Overlooking Baltimore Harbor on a warm spring day, the grounds of Fort McHenry National Monument and Shrine are an alluring sight. The fort is now protected by the National Park Service (NPS), nearly 200 years after its historic stand during the Battle of Baltimore, which birthed our naitonal anthem.
Nestled outside of the fort’s borders is an urban wetland: seven acres of manmade wildlife habitat that set a progressive example of how to overcome urbanization, development and other modern-day environmental obstacles.
The wetland was created by the Maryland Transportation Authority in 1982 to mitigate the construction of the Interstate 95 tunnel. It is currently being restored under the supervision of The National Ocean Service (NOS) and The National Aquarium.
In 1998, the aquarium realized the potential of the wetland as an educational tool and now uses it to inform their 1.5 million annual visitors about estuarine systems. Their wetland-based educational programs include a student-tended nursery, a demonstration garden, a rain garden and a greenhouse filled with plants that act as a natural water filter to an attached striped bass tank.
Laura Bankey, the director of conservation at the National Aquarium, explained: “The marsh is a useful hands-on education tool for the National Aquarium, as well as a valuable refuge for wildlife in the city.”
It is home to a wide array of fish species, 250 bird species, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. The wetland also serves as an esteemed green space to the residents of Baltimore.
“I grew up just south of here on the Patapsco River," Bankey said. "I spent a lot of time outside as a kid and now that I have a daughter, I want the same for her. I want a place where she can play outside and walk barefoot.”
The wetland has overcome its fair share of obstacles; the original stone riprap built around wetland's culverts became problematic when the hard shoreline began to funnel debris and sediment into these culverts, blocking them from tidal flow and fish passage. In 2004, the wetland received second mitigation credits that led to the creation of a soft shoreline that now allows marine debris to accumulate in the marsh, which is cleaned up by an extensive network of volunteers.
Bankey credits a lot of the wetland’s success to volunteer efforts. “We have been hosting volunteer events since 1999,” Bankey said. “We had 179 volunteers come out here one day and pick up 15 tons of trash. We kept the bottles to show how many you can collect in one day,” she continued, pointing at a mountain of bottles, a visual that the National Aquarium uses to draw awareness to the issue of marine debris during volunteer and educational programs.
“Most of the trash that we pick out of the marsh is what we call 'convenience store' trash. Items like toys that are purchased, used once, then thrown away, or heavy plastics,” said Bankey. She pointed out that most of the lighter plastics, like plastic bags, tend get stuck farther upstream.
Bankey stressed the importance of community involvement and environmental education in the success of the Fort McHenry Urban Wetlands Restoration Project.
“We need to tackle the debris problem upstream, but it’s important to get people out here, hands-on, to show them how quickly it [debris] accumulates and what is possible with their help,” Bankey said.
Every spring, the fort recruits volunteers for an annual field day. Learn how to get involved.
Video produced by Steve Droter
As we know from our years at school, it is important to measure our progress, whether it pertains to our ability to learn and use information or to our work restoring water quality. Over the past 30 years, many non-governmental organizations, academic institutions and even individuals have used grades to measure how well we are doing in correcting environmental problems. In Maryland, former state Sen. Bernie Fowler uses his annual Paxtuent River Wade-In to bring attention to the need for continued vigilance on cleaning up our waterways. As a youth, Sen. Fowler could wade into the Patuxent up to his chest and still see his sneakers; this is now his modern-day yardstick, known as the “Sneaker Index.”
Each year, Sen. Fowler wades into the Patuxent until he can no longer see his shoes. He comes out of the river and measures the water line on his denim overalls. Over the years, this number has become the “grade” for the river’s water quality. A number of other organizations publish similar report cards for different water bodies. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Blue Water Baltimore and others have developed sophisticated methods of measuring the health of our waterways, issuing letter grades to show how well or how poorly our efforts are working to improve the environment.
But, just like our report cards from school, water quality report cards don’t tell the whole story. While they can tell us what conditions are right now—whether we did well or poorly in a particular course or over the school year—there are a lot of factors that can influence a waterway’s score from one year to the next. We are making progress, although at times we may see setbacks. And as Sen. Fowler reminds us each year, we must stick to it, redouble our efforts and work even harder if we want to get and keep a passing grade.
For close to a decade, scientists and volunteers have spent their springs at the Nanticoke Shad Hatchery, working to rebuild populations of American shad.
In this small building near Bethel, Del., hundreds of thousands of American shad are raised each year before they are returned to their native spawning grounds in the Nanticoke River. This spring, the hatchery stocked about 558,000 fish to the waterway.
In the early 1900s, excessive commercial harvests took a heavy toll on American shad. Over the past century, poor water quality and the construction of dams that restrict the anadromous fish’s access to upstream spawning grounds have caused shad populations to decline.
Image courtesy Library of Congress
Today, restoration efforts are giving American shad a much-needed population boost. Restocking programs across the Chesapeake Bay watershed—combined with harvest restrictions, improved water quality and the removal of dams—are critical to the re-establishment of the species.
American shad spend most of their lives in brackish and saltwater before returning to their birth waters to spawn. The Nanticoke Shad Hatchery collects its brood stock directly from the Nanticoke River and its Deep Creek tributary to ensure adult fish will return to the waterway and to preserve the genetic integrity of the local shad population.
Throughout the spring spawning season, which runs from mid-March through April, mature shad that are held in the hatchery’s closely monitored, 3,500-gallon spawning tanks periodically release eggs and sperm.
On the morning after an overnight spawning event, pea-sized eggs are filtered into an egg collection tank.
“Bad eggs” are removed from the tank before fertilized eggs are measured by volume and placed in incubation jars to grow.
Eggs that survive to the “eyed” stage are moved to one of four culture tanks, where they will hatch into larval fish within a week.
After a few more days spent in the safety of the culture tanks, the larval fish absorb their nutritive yolk sac and transform into fry that are ready to feed on their own in their natural habitat.
Before the hatchery-produced fish are released into the Nanticoke River, scientists mark them with oxytetracycline. Tracking the fish will allow scientists to gauge their survival and stocking success over time.
Six years of sampling surveys on the Nanticoke River show that adult American shad abundance has increased, while the number of hatchery-produced juveniles has decreased. According to hatchery manager Mike Stengl, this suggests the hatchery is succeeding in its long-term goal: to reduce the percentage of hatchery-grown fish in the river and encourage the wild population to spawn on its own.
Success at the Nanticoke Shad Hatchery and at other hatcheries across the region are giving American shad a second chance at survival in the watershed.
View more photos on the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Natural gas resources underlie almost half of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, but some of the regulations that govern Bay cleanup do not take extraction-related pollution into account.
According to the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC), more research is needed to track the environmental effects of natural gas extraction and to help jurisdictions determine whether or not they must implement conservation practices to offset potential pollution loads and meet the Bay pollution diet.
Image courtesy WCN24/7/Flickr
The pollution diet, or Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), limits the amount of nutrient and sediment pollution that can enter the Bay from across the watershed. According to STAC, hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” has the potential to change local pollution loads, as natural gas extraction increases the erosion of sediment into local rivers and withdraws water from area sources, altering aquatic habitat and river flow.
In a factsheet released this week, STAC outlines the recommendations that the panel made following a workshop on shale gas development. STAC recommends that the Bay Program incorporate natural gas drilling into the Bay Watershed Model, which estimates the amount of nutrients and sediment reaching the Bay. STAC also recommends that the industry, scientific and policy-making communities continue to research shale gas development and implement conservation practices to lower natural gas extraction’s cumulative impact on the Bay.
Read more about the environmental effects of shale gas development in the watershed.