Cownose rays have been in the news a lot lately, due to proposed legislation in Maryland that would place a ban on cownose ray hunting tournaments. Held in the summertime, these tournaments are popular among bowhunters who want to reduce the cownose ray population.
Cownose rays tend to get a bad reputation because of what they are eating—or what people think they are eating. Cownose rays are highly specialized to eat bivalves like softshell clams, macoma clams and razor clams. But if other prey are unavailable, they occasionally snack on oysters and hard clams, a fact that has concerned watermen and the shellfish industry.
According to a report released by the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team, while oysters and hard clams are not a significant part of a ray’s diet, if they do choose to chow down on these bivalves, intense feeding in one localized area can occur. This feeds the fear that cownose rays will impact oyster restoration and aquaculture operations. However, because of the rays’ jaw size and the force it takes to crush large bivalves, feeding on oyster clusters found in sanctuaries or aquaculture operations can be very difficult for them. The most recent study on the diet of cownose rays shows small, soft shell clams and crustaceans make up most of what they eat.
Another popular misconception of the cownose ray is that it is an invasive species. In fact, they are native to the eastern seaboard of the United States and have been observed in the Chesapeake Bay for centuries. From May through October each year, cownose rays travel to the Chesapeake Bay to give birth in early summer and mate a few weeks later. Because of this females are almost always pregnant. They have extremely slow reproductive cycles, producing only one pup a year, which then takes seven years to mature.
In the Chesapeake Bay, cownose rays are commercial bycatch of the fishing industry and are often targeted for recreational fishing. Rays that are caught by recreational fishing are typically disposed of and not used. Often, the remains end up as sources of fertilizer. For those who may try to eat them, rays can be difficult to cook—only 30 to 34 percent of the flesh is edible—and have a very bitter taste.
Last week, the Maryland Senate passed a bill recommending a moratorium on hunting tournaments until July 31, 2018, with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources developing a management plan by December 31, 2017. The House of Delegates is expected to vote on the ban in the next few weeks.
Watershed jurisdictions could get pollution-reduction credit for their oyster aquaculture industries after the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Water Quality Goal Implementation Team approved findings put together by the Oyster BMP Expert Panel. This panel, coordinated by the Oyster Recovery Partnership, is made up of oyster scientists and practitioners, and includes representatives from academic institutions, non-profit organizations and county, state and federal agencies.
Oyster aquaculture, sometimes called oyster farming, is when individuals or companies grow oysters on leased plots of land instead of harvesting them from public reefs. The panel’s report specifies how three forms of oyster aquaculture could help reduce pollution and recommends their designation as best management practices (BMPs), or practices that reduce or prevent nutrients and sediment from entering the Chesapeake Bay.
As filter feeders, oysters pump water through their gills, trapping particles of food as well as nutrients and sediment. Some of the sediment gets deposited on the water bottom, while nitrogen and phosphorous becomes assimilated into oysters’ tissue and shells. Oyster waste can also be buried, further reducing the amount of nutrients in the water.
The protocols approved in the report will become available to state and local governments as options to implement or promote—the same way that establishing forest buffers or planting cover crops are. The Chesapeake Bay Program partnership is now developing procedures for the implementation and verification of the new BMP.
While the panel’s recommendations apply only to private oyster aquaculture, experts will continue to look into options for public reefs and oyster sanctuaries, as well as other ways oysters could reduce pollution, and will publish their findings and recommendations in future reports.
You might think it, but farms in winter are not barren, sullen and empty. Fields are covered in the dark fluttering green of cover crops, often a mix such as rye, Austrian snow peas and hairy vetch. Chickens of every color, clucking in the early morning, dot the land. Walking through the doorway of the Rainbow Hill farmhouse in Charles Town, West Virginia, drops you directly into a welcoming kitchen and a sense of tranquility.
A rooster-shaped scale sits on the counter, while a fresh basket of eggs rests expectantly next to it. Old black and white movies are playing on the television in the next room, and hundreds of tender green seedlings grow in the sunny windows while snow flurries swirl outside. This is February on a farm, and winter preparations are clearly underway for the flurry of customers craving fresh spring produce.
At Rainbow Hill, customers pay a single sum at the beginning of the season and are then supplied with a box of produce on a regular basis. Customers know where their produce is coming from, can be confident in how it is grown and don’t have to hike to the store on a weekly basis for produce that has traveled thousands of miles. By offering shares, the farmer is provided with capital to run a successful farm, and relationships are built that benefit both farmer and customer. This arrangement is referred to as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), and it is gaining in popularity across the country.
What about those who cannot afford a CSA share? Are they left to scout the supermarket? Not hardly! A small number of workshares are often offered in addition to traditional shares. In this model, a person will help do the work on the farm for a few hours per week in exchange for their full share of produce.
Gale, former federal consultant and current serene farmer of Rainbow Hill, knows the value of workshares. “When I started [growing vegetables in buckets on the porch], I realized I was so happy, so at peace,” she says. Now a full time farmer, she loves what she does but does not have the help to make full use of her land. Offering two workshares this year at four hours per week, she is hopeful the added hands will allow her to farm more of her land.
Each CSA, farm and farmer offers a different experience. Rainbow Hill’s share includes eggs from her free-range, leafy green-eating chickens. Last year she lost 30 percent of the flock to predation from raccoons, eagles and coyotes, but considers it an acceptable cost for the gain of giving her chickens space: “…because, you know, you want them to be happy!”
Contented birds on a diet of foraged insects and farm greens seem to make the difference in her chicken and duck eggs—several customers at her farmers market will go without buying eggs rather than purchase from another farmer.
Experiences like this are not unique. Farmers and the public forming relationships, along with enjoying healthy produce, is an intangible gain that cannot be overlooked. It takes a lot of time and effort for a farmer to sustain a CSA, but being part of this system offers a valuable peace. As Gale puts it, “you try to get away from it every year, but the community needs you and it feels good... to be self-sustaining and to give that kind of value to your community.”
The beauty of CSAs is they’re not just for those in close proximity to a farm. Even if you live in the heart of the city, there’s a CSA for you. In that spirit of forming relationships, farmers are connecting with each other as well. Rainbow Hill, which has the benefit of space to grow plants like tomatoes and peppers, partners at a farmers’ market with an urban farm in Washington, D.C. that grows greens, as well as another smaller farm. This three-part harmony allows smaller farms to be connected in their local community and still offer a variety of items, creating a web of community relationships that cross geographical boundaries.
There is great interest across the country in sourcing locally-grown produce and supporting local farmers. Among the younger generations, there is an increasing desire to personally grow food, but most don’t know where to start. Many people cannot afford the high cost of constantly keeping fresh vegetables on the table, but know the value of healthy eating. CSAs, and workshare options within them, offer those interested the opportunity to get acquainted with new vegetables and learn to work a farm. For farmers, markets and the burgeoning CSA communities offer the chance for urban farmers with vertical greenhouses or rural farmers with sprawling acres to get connected. Today is CSA Day, and there’s no better time this year to find your farmer.
Interested in joining a CSA? Chat with your favorite farmer at the market or hit the web and find your perfect CSA match:
Photos and captions by Will Parson
The inclusion of all types of voices and communities is critically important to the success of environmental protection and restoration efforts in an increasingly diverse watershed. Now, the Chesapeake Bay Program is taking steps to make sure the partnership and its staff reflect the diversity of that community through the release of its first-ever diversity profile assessment.
In 2016, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, on behalf of the Chesapeake Bay Program, distributed a diversity profile to approximately 750 people who work for or with the partnership. The survey revealed that 84 percent of respondents identified as white, while just 13 percent of respondents identified as non-white. Meanwhile, 35 percent of the people in the watershed—which spans parts of six states and the District of Columbia—identify as non-white. In establishing this baseline, the Bay Program is taking an important first step in making its partnership reflect the watershed it represents.
“Setting a baseline and being transparent about the state of diversity in our partnership is a critical first step towards increasing the diversity of people who are engaged in the leadership and implementation of restoration efforts throughout the Bay watershed,” said Jim Edward, Chair of the Bay Program’s Diversity Workgroup.
Alongside goals like oyster health and water quality, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement includes a goal to increase the number and diversity of people who support and carry out conservation and restoration work. Under this goal, Bay Program partners committed to increasing representation in leadership and are assisted in this effort by the Bay Program’s Diversity Workgroup. A dynamic assembly of diverse voices from around the watershed, the Diversity Workgroup is dedicated to creating meaningful employment opportunities, promoting environmental justice and engaging underrepresented populations in conservation and restoration efforts.
“We are delighted that the Chesapeake Bay Program has not only taken stock of its diversity but has truly committed to ensuring that it reflects the racial diversity of the Chesapeake region,” said Whitney Tome, Executive Director of Green 2.0. “We look forward to collaborating with them on this initiative.”
When diversity is taken into account in the planning and implementation of conservation and restoration work, this work is likely to benefit underrepresented and underserved communities. Increasing the inclusion of previously underrepresented communities in our work fosters creativity, drives innovation and ensures all people in the watershed can share in the vibrancy of the region.