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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Chesapeake Bay’s adult female blue crab population has increased 92 percent since the population was surveyed last winter. While the current adult female blue crab abundance of 194 million is well above the overfishing threshold, it remains below the 215 million abundance target.
Maryland and Virginia estimate the Bay’s blue crab population through an annual winter dredge survey. Over the course of three and a half months, scientists visit 1,500 sites around the Bay, using metal dredges to pull up crabs over-wintering in the mud.
Results of the 2016 winter dredge survey show the Bay’s total blue crab population has increased from 411 million to 553 million since last winter. Results also show the number of adult females has risen from 101 million to 194 million. The number of juvenile crabs has increased from 269 million to 271 million, which is just above the long-term average.
“The crab stock has been on a rollercoaster for most [of] the last decade,” said Virginia Marine Resources Commissioner John M.R. Bull in a media release. “We’ve seen a few great years of reproduction followed by awful years of abundance. Two years does not make a trend, and this news inspires both wary optimism and cautious management.”
In the short term, Maryland officials do predict a good crab season. “Due to a milder winter, favorable currents and tides, and wise Bay-wide management measures, the Maryland crab population continues to rebound and strengthen,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service Director Dave Blazer in a media release. “With an increase in abundance and steady recruitment, we fully anticipate a robust crab season this year.”
The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks the adult female blue crab population as an indicator of Bay health, and in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement committed to maintaining a sustainable blue crab population based on a target of 215 million adult females. The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC), which includes scientists and representatives from states, academic institutions and the federal government, will use this data to make recommendations on sustaining the blue crab population in its 2016 Blue Crab Advisory Report, expected to be released this summer.
Nestled squarely in the middle of a shipping terminal, a construction material company, a highway and the Patapsco River, the Masonville Cove Education Campus is a hidden gem in industrial southern Baltimore. Once the site of an illicit dump, Masonville Cove has been transformed into a place for residents to connect with nature thanks to almost a decade of restoration work funded by the Maryland Port Authority (MPA), a state agency whose goals are closely aligned with the stewardship of Maryland’s natural resources and well-being of neighboring communities.
Masonville Cove’s once-neglected waterfront is now home to more than 50 acres of conserved land, including wetlands, trails and a bird sanctuary. In the southwestern part of the property, the deceptively large “near zero, net energy” education center is powered in part by solar and geothermal energy. It contains a gathering room on its first floor, two classroom laboratories in the basement and a winding mural depicting the Port of Baltimore on the staircase between the two.
It’s a cool Wednesday morning in late March, and a bus full of students pulls up outside of the campus’ environmental center. These fourth-graders from Federal Hill Preparatory School are participating in the last day of the School Leadership in Urban Runoff Reduction Project (SLURRP) with Living Classrooms Foundation, which works to inspire young people through hands-on education and job training. SLURRP was originally funded by NOAA, whose grant program supports the Chesapeake Bay Program’s commitment to give every student in the region a meaningful watershed educational experience. Today’s trip was provided at no cost to the school, with support from MPA.
As part of SLURRP, Living Classrooms instructors have been visiting the students at Federal Hill one Friday a month for the past five month, teaching them about water quality issues, stormwater runoff, watersheds and much more, focusing on the Baltimore area. Today’s field trip to Masonville Cove is the capstone event of the fourth-graders’ SLURRP education.
In the morning, the gathering room was full of fourth-graders, but they were quickly split into two groups for activities. One group went to the laboratories to play trash-sorting games while learning about plastics in waterways, and the other headed outside to collect water data on the Patapsco River.
It’s a cool day, but clear and comfortable—great for outside learning. As the water quality group heads over to the river, they cross over a stormwater outflow pipe, and Living Classrooms instructor Michelle Koehler stops the kids. “Every time [our staff] come[s] out to classrooms, we talk about runoff and runoff pollution,” she says. “It just so happens that in this neighborhood where Masonville Cove is, any storm drain empties out right here,” she explains, gesturing toward the water flowing out from under their feet.
Koehler continues walking with the kids towards the Patapsco, where they collect a bucket of water from the river and measure its temperature, salinity and dissolved oxygen levels, trying out scientific testing kits and tools like refractometers.
In the afternoon, the kids again spent time both outside and inside. In the laboratory, students used microscopes to identify types of plankton in samples from the river. Outside, students used iPads to observe and document evidence of animals in the area, searching for signs such as prints, fur and feathers.
For the students, this field trip may mark the end of five months of learning about the Chesapeake Bay—but it’s far from the end of their learning about the watershed and the roles they play within it. Multiple students said that their favorite part of the day was testing water. “I like to see how the scientists work,” said Abigail Bayard, while another student, Alex Dixon, commented that he wants to go home and test the water in his house. After instructors brought out a diamondback terrapin for them to observe, Henry Lentz, watching calmly but intently, remarked, “I’ve never seen a turtle that close.” From turtles to tracks, Living Classrooms brought the Chesapeake Bay watershed to life.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Text by Joan Smedinghoff
Photos and captions by Will Parson