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Chesapeake Bay News

Archives: July 2017

Jul
21
2017

Photo of the Week: Underwater grasses get support from citizen scientists

Brooke Landry of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) shows Choptank Riverkeeper Matthew Pluta and Chesapeake Conservation Corps intern Keitasha Royal how to survey underwater grasses along the Choptank River on Monday.

The project is part of a collaboration with DNR and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, through which the Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy is working to study and map local underwater grass beds. Volunteers can use their own kayaks and canoes to monitor the location, health and species of underwater grasses growing throughout the Midshore region’s shallow waters, including the Choptank River. Combining that data with other survey sources helps scientists at DNR and VIMS track the status of underwater grasses throughout the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

As part of a similar effort, Chesapeake Commons—with funding from the Chesapeake Bay Program—recently expanded its Water Reporter app to allow citizen scientists to report when they see underwater grasses. Anyone with a smartphone can download the app, join the Chesapeake Bay SAV Watchers group and help monitor underwater grasses—whenever and wherever they are on the water.

Learn more about our partners’ work to restore underwater grasses.


Image by Skyler Ballard

Stephanie Smith's avatar
About Stephanie Smith - Stephanie is the Web Content Manager at the Chesapeake Bay Program. A native of the Midwest, she received her Bachelor’s in Professional Writing from Purdue University and Master of Science degree from the University of Michigan. Stephanie’s lifelong love of nature motivates her to explore solutions to environmental problems and teach others what they can do to help.



Jul
18
2017

Five types of underwater grasses found in the Chesapeake Bay

The plants that grow in the shallow waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers, streams and creeks are a critical part of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. Known as underwater grasses or submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), they improve water quality by reducing erosion, trapping loose sediment and absorbing nutrient pollution. During photosynthesis, they add the dissolved oxygen to the water underwater critters need to survive. They also serve as habitat for vulnerable young fish and crabs and provide food for migrating waterfowl.

Below, learn about five types of underwater grasses that are found in the Chesapeake Bay.

The long, ribbon-like leaves of eelgrass (Zostera marina) provide habitat for tiny invertebrates, like hermit crabs. (Image by Luke McGuff/Flickr)

Eelgrass
This underwater grass prefers the saltier waters of the middle and lower Chesapeake Bay, making it one of the dominant species in the Virginia portion of the Bay. Its long, ribbon-like leaves can grow up to four feet long, but vary in size depending on the plant’s location.

Eelgrass provides important habitat for blue crabs: juveniles and molting adults forage for food and hide from predators among eelgrass beds. But warming water temperatures resulting from changes in climate may threaten future eelgrass abundance, as this sensitive plant becomes distressed when waters are warmer than 86 degrees Fahrenheit for long periods of time.

The thread-like widgeon grass (Ruppia maritima) prefers salty waters, making it one of the dominant underwater grasses found in the Virginia portion of the Bay.

Widgeon Grass
The delicate, thread-like widgeon grass prefers saltier waters, ranging from the slightly brackish upper Bay through to the saltier lower portion. Like eelgrass, it is one of the dominant underwater grass species found in the Virginia portion of the Bay. Widgeon grass is also known as ditch grass, because it sometimes grows on land in the ditches alongside roads and farm fields.

In recent years, a strong increase in the amount of widgeon grass has helped the Bay reach record acreages of underwater grass beds. However, because widgeon grass is a “boom and bust” species—its abundance can rise and fall from year to year—scientists caution that a widgeon-dominant spike is not guaranteed to last.

Distinctive yellow, star-like flowers are what give water stargrass (Heteranthera dubia) its name.

Water Stargrass
Perhaps one of the prettiest underwater grasses, water stargrass is named for the distinctive yellow, star-like flowers that bloom along its freely-branching stems. It grows in the fresh waters of the upper Bay and in tributaries throughout the region.

If water stargrass washes ashore, it can sometimes grow on land; the terrestrial form also produces the characteristic flowers, but its leaves are small and leathery. This form of water stargrass is sometimes called the mud plantain.

The invasive hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata) can be distinguished from other, native underwater grasses by the teeth along the edges of its leaves. (Image by ta ton/Shutterstock)

Hydrilla
The invasive hydrilla grows in freshwater portions of the Bay and its tributaries, although it has also been found in some saltier waters. Its long, branching stems are covered in tiny leaves with teeth along the edges. Because hydrilla does not need as much light as other underwater grasses, it can be found in murkier waters with more sediment pollution.

Introduced to the United States in the 1960s through the aquarium trade, hydrilla was first detected in the Chesapeake Bay region when it was found in the Potomac River near Washington, D.C., in 1982. Within a decade, it had grown to cover 3,000 acres of the river.

Wild celery (Vallisneria americana) can be distinguished from eelgrass by the light green stripe running down the center of each leaf.

Wild Celery
Similar in appearance to eelgrass, the long, ribbon-like leaves of wild celery can be distinguished by the light green stripe running down the center of each leaf. Wild celery grows in fresh and slightly salty waters throughout the region, including the upper Chesapeake Bay and its tidal and non-tidal tributaries. Hardier than other underwater grasses, wild celery can withstand disturbance from waves and is more tolerant of murky, pollutant-rich waters.

Many underwater grasses serve as an important food source for critters, but wild celery’s buds and roots are particularly important to waterfowl as they migrate and overwinter in the Bay region. In fact, the scientific name for the canvasback, Aythya valisineria, comes from the first part of wild celery’s scientific name, Vallisneria americana.

 

Underwater grasses are sensitive to pollution: as excess nutrients and sediment flow into the Bay, low-oxygen dead zones and cloudy waters deprive the plants of the oxygen and sunlight they need to survive. In the 1950s and 60s, declining water quality caused many underwater grass beds—which once grew so thick that boats were unable to move through them—to disappear.

Today, Chesapeake Bay Program partners are working to restore underwater grasses across the estuary. Last year, more than 97,000 acres of underwater grasses were recorded, marking a 53 percent achievement of our partners’ 185,000-acre goal.

Stephanie Smith's avatar
About Stephanie Smith - Stephanie is the Web Content Manager at the Chesapeake Bay Program. A native of the Midwest, she received her Bachelor’s in Professional Writing from Purdue University and Master of Science degree from the University of Michigan. Stephanie’s lifelong love of nature motivates her to explore solutions to environmental problems and teach others what they can do to help.



Jul
14
2017

A walk in the edible woods

Lincoln Smith, founder of Forested, a food forest in Bowie, Md., inspects a tree while giving a tour of his land on July 6. Over the five years that Smith has been renting the ten acres from a local church, he has transformed it into a multistory food forest that produces diverse crops and provides food for the community.

Imagine a forest garden, where the best of both farming and forestry combine to form an ecosystem that gives back to the land. Figs, pomegranates, pineapple guavas,  mulberries, leafy greens, mushrooms and raspberry brambles grow and are harvested in harmony with shady canopies and a wide array of other edible plants, and the environment benefits from the forested landscape. What you may not imagine is that you can find this forest agriculture paradise in a quiet, suburban cul-de-sac in Bowie, Maryland.

Just past the cheerful mailboxes and carefully trimmed lawns of its host neighborhood sits the forest garden, a ten-acre demonstration site founded in 2011 by Lincoln Smith through a grant from the District of Columbia Urban Forestry Administration and Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Smith designs forest gardens and teaches courses on production ecosystems through his organization, Forested, LLC.

Goldenseal, a plant valued for its medicinal properties, grows in Smith’s forest farm.

Stepping inside the rustic gate, you are greeted to an array of edible plants, both of the standard and unexpected variety. Oak trees make up a portion of the canopy, providing all of the traditional benefits of trees such as improving air quality, retaining water and providing shade, however they also supply a surprising staple: starch. In terms of production and space, acorns produce as much as or more food per acre than wheat. It is this kind of information that Smith hopes will get people thinking differently about food. Helping him to do that in a delicious way is Michael Costa, head chef for the Washington, D.C., restaurant Zaytinya.

Food Forest Feasts are held twice a year at Forested and feature dishes created from the forest abundance. All over the forest garden, special emphasis is given to species that grow wild. A species of grapevine growing all over the garden is embraced as a food source and used by Chef Costa to create dolmas from the leaves. Fresh wine cap, shitake and oyster mushrooms feature in the meals. Spice bush is used to make a vinegar, sumac for a lemon spice.

Smith picks Wine Cap mushrooms of several maturity stages growing in a mulched patch of ground inside the forest. Due to their quick growth rate, Smith tries to check on the wine caps, or Stropharia Rugosoannulata, twice a day during harvest season.

Designed as a space for the community to be enriched, Forested’s forest garden is always open to the public. The land is owned by a local church, and the steps Smith had to take in order to rent it perfectly fit with his concept of urban forest agriculture. “I had to go to every home in the neighborhood,” he laughs, spreading his arms over the tops of kale and indicating the homes nearby.

Community members go to the garden to learn about edible forestry, paint the landscape, help with the harvest or just take their dogs on a leisurely stroll. “The longer we’re here,” says Smith with quiet pride, “the more the local community seems to understand and appreciate the project.”

A close up of perennial asparagus as it grows in a sunny vegetable patch of the forest garden. The delicate, fern-like foliage grows throughout the summer before dying back to make way for fresh, harvestable asparagus shoots the following spring.

If the forest garden is well-integrated with the human community, its relationship among the winged, crawling and rooted community is even more impressive. Take, for instance, the resident flock of ducks, whose grazing area rotates so they can forage throughout the garden. When harlequin bugs become a problem for the brassicas—crunchy vegetables like cabbages and radishes—the ducks are set loose to thin out the pests. Comfrey and dandelions are also a favorite snack of the ducks, who in turn spread nutrients as the comfrey and dandelions pass through their digestive systems.

Thanks to the biodiversity encouraged by a healthy ecosystem, pests like the invasive Japanese beetle meet some formidable foes at Forested. Scolia dubia, a native and beautiful blue-winged wasp, preys on the beetle. And wheel bugs are given a free pass to feast on the mulberry crop, in exchange for providing a valuable service in actively liquefying Japanese beetles. There are complex interactions to an ecosystem, which when working in harmony produce a beautiful, living landscape.

With the forest garden now in its sixth year, it is beginning to generate its own prizes outside, or ahead of, the man-made design. Jack-in-the-pulpit, sassafras and jewelweed now all grow unbidden. Will the herbalist begin creating jewelweed salves for bug bites and other irritations? Will they use that sassafras to create root beer? When the biosphere is diverse, it builds its own potential.

Smith tends a mulberry tree amidst his forest farm. The farm is maintained by him as well as neighbors, other volunteers and members of the forest’s Community Supported Agriculture program, or CSA, whose customers receive produce from the farm.

Food forests provide a wide variety of sustenance in a small space, and hit that double mark of community space and environmental improvement. Forested recently worked on a project to design a new food forest for the city of Hyattsville in Prince George’s County, and discussion is underway for additional gardens. Given all the intertwined benefits, it is no surprise that many are excited to implement forest gardens into urban settings.

Caitlyn Johnstone's avatar
About Caitlyn Johnstone - Caitlyn is the Outreach Coordinator at the Chesapeake Bay Program. She earned her Bachelor's in English and Behavioral Psychology at WVU Eberly Honors College, where she fed her interest in the relationship between human behavior and the natural world. Caitlyn continues that passion on her native Eastern Shore by seeking comprehensive strategies to human and environmental wellbeing.



Jul
14
2017

Photo of the Week: ‘Paradise Found’ along the Elizabeth River

Paradise Creek Nature Park in Portsmouth, Virginia, is seen on July 6, 2017. Once nicknamed "Paradise Lost" because of its close proximity to the former New Gosport landfill—a Superfund site—the area has become a model for urban waterway restoration.

Paradise Creek is a tributary of the Elizabeth River, historically one of the most polluted waterways not just in the Chesapeake Bay region, but in the United States. Years of dredging and filling brought drastic changes to the Elizabeth River, creating a waterway much deeper and narrower than the broad, shallow Bay tributary it once was. Some of that leftover dredged material made its way to Paradise Creek, where it filled in the creek bottom and smothered the area where tidal wetlands once thrived.

In 2001, the Elizabeth River Project began planning for the restoration of Paradise Creek and the surrounding land. Through the decade that followed, the City of Portsmouth agreed to operate the site as a public park, the land was purchased and the Virginia Port Authority removed more than 300,000 cubic yards of dredged material from the creek bottom. Today, eleven acres of once-lost tidal wetlands have reemerged.

Opened to the public in 2012, two phases of restoration efforts have helped turn Paradise Creek Nature Park into a recreational haven. The 40-acre park is now home to two miles of trails, a launch for canoes and kayaks, a wetland learning lab and thousands of newly-planted native trees and shrubs. Visitors can even rent unique, clear-bottom kayaks to get an up-close look at the waterway’s recovery.

Learn more about Paradise Creek Nature Park or take a virtual tour of the Elizabeth River.

Image by Will Parson

Stephanie Smith's avatar
About Stephanie Smith - Stephanie is the Web Content Manager at the Chesapeake Bay Program. A native of the Midwest, she received her Bachelor’s in Professional Writing from Purdue University and Master of Science degree from the University of Michigan. Stephanie’s lifelong love of nature motivates her to explore solutions to environmental problems and teach others what they can do to help.



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