On a warm day last September, Julie Lawson, Director of Trash Free Maryland, sat on a boat, motoring from a dock in Annapolis. She was surrounded by guests she had invited, and as she spoke to them, a mason jar full of algae-thick water sloshed in her hand with every gesture.
Looking more closely at the jar, several small flecks of white floated at the surface, occasionally sticking to the side of the glass. They were pieces of microplastic—degraded bits of waste less than five millimeters in size. Microplastic is a potential threat to marine life, which can mistake pieces of waste for food. It can also absorb and release harmful chemicals.
“It's funny, I actually started out by caring about trash in the water, and most of the time now all I do is talk about neighborhoods,” Lawson said.
The previous fall, Lawson had collected several similar samples from the Chesapeake Bay with grant support by the Chesapeake Bay Trust and with the help of Stiv Wilson, Campaign Director of The Story of Stuff Project. The result was a visual demonstration of what happens when trash on land gets washed into streams, rivers, and ultimately the Bay and the ocean.
Returning to the water after winning a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Lawson, Wilson and Dr. Chelsea Rochman, an ecotoxicologist and postdoctoral fellow with the University of California, Davis, included more sites from throughout the Bay, in order to obtain 60 samples. Half of the samples would be sent to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lab for scientific analysis.
The process, in a protocol developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), uses what’s called a manta trawl with a 20x60-centimeter opening and a 333-micron mesh net to skim the water surface for exactly 15 minutes at a time.
"Then I sampled wastewater that drains into the bay from from urban runoff, agricultural runoff and wastewater treatment plants to see if there was microplastic in these sources—and if the type and shape matched with what we saw in the Bay," said Rochman, who also sampled oysters last summer.
The manta trawl samples include everything from underwater grasses and fish eggs to a pair of sunglasses and a lighter. Pulling on plastic gloves that day in September, Lawson fought her nerves while handling a jellyfish that ended up in one jar. She didn’t get stung.
Lawson said the research will help determine how much plastic is in the Chesapeake Bay, which would set a baseline to help determine if the level of pollution is going up or down. They also want to know the types of plastic, which would provide insight into where that plastic is coming from.
“Is it film? Is it microbeads?” Lawson said. “What kind of chemical is it contaminated with?”
Lawson expects to have lab results from the trawl later this year. The last phase of their study will examine the digestive tracts of fish species frequently caught by fishermen, in order to determine how much plastic the animals are consuming.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page
Video, photos and text by Will Parson
Declining pollution, recovering fish populations and protected lands are signs of improving health for the Potomac River, according to the Potomac Conservancy’s ninth annual State of the Nation’s River report.
In 2012, American Rivers listed the Potomac as the nation’s most endangered river. But the river’s latest grade of “B-”—up from a “C” in 2013 and a “D” in 2011—indicates slow but steady progress on the waterway’s path to recovery. Nutrient and sediment pollution has decreased, fish like shad and white perch are returning to the waterway and more than a quarter of the land in the Potomac region is protected from development.
“Not all is well with our Nation’s River, however,” the report states. The fastest growing source of pollution into both the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay is stormwater runoff—rainfall that picks up pollutants as it flows across roads, parking lots, lawns and golf courses and carries them into rivers and streams, threatening marine life and human health. With millions expected to move to the Potomac region in the coming decades, an increase in polluted runoff threatens to offset much of the progress made so far.
According to the Conservancy, approaches like streamside forest buffers, green infrastructure, mixed-use communities and low-impact development could help support the river on its path toward recovery.
Less than 15 years ago, an exotic green beetle was discovered in southeastern Michigan. In the years that followed, the metallic insect that is no more than half an inch long spread into 24 more states—including five in the Chesapeake Bay watershed—and now threaten millions of native ash trees that fall sick and die when the insect’s larvae feed on the tissue underneath their bark.
The emerald ash borer likely arrived in the United States on wood packing material carried on airplanes or cargo ships from its native China. While the insects can fly at least half a mile from where they emerge as adults, it is the movement of larvae-laden wood that is thought to be the cause of many emerald ash borer infestations. As a result, the shipment of ash trees and logs is regulated, and transporting firewood outside of quarantined areas is illegal.
Such precautions are necessary because of the impact the emerald ash borer can have on forests. As larvae feed on the nutrient-rich inner bark of ash trees, they disrupt the trees’ ability to move food and water from its roots to its leaves. Once a tree is infested with emerald ash borer larvae, one-third to one-half of its branches may die within a year. Most of its canopy may be dead within two years, with the entire tree dead in three to four.
Ash trees can be found in almost all parts of the United States. All North American ash trees are susceptible to infestation, which means countless forests are susceptible to the loss of a species that supports the ecosystem’s protection of clean air, water and wildlife habitat. While native trees could fill the gaps left by dead ash, invasive plants could also spread in response to new light levels. Even the makeup of the surrounding soil may change, as ash trees are “dynamic accumulators” that gather calcium from the soil around them.
The economic impacts of the emerald ash borer are significant. First, there are costs to losing trees. The U.S. Forest Service estimates the eight billion ash trees on U.S. timberlands to be valued at $282.25 billion. Then, there are costs to mitigating the damage the insect has done. The Forest Service has predicted that an expanding infestation through 2019 will warrant the treatment, removal and replacement of more than 17 million ash trees, with an estimated price tag of $10.7 billion.
But the Forest Service has also explored an impressive number of emerald ash borer control and management methods. Experts have searched for effective predators, parasitoids and pathogens that could act as biological controls, evaluated the efficacy of insecticides injected into trunks of infested trees and explored the development of genetic hybrids that would integrate the resistance of Asian ash tree species into those native to North America. Experts have also conducted research into ridding trees of larvae by submerging infested logs under water, treating infested logs with chemicals and removing the bark of infested logs that could otherwise be sent to sawmills and manufacturing plants to be used for lumber, railroad ties and other value-added products.
In light of the extensive research that has been done in the years since the emerald ash borer was first found in the United States, the most important thing for individuals to remember is to follow regulatory guidelines for moving ash trees, logs and firewood and to report potential infestations to your local Cooperative Extension Service office. According to the Forest Service, making a large investment in understanding and controlling the spread of this invasive insect now could slow the expansion and postpone the ultimate costs of the emerald ash borer.
The official start of spring may have already passed, but one of the unofficial signs of the season arrived when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) redeployed its final Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System (CBIBS) buoy today. All ten buoys—located along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail—are now collecting and transmitting real-time data about conditions in the Chesapeake Bay.
CBIBS buoys offer valuable information to sailors, kayakers and others looking for information on wind speed, currents, wave heights and local conditions before heading out on the water. In addition to water and weather conditions, the buoy data provides a snapshot into what is happening in and around the Bay, including information on water temperature, salinity and dissolved oxygen.
To learn more about the buoys and the technicians that support them, watch our From the Field video: