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Chesapeake Bay News

May
20
2014

Photo Essay: Walking the woods of the Chesapeake Bay watershed

For close to 50 years, Nick Carter has owned 33 acres on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Aside from a house, a few sheds and a trail or two, much of this land has returned to its natural state: former farm fields have become bogs, wetlands and forests, pushed along by natural growth and Carter’s deep-seated desire to create healthy habitat and clean water.

Carter’s property runs next to the Choptank River, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay. Close to one-third of the Choptank watershed is forested, covered with the tree-and-shrub-filled habitat considered the most beneficial land use for the Bay. Forests absorb airborne pollutants, keep nutrients and sediment from entering our rivers and streams, and provide food, shelter and safe migration paths for wildlife. It is for these reasons that Carter has allowed forests to dominate his land.

“I’d like to see this little bit of property go back to old growth,” Carter said, referring to a type of forest that has evaded unnatural changes for a century or two. Carter and his wife purchased their property when he finished graduate school in 1966. For 35 years, Carter worked as a fish biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Now, he offers informal tours to naturalists, native plant societies and school groups, carrying along a walking stick that effectively points out the things visitors might not notice.

Take the plants, for example. There are 250 species on Carter’s property, and in one two-hour walk it seems he can point out most of them. There are spring ephemera like jack-in-the-pulpit and pink lady’s slipper, the latter of which has a relationship with underground fungi that make them almost impossible to transplant. There are cinnamon ferns and sphagnum moss in a bog that Carter is particularly proud of because he created it with the simple act of laying down a few logs to form a makeshift dam. And there are the pine and oak trees that dominate the upland woods, including the willow oak whose acorns are so small that blue jays can pick them up and carry them in their beaks.

Then there are the reptiles and amphibians. Carter has counted 30 species of these, from the tree and wood frogs that favor damp habitat to the broad-headed skink and Eastern fence lizard that like forests with abundant leaf litter. Leaves that litter the ground conserve water, recycle nutrients and offer shelter to small critters. Its presence on Carter’s land can be felt as soon as you step from the hard pavement of Draper’s Mill Road to the soft, spongy forest floor.

Carter’s woods are home to charismatic fauna, too, including 30 species of mammals and 85 species of birds. Because so much of the property is forested, it serves as suitable habitat for “forest interior dwelling” birds, or those birds that need the moderate temperatures and light levels found deep within the woods. Carter has spotted pine warblers, prothonotary warblers and ovenbirds, but on our walk we spotted a bird that was much bigger and a little less particular about its habitat: a female wild turkey on her nest in a grove of skunk cabbage.

These critters flourish here because Carter has done so little to disrupt the natural processes of the world around him, aside from building the dam that led to the bog and managing some invasive species. While Maryland’s white-tailed deer often chew up low-growing plants, changing the structure of area forests, Carter’s dogs have warded them off with their loud howls. And when invasive plants like autumn olive, oriental bittersweet, English ivy and bush honeysuckle start to grow, Carter steps in to exert control. “Some I spray, some I cut, some I pull,” he said.

The changes that have taken place on Carter’s land present a classic case of succession: disturbed ground is replaced by shrubs, shrubs are replaced by pines and pines are replaced by hardwoods. In other words, this land works “the way it ought to work,” Carter said. And it reminds us of the habitats the Maintain Healthy Watersheds Goal Implementation Team is working to preserve in order to demonstrate the challenge of protecting streams.

Carter’s work to bring people onto his property could help further this goal, as he shares knowledge that can inform and inspire his visitors. “Here’s a little piece of land on which I can make all the rules,” Carter said. “Here, I can make this land good for the Bay and its rivers. And I can show people what’s good for the Bay and its rivers.”

To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.

Images by Steve Droter and Jenna Valente. Captions by Catherine Krikstan.



May
13
2014

Maryland’s oyster population reaches highest level since 1985

The amount of oysters in Maryland waters has continued to rise, according to the results of an annual survey conducted by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

While habitat loss, disease and historic over-harvesting have reduced Chesapeake Bay oyster populations to a fraction of historic levels, Maryland’s 2013 Fall Oyster Survey found that oyster abundance in state waters has reached its highest level since 1985. With the diseases Dermo and MSX remaining at below-average levels, oyster survival rate has risen to 92 percent. As a result, harvests have increased.

“Preliminary harvest reports for the past season have already surpassed 400,000 bushels—with a dockside value in excess of $13 million—the highest in at least 15 years,” said DNR Secretary Joe Gill in a media release. “Coupled with the survey results, we have reason to be cautiously optimistic a sustainable oyster population can once again play a vital role in the Bay’s ecosystem and Maryland’s economy.”

Image courtesy Terry Brock/Flickr

Maryland, in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Office, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Oyster Recovery Partnership, is working to restore oyster reefs in three of its rivers as part of a federally mandated effort to restore oyster populations in a select number of Bay tributaries over the next decade. In February, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Maryland Oyster Restoration Interagency Workgroup released a report on the state’s progress: reefs have been built and seeded on almost 190 acres in Harris Creek, and restoration plans have been drafted for the Little Choptank and Tred Avon rivers, targeting 400 acres and 193 acres, respectively. The report also notes a higher-than-expected survival rate for spat planted in Harris Creek in 2012 and 2013, likely due to the “ground-truthing” of reefs that ensured oyster seed was laid on the best available habitat.

From the Field: Rebuilding oyster reefs in Harris Creek, Md. from Chesapeake Bay Program on Vimeo.

Learn more.



May
08
2014

Farm Bill changes landscape for conservation funding in Bay watershed

In February 2014, President Barack Obama signed the Agricultural Act of 2014—better known as the Farm Bill—into law.  Like its predecessors, this new Farm Bill funds a wide array of federal commodity, forestry, social, trade and conservation programs. Altogether, the Farm Bill authorizes nearly $1 trillion in federal spending over the next 10 years, with roughly $57 billion authorized for conservation and preservation programs. But how will the law affect conservation practices in the Chesapeake Bay watershed?

The 2008 Farm Bill established the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative (CBWI), which dedicated $188 million to conservation practices in the Bay region. The 2014 Farm Bill eliminates the regional programs established under previous Farm Bills, including the CBWI and the Great Lakes Basin program, and consolidates 23 national conservation programs into 13. For the Bay, the most notable of these 13 programs is an innovative new initiative called the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). The RCPP allows qualified organizations to request funds on behalf of farmers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which oversees most of the conservation programs under the Farm Bill. These organizations then work with farmers to leverage those funds toward the implementation of conservation practices, from structures that store animal manure to fences that exclude livestock from streams. This approach not only leverages the federal cost-share funds for farmers, but it allows them to work with a wider range of non-federal partners and experts. This increases the number of “boots on the ground” engaged in conservation work, fostering new partnerships between farmers and organizations that want to help.

But how much money is available under the RCPP? The RCPP will receive up to $100 million per year, plus an additional seven percent of the funds and acres available under “covered programs.” Covered programs include the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) and the Healthy Forests Reserve Program (HFRP). However, these funds are for the entire RCPP. 

The NRCS will award the bulk of this money through a competitive application process at the national and state levels. The remaining 35 percent of the funds will be awarded in a similar competitive process within “critical conservation areas.”  The Secretary of Agriculture can name only eight of these areas. Based on the law’s criteria, the Bay watershed will be a strong candidate, but the eight areas are yet to be determined by the USDA.

The NRCS is currently developing policies and guidelines to carry out the conservation programs under the new Farm Bill, so stakeholders should keep an eye out for announcements, workshops and other events that will explain the new programs and processes in more detail. The RCPP is a major innovation for conservation policy, but it will require increased collaboration between farmers, watershed organizations and agricultural groups to earn funds through competition. 

Learn more.

About Jeremy Hanson - Jeremy Hanson is an Environmental Management Fellow with the Chesapeake Research Consortium and staffs the Bay Program's Water Quality Goal Implementation Team. He lives in Annapolis, MD.



May
07
2014

Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab abundance remains low

The blue crab population in the Chesapeake Bay has dropped, due to a range of factors that include weather patterns, coastal currents and natural predators.

According to scientists with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the long, cold winter and resulting low water temperatures killed an estimated 28 percent of adult crabs in state waters. This marks one of the worst “cold-kill” events since the state started tracking blue crab populations in 1990.

Both Maryland and Virginia measure the Bay’s blue crab population by conducting an annual winter dredge survey. Over the course of three and a half months, scientists visit 1,500 sites around the Bay, using metal dredges to pull up the crabs that are over-wintering in the mud.

Results of the most recent winter dredge survey show that the Bay’s total blue crab population fell from 300 million to 297 million between 2012 and 2013; the number of spawning-age females fell from 147 million to 69 million, passing the minimum threshold that managers adopted in 2011. The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks this latter number as an indicator of Bay health, and a decline could be a factor in determining blue crab management methods.

Indeed, Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) have committed to collaborating on a two-pronged management approach to conserve adult female crabs: first, the groups will work to protect adult females that will be spawning this summer. Second, the groups will work to protect the current population of juvenile females through next spring, in order to build up the population of females that will spawn next year.

“Even though our 2008 conservation measures were designed to allow for naturally occurring fluctuations in crabs, these results are not what we had hoped to see,” said DNR Fisheries Director Tom O’Connell in a media release. “What is most important here is that the structure we put into place to cooperatively manage this fishery is strong, and that we continue to work with our partners and stakeholders to initiate a new stock assessment that could help evaluate our current management framework.”

The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC) is expected to release their 2014 Blue Crab Advisory Report this summer.

Learn more.



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