The R/V Rachel Carson is docked on Solomons Island. At 81 feet long, the red and blue research vessel stands out against the deadrise workboats that share the Patuxent River marina. Her mission today is to lead researchers from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) to the Chesapeake Bay’s dead zone.
Every summer, this so-called “dead zone” forms in the main stem of the Bay. The area of low-oxygen water is created by bacteria as they feed on algae blooms growing in nutrient-rich water. The dead zone persists through the warm summer months because the Bay is stratified into two layers: a surface layer of lighter, fresher water that mixes with the atmosphere, and a bottom layer of denser, saltier water, where oxygen depletion persists. These layers won’t mix until the cooler temperatures of autumn allow the surface waters to sink.
To find the dead zone, Director of Marine Operations and Rachel Carson Captain Michael H. Hulme takes us to one of the deep troughs that run down the center of the Bay. Geologic remnants of the ancient Susquehanna River, these troughs can reach up to 174 feet deep in an estuary whose average depth is just 21 feet. Hulme anchors offshore of Calvert Cliffs State Park.
The boat is equipped with a dynamic positioning system, which holds it in place regardless of wind or waves. This allows the captain to step away from the helm and offer his hands on deck. “Being able to hover over that [specific] latitude and longitude is what makes the Rachel Carson so unique,” said Hulme. It’s also one of the reasons the vessel is so useful to scientists, who often return to the same sampling site again and again over time.
UMCES Senior Faculty Research Assistant David Loewensteiner drops a CTD overboard. The oceanography instrument takes eight measurements per second, tracking conductivity, temperature and depth as it is lowered through the water. Connected to the ship with a cable, the CTD sends data to a laptop in the boat’s dry lab. We measure 2.04 mg/L of dissolved oxygen in surface water, and just 0.33 mg/L at 98 feet deep. Critters need concentrations of 5 mg/L or more to thrive; these are “classic dead zone” conditions.
Dead zones are bad for the Bay. Like animals on land, underwater critters need oxygen to survive. In a dead zone, immobile shellfish suffocate and those fish that can swim are displaced into more hospitable waters. “If you were a self-respecting fish and oxygen was [low], what would you do?” asked Bill Dennison, Vice President for Science Applications and Professor at UMCES. “Swim away.”
First reported in the 1930s, the appearance of the dead zone in the Bay is linked to our actions on land: as we replace forests with cities, suburbs and farms, we increase the amount of nutrients entering rivers and streams. This fuels the growth of algae blooms that lead to dead zones. “Hypoxia [or low-oxygen conditions] is driven by what we do on the watershed,” said UMCES Assistant Professor Jeremy Testa. “The Bay is naturally set up to generate hypoxia because of that [stratification] feature. That said… when there were no people here, there was not much hypoxia.”
While it is our actions on land that created the dead zone, it is our actions on land that can make the dead zone go away. Research has shown that certain pollution-reducing practices—like upgrading wastewater treatment plants, lowering vehicle and power plant emissions and reducing runoff from farmland—can improve the health of local rivers and streams. Scientists have also traced a decline in the duration of the dead zone from five months to four, which suggests that conservation practices gaining traction across the watershed could have very real benefits for the entire Bay.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by E. Guy Stephens/Southern Maryland Photography. Captions by Catherine Krikstan.
Eight of the top 10 U.S. cities that have seen an increase in “nuisance flooding” alongside rising seas are on the East Coast, according to a new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Four of the top 10 cities are in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Annapolis and Baltimore lead the list with a 925 and 920 percent increase in their average number of nuisance floods since 1960. Washington, D.C., has seen a 373 percent increase, while Norfolk has seen a 325 percent increase.
According to the report, nuisance flooding—or minor flooding that closes roads, overwhelms storm drains and compromises infrastructure never designed to withstand inundation or saltwater exposure—will worsen as sea level rise accelerates. Indeed, nuisance flooding has become “more noticeable and widespread” because of rising seas, sinking land and the loss of natural flood barriers.
“As relative sea level increases, it no longer takes a strong storm or a hurricane to cause flooding,” said William Sweet, oceanographer and lead author of the report, in a media release. “Flooding now occurs with high tides.”
Image courtesy rwillia533/Flickr
The study was conducted by scientists at the Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services, who compared data from 45 tide gauges with reports of nuisance floods; whether or not a nuisance flood has taken place is determined at the local level by a National Weather Service threshold. It is hoped the findings will “heighten awareness of a growing problem” and “encourage resiliency efforts in response to” sea level rise.
An understanding of where floods are occurring is integral to building climate resiliency. Once coastal communities know where environmental threats and vulnerabilities lie, they can take steps to move growth and development away from the coast, enhance preparedness efforts to protect human health and protect and restore wetlands, buffers and barrier islands that might shield the shoreline from strong wind and waves.
The Chesapeake Bay Program has set a goal to increase the climate resiliency of the watershed’s living resources and public infrastructure, using monitoring, assessment and adaptation to ensure the region withstands the impacts of a changing climate.
Every once in a while, one is struck by the power of a new idea. At a recent event held by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to kick off a public education campaign about invasive catfish in the Chesapeake Bay, I learned about an initiative called the Wide Net Project. The concept of the Wide Net Project is elegant in its simplicity and its brilliance.
Image courtesy Virginia Sea Grant
Neither blue nor flathead catfish are native to the Chesapeake Bay. Unfortunately, the invasive species have become apex predators that feed voraciously on other fish and shellfish. In some areas of the watershed, they represent a significant percentage of a tributary’s total fish biomass. But they are also a good source of lean protein.
In this invasive catfish problem, Wide Net Project co-founders Sharon Feuer Gruber and Wendy Stuart saw a solution: the catfish could be fished out of local tributaries and used to provide low-cost protein to hunger relief organizations.
Wide Net Project staff work with J.J. McDonnell, a large seafood company, to process and distribute the catch from area anglers. Staff sell the fish to restaurants, grocers, hospitals, universities and other institutions at market price. A significant portion of these sales is used to lower the price of the fish staff then sell to hunger relief agencies, which normally can’t afford healthy, local foods. To address the health concern related to the potential accumulation of toxins in older and larger fish, the Wide Net Project markets and sells only younger and smaller blue catfish. J.J. McDonnell also recycles fish waste produced during processing into pet food.
At the DNR event, which was held at Smallwood State Park on the Mattawoman Creek, chefs cooked up samples of blue catfish. While I enjoy eating fish, I don’t think I had ever tasted catfish before that day. I tried some, and found it had a flakey white meat and a light and delicate taste. I thought to myself, one should never underestimate the power of a great idea or the ability of a few dedicated individuals to get things done. Sharon and Wendy connected the dots and inspired us all.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy endorsement or action.
Have you ever found yourself looking out at the boats dotting the Chesapeake Bay and wondering, “What kind of ship is that?” So have we! Below is a list of 10 iconic watercraft visible on the Bay today.
Image courtesy Jon/Flickr
1. Log Canoe. Recognized as the Bay’s first workboat, log canoes once filled the region’s waterways as watermen sailed about in search of fish and shellfish. They are usually made from three to five hollowed out logs that are fastened together and shaped into a hull. One or two large masts jut out from the center of the boat, and sails capture the wind and use it as a propellant. Most log canoes that exist today have retired from their working lives and are sailed in races; in fact, fewer than two dozen log canoes remain in the Bay region and, out of those, less than half race.
Image courtesy Baldeaglebluff/Flickr
2. Skipjack. In the late nineteenth century, the skipjack—a popular work boat for watermen—saw a production boom as the Maryland oyster harvest reached an all-time peak of 15 million bushels. But as the Bay’s oyster population steadily declined, so did its skipjack fleet. There are 35 skipjacks left in the Bay region, many of them used for educational purposes (like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s skipjack, Stanley Norman). Like oysters, the boats that harvested them are culturally significant to this region—so much so that the state of Maryland named the skipjack its official state boat.
Image courtesy Laszlo Ilyes/Flickr
3. Skiff. Skiffs are shallow, flat-bottomed boats recognizable by their sharp bow and square stern. These watercraft are made to move through the tributaries and along the coastal areas of the Bay. While they can be used as workboats, skiffs are typically used for recreational fishing and other leisurely outings.
4. Deadrise. The official boat of Virginia, the deadrise is a traditional work boat used by watermen to catch blue crabs, fish and oysters. The vessel is marked by a sharp bow that expands down the hull into a large V shape and a square stern.
Image courtesy E. Guy Stephens/Southern Maryland Photography
5. Research vessel. Restoring the health of the Bay is as complex as the Bay ecosystem itself. Research vessels like the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s (UMCES) R/V Rachel Carson travel the Bay, collecting data about water quality, flora and fauna to help scientists gain a better understanding about what should be done to improve our restoration efforts.
Image courtesy Judity Doyle/Flickr
6. Kayak. These small, human-powered boats are propelled by a double-bladed paddle. Kayaks are believed to be more than 4,000 years old, and originated as a hunting craft used on lakes, rivers and coastal waters. Modern kayaks vary in size and shape depending upon the paddler’s intended use. Whether it is racing through whitewater rapids or fishing in placid waters, kayaks are a sound choice for many recreational boater’s needs.
Image courtesy Jitze Couperus
7. Schooner. Schooners are sailing ships with two or more masts. They have a long history in the mid-Atlantic as workboats for the watermen who made their living harvesting oysters, blue crabs and fish from the Bay. Every October, schooners can be seen racing 146 miles down the Bay from Annapolis, Maryland, to Hampton Roads, Virginia, as a part of the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race. This race was started to draw attention to the Bay’s heritage and to support environmental education and restoration work.
Image courtesy Andreas Kollmorgen/Flickr
8. Racing shell. The sport of rowing is often referred to as crew, and is a popular pastime for many who live in the watershed. While its origins can be traced back to ancient Egypt, competitive rowing did not evolve until the early eighteenth century in London. It is one of the oldest Olympic sports. While racing, athletes sit with their backs to the bow of the racing shell and face the stern, using oars to propel the boat forward.
Image courtesy Glen/Flickr
9. Shipping tanker. The shipping industry has been critical to the mid-Atlantic economy since the colonial era because the region serves as a bridge between the north and the south. In fact, the Bay is home to two of the United States’ five major North Atlantic ports: Baltimore, Maryland, and Hampton Roads, Virginia. Shipping tankers were created to transport large amounts of commodities and can range in size and capacity from several hundred tons to several hundred thousand tons.
Image courtesy Vastateparkstaff/Flickr
10. Canoe. Canoes are lightweight, human-propelled water craft that are pointed at each end and open on top. Typically, one or more people paddle the boat with an oar while seated or kneeling. Like kayaks, canoes are multifaceted watercraft that can be used for anything from recreational fishing and paddling to moving through whitewater.