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Chesapeake Bay News

Apr
28
2016

Monitoring finds more than 91,000 acres of underwater grasses in Chesapeake Bay

Between 2014 and 2015, underwater grass abundance in the Chesapeake Bay rose 21 percent, bringing underwater grasses in the nation’s largest estuary to the highest amount ever recorded by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science aerial survey and surpassing the Chesapeake Bay Program’s 2017 restoration target two years ahead of schedule.

For the past three years, widgeon grass has expanded in the moderately salty waters of the mid-Chesapeake Bay.

Aerial imagery collected between May and November of 2015 revealed a total of 91,621 acres of underwater grasses across the region. Experts attribute this spike to the recovery of wild celery and other species in the fresher waters of the upper Bay, the continued expansion of widgeon grass in the moderately salty waters of the mid-Bay and a modest recovery of eelgrass in the very salty waters of the lower Bay.

Last season, grass beds in the Elk River demonstrated an impressive recovery from the damage sustained by Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in 2011.

In the Elk River, for instance, grass beds that had been decimated after Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee hit the region in 2011 recovered in 2015. While the beds were not as dense as those seen the season before the storms pushed water-clouding nutrient and sediment pollution into the northeastern Maryland waterway, they were larger and more diverse than previously observed and surpassed the river’s 1,648-acre restoration target. Wild celery, whose seed pods and roots offer food to migrating waterfowl, was the dominant species detected.

In 2015, underwater grass abundance in the Chesapeake Bay reached the highest amount ever recorded by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science aerial survey.

Because freshwater species like wild celery are resilient, continued improvements in water quality are expected to support the continued expansion of these grasses. In spite of this good news, experts advise cautious optimism about the state of underwater grasses overall: because widgeon grass is known as a “boom and bust” species whose abundance can rise and fall from year to year, the widgeon-dominant spike we have seen is not guaranteed to persist in future seasons.

“While much of the grass that accounts for the 2015 expansion was widgeon grass—a species that is often described as a boom or bust plant—I think we can take heart in the fact that it boomed last summer—marking three consecutive years of growth,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Biologist and Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Workgroup Chair Brooke Landry in a media release. “Be it freshwater wild celery or mid-Bay widgeon grass, submerged aquatic vegetation would not expand so rapidly and into areas where it hasn’t been mapped before if water quality wasn’t improving. This report shows that we are making strides on Bay restoration and truly impacting the amount of nutrient and sediment pollution entering our waterways. As we continue to provide conditions necessary for our natural resources to thrive, their resilience will increase and they’ll have a much better chance of persisting through major weather events or other challenges.”

Underwater grass beds are critical to the Bay ecosystem. They offer food to small invertebrates and migratory waterfowl; shelter young fish and blue crabs; and keep our waters clear and healthy by absorbing excess nutrients, trapping suspended sediment and slowing shoreline erosion. For these reasons, the Bay Program has committed to achieving and sustaining 185,000 acres of underwater grasses in the Bay, with a target of 130,000 acres by 2025.

Learn more.



Apr
26
2016

Restoration Spotlight: From trash pit to amphibian oasis

Andy Green, right, a volunteer with The Nature Conservancy, spotlights wood frog egg masses in a vernal pool at Forest Pools Preserve in Cumberland County, Pa., on March 25. The 70-acre preserve is home to seven vernal pools supporting an array of amphibians, invertebrates and plants.

In late March, Pennsylvania’s South Mountain was already weeks into spring’s thaw, but a stinging breeze and sinking sun meant jackets and beanies for a group forming under the tall, swaying pines near Kings Gap State Park.

Devin Thomas, almost ten years old, from nearby Carlisle, showed up in shorts and sneakers but came prepared with a headlamp he made using an old pair of underwear and faithfully equipped with enthusiasm for the outdoors.

“He won’t even kill bugs,” said Ray Thomas, Devin’s father—also wearing shorts.

As more people arrived, they took turns dunking their boots in a bucket of soapy disinfectant, used to get rid of harmful microbes, seeds, and any other invasive species. It was a precaution justified by the group’s destination, the vernal pools of Forest Pools Preserve.

Wood frog embryos develop inside eggs at Forest Pools Preserve. Wood frogs will lay their eggs in the sunniest part of a pool, so that the warmer temperature will hasten development.

Vernal pools are ephemeral forest ponds, fed by snow, rain or groundwater, and blanketed in leaves from a healthy forest. They host a wealth of animals and only stay wet for about seven months, which is just long enough for a cascade of frogs and salamanders to use them as a home for their developing young.

You won’t find fish—they would eat all the eggs—but if you get the timing right, you’ll hear the clucking chatter of spawning wood frogs or the car alarm call of camouflaged spring peepers. You might see yellow spotted salamanders wriggling among the leaves, and you might see tiny fairy shrimp, the country cousins of the commercial pet Sea-Monkeys.

If you were visiting the area ten years ago, you would also see piles of trash and hear the sound of broken glass underfoot.

“I guess back in the olden days you would see these depressions in the forest, and before we had trash pickup I think that’s where a lot of people would just put their trash,” said Molly Anderson, a volunteer program manager with The Nature Conservancy. “You’d walk and you’d just hear ‘crunch crunch.’”

The Conservancy purchased the preserve’s 70 acres in 2007, and for three years it held volunteer trash cleanups and monitored the vernal pools there. A Conservancy scientist started noticing that some of the pools weren’t holding water long enough for the young amphibians to develop.

Several theories arose. One was that growing development, with people drilling wells, had lowered the water table below the groundwater-fed pools. Another was that it might be just be a naturally drier period than normal.

“I also heard that maybe the clay liner that was holding the water, that it was popped by all the trash that was laying in it,” Anderson said.

In 2010, with grants received by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy held a workshop to restore some of the ailing pools. Volunteers Mike Bertram and Kathy King, a local married couple, were instrumental volunteers overseeing the effort, and nearby Dickinson Township provided equipment, Anderson said.

The work involved raking away leaves, setting aside mosses and other plants, using heavy machinery to remove layers of soil and carefully replacing everything above a synthetic liner placed in the depression. A season’s worth of leaf litter was the finishing touch.

“The restoration took place in the beginning of August, and we came back in the fall of the same year and it was hard to tell that anything was done there,” Anderson said.

In the years since, the restored pools hold water when the pools that weren’t restored are drying up, Anderson said. Now Forest Pools Preserve serves not only as critical habitat but as a means to raise awareness.

“One of the things that we’re concerned about is that because vernal pools are really small and kind of unnoticeable, they’re not protected really under any kind of laws protecting water,” Anderson said.

Anderson said the Conservancy is trying to educate local governments about the importance of vernal pools and address issues raised by landowners, such as the threat of mosquitos. Aiding the effort, the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program has a vernal pool landowner incentive program and an online registry.

“In a really healthy vernal pool, you’ll have a lot of different predators on mosquito larvae that would keep the mosquito numbers in check,” Anderson said.

A younger member of the group holds a spring peeper at the edge of a vernal pool in Kings Gap State Park.

Conservancy volunteer Andy Green helps monitor the pools and led the walk that the Thomas family attended. A retired doctor who grew up in Carlisle, Green managed remnant prairie and stormwater programs in Illinois before returning to Pennsylvania. He lives just down the road from Forest Pools Preserve.

“It’s interesting, there are none of these pools in the North Mountain, or many of these mountain ridges north of here,” Green said. “This is essentially a South Mountain phenomenon.”

Bringing the group to a pool fed by groundwater, Green pointed out the telltale masses of wood frog eggs. Wood frogs love a 40-degree night with rain, he said. The eggs were a sign that the frogs had already found a break in the cold weather, came, and left before anyone could spot them.

“They fooled everybody,” Green said.

A spring peeper’s throat swells as it makes its signature call.

Fairy shrimp swim through a vernal pool. Their eggs can survive dry periods up to a decade or more before hatching.

A spotted salamander is held at a vernal pool at Kings Gap State Park in Cumberland County, adjacent to Forest Pools Preserve.

Smaller in number were masses of eggs belonging to Jefferson and spotted salamanders, attached to sticks where the male of the species first places a sperm packet, or spermatophore.

As the adults listened to Green, the younger members of the group dispersed once they learned that they could find salamanders underneath rocks. They became the most avid explorers of the night, flipping rocks and logs, finding tiny red-backed salamanders, and replacing them as they were—at Green’s urging—before moving on to crouch low and face the water’s surface at each pool.

At the site of another pool, Green was dismayed to find nothing but a depression full of leaves. Under some of the leaves were wood frog egg masses, still moist, but the pool protecting them had dried up, and without a rain the eggs would dry up as well.

Green led the group to a final stop just over the boundary with Kings Gap State Park, which the Conservancy acquired in 1973 and transferred to the state. The sound of spring peepers became louder and louder as the group approached a pool, until the chorus seemed to be coming from every direction at once.

One of the adults held a spotted salamander she had found near the pool, showing it to the admiring group and periodically wetting her hands in the pool to keep the salamander’s skin moist—just another measure to keep the vernal pool community healthy.

The peeper’s call that had been so piercing faded quickly as the group left the low-lying bowl holding the pool, giving way to the crunching of leaves and excited recounting of what the group had just seen.

 

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

Photos and text by Will Parson

Will Parson's avatar
About Will Parson - Will is the Multimedia Specialist for the Chesapeake Bay Program. A native of Bakersfield, California, he acquired an interest in photojournalism while studying ecology and evolution at University of California, San Diego. He pursued stories about water and culture as a graduate student at Ohio University's School of Visual Communication, and as an intern at several newspapers in New England before landing in Maryland.



Apr
26
2016

Photo Essay: American shad make their incredible journey

An American shad, second from bottom-center, swims past a fish-counting window at Conowingo Dam in Darlington, Md., on May 8, 2015. A worker holds counters in both hands—one for gizzard shad and one for American shad.

Though they spend most of their lives at sea, American shad are nonetheless dependent on the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay every spring. They are the largest of five species of river herring that swim upstream to spawn in freshwater, a fact that once made them easy pickings for nearby residents. Native Americans and European colonists—tipped off to the shad’s return by the blooming of the aptly-named shadbush—would use baskets, nets and traps to catch the fish.

But population growth put more pressure on the species, and the construction of dams and other structures blocked migrations to shad habitat. The 1980s and 90s saw the closure of commercial shad fisheries in Maryland and Virginia.

Fisheries biologist Chris Avalos from Normandeau Associates Environmental Consultants watches a hopper bucket raise roughly 3,500 fish—mostly gizzard shad—at Conowingo Dam's east fish lift in Cecil County, Md., on May 8, 2015. Fish passage facilities at four hydroelectric dams on the lower Susquehanna River allow American shad to spawn upstream.

Gizzard shad are released from the hopper at the top of the east fish lift at Conowingo Dam.

To see the efforts of shad restoration today, one can simply follow the shad as they make the same upstream migration they always have. First efforts tap into the same seasonal migration. Adult shad are caught just before spawning, and their fertilized eggs are sent to hatcheries to help restock tributaries. Some dams have been removed, while others, like Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River, have implemented fish lifts or other measures to allow shad and other anadromous species to pass. Between 1989 and 2015, more than 3,300 miles of fish passage were opened in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

By 2014, shad numbers in some tributaries had improved significantly. Shad were above targets in the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers, though they were less established in the lower James and York and negligible in the upper James and Susquehanna.

Jim Davis, operator of the west fish lift at Conowingo Dam, pulls up an American shad in a holding tank. The west lift is primarily used for research purposes.

A crew from Maryland Department of Natural Resources catches shad for the American Shad Study at Conowingo Dam in Darlington, Md., on May 8, 2015. The entrance to the east fish lift is visible in the background.

A dogwood tree blooms at Susquehanna State Park near Havre De Grace, Md., on April 19, 2016. Dogwood is also called shadbush because its flowers appear when shad and related migrating fish return to rivers like the Susquehanna to spawn.

A worker from Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries squeezes unfertilized eggs from a female shad caught on the Potomac River near Dogue Creek on April 12, 2012. (Photo by Steve Droter/Chesapeake Bay Program)

Fisheries Biologist Joshua Tryninewski walks among tanks holding juvenile American shad at the Van Dyke Research Station for Anadromous Fishes in Port Royal, Pa., on May 18, 2015. Since 1976 the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has operated the seasonal station to help restore shad to the Susquehanna River Basin.

American shad larvae start to hatch from eggs collected from the Potomac River at Van Dyke Research Station for Anadromous Fishes in Port Royal, Pa., on May 18, 2015. The station held roughly 2.2 million American shad fry in 2015, which was down from the year before, according to Fisheries Biologist Joshua Tryninewski. The station can hold roughly 10–20 million fry.

Hatching larvae fall from a container holding eggs into a larger holding tank at Van Dyke Research Station for Anadromous Fishes in Port Royal, Pa., on May 18, 2015. "They're pretty delicate fish," said Fisheries Biologist Joshua Tryninewski, who manages the station.

At about 20 days old, American shad fry are roughly two centimeters long at Van Dyke Research Station for Anadromous Fishes in Port Royal, Pa., on May 18, 2015.

American shad from the Van Dyke Research Station for Anadromous Fishes in Port Royal, Pa., are released nearby into the Juniata River. The hope is that the shad will grow up and return to the Juniata River to spawn on their own.

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

Photos and text by Will Parson

Will Parson's avatar
About Will Parson - Will is the Multimedia Specialist for the Chesapeake Bay Program. A native of Bakersfield, California, he acquired an interest in photojournalism while studying ecology and evolution at University of California, San Diego. He pursued stories about water and culture as a graduate student at Ohio University's School of Visual Communication, and as an intern at several newspapers in New England before landing in Maryland.



Apr
22
2016

Chester River receives “C+” on latest report card

The Chester River Association (CRA) measured a slight improvement in the health of the Chester River in 2015, giving the waterway a “C+” on its latest report card. While the grade is step up from 2014’s “C” score, nutrient and sediment pollution continues to threaten many of the creeks and streams that flow into the river.

The Sultana Education Foundation’s iconic schooner, center, is docked on the Chester River in Chestertown, Md., on March 11, 2016.

CRA assesses the river’s overall health based on water clarity, dissolved oxygen levels and nutrient pollution, as well as algae levels in the tidal portions of the waterway. Although progress is encouraging, the report notes there is much restoration work left to be done, particularly in upstream portions of the watershed.

Highlighted in the report is the importance of land use on local water quality. CRA has found that areas with installed restoration projects—Riley’s Mill, Corsica Creeks and Radcliffe Creek—have shown consistent improvements in water quality.

For more information, visit the Chester River Association’s website.



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