Captain Pete Ide throws a freshly caught striped bass onto the dock in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland, after a charter fishing excursion on the Chesapeake Bay on November 11, 2016.
For hundreds of years, striped bass—also known as rockfish or stripers—have been one of the most popular commercial and recreational fish in the Chesapeake Bay, which is the largest striped bass nursery area on the Atlantic coast. Experts estimate that up to 90 percent of the Atlantic striped bass population uses the Bay and its tidal tributaries to spawn.
In the early 1970s, the striped bass industry experienced record-high catches: in 1973, the commercial fishery landed 14.7 million pounds. But in the years that followed, commercial and recreational catches declined steeply, and by 1983, the harvest had fallen to just 1.7 million pounds. Scientists attributed the sharp decline primarily to overfishing, which may have made the striped bass more susceptible to stressors like changes in water temperature, low dissolved oxygen, chemical contaminants and poor water quality.
After fishing moratoria throughout the late 1980s in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, the Chesapeake Bay striped bass fishery re-opened in 1990. Since then, striped bass abundance in the Bay has dramatically increased. According to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, in 2015, the biomass of adult female striped bass along the Atlantic Coast was estimated to be 129 million pounds—above the overfishing threshold of 127 million but below the target of 159 million pounds. And while results of Maryland’s 2016 juvenile striped bass survey were well below the long-term average, scientists expect successful spawning years in 2011 and 2015 to compensate for the below-average year.
Learn more about striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay.
Image by Will Parson
In 1791, a small island on Aquia Creek in Stafford County, Virginia, began sending its warm-colored sandstone downstream to the Potomac River, where schooners and sloops would haul it upstream to Washington, D.C. The stone, well-suited for intricate carving, was destined to be part of the White House, the Capitol Building and many other landmarks of our nation’s capital. Unused since the 1800s, Public Quarry at Government Island is now a historic nature preserve on the National Registry of Historic Places.
The 1.5-mile trail to Government Island follows Austin Run, a stream that flows into Aquia Creek. On a December weekend, visitors walked the trail through woods and wetlands of 17-acre Government Island Park before taking a looping path around the island. A well-dressed family with a photographer in tow and a couple of teenage girls stopped periodically to take portraits against the natural scenery.
Nearby, a group of trained citizen scientists from a community service organization called Green Aquia conducted their monthly water quality monitoring effort at six points along Aquia Creek and Austin Run. The volunteers are residents of Aquia Harbour, a private community of almost 7,000 people that straddles the creek.
“We have a group of probably six to eight people who are very consistent with helping monitor these locations,” said Andrea Black, who is vice president of Green Aquia and in charge of their water quality monitoring program.
The water quality data is sent to the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay as part of its RiverTrends program. The Alliance provides training to monitoring volunteers and submits the data to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), for use in reports to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Through its monitoring, Green Aquia identified high levels of E. coli in Austin Run four years ago, and took action to stop the bacteria at its presumed source—horse manure from stables nearby. The group petitioned Aquia Harbour’s board of directors to assess the situation. Aquia Harbour switched their manure storage from an open pit to a covered structure, paid for by funds raised through a recycling program Green Aquia established.
Black said that Austin Run now yields lower E. coli numbers.
“We noticed a dramatic change in the quality of the water that was coming from the checkpoint that’s behind [the stables],” Black said. “The water is better.”
At the same time that increased access to Government Island has allowed Green Aquia to pay more attention to the park’s issues, the additional foot traffic has been a challenge in and of itself.
“The park itself is becoming more popular, so you have more people walking the trails,” said Mary Haq, another member of Green Aquia. “And they don’t always stay on the trails.”
Maria Cannata, a Master Naturalist and member of Green Aquia, said the amount of storms and debris snagging on a new bridge have increased erosion.
“Dead trees will come down and they’ll block the pilings here, and create a logjam and then collect more debris. So it reroutes the water,” Cannata said.
Near the park tables where the volunteers finished some of their water tests, thick stumps riddled with insect galleries are the remains of large ash trees killed by the larvae of the emerald ash borer, an invasive species.
“In that grove there you can see a lot of dead ash trees,” Cannata said. “They get very brittle when they’re dead and they snap.”
Cannata remembers a phenomenal rise in woodpecker activity due to the ash borer when it swept through two years ago.
“Woodpeckers, all in this park, just getting fat and happy ripping the bark off to get the insects out.” Cannata said. “You’d walk through the park and the bark would be flying on you and it would be all over the walkway.”
Walking into Government Island Park after finishing most of the water monitoring, Black, Haq and Cannata passed underneath power lines and recounted another victory for the park and for Austin Run.
After noticing a crew spraying pesticides along the utility right-of-way, Green Aquia worked out an agreement with Dominion Virginia Power. Now, once a year, volunteers maintain trees below a specified height, so that the utility can reduce their use of pesticides at the park. The same day as the December monitoring effort, Green Aquia had several volunteers spending a few hours cutting saplings.
Continuing deeper into the park, the three volunteers lamented a decline in wildflowers in the woods along Austin Run in recent years, and a troubling shift from a plant called spatterdock, which needs deeper water, to wild rice in the wetlands in front of Government Island.
But on Government Island itself, some things have changed more slowly. The monolithic slabs of sandstone still show the marks of cutting tools made in the mid-1800s. Nearby, an original boundary marker, complete with the carved initials of the owner, marks what had been a one-acre property purchased in 1786.
Fighting off the late fall chill, Black, Cannata and Haq started heading back to their vehicles, taking turns riffing on the unsightliness of pet waste left in bags along the trail—and sometimes thrown into trees.
But their focus quickly changed to the sight of a hairy woodpecker flitting from one bare trunk to another, lingering long enough for the group to stop and admire.
After a moment, a father and son who had been following the same boardwalk caught up to the group. The father crouched to toddler level, whispering to his son, and the family stopped to watch the bird too.
Video, photos and text by Will Parson
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page
Beverly-Triton Beach Park in Edgewater, Maryland, is blanketed by snow on February 17, 2015. The park used to be a private beach open only to whites and gentiles until a civil rights lawsuit was filed in the 1960s. Now the park is managed by Anne Arundel County and is open to the public seven days a week, but its history calls to mind the fact that, for so long, ethnic and religious minorities were excluded from many outdoor spaces.
That history of exclusion has led in part to a perception that people of color aren’t welcome in nature. The most recent survey of visitors to national parks found that minorities made up just over 20 percent, even though they make up almost 40 percent of the population.
The National Park Service, seeing the disconnect between the demographics of its visitors and that of the country, is working to increase the number of minorities who visit national parks. At the same time, minority-led groups like Latino Outdoors and Outdoor Afro are working to increase engagement in outdoor activities by people of color, and create new leaders in conservation education.
One way states are encouraging everyone to visit park lands is through First Day Hikes. Now in its sixth year, this national initiative encourages outdoor exploration and recreation in the New Year. On January 1st, all 50 states will offer guided hikes with park rangers, naturalists and volunteers who can share knowledge about a park’s natural and cultural history. Along with hiking, activities include biking, horseback riding, wildlife viewing, strolling and more. These activities are a great opportunity for everyone to get outside in the New Year, from those who have never hiked before to those who are just looking for a good excuse to get outside.
Find a First Day Hike in your area.
Image by Will Parson
About thirty minutes north of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the Ned Smith Center for Nature & Art sits on over 500 acres of protected forest land with the Wiconisco Creek, a tributary to the Susquehanna River, running through it. The Center offers a variety of educational programs about nature, art and conservation. But on this crisp day in October, I was meeting up with Jerry Hassinger, a volunteer at the center and a noted mushroom hunter, to see what kinds of wood-eating fungi we could find.
Often overlooked, wood-eating fungi are a key component of what keeps a forest ecosystem healthy and functioning properly. Forest land acts like a sponge, absorbing air pollution, trapping polluted runoff before it reaches waterways and stabilizing the soil while providing a habitat for a diverse group of critters. Keeping forests healthy leads to clean waterways, which in turn helps protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay.
Hassinger is a regular volunteer at the Center and has written, photographed and spoken about the importance and beauty of fungi for most of his life. His passion for fungi and background in environmental science was immediately apparent upon my arrival, when he handed me a folder containing a piece of photo paper with beautiful images of fungi we were likely to see on our hunt that day. Each photo was neatly numbered and labeled with the common name and the page number where I could look it up in his edition of the National Audubon Field Guide. Hassinger, formerly with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, humbly considers himself a “fungi enthusiast”—not an expert.
The rest of our mushroom hunting party consisted of Beth Sanders, Director of Education for the Center, and Santino Lauricella, Environmental Educator for the Center. We set off at an appropriately slow clip, looking for what I assumed would be small, ground-dwelling fungi. Hassinger said he uses looking for fungi as an excuse to hike slowly along trails, “I just crossed the eighty year mark, so I don’t walk fast.” He did, however, scramble up a few slopes and down into the creek bed with more agility than I did.
In the few miles we covered, we saw more shapes, textures and sizes of fungi than I ever expected would exist. I learned about white cheese fungus, so-named because it looks like the wet crumbles of goat cheese; ceramic parchment, which covers entire fallen trunks in small, light brown segments resembling tiles; and pear-shaped puffballs that expelled a dusty brown cloud when squeezed. We also saw false turkey tails, deadly galorina, bearded tooth and hen of the woods.
A forest ecosystem is constantly regenerating, and wood-eating fungi play a major role in recycling fallen trees. They digest the dead wood and release nutrients from the bark back into the soil, supporting new growth and reducing fuel available for forest fires.
“Beth!” Hassinger shouted across a clearing as he tromped through the leaves off trail to point out our next mushroom find. “This next one is going to blow your mind.”
From a distance, I could make out an off-white mass that protruded from the bottom of a tree about a few hundred yards from the trail. Hassinger bounded over to it, obviously excited to show us this particular specimen that was about the size of a kid’s basketball. Long, white, hair-like structures covered the rounded form to make it look more like a mythical woodland creature than a mushroom.
Hassinger said it had survived for over a month already and that this fruiting body was just the visible part of what was probably a much larger web of mycelium. Mycelium is a network of millions of microscopic threads that attaches to roots and logs and grows through the soil, sometimes for miles. It forms mutually beneficial relationships: effectively expanding the reach of tree and plant root systems, protecting against some pathogens and providing minerals and water to the roots as it takes sugars produced during photosynthesis. Even more astounding is that mycelium acts as a kind of communication system for the forest. If a tree is attacked by insects, the mycelium will produce a chemical making it less desirable to eat. That chemical works its way through the network of roots and mycelium to other trees of the same species, prompting them to produce that same chemical and ward off the attack.
Walking through the forest with Hassinger, I gained a new insight on just how much is happening all at once, on so many different levels of the forest. You may be pleasantly surprised at what you find when you take the time to look closely.
Text, images and captions by Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page