Through their efforts, the partnership has helped plant and maintain 85 acres of new forest in just four years—far exceeding their original goal of eight acres per year. By planting trees on both public and private lands, they are able to engage the community and educate local schoolchildren about their efforts. The group was represented by Dan Hedderick from the Maryland Forest Service, and also includes Angela Patterson from the Allegany County Department of Planning Services and Dan DeWitt from the Allegany County Department of Public Works.
Landowners Mike and Laura Jackson of Bedford County, Pennsylvania, were recognized as Exemplary Forest Stewards. The 113 acres of land the pair manages was once a dairy farm that had been in Laura’s family for generations. Over the years, timber had been harvested, trees had been defoliated by gypsy moths and invasive species were threatening to take over. But the duo was committed to leaving the land better than they received it. They’ve worked to bring native plants back to the land, providing habitat for pollinators. And with the help of the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Pennsylvania Game Commission, they’ve provided habitat for the American woodcock and the golden-winged warbler.
Dr. Jim Finley received the Lifetime Achievement Award for his decades of work encouraging stewardship of Pennsylvania’s forests. In the 1990s, Finley led the creation of the now-renowned Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship Program, in which participants receive 40 hours of training on forestry and natural resources, then go on to share that knowledge with their communities. Finley also worked with Service Foresters at Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to lead educational workshops throughout the state, resulting in the creation of more than 25 woodland owner associations. Now, Finley leads the Center for Private Forests at Penn State, where he supports forest-related research, educates private landowners on the legacy of their land and informs the public on how forests connect with and benefit our everyday lives.
Learn more about the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay’s Forests for the Bay program.