Across the Chesapeake Bay, strong waves crash into shorelines, pulling sand into the water and causing beaches to disappear. In recent decades, scientists have turned to living shorelines and stone reefs to slow this process—known as erosion—and create critical habitat for wildlife. On the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, one such project has proven successful on both counts.
The 2,285-acre island refuge in Rock Hall, Maryland, is part of the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex and has long offered feeding and resting grounds to songbirds, shorebirds and waterfowl. When a narrow piece of land at its southern point—the highest priority habitat at the refuge—proved in danger of washing away, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and several other partners came together to slow the disappearance of the shoreline.
In June, USFWS Biologist Dave Sutherland—along with staff from the Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative (MARI) and Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, both of which are partners in this effort— took our team to the refuge to see the living shoreline and underwater reefs that made it a model of climate resiliency. Five years after construction on these projects began, pieces of land do still break off of the island’s long peninsula that separates Hail Cove, Hail Creek and the Chester River. But the goal was never to stop erosion: it was to slow it down without using the manmade structures that block critters from reaching the beach.
While shoreline erosion is a natural process, sea-level rise has amplified the impacts of wind and wave energy across the watershed. “I look at sea-level rise as a human-induced issue that’s exacerbating what used to be a slower, natural process,” said USFWS Fisheries Biologist John Gill. “Not to say it wasn’t happening before. Just that its rate has increased. And it’s tougher for marshes to keep up.”
For Gill, the Hail Cove restoration project achieves “a nice balancing act” in its use of manmade infrastructure and the natural environment. The essential elements? Headland breakwaters, underwater reefs and a living shoreline. “You’re working with Mother Nature, but still providing erosion control,” Gill said.
Low headland breakwaters placed at each end of Hail Cove maintain the pocket beach, blocking wave energy that might otherwise destroy the shore. A long ribbon reef deemed the “arc of stone” stretches across the cove, offering further protection for the beach and vital habitat for fish, shellfish and invertebrates.
Hooked mussels colonized the ribbon reef soon after it was built, and eastern oysters that were planted there with volunteer help continue to thrive. Algae grow on the granite rocks, small fish live in the reef’s tiny crevices and waterfowl find a source of food on their migrations over the Bay. “A lot of species are habitat-starved, and this [arc of stone] provided a lot of what they need,” Sutherland said. “It’s well-populated with cobies and blennies and worms and macroalgae. It’s really a fantastic habitat.”
Sutherland and his team soon recognized the benefits of installing infrastructure that allowed access to the beach: three weeks after sand was put down, engineers discovered nine diamondback terrapin nests on the shore, proving just how “habitat-starved” these native turtles were.
The Hail Cove project was completed this spring when 11 patch reefs—using one acre of material in all—were laid down over the two and a half-acre cove. The reefs will expand the underwater habitat that is so important to so many critters but has been lost with the decline of the Bay’s native oyster. For Sutherland, these reefs were “the icing on the cake. If the arc of stone is good, the patch reefs are going to be even better,” he said.
DNR Fisheries Biologist and MARI Coordinator Erik Zlokovitz echoed Sutherland’s satisfaction with the project. “This is a multipurpose shallow-water reef system. It’s not just an oyster reef or a fish reef. It’s a multipurpose reef for mussels, oysters and other invertebrates, which provide forage for fish and waterfowl,” he said.
The reef has also attracted recreational anglers to the area, who fish from kayaks and small boats for white perch and striped bass. Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, whose members are recreational fishermen, was a strong supporter of the Hail Cove project. For Sutherland, the cove’s restoration wouldn’t have been a success without the “great partners” that made it possible.
“Living shoreline science is really in its infancy, and every project is an experiment,” Sutherland said. But bringing partners together to strike a balance between manmade infrastructure and natural processes allowed this project to work, and Hail Cove now serves as “a starting point for reef construction in the Chester River,” said Sutherland. Indeed, relief funds for Hurricane Sandy recovery will soon finance further shoreline protection in the same area of the refuge.
“This project is a testament, to a certain extent, that if you build it, they will come,” Sutherland said. “We got to Hail Cove in the nick of time.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by Alexander Jonesi and Jenna Valente. Captions by Catherine Krikstan.
Fisheries experts have recommended a “risk-averse” approach to managing blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, following poor harvests and a dramatic decline in the abundance of adult female crabs.
Image courtesy bionicteaching/Flickr
In its annual evaluation of the Bay’s blue crab fishery, the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC) urged the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) to protect female and juvenile crabs in an effort to rebuild the overall population. The committee, which is made up of scientists, academics and government representatives and housed under the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team, also recommended establishing sanctuaries to protect females and improving data related to crab harvests and winter death rates.
According to the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report, the start of the 2014 crabbing season saw 68.5 million adult female crabs in the Bay. This marks a 53 percent decline from last year’s abundance of adult females. This number is based on the results of the winter dredge survey, and is tracked by the Bay Program as an indicator of Bay health. It is below the 215 million target abundance and the 70 million threshold, indicating adult females are in a depleted state.
“The poor performance of the Bay’s 2013 blue crab fishery—the lowest reported harvest in the last 24 years—combined with the winter dredge survey results that indicate a depleted female population warrants management actions to conserve both females and juveniles,” said CBSAC Chair Joe Grist in a media release. “The cold winter and other environmental factors affected the crab population, and we expect that conservative regulations will help females and juveniles—the future of the blue crab population—rebound.”
Earlier this month, The Capital reported that Maryland, Virginia and the PRFC have promised to cut harvests of female crabs by 10 percent. Virginia announced its plans in June, while Maryland and the PRFC are expected to release their regulations soon.
Scientists have found intersex fish in three Pennsylvania river basins, indicating hormone-disrupting chemicals are more widespread in the Chesapeake Bay watershed than once thought.
Image courtesy RTD Photography/Flickr
Intersex conditions occur when pesticides, pharmaceuticals or other chemicals disrupt the hormonal systems of an animal, leading to the presence of both male and female characteristics. The presence of intersex conditions in fish, frogs and other species is linked to land use, as the chemicals that lead to these conditions often enter rivers and streams through agricultural runoff or wastewater.
Previous samplings of fish in the region have found intersex conditions in the Potomac, Shenandoah and Susquehanna rivers, as well as lakes and ponds on the Delmarva Peninsula. On samplings conducted at 16 sites between 2007 and 2010, researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found intersex fish in the Susquehanna, Delaware and Ohio river basins.
According to the USGS, freshwater fish called white suckers from sample sites in the Delaware and Susquehanna river basins had a yolk precursor in their blood. Male smallmouth bass from all sample sites had immature eggs in their testes. The prevalence of intersex fish was highest in the Susquehanna river basin, which researchers attribute to the higher rate of farms—and related herbicides, pesticides and hormone-containing manure—in the area. While scientists found no relationship between the number of wastewater treatment plants in an area and the prevalence of immature eggs in fish, the severity of intersex conditions did rise at sites downstream from wastewater discharge points.
“The sources of estrogenic chemicals are most likely complex mixtures from both agricultural sources, such as animal wastes, pesticides and herbicides, and human sources from wastewater treatment plant effluent and other sewer discharges,” said fish biologist Vicki Blazer in a media release.
Over the Chesapeake Bay Program’s long history, its leaders have learned that collaboration is key to restoration success. In June, the governors of Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, the mayor of the District of Columbia, the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission came together to sign the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. Written with input from individuals, organizations and other partners, this document contains goals and outcomes that will restore and protect the nation’s largest and most productive estuary. But what will the Agreement mean for the residents of this massive watershed? Read our list to find out.
10. Improved access to the water. From fishing piers to boat launches, people in the watershed want more access to rivers, streams and the Bay. And while partners have opened 69 new access sites over the last three years, access remains limited, with consequences for tourism economies and environmental conservation. Bay Program partners have set a goal to open 300 new public access sites across the watershed by 2025. Learn more.
9. New opportunities to fish in headwater streams. Our increasing need for land and resources has fragmented our rivers and streams, harming the health of those fish that must migrate through unobstructed waters to reach their spawning grounds each spring. Bay Program partners plan to improve stream health and restore fish passage to the Bay’s headwaters, opening up habitat to migratory fish like alewife, American shad and brook trout. More habitat can mean more fish, and more fish can mean more fishing opportunities. Learn more.
Image courtesy theloushe/Flickr
8. Cleaner waters. Nutrient and sediment pollution are behind the Bay’s biggest health problems. Nutrients fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms, which create low-oxygen dead zones that suffocate marine life. Suspended sediment blocks sunlight from reaching underwater plants. Bay Program partners plan to work under the Bay’s existing “pollution diet” to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution, improve water quality, and support the living resources of the Bay, its rivers and its streams. Learn more.
7. Safer waters. Almost three-quarters of the Bay’s tidal waters are considered impaired by chemical contaminants. These substances can harm the health of humans and wildlife, and have been linked to tumor growth in fish, eggshell thinning in birds and intersex conditions in amphibians. Bay Program partners are committed to reducing toxic contaminants in our waters, with a focus on mercury, PCBs and contaminants of emerging and widespread concern. Learn more.
6. Healthy waters that remain that way. Healthy watersheds provide us with clean water, critical habitat and economic benefits. While there are a number of healthy watersheds in the region, development poses a constant threat. Bay Program partners want 100 percent of state-identified healthy waters and watersheds to remain that way. Learn more.
5. A larger community of citizen stewards. The success of our restoration work will depend on local action, and local action will depend on local stewards. Bay Program partners hope to build a larger, broader and more diverse community of citizen stewards who will carry out the conservation and restoration activities that will benefit their local communities and the Bay. Learn more.
Image courtesy peterwalshprojects/Flickr
4. Sustainable seafood. Habitat loss, invasive species, poor water quality and harvest pressure threaten the sustainability of the Bay’s recreational and commercial fisheries. But Bay Program partners have committed to using sound science and responsible management to increase fish and shellfish habitat and populations, leading to more striped bass, blue crabs and oysters in the Bay and on the market. Learn more.
3. Smarter growth. With the largest land-to-water ratio of any estuary in the world, it is clear that what happens on land has a direct impact on water quality in the Bay. But stormwater runoff continues to push polluted rainwater over streets and sidewalks and into storm drains, rivers and streams. Bay Program partners plan to help local governments control polluted runoff, conserve valuable wetlands, farms and forests, and reduce the rate of land that is lost to paved roads and parking lots. Learn more.
Image courtesy Indiana.dunes/Flickr
2. More knowledge and skills to help save our watershed. It is often said that people value what they know and protect what they value. This means that a boost in environmental education now could create a vital foundation for environmental stewards of the future. Bay Program partners will work to enable area students to graduate with the knowledge, skills and meaningful experience needed to protect and restore their local watershed. Learn more.
1. Communities that are resilient to climate change. The impacts of climate change—rising seas, warming waters, extreme weather, ocean acidification—are happening now. To withstand these impacts, we must improve our natural and built infrastructure. Bay Program partners have set a goal to increase the climate resiliency of the watershed’s resources, habitats and communities using monitoring, assessment and adaptation. Learn more.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy endorsement or action.