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Chesapeake Bay News: Pollution

May
16
2017

Rockfish return to find a changing Chesapeake region

Each spring, as waters warm along the Atlantic coast and in the Chesapeake Bay, striped bass begin to migrate. Otherwise known as rockfish or stripers, striped bass are anadromous: they spend most of their adult lives in the ocean but travel back to the freshwater where they were born to spawn. As the fish make their return to the rivers of Maryland and Virginia, recreational fisherman celebrate with striped bass trophy season, hoping to catch and release the largest fish and spending time on the water with a tradition that spans generations.

Watermen Owen Clark, left, and Ashley Elbourn of Rock Hall, Md., catch striped bass with a roughly 1500-foot gill net for the spawning stock survey led by Maryland Department of Natural Resources in the northern Chesapeake Bay near Aberdeen Proving Ground last month. Surveys help inform fishery management decisions, track population size and measure spawning success. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

Rockfish have served as one of the most popular commercial and recreational fish in the Chesapeake Bay for hundreds of years. When Captain John Smith traveled the estuary in 1614, he wrote of seeing waters so full of “the Basse”—believed by many to mean striped bass—that a man might walk across their backs without getting his shoes wet.

For years, rockfish served as an iconic, ever-present Chesapeake species for both food and sport. But in the 1970s and 80s, the striped bass fishery collapsed. Between 1973 and 1983, commercial and recreational catches fell from a record-setting 14.7 million pounds to just 1.7 million pounds. By the late 1980s, states across the region had put moratoria in place in an attempt to help the species recover. After responding well to harvest restrictions, the population was considered fully restored in 1995. Today, active management and a Bay-wide quota for recreational and commercial striped bass fisheries have helped the species remain at a sustainable level.

The recovery of striped bass in the Bay is often seen as one of the estuary’s great success stories. But environmental pressures could put strain on habitats used by spawning adults and young striped bass, threatening the long-term health of the species. As the largest striped bass nursery area on the Atlantic coast, experts estimate that up to 90 percent of the Atlantic striped bass population uses the Bay and its tidal tributaries to spawn. Healthy habitats are key to the survival of young striped bass, a sustainable population and a robust commercial and recreational fishery in the Bay.

Researchers measure the length, determine the sex, and assess whether spawning has occurred or not during the annual striped bass spawning stock survey. Some fish also have scales removed for aging and some are fitted with tags.

From year to year, striped bass reproduction sees considerable natural variation. This means that the overall population relies on successful spawning years—which require suitable habitat—to compensate for below-average years. But threats like warming temperatures, for example, could disrupt the timing of migration and spawning and alter what areas are viable habitat for these life processes.

A less-discussed but equally significant threat to rockfish habitat, experts say, is land use—particularly development and urbanization. As the region’s human population grows, more farm and forest land is being converted into buildings, roads, parking lots and other paved surfaces. These impervious surfaces cause a surge in the amount and intensity of polluted runoff, which can erode streambanks, transport toxic contaminants and nutrient and sediment pollution into waterways and significantly alter the temperature of rivers and streams.

As the landscape is altered, these changes can turn previously suitable spawning and nursery areas into less productive habitat. Striped bass are sensitive to habitat changes because, when spawning and as larvae, they become concentrated in relatively small geographic areas. Any disturbances in those areas could potentially impact a large number of striped bass from across all life stages: from eggs to larvae to spawning adults.

Jeff Horne of Maryland Department of Natural Resources tags a striped bass. Fishermen who catch tagged fish can report them to DNR for a reward—sometimes as much as $125.

Horne releases a tagged striped bass. Information from reported tags helps determine striped bass migration rates, migration patterns, growth rates, and mortality rates.

When researchers overlaid a map of the Bay’s striped bass spawning areas with a map of projected development, the results showed all spawning habitat to be under moderate to very high development pressure. The Potomac and James Rivers, for example, are among the largest spawning areas in the Bay, and projections of growth show those areas could develop up to 10 percent impervious surface cover by 2020. Fisheries experts consider impervious surface cover at a level of five percent or below the target for a local region, but levels below 10 percent can still help keep the striped bass population stable.

Slight degradations in habitat can be offset by restoration efforts—although, once lost, there’s no guarantee habitat quality can be restored. By conserving farm fields, forests, wetlands and natural shorelines, land managers can help sustain healthy striped bass habitat. Concentrating the development that does occur in and around already-developed areas—a technique known as “smart growth”—can also help ease the effects of development, as can reducing the amount of runoff through green infrastructure like rain gardens, green roofs and permeable pavement.

Each year, researchers in Maryland and Virginia survey spawning and juvenile striped bass to inform fishery management decisions, track population size and measure spawning success. So far, the results of these surveys don’t have experts alarmed. Although results of Maryland’s 2016 juvenile striped bass survey were well below the long-term average, successful spawning years in 2011 and 2015 are expected to compensate for the below-average year. Meanwhile, experts continue to work to better understand how land use changes and other stressors may impact these numbers in the future, helping to ensure a robust rockfish population for years to come.

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

Photos 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.



May
15
2017

River Corps puts young adults on pathway to greener future

Queen Richardson, a member of the D.C. River Corps, takes a photo of a shade tree planted in front of a RiverSmart home. She and her fellow corps members inspect the trees for insects, signs of disease and other maintenance needs.

Meet the River Corps: a new partnership between the District of Columbia Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) and the Latin American Youth Center. This inaugural group has 10 members, and on this sunny April day, three of them are learning how to conduct home inspections.

The River Corps is a five month program in which young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 gain training, both in class and on-the-ground, in green sector work, with the intent that this experience will help them gain employment in the field afterward.

While the program is only in its first year, the Latin American Youth Center brings 40 years of experience in running programs aimed at equipping young people with the tools for success. For example, they also run the Montgomery County Conservation Corps, a similar program just to the east of D.C. that helps young adults get their GEDs while building the skills to start a green career.

River Corps members Rashid Mills (left), Tyshaun Turner (middle) and Queen Richardson (right) document the condition of two trees at this RiverSmart home with the assistance of Program Coordinator Faith McNeil and Crew Leader Mike Weitekamp. The information they gather will go back to DOEE, and, if needed, the River Corps will come back to perform maintenance.

This new partnership not only builds green jobs skills in D.C.’s young adults, it also helps DOEE maintain their projects and programs. One of those is RiverSmart Homes, one of many RiverSmart programs offered by DOEE that incentivize property owners to manage stormwater and reduce the amount of pollutants that enter local waterways—and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.

Homes enrolled in the RiverSmart program manage stormwater through the use of green infrastructure, such as rain barrels, pervious pavers and rain gardens, but those practices need maintenance to be effective. Through the River Corps, DOEE has the capacity to make the in-person visits needed to check that the practices are fully functional, and Corps members gain experience in a growing green infrastructure field.

Tyshaun Turner and Queen Richardson, both members of D.C.’s first River Corps group, ensure a rain barrel is properly connected to the downspout on a RiverSmart home.

The homes also serve as outdoor classrooms, and today’s lesson includes rain barrels, pervious pavers and trees. Mike Weitekamp, River Corps Crew Leader, walks the trainees through each feature, asking questions as they run through the checklist of what they should be looking for and documenting. He points out other elements around the yard, such as terraced gardens or areas beginning to erode, to further demonstrate how concepts they’ve learned about appear in real life.

Rashid Mills, part of the River Corps team, appreciates the hands-on aspect of the program. “In the book, it seems like a bunch of detailed information that has no significance,” he says. But in the field, the connections between technical standards and real life examples are easier for him to see.

Working outdoors makes the subject matter more relatable, Mills notes, but it also gets him more comfortable with the environment. At first, he saw forests as somewhere he shouldn’t go. Now, he’s starting to see them as less intimidating. “There are actually pathways in there,” he says.

This year, the River Corps will visit plenty of outdoor classrooms: they’re planning to inspect 80 RiverSmart homes and conduct photo monitoring on streams like the one restored at Linnean Park in northwest D.C. They have indoor classroom sessions as well, where they learn about topics such as climate change, invasive species and erosion and sediment control.

Queen Richardson, who was already a gardener before joining the River Corps, notes how what she’s learning goes much deeper. “It’s a lot different than just gardening stuff,” she says. “It’s more intense, but I feel as though the work we’re doing will make a positive change for the climate.”

Pervious pavers, like those shown above, are considered a best management practice because they help rainwater infiltrate into the ground as opposed to running off the pavement and into the storm sewer.

River Corps projects focus on DOEE priorities, but they also serve the dual purpose of preparing the team for certifications such as pesticide application and green infrastructure. These certifications can help them better compete after the program ends when they are looking for other green employment.

The green infrastructure certification applies particularly well to the work they’re performing at RiverSmart homes. As they make their inspections, River Corps Program Coordinator Faith McNeil runs through vocabulary and asks follow up questions about different concepts and techniques in order to help prepare them for their upcoming exam. Created in part by D.C. Water, the green infrastructure certification could help the River Corps members find long-term employment in a city that has a renewed emphasis on creating and promoting green infrastructure projects.

“The District of Columbia’s green economy is growing, as the demand for green infrastructure increases in response to the need for climate adaptation,” said Tommy Wells, Director of DOEE. “The River Corps program trains young adults in the District to install and maintain rain gardens and stormwater retention sites, like those implemented through the RiverSmart program. River Corps is helping create more pathways to the middle class by ensuring the District has a workforce with the technical skills necessary to meet the needs of this expanding market.”

River Corps member Rashid Mills and Crew Leader Mike Weitekamp adjust the mulch around a tree at a RiverSmart home. The River Corps makes home inspections to RiverSmart homes to ensure stormwater practices like trees and rain barrels are properly installed and maintained.

Many River Corps members see the program as more than a pathway toward a green job, but as a way to a better future—for themselves, their families and their city. Tyshaun Turner has lived his whole life in D.C., but says he never had a great relationship to the water. “I jumped at the first chance to do something to better the water,” he says.

Mills likes the fact that he can apply what he is learning not only to a future job, but to the way he currently lives his life. He sees the River Corps as a way to learn how to conserve water, grow his own food and control pests. “I want to be self-sustaining,” he says.

Richardson sees the River Corps as a way to create the opportunity for green jobs, and that “improving water quality by cleaning the streams provides clean water for our children."

Programs like the River Corps align with the Chesapeake Bay Program’s goal to increase the number and diversity of people involved in restoration work. Learn about our Diversity Workgroup’s efforts to create and expand employment and professional development opportunities for minority and underserved groups in the region.

 

Photos by Will Parson

Joan Smedinghoff's avatar
About Joan Smedinghoff - Joan is the Communications Office Staffer at the Chesapeake Bay Program. Originally from Chicago, she was introduced to the Chesapeake Bay region through the streams of central Pennsylvania. She received her Bachelor's in Environmental Studies from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., where she first discovered her passion for storytelling.



May
12
2017

Photo of the Week: Humble bumblebees create big buzz

A carpenter bee hovers long enough for a closeup in the backyard of a District of Columbia resident on April 13, 2017. Carpenter bees can often be mistaken for their similar-looking relatives, bumblebees. Carpenter bees typically nest in pairs, boring holes in soft, unpainted wood—including decks, siding and outdoor furniture. On the other hand, bumblebees are social insects that typically nest underground in small colonies, venturing out in search of flowers from which to harvest pollen (for protein) and nectar (for energy).

Two of the bumblebee’s best-known characteristics are its fuzz and its buzz. Researchers recently discovered that the bees use their tiny, fuzzy hairs to detect electric fields, helping them navigate toward flowers. Once they find a suitable bloom, bumblebees practice “buzz pollination”: they huddle up against the bottom of a flower and vibrate their flight muscles, producing a buzzing sound and knocking pollen out of the flower and onto their hundreds of feathery hairs.

There are more than 250 known species of bumblebee across the world, although only about 20 of those are known to inhabit the Chesapeake Bay region. In the past, one such species was the rusty patched bumblebee, although its future in the region is now uncertain. Once a common sight across the watershed, the bee has been sighted just a handful of times in the region in the last 20 years. In 2014, a single rusty patched bumblebee was caught by a researcher near Front Royal, Virginia—the first time the insect had been seen in the eastern United States in five years.

The bee’s sharp decline led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to place the rusty patched bumblebee on the Endangered Species List earlier this year, making it the first bee in the continental U.S. to be placed on the list. Pesticides, herbicides, loss of habitat, disease and climate change have all played a role in its disappearance, according to the agency.

Rusty patched bumblebees aren’t the only bees in trouble: a recent report from the Center for Biological Diversity found that populations of more than 700 bee species in North America are in decline. By planting native wildflowers, starting a pollinator garden and reducing the use of pesticides, you can help protect bumblebees and other pollinators.

Image by Will Parson

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the image as one of a bumblebee; the insect pictured is a carpenter bee. Learn about how to spot the differences between these similar-looking insects.

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.



May
08
2017

Report card shows steady recovery of Chesapeake Bay health

Bridges cross the mouth of the Susquehanna River near Havre de Grace, Md., on June 27, 2016.

The Chesapeake Bay continues to show signs of improved health, according to the most recent Chesapeake Bay Report Card from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES). While the estuary’s “C” grade remains unchanged since 2012, the score of 54 percent in 2016 is an improvement from a 53 percent in 2015 and 50 percent in 2014.

“The 2016 Report Card again shows a steady improvement in a variety of ecosystem health indicators throughout the Bay,” said Nick DiPasquale, Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, in a release. “These improvements are accomplished by cooperation and collaboration at all levels of government and with the active participation and support of informed citizens."

UMCES researchers use several indicators of Bay health to calculate the Chesapeake Bay Health Index, including water clarity and dissolved oxygen, the amount of algae and nutrients in the water, the abundance of underwater grasses and the strength of populations like blue crabs and striped bass.

Many of these indicators improved or held steady from the previous year. The Fisheries Index, for example, improved from a 73 percent in 2015 to a 90 percent in 2016, with blue crabs in particular showing a marked increase. Phosphorus pollution also decreased across much of the estuary and its tributaries, and dissolved oxygen levels remained high.

Despite this progress, experts caution that more work is needed to see a fully restored Bay. Nitrogen pollution worsened from 2015 to 2016, as did populations of benthic organisms—the worms, clams and other invertebrates that live at the bottom of the Bay.

“We are happy to see that our beloved Chesapeake Bay continues its recovery. These scientifically rigorous report card results are telling us that we are indeed heading in the right direction,” said Dr. Bill Dennison, Vice President for Science Application at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “We still have a long way to go to fully restoring the Bay, so we need to have our diverse partnerships of people and organizations continue to work together to reduce the runoff of sediments and nutrients into the Bay.”

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