The Chesapeake Bay’s adult female blue crab population has increased 92 percent since the population was surveyed last winter. While the current adult female blue crab abundance of 194 million is well above the overfishing threshold, it remains below the 215 million abundance target.
Maryland and Virginia estimate the Bay’s blue crab population through 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 crabs over-wintering in the mud.
Results of the 2016 winter dredge survey show the Bay’s total blue crab population has increased from 411 million to 553 million since last winter. Results also show the number of adult females has risen from 101 million to 194 million. The number of juvenile crabs has increased from 269 million to 271 million, which is just above the long-term average.
“The crab stock has been on a rollercoaster for most [of] the last decade,” said Virginia Marine Resources Commissioner John M.R. Bull in a media release. “We’ve seen a few great years of reproduction followed by awful years of abundance. Two years does not make a trend, and this news inspires both wary optimism and cautious management.”
In the short term, Maryland officials do predict a good crab season. “Due to a milder winter, favorable currents and tides, and wise Bay-wide management measures, the Maryland crab population continues to rebound and strengthen,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service Director Dave Blazer in a media release. “With an increase in abundance and steady recruitment, we fully anticipate a robust crab season this year.”
The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks the adult female blue crab population as an indicator of Bay health, and in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement committed to maintaining a sustainable blue crab population based on a target of 215 million adult females. The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC), which includes scientists and representatives from states, academic institutions and the federal government, will use this data to make recommendations on sustaining the blue crab population in its 2016 Blue Crab Advisory Report, expected to be released this summer.
From December to March, assessing the health of the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population means long stints on the water for scientists from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). Every year the blue crab winter dredge survey samples 1,500 randomly-chosen sites divided equally between Virginia and Maryland waters, in a partnership between VIMS and the Fisheries Service of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The data provides a bay-wide estimate of blue crab populations that helps agencies determine how many can be harvested without hampering the recovery of one of the Chesapeake Bay’s defining resources.
After a clear, calm sunrise in the second week of March, the VIMS team left their headquarters in Gloucester Point, Virginia, with 742 of 750 sites under their belt. Their boat, the R/V Bay Eagle, is their home during trips lasting up to four days at a time. With just eight sites left to sample using their six-foot-wide crab dredge, this would be a relatively short day—the last one of the season.
“That sort of puts a smile on our face,” said Mike Seebo, a VIMS marine scientist who has worked on the winter dredge survey since its second winter in 1990.
The dredge relies on the blue crab’s winter behavior of burrowing into the mud and lying dormant when the temperature drops below 45 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. When the crabs wake up in the coming months, the mature females will migrate to lower-salinity spawning grounds in the Bay’s tributaries, a journey of up to 150 miles for crabs reaching the northernmost habitats.
And many of the crabs will end up harvested, steamed and covered in Old Bay seasoning. For one of the region’s mainstays, the numbers coming from the survey teams will be highly awaited.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page
Photos and text by Will Parson
Video by Steve Droter
The U.S. Supreme Court has announced it will not hear a case challenging the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). The decision lets stand a federal appeals court ruling that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can set pollution limits for the Chesapeake Bay.
EPA issued the TMDL—also known as the Bay “pollution diet”—in 2010, setting limits on the amount of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment allowed to run into the Bay each year. Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) describe the steps each of the seven Bay jurisdictions will take to meet these goals, and are included as commitments in the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.
In 2011, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, the National Association of Home Builders and a number of agricultural trade associations filed suit against the EPA, claiming the federal agency lacked authority to issue the TMDL. Numerous local and national partners intervened in support of the EPA, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy, National Wildlife Federation and others.
In 2013, Pennsylvania Federal Judge Sylvia Rambo upheld the pollution limits, leading plaintiffs to appeal. In 2015, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia again upheld the TMDL as legal under the Clean Water Act. And on Monday, the Supreme Court announced it would not review the case, upholding the appellate court decision.
Learn more about the plan to reduce pollution in the Bay on the EPA’s TMDL website.
Warm weather may have delayed waterfowl migrations to Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay shoreline and Atlantic coast, according to the results of Maryland’s 2016 Midwinter Waterfowl Survey. While experts from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) counted more diving ducks in their aerial surveys than in 2015, fewer dabbling ducks, geese and swans were observed.
According to a DNR release, abnormally warm weather in the eastern United States delayed the migration of waterfowl to the Chesapeake region, resulting in an overall waterfowl count of 663,000—lower than last year’s 855,000 birds and below the five year average of 759,460.
This year’s total included 69,800 dabbling ducks (a decrease from 90,800 in 2015) and 246,000 diving ducks (up from 192,000 in 2015). The increase in diving ducks can be attributed to teams observing more scaup and ruddy ducks, particularly along the Chester River and the Bay’s shoreline in Calvert County. Survey teams also observed dramatically smaller numbers of Canada geese: 293,800, or 42 percent fewer than were counted in 2015.
The USFWS Division of Migratory Bird Management pools these survey results with those from other states to get a sense of the distribution and population size of waterfowl wintering along the Atlantic Flyway, the migration route that follows the Atlantic coast of North America.
Learn more about the Midwinter Waterfowl Survey.
The Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay dead zone measured slightly smaller than average this past summer, supporting scientists’ June prediction of a smaller than average hypoxic zone in the nation’s largest estuary.
Dead zones are areas of little to no dissolved oxygen that form when nutrient-fueled algae blooms die and decompose. This decomposition process removes oxygen from the surrounding waters faster than it can be replenished, and the resulting low-oxygen conditions can suffocate marine life.
Each summer, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) collect water samples to measure the hypoxic volume of the Bay. At 3,806 million cubic meters, the Maryland portion of this year’s dead zone was the 13th smallest in 31 years of sampling.
According to a report from the DNR, the size of the dead zone was likely due to reduced rainfall earlier this spring.
Striped bass spawning success has improved in the Chesapeake Bay, according to scientists from both Maryland and Virginia.
Tracking the number of young-of-the-year striped bass in the Bay, or those rockfish that are less than one year old, helps scientists evaluate the health of the striped bass stock. To determine this number, scientists take a series of seine net samples in select striped bass spawning areas—like the Choptank, Potomac and Nanticoke rivers in Maryland and the Rappahannock, York and James rivers in Virginia—each summer. The resulting “juvenile abundance index” serves as an early indicator of future fish populations, helping managers predict the amount of striped bass that will be available to fishermen in the coming years.
“Striped bass are a… resilient species when given favorable environmental conditions for reproduction and survival,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton in a media release. “The robust reproduction should give Maryland anglers hope for a successful striped bass season in a few years’ time.”
In each Maryland sample, researchers caught an average of 24 juvenile striped bass; the state’s abundance index value rose from 4.06 to 10.67 this year, which is the eighth highest on record. In each Virginia sample, researchers caught an average of 12 juvenile striped bass; the Commonwealth’s abundance index value rose from 11.37 to 12, which is about equal to average historic values. There, striped bass spawning success has been average or above average in 12 of the last 13 years, which indicates consistent production in Virginia nurseries.
Striped bass hold great value in the watershed: the fish is a top predator in the food web and a critical catch for commercial and recreational fishermen. Fishing bans set in the late 1980s helped striped bass recover from harvest and pollution pressures, and experts now consider it a recovered species.
Animal agriculture programs in Delaware, Maryland and West Virginia have had varying degrees of success as they work toward meeting pollution-reduction goals for the Chesapeake Bay, according to evaluations released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA periodically reviews state programs and policies related to water quality, and these reviews are typically not focused solely on animal agriculture. But the agency chose to conduct individual animal agriculture assessments for the six Bay states to ensure each state has the programs, policies and resources they need to achieve the goals of the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).
EPA found the states to be successful in certain areas: Maryland, for instance, was found to have a “robust and well-implemented state program.” But other aspects of the states' animal agriculture programs need further development—including improving data collection in Delaware and ensuring compliance with voluntary nutrient management plans in West Virginia.
Animal agriculture—such as poultry and livestock operations—can be a major source of pollution in the Bay. Excess nutrients and sediment have long impaired the estuary: nitrogen and phosphorous can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms, while sediment can smother shellfish and block sunlight from reaching underwater plants. But practices like streamside fencing and proper management of animal manure can help prevent excess nutrients and sediment from reaching local waters.
The reports are available on the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay TMDL website.
The bald eagle, a national symbol of strength and resiliency, may be a common sight today, but just a few decades ago toxic pollutants working their way up the food chain had the species toeing the line of extinction. Prevalent use of dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT), a harmful insecticide, on agricultural fields caused eagles to produce eggs that were too delicate to support the incubating bird, lowering hatch rates in a drastic way. The decline was so severe that by DDT’s ban in 1972, only 482 breeding pairs were left throughout the entire continental United States.
Following the ban, one nesting pair of bald eagles remained in the state of New York, and their eggs were too contaminated with chemicals to be considered a viable means of repopulation. Restoration efforts began across the nation, but two researchers in particular, Peter Nye from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Tom Cade of Cornell University put New York on the map as a key player in eagle repopulation tactics. They took to using an ancient falconry practice called hacking to raise eaglets in a controlled, but wild, environment, to ensure that the birds would learn the proper survival techniques to independently prosper after fledging the nest.
“Their goal was to establish 12 nesting pairs in New York. By 1988, they had achieved the goal of 12 nesting pairs, and here we are in 2015 with more than 300. I know down in Maryland in the Chesapeake Bay area there are even more, so the reintroduction has been very successful,” said Michael Clark, Senior Wildlife Biologist for New York DEC. Clark and his colleague Scott Van Arsdale, Wildlife Technician for New York DEC, were mentored by Nye, and have taken over the legwork of tagging and monitoring the birds since Nye’s retirement.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images by Will Parson
Text by Jenna Valente
A federal appeals court has held that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can set pollution limits for the Chesapeake Bay, upholding the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) issued by the agency in 2010.
The TMDL, also known as the Bay “pollution diet,” set limits on the amount of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment allowed to run into the Bay each year. Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) describe the steps each of the seven Bay jurisdictions—Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia—will take to meet these goals, and are included as commitments in the recent Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.
In 2011, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, the National Association of Home Builders and a number of agricultural trade associations filed suit against the EPA, claiming the federal agency lacked authority to issue the TMDL. Numerous local and national partners intervened in support of the EPA, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy, National Wildlife Federation and others. In 2013, Pennsylvania Federal Judge Sylvia Rambo upheld the pollution limits, leading plaintiffs to appeal. On Monday, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia again upheld the TMDL as legal under the Clean Water Act.
“Water pollution in the Chesapeake Bay is a complex problem currently affecting at least 17,000,000 people (with more to come),” wrote Judge Thomas L. Ambro, part of the three-judge panel that heard the appeal, in a 60-page ruling. “Congress made a judgment in the Clean Water Act that the states and the EPA could, working together, best allocate the benefits and burdens of lowering pollution.”
Learn more about the plan to reduce pollution in the Bay on the EPA’s TMDL website.
While the abundance of adult female blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay is below target, fisheries experts have reported the blue crab stock is not depleted and overfishing is not occurring.
According to the 2015 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report, released by the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC), the start of the 2015 crabbing season saw 101 million adult female blue crabs in the Bay. This marks a 47 percent increase from last year’s abundance of adult females, which the Chesapeake Bay Program tracks as an indicator of Bay health. Because blue crab abundance is above the 70 million threshold, the blue crab stock is not considered depleted. And because just 17 percent of adult females were harvested in 2014—well below the 25.5 percent target—overfishing is not occurring.
In its report, CBSAC urged the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) to maintain a risk-averse management approach to protect juvenile crabs, whose numbers fluctuate from year to year. The committee, which is made up of scientists, academics and government representatives and housed under the Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team (GIT), also recommended evaluating the establishment of a Bay-wide allocation-based management framework.
An allocation-based management framework would allocate an annual “total allowable catch” of male and female crabs to Maryland, Virginia and the PRFC. In the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, the Bay Program committed to evaluating the establishment of this framework. “[This report] directly supports our efforts to achieve the blue crab outcomes set forth in the [Watershed] Agreement, using the best science available to provide meaningful input to management decisions made by jurisdictions,” said Peyton Robertson, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Chesapeake Bay Office Director and Sustainable Fisheries GIT Chair, in a media release.
Scientists expect the Chesapeake Bay to see a slightly smaller than average dead zone this summer, due to reduced rainfall and less nutrient-rich runoff flowing into the Bay from the Susquehanna River this spring.
Dead zones are areas of little to no dissolved oxygen that form when nutrient-fueled algae blooms die and decompose. Resulting low-oxygen conditions can suffocate marine life. The latest forecast predicts an early-summer no-oxygen zone of 0.27 cubic miles, a mid-summer low-oxygen zone of 1.37 cubic miles and a late-summer no-oxygen zone of 0.28 cubic miles. This forecast, funded by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is based on models developed at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the University of Michigan.
Nutrient pollution and weather patterns influence dead zone size. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), 58 million pounds of nitrogen entered the Bay in the spring of 2015, which is 29 percent lower than last spring’s nitrogen loadings.
Researchers with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) will measure oxygen levels in the Bay over the next few months. While the final dead zone measurement will not take place until October, bimonthly updates on Bay oxygen levels are available through DNR’s Eyes on the Bay.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released EJSCREEN, an environmental justice mapping tool that combines demographic and environmental data to help identify communities who may face a higher risk of environmental harm.
The tool allows users to select a region by drawing on a map, searching by city or selecting a census area. Reports on the selected area relate environmental hazards—including air pollution, lead paint and toxic waste sites—to demographic factors, such as the percentage of the population that is low-income or minority.
Environmental justice supports equal access to a clean and healthy environment. EJSCREEN could help target programs, policies and funding toward communities in need of increased environmental protection, access to health care, improved infrastructure and climate resilience. Promoting environmental justice is one of the guiding principles of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. The tool will help guide the Chesapeake Bay Program’s work under the Agreement in engaging diverse communities and mitigating toxic contaminants.
The EPA is looking for feedback on the tool from users, and plans to release a revised edition next year.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released their final Clean Water Rule this week, clarifying which streams and wetlands are protected from pollution and development under the Clean Water Act.
Included under the new rule are seasonal and rain-dependent streams that may only flow during certain times of the year, but which have a significant connection to downstream waters that were previously protected. Wetlands and waterways that border larger waterbodies will also be covered. According to the EPA, the rule will help protect the drinking water of nearly 117 million people.
“For the water in the rivers and lakes in our communities that flow to our drinking water to be clean, the streams and wetlands that feed them need to be clean too,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in a release.
Two complex Supreme Court decisions led to nearly a decade of confusion over just which waters are covered by the Clean Water Act. While the new rule clarifies which waterways are now protected, it does not expand the scope of the Clean Water Act, and it preserves existing exemptions for irrigation ponds, drainage ditches and other agricultural activities.
The Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population has seen a modest rise, increasing 38 percent since the population was counted last winter. While an increase in blue crabs is an indicator of Bay health, the adult female crab population remains below its target, indicating the variability of the blue crab population and the complexities of managing the fishery.
Maryland and Virginia measure the Bay’s blue crab population through 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 crabs over-wintering in the mud.
Results of the 2015 winter dredge survey show the Bay’s total blue crab population has increased from 297 million to 411 million since last winter. Results also show the number of spawning-age females has risen from a depleted 69 million to 101 million. The number of juvenile crabs has jumped from 199 million to 269 million, which is just above the long-term average.
According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the cold winter and resulting low water temperatures contributed to a “substantial mortality” among blue crabs, killing an estimated 19 percent of adults.
“We are pleased that crab numbers increased despite the harsh winter temperatures,” said DNR Secretary Mark Belton in a media release.
The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks the adult female blue crab population as an indicator of Bay health. The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC), which includes scientists and representatives from the federal government, state governments and academic institutions, will use this data to make recommendations on sustaining the blue crab population in its 2015 Blue Crab Advisory Report, expected to be released this summer.
When too much nitrogen enters the Chesapeake Bay, it can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and create low-oxygen areas, or “dead zones,” that suffocate marine life. But some key successes in curbing the amount of nitrogen entering local waterways have a potentially surprising source—the Clean Air Act.
In a factsheet released last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) outlines how declines in air pollution have substantially reduced the amount of airborne nitrogen that ends up in the Bay, helping the agency and its partners stay on track to meet the water quality goals of the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), or “pollution diet,” which representatives from across the Bay region recommitted to achieving as part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.
Polluted air can have quite an impact on the health of local waters: scientists estimate that one third of the nitrogen in the Bay comes from the air through a process known as atmospheric deposition. When our cars, power plants or other sources emit air pollution, it can be carried by wind and weather over long distances until it falls onto land or into the water.
“Atmospheric deposition falls everywhere on the Chesapeake watershed, from forests, to fields, to parking lots,” said Lewis Linker, modeling coordinator with the Chesapeake Bay Program. “When this load of nitrogen is reduced, it improves water quality everywhere from stormwater runoff, to small headwater streams, …to the Chesapeake Bay.”
Even pollution emitted thousands of miles away can eventually end up in our waterways. While the area of land that drains into the Bay spans six states and 64,000 square miles, the Bay’s “airshed”—the area of land over which airborne pollutants travel to enter the estuary—is nine times that size. Nearly three-quarters of the airborne nitrogen that eventually ends up in the Bay is generated by sources within this airshed, and the remaining 25 percent is emitted from sources even farther away. Which is why, says Linker, national policies like the Clean Air Act are essential in reducing the amount of pollution that reaches the Bay.
“To restore the Chesapeake, the citizens of the Chesapeake watershed have done a lot of bootstrapped cleanup in their own backyards and watersheds,” said Linker. “But when it comes to atmospheric deposition of nitrogen, the reduction can’t be done by the Chesapeake state partners alone—it’s a job for the whole nation.”
For more on what you can do to curb air pollution, Take Action.
Learn more about the EPA’s efforts to curb nitrogen deposition in the Chesapeake.
Andy, my next-door neighbor, is a fisherman. We talk from time to time across our backyard decks. Andy has never asked me about the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement signed in June 2014. But if he did, how would I explain it? Are the ten goals of the Agreement connected?
Of course they are. Think fish, think Chesapeake Bay, and the mind conjures rockfish, crabs and oysters - restored and protected. That’s Goal 1, Sustainable Fisheries. What do fish, wildlife and other living things need to survive? Vital Habitats made up of restored underwater grasses, streams, forest buffers and tree canopy (Goal 2). Habitats require good Water Quality, which means reducing pollutant loads flowing into the Bay (Goal 3). But is water quality alone enough? Nope: Toxic Contaminants, such as mercury and PCBs, harm both wildlife and human health and must be reduced (Goal 4).
Are we finished? Not yet. Our good waters must remain healthy (Healthy Watersheds, Goal 5). Without increasing our leadership – citizens and elected officials committed to restoration – our efforts are for naught (Stewardship, Goal 6). Our Chesapeake Bay region is blessed with ecologically valuable and treasured lands that protect our waters and enhance our lives (Land Conservation, Goal 7).
What brings the magic of the Bay home most of all? Experiencing it – swimming, boating and fishing – which means increased Public Access (Goal 8). Future leadership is essential; our children must graduate from school with the knowledge and skills to protect and restore our lands and waters (Environmental Literacy, Goal 9). And our restoration efforts must account for changing climactic conditions and sea level rise (Climate Resiliency, Goal 10).
So, that's it: ten steps to a restored Chesapeake Bay. Have a good day, Andy.
For many of the people living upstream of the Chesapeake Bay, daily life doesn’t involve crab pots or oyster dredges. A group of such Bay novices — including one member who had never been on a boat — assembled in Crisfield, Md., this fall to take a ferry to Smith Island, one of the last two inhabited islands in the Chesapeake Bay. Actually a small cluster of low-lying stretches of land, Smith Island and its Virginia neighbor Tangier Island carry a rich cultural history dating back to the 1600s. Over the years, they have been subjected to the extreme weather conditions in the open Chesapeake Bay and forces of sea level rise and land subsidence that have already claimed surrounding islands. The trip, organized by the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Forestry Workgroup, gave the foresters the chance to experience the unique life of a Chesapeake waterman.
“These participants are engaged in work throughout the watershed that directly benefits the quality of the Bay, but often they have very little experience on the Bay itself,” said Craig Highfield of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the Forests for the Bay initiative, who has facilitated the excursion for the past two years. “This trip is a way to connect their work with a community that relies so intimately with a healthy Bay.”
Over the course of two and a half days, the group of foresters followed educators from Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Smith Island environmental education center, taking in the unique culture, exploring the changing environment and finding new connections that bring the Bay closer to home.
“I think this group was able to draw similarities between the rural communities they work with — who rely on the natural resources on the land — with this rural community that relies on the natural resources of the Bay,” said Highfield.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
Solar energy is on the rise in the United States, and one jurisdiction in the Chesapeake Bay watershed has been named a leader in the solar energy revolution.
Image courtesy Mountain/\Ash/Flickr
According to a report released by Environment America, Delaware is one of the ten states that have installed the greatest amount of solar energy capacity per capita. At 82 watts per person, the state is in seventh place.
Since December 2008, Delaware has expanded its solar capacity from 2 to 59 megawatts. According to the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), the state has installed 1,600 solar energy systems on government buildings, businesses, schools and homes. What's driving this effort? Legislation, policies and financial incentives that support going solar.
Image courtesy Pacific Northwest National Library/Flickr
Solar energy uses the sun as fuel to create heat or electricity. It’s considered cleaner than coal- or natural gas-fired power plants because it doesn’t burn fossil fuels, which can release emissions that contribute to climate change.
Like other states in Environment America’s top ten, Delaware’s interconnection policies make it easier for individuals and companies to connect their solar energy systems to the power grid. Solar rebates and other financing options help lower the cost of installation, while "net metering" policies compensate consumers for the excess energy they return. The solar market is also moving forward in response to Delaware’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, which calls for the state to draw 25 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2025, with at least 3.5 percent coming from solar.
“Encouraging solar power is the right thing to do for the environment and our economy,” said Delaware Gov. Jack Markell in a media release. “We are aggressively working toward a clean energy future in Delaware, demonstrating we can have both a strong economy and a healthy environment. That means creating a robust market for solar and other clean energy systems, creating clean energy jobs, expanding our solar industry and improving air quality.”
Two additional watershed jurisdictions received special mention in Environment America’s report: New York, whose solar energy market is growing quickly, and the District of Columbia, where new clean energy policies are set to make solar more attractive and accessible to consumers.
It is a refreshing June morning as the sun shines down on Solomons, Maryland, causing the Patuxent River to sparkle in its reflection. A crew of four Washington, D.C., area chefs stands on a wooden dock alongside Steve Vilnit, the Director of Fisheries Marketing at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), eagerly awaiting the arrival of our captain, Bruce Abbott, and his fishing vessel.
Vilnit coordinates educational trips intended to connect local chefs with living resources. By creating these experiences, he is able to spread the word about the importance of buying local seafood and illustrate the hard work that goes into moving fresh seafood from the ocean to the dinner table.
The O’Dark Thirty appears in the distance and sidles up to the dock for the crew and guests to climb aboard. Once everyone is situated, Abbott heads east, out of the mouth of the Patuxent and into the main stem of the Chesapeake Bay. About 20 minutes go by before the boat comes to a halt next to one of roughly 1,500 pound nets in the Bay. Pound nets are used by watermen to harvest large quantities of a specific fish species, like perch, menhaden, croaker or striped bass. Vilnit describes the net and why it is so popular: “The way a pound net works is by playing off of a fish’s natural instinct to head to deeper water when they feel threatened. The net funnels them into the center where they are trapped,” he said.
Image courtesy Jay Fleming/DNR
Vilnit explained that, from a sustainability standpoint, pound nets are a great fishing method. Despite its high bycatch rate, the majority of the fish in the net are kept alive. “The fish are just swimming around in the net until the fishermen come. What they’ll do when they pull the net is, they start cinching it up so it pulls all the fish together and congregates them and then they scoop them out one-by-one with a dip net and release all the bycatch.”
The journey continued towards Maryland’s Eastern Shore, stopping next for a live demonstration of trotlining. Trotlines are a favored method for catching blue crabs in the Bay, but can only be used in its tributaries, as they can pose a navigational hazard for boats; crab pots are standard gear for those harvesting crabs in the main stem.
Image courtesy Jay Fleming/DNR
After the demonstration, Vilnit passed around the clawed critters for an up-close-and-personal anatomy lesson. “The apron—or [flap] on the belly—of the female crab is rounded like the Capitol dome and the apron on the male looks like the Washington Monument. You can also see a difference in the claw color: the females have what they call fingernail polish—it’s the red tips on the claws—versus the males that have blue claws,” Vilnit said.
Image courtesy Jay Fleming/DNR
The final leg of our trip took us to Barren Island Oysters, a sustainability-minded, high-end oyster company based out of Hoopers Island, Maryland. Owner and founder Tim Devine launched the farm slightly more than a year ago and has already seen tremendous success.
Image courtesy Jay Fleming/DNR
Devine’s company is an authentic example of the power of proper research and collaboration. “I had a lot of time to do some market research as I waited the 18 months to get my permits for this business,” Devine said. “In the meantime I was shooting photography for a magazine that took me around to different restaurants, so I would ask the chefs, ‘Hey, what do you want?’” What he found was a high demand for the disease-resistant, triploid oyster.
Listening to the calls from the chefs, Devine began to grow triploid oysters in an unorthodox fashion: chipping off new shell growth forced the oysters to not only grow stronger but also develop a deep, uniform, cup-shaped shell. “I think my biggest advantage is that I didn’t know anything coming into this, so I had no history as to how all these people [watermen] do this. Because this is such a new industry and there are many new markets for a premium oyster, I wasn’t stuck in any old ways of farming,” Devine explained.
Image courtesy Jay Fleming/DNR
By openly communicating with chefs, Devine was able to discover a niche market for premium oysters that would meet these chefs’ requests. Vilnit hopes his educational tours will create more relationships of this kind. And for those who cannot get out on the water, signing onto the True Blue and Oyster Pledge programs is a positive way that chefs and restaurateurs can show their establishment’s commitment to fresh, locally harvested seafood.
Four organizations in the Chesapeake Bay watershed will receive more than $230,000 to restore portions of the Anacostia and Patapsco rivers.
Image courtesy Tommy Wells/Flickr
In the District of Columbia, two organizations will connect students to the Anacostia in an effort to boost local stewardship. Living Classrooms of the National Capital Region will put third and fifth graders onto canoes, kayaks and an educational vessel, while the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum will turn at-risk high school students into citizen scientists to monitor water quality along Watts Branch.
In College Park, the University of Maryland will design low-impact development solutions to lower the amount of polluted stormwater running off of schools and into the Anacostia. And in Baltimore, the University of Baltimore will monitor fecal bacteria in a portion of a Patapsco River tributary to help two blue collar neighborhoods reduce pet waste and prioritize infrastructure repairs.
Image courtesy Zach Karpinski/Flickr
The funding has been granted through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Urban Waters Small Grants program, which supports the restoration of urban rivers and streams in 18 geographic regions.
Healthy and accessible urban waters can improve economic, educational, recreational and social opportunities in nearby communities.
“People, buildings and businesses are all concentrated in urban areas, making it even more important to protect waterways from pollution,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in a media release. “These communities will receive grants, allowing them to help turn these waterways into centerpieces of urban renewal, spurring economic development and job creation.”
In addition to the four projects inside the Bay watershed, the Urban Waters Small Grants program will fund 32 projects in 15 other states and Puerto Rico.
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.
According to evaluations released this week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Chesapeake Bay Program partners are collectively on track to meet the phosphorous and sediment reduction commitments outlined in the Bay’s “pollution diet,” or Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). Further reductions in nitrogen, however, will be needed if partners are to meet all of their upcoming pollution-reducing goals.
Every two years, federal agencies and the watershed jurisdictions—which include Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia—report on the progress made toward the pollution-reducing “milestones” outlined in their Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs). These WIPs describe how each jurisdiction will reduce the nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment pollution entering rivers and streams, and are included as commitments in the partnership’s recently signed Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. Jurisdictions have set a goal to have all essential pollution-reducing practices in place by 2025 in an effort to meet water quality standards in the watershed.
Nutrient and sediment pollution are behind some of the Bay’s biggest health problems. Excess nitrogen and phosphorous fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms, which result in low-oxygen dead zones that suffocate marine life. Suspended sediment blocks sunlight from reaching underwater plants and suffocates shellfish. But “best management practices” (or BMPs) like upgraded wastewater treatment technologies, improved manure management and enhanced stormwater management can help towns, cities and states lower the amount of pollution flowing into local waters.
The EPA will continue to oversee the watershed jurisdictions’ pollution-reducing efforts, and will offer further attention to some pollution sectors—including wastewater in Delaware and New York; agricultural runoff in Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia; and urban and suburban runoff in Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia—to ensure partners remain on track to meet their 2017 targets.
Scientists expect the Chesapeake Bay to see an above-average dead zone this summer, due to the excess nitrogen that flowed into the Bay from the Potomac and Susquehanna rivers this spring.
Dead zones, or areas of little to no dissolved oxygen, form when nutrient-fueled algae blooms die and decompose. The latest dead zone forecast predicts an early-summer oxygen-free zone of 0.51 cubic miles, a mid-summer low-oxygen zone of 1.97 cubic miles and a late-summer oxygen-free zone of 0.32 cubic miles. This forecast was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and is based on models developed at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the University of Michigan.
Dead zone size depends on nutrient pollution and weather patterns. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), 44,000 metric tons of nitrogen entered the Bay in the spring of 2014. This is 20 percent higher than last spring’s nitrogen loadings, and will influence algae growth and dead zone formation this summer.
Researchers with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) will measure oxygen levels in the Bay over the next few months. While a final dead zone measurement is not expected until October, DNR biologists measured a larger-than-average low-oxygen zone on their June monitoring cruise, confirming the dead zone forecast.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its proposed Clean Power Plan this week, which EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy called a “vital piece” of President Obama’s plan to cut carbon pollution and slow the effects of climate change.
Image courtesy Rennett Stowe/Flickr
The Clean Power Plan aims to lower carbon emissions from the power sector to 30 percent below 2005 levels. According to the EPA, this would also cut emissions of particle pollution, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide more than 25 percent, lowering asthma attacks and medical bills and working toward justice for the low-income communities that are hardest hit by air pollution.
Fossil-fueled power plants are the largest source of carbon pollution in the United States, accounting for one-third of our greenhouse gas emissions. Left unchecked, carbon pollution leads to rising temperatures and sea levels and changes in weather patterns, ecosystems and habitats. It also worsens smog, which affects the heart and lung health of children, older adults and people living in poverty.
“This is about protecting our health and our homes,” McCarthy said in a speech celebrating the plan’s release.
Image courtesy francescopratese/Flickr
The plan would give states the freedom to chart their own course toward their own goals. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution,” McCarthy said. Instead, states can “mix and match” methods of electricity production—whether it is a low-carbon or “no” carbon source like nuclear, wind or solar energy—and pollution control policies to ensure a “smooth transition to cleaner power.”
Comments on the proposal will be accepted for 120 days after its publication in the Federal Register. The EPA will host public hearings on the plan in Denver, Atlanta, the District of Columbia and Pittsburgh during the week of July 28, and will finalize the plan next June.
Reducing runoff from farmland has lowered pollution in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania waters, indicating a boost in on-farm best management practices could lead to improved water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.
In a report released earlier this year, researchers with the Chesapeake Bay Program, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) use case studies to show that planting cover crops, managing manure and excluding cattle from rivers and streams can lower nutrient concentrations and, in some cases, sediment loads in nearby waters.
Excess nutrients and sediment have long impaired the Bay: nitrogen and phosphorous can fuel the growth of algae blooms and lead to low-oxygen dead zones that suffocate marine life, while sediment can cloud the water and suffocate shellfish. In New Insights: Science-based evidence of water quality improvements, challenges and opportunities in the Chesapeake, scientists make clear that putting nutrient- and sediment-reducing practices in place on farms can improve water quality and aquatic habitat in as little as one to six years.
Planting winter cover crops on farm fields in the Wye River basin, for instance, lowered the amount of nutrients leaching into local groundwater, while planting cover crops and exporting nutrient-rich rich poultry litter in the upper Pocomoke River watershed lowered the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous in the Eastern Shore waterway. In addition, several studies in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania showed that when cattle were excluded from streams, plant growth rebounded, nutrient and sediment levels declined and stream habitat and bank stability improved.
Image courtesy Chiot's Run/Flickr
Earlier this week, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack named the Bay watershed one of eight “critical conservation areas” under the new Farm Bill’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which will bring farmers and watershed organizations together to earn funds for soil and water conservation.
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.
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.
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.
I enjoy eating fish. I also enjoy catching them. And after learning about the impact that a couple of recent invaders have had on the Chesapeake Bay, I’ve added two new fish species to my catch list.
About a year ago, I sat in a meeting (which I do a lot) and listened to a presentation on yet another threat to the Chesapeake Bay’s aquatic environment. This threat came in the form of the blue and flathead catfish, the finfish equivalent to the invasive zebra mussel that has upset the aquatic ecosystem of the Great Lakes.
Blue catfish are considered “apex predators”; they sit at the top of the food chain. They consume not only other finfish, but shellfish as well. They have no predators. Introduced to Virginia’s James, Rappahannock and York rivers as a sport fish in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, they have multiplied and extended their reach into other parts the Bay. Apparently, they are here to stay.
Recently, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) launched a public awareness campaign to promote a “catch and cook” movement in place of the usual “catch and release” program. The agency is working with restaurants and fish processors to market these catfish. During the campaign’s April kick-off event, we were treated to samples of what these demons of the deep might taste like. I went back for seconds (several times). This is a great source of protein for those who rely on fishing for both sustenance and subsistence. And while catfish are bottom feeders, I’ve been assured that, as long as we eat fish that are smaller than 32 inches, there shouldn’t be any concern about the bioaccumulation of toxins. Good to know.
The Bay has become home to other invasive fish, as well. We all remember the northern snakehead! While this critter isn’t as pervasive as the blue catfish, it is another species that has pushed portions of the Bay ecosystem out of balance. But let me recommend a snakehead ceviche. If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em! Bon apetit!
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy endorsement or action.
Underwater grass abundance in the Chesapeake Bay increased 24 percent between 2012 and 2013, reversing the downward trend of the last three years.
Because underwater grasses are sensitive to pollution but quick to respond to water quality improvements, their abundance is a good indicator of Bay health. Aerial surveys flown from last spring to last fall showed an almost 12,000-acre increase in grass abundance across the Bay, which scientists attribute to the rapid expansion of widgeon grass in the saltier waters of the mid-Bay and the modest recovery of eelgrass in shallow waters where the species experienced a “dieback” after the hot summers of 2005 and 2010. Scientists also observed an increase in the acreage of the Susquehanna Flats.
“The mid-Bay has seen a big rise in widgeon grass,” said Robert J. Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) professor and coordinator of the school’s Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Survey, in a media release. “In fact, the expansion of this species in the saltier waters between the Honga River and Pocomoke Sound was one of the driving factors behind the rise in bay grass abundance. While widgeongrass is a boom and bust species, notorious for being incredibly abundant one year and entirely absent the next, its growth is nevertheless great to see.”
Underwater grasses, also known as submerged aquatic vegetation, are critical to the Bay, offering food to invertebrates and waterfowl and providing shelter to fish and crabs. Like grasses on land, underwater grasses need sunlight to survive. When algae blooms or suspended sediment cloud the waters of the Bay, sunlight cannot reach the bottom habitat where grasses live. While healthy grass beds can trap and absorb some nutrient and sediment pollution—thus improving water clarity where they grow—too much pollution can cause grass beds to die. Indeed, poor water clarity remains a challenge for eelgrass growth in deeper waters.
Until this year, the Bay Program mapped underwater grasses by geographic zone. Now, abundance is mapped in four different salinity zones, each of which is home to an underwater grass community that responds differently to strong storms, drought and other adverse growing conditions. This reporting change “makes more ecological sense,” said Lee Karrh, program chief at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and chair of the Bay Program’s Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Workgroup.
“Reworking our historic data was hard work, but doing so makes it easier to understand patterns in grass growth,” Karrh said.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has launched a state-wide campaign to teach citizens about the impact of blue and flathead catfish and encourage anglers to remove the invasive species from local rivers and streams.
Native to the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio river basins, blue catfish were introduced to the James, Rappahannock and York rivers in the 1970s and ‘80s as a sport fish. Flathead catfish were introduced to the James in the 1960s for the same reason. Over time, the natural movement and purposeful introduction of the fish into new waters have hastened their establishment in Chesapeake Bay tributaries.
This concerns scientists, who fear the fast-growing and long-lived blue catfish, in particular, could impact the region’s ecologic and economic resources. Because of its opportunistic feeding habits, the blue catfish has become an apex predator, disrupting the structure of the Bay ecosystem and eating up critical aquatic species.
Indeed, “gut content analyses” of the fish have found American shad, Atlantic menhaden, freshwater mussels and blue crabs in their stomachs. Peyton Robertson, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Office and chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team, compared the blue catfish to a Bengal tiger, noting that the fish eats “just about anything.”
“If left unchecked, [blue catfish] could, as top predators, start to impact other parts of our ecosystem,” Robertson said.
But its eradication isn’t feasible, and experts believe the invasive fish is here to stay. So managers hope to mitigate their spread and minimize their impact on native fish.
With support from the Bay Program, DNR has established more than 150 signs at water access points and kiosks around the state to help anglers identify, catch and keep the species, while Maryland Seafood has escalated its efforts to market the fish to restaurants and boost consumer demand.
“[Humans] are great at overfishing things,” said Maryland Seafood Marketing Director Steve Vilnit. “And [the blue catfish] is a species that we want to overfish.”
The Chesapeake Bay Program has submitted a report to Congress outlining the health of the Chesapeake Bay and the effectiveness of the partnership’s management strategies.
Under Section 117(h) of the Clean Water Act, the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must submit the report every five years in coordination with the Chesapeake Executive Council.
While the Bay remains in poor health, the report highlights several signs that indicate certain strategies will work to restore the treasured resource. The report notes, for instance, that the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) and Executive Order 13508 have been integral in spurring collaboration among cities, states, federal agencies, nongovernmental organizations and citizens. The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement that Bay Program partners plan to sign this summer will use clear goals and outcomes and increased transparency and accountability to continue this positive momentum.
“The… Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement is our preparation for the future—a future where the Chesapeake Bay watershed remains an economic engine for the region, rebuilds a thriving and diverse ecosystem and reclaims its status as a celebrated treasure for the citizens who live in the watershed and throughout the nation,” writes Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale in the report.
After almost a decade of confusion about just what waters the Clean Water Act protects, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have clarified that most seasonal and rain-dependent streams are guarded under the law.
While these streams might only flow during certain times of year or following a rainstorm, they are connected to downstream waters that offer habitat to wildlife and drinking water to communities.
The federal agencies’ proposed rule also protects wetlands near rivers and streams. But it does not expand the scope of the Clean Water Act, and it preserves existing exemptions for building irrigation ponds, maintaining drainage ditches and other agricultural activities. In other words, protection for ponds, lakes and other “stand-alone” waters will be determined on a case-specific basis, and those agricultural activities that do not send pollutants into protected waters will still not require a permit.
The proposed rule will be open for public comment for 90 days after its publication in the Federal Register.
The federal agencies leading the effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay are seeking feedback on a draft action plan that outlines the coming year’s cleanup efforts.
Image courtesy Craig Piersma/Flickr
The action plan was written to fulfill the directive of Executive Order 13508, which in 2009 called on federal agencies to work with state and local partners to restore clean water, recover habitat, sustain fish and wildlife, and conserve land and increase public access in the watershed.
For the first time, this annual action plan has been combined with a progress report on the 2013 efforts of the Federal Leadership Committee. The committee includes representatives from the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Homeland Security, Interior and Transportation, and is chaired by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Severe weather to the north of the region pushed a large number of ducks, geese and swans into the main portion of the Chesapeake Bay this winter, leading to a 22 percent jump in the results of Maryland’s 2014 Midwinter Waterfowl Survey.
According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), pilots and biologists from both DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) counted more than 905,000 waterfowl during their aerial assessments of state waters this winter. The birds were easier to count this season than in winters past because a number of them were concentrated in the few ice-free, open waters of the Bay and its tributaries.
This total included 128,000 dabbling ducks and 190,300 diving ducks, representing a 76 and 94 percent jump from last winter, respectively. Indeed, the canvasback count was the highest it has been since the mid-1960s, and estimates for mallards and black ducks were the highest they have been since the mid-1970s. Survey teams also witnessed large numbers of Canada geese along the upper Bay: 512,000, 11 percent more than were witnessed in January 2013.
The USFWS Division of Migratory Bird Management pools these survey results with those from other states to get a sense of the distribution and population size of waterfowl wintering along the Atlantic Flyway. This migration route follows the Atlantic coast of North America, and this winter hosted more than 3.19 million birds. Of this total, teams counted more than 1.6 million in watershed states, including Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York.
Green roofs, porous pavement and other tools of the green infrastructure trade can be a cost-effective way to control stormwater runoff, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report that estimates the benefits of Lancaster City’s long-term green infrastructure plan.
Image courtesy Lindsayy/Flickr
Located in south-central Pennsylvania, Lancaster City has a population approaching 60,000. Each year, combined sewer overflows send almost 750 million gallons of stormwater runoff and untreated waste into the Conestoga River, pushing excess nutrients into the tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. In an effort to combat this pollution problem, the city released a green infrastructure plan in 2011 that outlines the tree plantings, parking lot excavations and other projects that will be put in place over the next 25 years.
While the plan lists the water quality benefits the city expects to see—including the reduction of stormwater runoff by more than 1 billion gallons per year—it is, for some, an incomplete assessment. So, in a report released this week, the EPA furthered the city’s benefits analysis by addressing the additional environmental, social and economic benefits that green infrastructure can provide.
According to the report, the long-term implementation of green infrastructure in Lancaster City could save $120 million in avoided gray infrastructure capital costs and earn close to $5 million in annual benefits. Green infrastructure would reduce air pollution, energy use and stormwater runoff, and offer residents a boost in property values, recreational opportunities and other qualitative benefits. With a forecasted implementation cost of between $51.6 and $94.5 million, it is clear the benefits of green infrastructure exceed the costs.
While gray infrastructure uses tanks and pipes to trap and dispose of rainwater, green infrastructure uses soil and vegetation to manage rainwater where it falls. A combination of green and gray infrastructure has proven effective for Lancaster City, and similar plans could benefit communities across the watershed.
One reconstructed parking lot, for instance, incorporated almost 6,000 square feet of bioretention and infiltration practices on South Plum Street, with an estimated annual benefit of more than $1,100. A commercial green street in northeast Lancaster incorporated bioretention and infiltration practices as well as permeable pavement, with an estimated annual benefit of more than $2,300. And an urban park redeveloped with a host of green infrastructure practices carries an estimated annual benefit of more than $5,500.
“Valuing multiple benefits of green infrastructure ensures water management investments by the city will help… provide a safer, healthier and more prosperous community,” said Liz Deardorff, Clean Water Supply director at American Rivers, in a media release. “The results of this study affirm that green infrastructure has multiple benefits for both large and small cities needing to reduce pollution and ensure clean water.”
A new report from the University of Richmond School of Law calls on Virginia to better protect its residents from chemical contaminants, millions of pounds of which are released into the environment each year by industries across the state.
Image courtesy gac/Flickr
The report, authored in part by Noah M. Sachs, director of the law school’s Center for Environmental Studies, examines the sources of chemical contaminants in Virginia and concludes that the Commonwealth should expand its existing toxic chemicals program, empower the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to clean up more contaminated sites and enact legislation and permit conditions more stringent than federal standards.
According to the report, Virginia’s industries released almost 40 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the air, water and land in 2011. While this represents a drop in releases compared to 2010, the discharge of chemicals into rivers and streams remains significant and, in some cases, could impact in the Chesapeake Bay.
The report notes that more than 250 facilities are allowed to send toxic chemicals into Virginia waters, and the state’s tributaries rank the second worst in the nation as measured by the amount of contaminants discharged into them. While some of the worst-ranking tributaries—like the New and Roanoke Rivers or Sandy Bottom Branch—do not drain into the Bay, the James River ranks forty-fifth in the nation for total toxic discharges and ninth in the nation for the discharge of toxics that affect human development.
Contaminants on the state’s land have also had an effect on water: a number of the 31 sites listed as contaminated under the federal Superfund program involve contaminated drinking water, surface water and groundwater.
Virginia is not the sole watershed state that faces contaminated rivers and streams. According to 2012 assessments, 74 percent of the Bay’s tidal tributaries were partially or fully impaired by chemical contaminants.
In a January 2014 editorial published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Sachs recommended putting toxic chemical regulation “at the forefront of Virginia’s environmental agenda.” He wrote, “Our report recommends a comprehensive program to protect Virginians, beginning with strict permitting, increased inspections, new state authority to remediate contaminated sites and more funding and personnel.”
Chesapeake Bay Program partners have improved how states track on-farm conservation, helping farmers get credit where it is due and ensuring states know what has been done to meet their pollution reduction goals.
Under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), or “pollution diet,” each state in the watershed must report their annual progress in promoting agricultural conservation. To streamline this process, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has integrated state and federal data about what conservation practices have been put in place, where. Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia used this new dataset to report their conservation practices in 2012, improving their ability to track their progress toward improving water quality in rivers, streams and the Chesapeake Bay.
While agricultural runoff is one of the watershed’s leading sources of nutrient and sediment pollution, on-farm conservation can lower the amount of nitrogen, phosphorous, sand and silt washing off of farmland. Conservation tillage, cover crops and nutrient management planning can also reduce a farm’s operating costs and improve a farm’s production.
Image courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture
Indeed, a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) report on the impact of cropland conservation in the region showed that conservation measures—a number of them put in place voluntarily and made possible through the Farm Bill—have improved and protected water quality and soil health. Published as part of the USDA’s Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP), the report, which uses data collected between 2003 and 2006 and in 2011, showed a five, six and eight percent drop in phosphorous, nitrogen and sediment runoff into the Bay. While Chesapeake Bay Program partners work closely with the USDA, this particular report is not part of the Bay Program's TMDL-related tracking efforts.
“The good work of Chesapeake Bay landowners has generated substantial progress in a short period of time, but more needs to be done,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a media release. “It is critical that Congress act now to pass a Farm Bill that provides the full array of programs and incentives to build on these efforts.”
Learn more about the reporting of conservation practices in the watershed or read about the impacts of conservation practices on cropland in the region.
More than 100,000 tons of fossilized oyster shell will be shipped from the Gulf Coast to Baltimore on CSX Corporation trains, thanks to a new partnership between the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Jacksonville, Fla., transportation company.
Image courtesy James Butler/Flickr
The shell will be used to restore reefs in Harris Creek and the Little Choptank River, both of which flow into the Choptank on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The waterways are the first two sites of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-led strategy meant to restore oysters to 20 Chesapeake Bay tributaries by 2025.
The 377-acre Harris Creek site was chosen because its water quality, salinity and protected status point to a high likelihood of restoration success. While granite will be used to build some of Harris Creek’s reefs, shell is the best material for oyster larvae to settle on, and a lack of natural shell in the region posed a restoration roadblock. The state met the challenge by spending $6.3 million on shell from Gulf Coast Aggregates.
The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) helped negotiate the state’s agreement with CSX, which will transport 50 train cars filled with Gulf Coast shell at cost to Curtis Bay two to three times each month over the next nine months. The shell will then be transported by barge to the Eastern Shore sanctuaries.
“This collaboration is monumental, as it allows us to complete the substrate construction of the largest tributary-focused oyster reef restoration project on the East Coast,” said Stephan Abel, executive director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership (ORP), in a media release. ORP will help build the oyster reefs, seed them with baby oysters and monitor planting success. “In all, more shell will be placed in Maryland waters over the next nine months than in the past decade—enough to cover 80 football fields with shell 12 inches deep.”
Habitat loss, disease and historic over-harvesting have contributed to a dramatic decline in native oyster populations. But the bivalves play a critical role in the Bay’s environment and the region’s economy, filtering water and feeding countless area residents.
More than $100 million in grant funding is available for work to protect communities affected by Hurricane Sandy from the growing risks of climate change.
Announced by the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) on the one-year anniversary of the “superstorm” that affected the entire East Coast, raising river flow in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and causing significant damage to New Jersey and New York, the Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Competitive Grants Program will direct funding to those states that declared a natural disaster after the storm, including all seven Bay jurisdictions.
In an effort to benefit humans and wildlife alike, funding will be directed to those projects that use natural ecosystems to protect coastal communities from strong storms, sea level rise and erosion. The restoration of marshes, wetlands and oyster reefs, for example, can build coastal resiliency in the face of climate change; so, too, can planting streamside trees, removing dams from rivers and streams, and better managing stormwater runoff.
“By stabilizing marshes and beaches, restoring wetlands and improving the resilience of coastal areas, we not only create opportunities for people to connect with nature…, but we can also provide an effective buffer that protects local communities from powerful storm surges and devastating floods when a storm like Sandy hits,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell in a media release.
Growing scientific evidence shows that pathogens, antimicrobials and hormones are increasingly appearing in livestock and poultry manure across the United States, according to a literature review prepared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Image courtesy USDAgov/Flickr
These “contaminants of emerging concern”—so named because their risks to human health and the environment may be unknown—could pose threats to plants, animals and people if rain, spills or storage failures push contaminated manure into rivers and streams.
The flow of manure into our waterways has long been linked to nutrient pollution. According to 2010 estimates, manure accounts for 19 percent of the nitrogen and 26 percent of the phosphorous entering the Chesapeake Bay, where it fuels the growth of algae blooms and creates dead zones that suffocate marine life. But research now shows that more of the nation’s manure could contain a new class of pollutants that could have serious implications for water quality.
Manure can contain pathogens, for instance, that could infect humans if allowed to contaminate our drinking water or food crops. It can contain antibiotics and vaccines that could facilitate the development of antimicrobial resistance. And it can contain natural and artificial hormones that, even in low concentrations, could affect the reproductive health and fitness of fish, frogs and other marine life.
Indeed, good manure management has become a key conservation practice in the watershed, where four states—Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia—rank among the ten highest manure-generating states, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). As livestock and poultry production shift to larger, more concentrated operations, facilities produce more manure than can be used on the surrounding farmland. If this manure is properly applied, stored and transported, it can be kept out of rivers, streams and the Bay.
Learn more about contaminants in livestock and poultry manure.
Striped bass spawning success has improved in the Chesapeake Bay.
Image courtesy randychiu/Flickr
According to data from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), the number of juvenile striped bass in the watershed has rebounded from last year, when it was close to the lowest ever observed.
Known as the “juvenile striped bass index,” the number of young-of-the-year striped bass in the Bay is used to track the species’ reproductive success. To count the number of striped bass that hatched this spring, biologists take a series of seine net samples in noted spawning areas, from the Upper Bay to the James River.
Image courtesy VIMS
This year, the average number of juvenile striped bass caught in each Maryland sample was 5.8, which falls below the 11.7 average but above last year’s index of less than one. In Virginia waters, researchers caught more than 10 striped bass per seine sample, which is close to the historic average of 9. A VIMS media release called the results consistent with historically observed patterns in striped bass populations.
Striped bass, or rockfish, hold great value in the watershed: the fish is a top predator in the food web and a critical catch to commercial and recreational fisheries. Late-1980's fishing bans helped striped bass recover from harvest and pollution pressures, and it is now considered a recovered species.
Restoration partners across Maryland have set a national record: for the first time, an oyster hatchery has produced more than one billion spat in a single season.
Image courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District/Flickr
The Horn Point Laboratory Oyster Hatchery is the largest hatchery on the East Coast and raises spat, or oyster larvae, for use in research, restoration, education and aquaculture. The lab produced 634 million spat last year, but a boost in spat production is a critical step in Maryland’s plan to expand oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay.
Habitat loss, disease and historic over-harvesting have contributed to a dramatic decline in native oyster populations. But the bivalves play a critical role in the Bay’s environment and the region’s economy, filtering water, forming aquatic reef habitat and feeding countless watershed residents.
According to a media release from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), 60 percent of the spat produced this season went into Harris Creek. The Choptank River tributary was declared an oyster sanctuary in 2010, and is the first target of the tributary-based oyster restoration strategy set forth by Chesapeake Bay Program partners. As of this month, half of the reef construction and seed planting in the creek is complete.
The rest of the season’s spat went toward local conservation efforts, a citizen oyster growing program and aquaculture businesses and training programs.
The Chesapeake Bay’s dead zone measured near average in size this past summer, coming close to scientists’ June prediction of a smaller than average hypoxic zone in the nation’s largest estuary.
Dead zones, or areas of little to no dissolved oxygen, form when nutrient-fueled algae blooms die. The bacteria that aid in algae bloom decomposition suck up oxygen from the surrounding waters. The resulting hypoxic or anoxic conditions can suffocate marine life, shrinking the habitat available for fish, crabs and other critters.
Each summer, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) collect water samples to measure the hypoxic volume of the Bay. Since 1983, this number has ranged from 15.3 to 33.1 percent. In 2013, it measured 22.1 percent: 5.6 percent higher than the previous year and just above the 21.9 percent average.
A federal judge ruled last week that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can set pollution limits for the Chesapeake Bay, upholding the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) that has guided water quality restoration efforts across the region since it was issued in 2010.
The TMDL, also known as the Bay “pollution diet,” set limits on the amount of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment allowed to run into the Bay each year. It required the seven Bay jurisdictions to write Watershed Implementation Plans, which make clear the steps that each will take to reduce pollution from urban, suburban and agricultural runoff, wastewater treatment plants and other sources. Pollution-reducing practices are being put in place across the watershed, and are expected to help combat the excess nutrients and sediment plaguing the nation’s largest estuary.
In 2011, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau—who were soon joined by the Fertilizer Institute and a number of agricultural trade associations—filed suit against the EPA, claiming the federal agency lacked the authority to issue the so-called “arbitrary” and “capricious” TMDL. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and several local and national partners intervened in the lawsuit to protect the cleanup. Pennsylvania Federal Judge Sylvia Rambo has ruled the plaintiffs failed to prove their case.
According to Rambo’s ruling, the Clean Water Act grants the EPA the authority to set pollution limits on impaired waters: “The [Clean Water Act] is an all-encompassing and comprehensive statute that envisions a strong federal role for ensuring pollution reduction… Considering the numerous complexities of regulating an interstate water body, EPA’s role is critical.”
An EPA spokesperson called the ruling “a victory for the 17 million people in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.”
More than 47,000 TMDLs have been issued for rivers, streams and other water bodies throughout the United States, but the Bay TMDL is the largest and most complex. Learn more on the EPA’s TMDL website.
Along the developed waterfront of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor sits a 16-acre marina complex known as Lighthouse Point. The Canton business rents slips to hundreds of people each year, and has become a hub for eco-conscious boaters who want to dock their craft with a staff who works hard for clean water.
Lighthouse Point is managed by Baltimore Marine Centers, which operates four other marinas in one of the busiest harbors in the Chesapeake Bay. Each of their facilities is a certified Clean Marina, and the business has worked to promote green practices throughout Baltimore.
Lighthouse Point was named a 2012 Clean Marina of the Year as part of a Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) initiative that recognizes marinas that adopt pollution prevention practices. From picking up trash along shorelines to containing dust and debris from boat repair and maintenance, close to 25 percent of the state’s 600 marinas are practicing Clean Marinas or Clean Marina Partners, and the designation has borne benefits for businesses and the Bay alike.
According to the DNR, a number of Clean Marina operators have experienced reduced insurance rates, improved relationships with inspectors and an ability to attract customers and charge competitive rates for slips and other services.
“[The Clean Marina program] is not only good for the environment. It’s a great marketing tool,” said Jessica Bowling, Director of Sales for Baltimore Marine Centers. “Boaters that value clean water and responsible businesses can come here, and we take pride in that.”
Baltimore Marine Centers hopes that taking part in the Clean Marina program will help spread this Bay-friendly mindset among its customers. Educating boaters in clean boating practices is a critical component of Clean Marina certification, and a responsibility the business looks forward to fulfilling.
“We have to educate boaters,” Bowling said. “We see that as a responsibility. [We have] to say, these things aren’t right, you shouldn’t be doing them. If you care about our water, you need to take care of it.”
So Baltimore Marine Centers shares clean boating tips in its electronic newsletter, which is sent to 6,000 boaters each week. And at Lighthouse Point, staff make their pollution prevention practices known.
On a recent tour of the marina, marina manager Kevin McGuire showed us what the business has done to protect clean water. He pointed out the fuel absorbencies that boaters use while pumping their gas and the pump-out facilities that ensure waste ends up at local treatment plants rather than in rivers and streams. He showed us the large recycling cans that are emptied up to three times each week and the signs that encourage boaters to pick up after their pets. He told us that staff scoop litter out of the water each morning and encourage boaters to avoid tossing their soda cans, snack packaging and other trash overboard. And he pointed out the shorelines that could soon be home to wetland plants, which would turn an empty space into a beneficial one.
“You don’t want a dirty marina,” McGuire said. “You want a green and clean facility.”
Bowling agreed. “Boaters love to be on their boats,” she said. “But they want swimmable water, too. And they recognize that they play a role in making that happen.”
Images by Jenna Valente
Seven cities and non-profit organizations are set to reduce stormwater runoff into the Chesapeake Bay, using green development to combat the fastest-growing source of pollution in the watershed.
Image courtesy Isaac Wedin/Flickr
Grant funding administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Chesapeake Bay Trust (CBT) through the Green Streets, Green Jobs, Green Towns initiative will help cities transform impervious sidewalks, streets and parking lots into green corridors that will capture and filter polluted runoff before it can flow into storm drains, rivers and streams.
A total of $400,000 will go toward green development projects in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. The town of Cambridge, Md., for instance, will use $75,000 to turn a paved surface into a park, while the District will use $95,000 to install bioretention cells and treeboxes along O St. NW.
Stormwater runoff is a growing concern in urban and suburban areas, where rainfall picks up pollutants as it flows across paved roads, parking lots, lawns and golf courses. But certain practices—including green roofs, rain gardens and permeable pavement—can help stormwater trickle underground rather than into the Bay.
A report on the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population reveals a stock that is not overfished and within which overfishing is not occurring.
According to an annual evaluation from the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC), the start of the 2013 crabbing season saw 147 million adult female crabs in the Bay, which marks a 54 percent increase from last year’s abundance of adult females. The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks this female-specific reference point as an indicator of Bay health. While this number is below CBSAC’s target, it is above the committee’s overfished threshold.
Image courtesy smaneal/Flickr
The 2013 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report, presented by CBSAC at the June meeting of the Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team, is based on the results of the winter dredge survey. This annual estimate of the blue crab population is considered the most comprehensive blue crab survey conducted in the Bay.
To maintain a sustainable blue crab fishery, CBSAC recommends taking a risk-averse management approach and making a 10 percent cut to the 2013 female blue crab harvest. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) have agreed to pursue the latter recommendation.
CBSAC also recommends better accounting of commercial and recreational harvests and continued efforts to monitor the inactive commercial crabbing licenses in the fishery, which could lead to significant increases in harvest if they were to come into sudden use.
Learn more about the 2013 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report.
Dead zones, or areas of little to no dissolved oxygen, form when nutrient-fueled algae blooms die. As bacteria help these blooms decompose, they suck up oxygen from the surrounding waters. The resulting hypoxic or anoxic conditions can suffocate marine life.
The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks dissolved oxygen as an indicator of water quality and Bay health.
The latest NOAA-funded forecast from researchers at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the University of Michigan predicts an average summer hypoxic zone of 1.108 cubic miles, lower than last year’s mid-summer hypoxic zone of 1.45 cubic miles.
This predicted improvement should result from the lower than average nutrient loads that entered the Bay this spring. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), 36,600 metric tons of nutrients entered the estuary from the Potomac and Susquehanna rivers, which is 30 percent lower than average.
The Bay’s dead zones are measured at regular intervals each year by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. While the final dead zone measurement will not take place until October, DNR biologists measured better than average dissolved oxygen on its June monitoring cruise, confirming the dead zone forecast.
On a quiet cove in Southern Maryland, a series of orange and white markers declares a stretch of water off limits to fishing. Under the surface sits spawning habitat for largemouth bass, a fish that contributes millions of dollars to the region’s economy each year and for whom two such sanctuaries have been established in the state. Here, the fish are protected from recreational anglers each spring and studied by scientists hoping to learn more about them and their habitat needs.
The largemouth bass can be found across the watershed and is considered one of the most popular sport fishes in the United States. While regional populations are strong, a changing Chesapeake Bay—think rising water temperatures, disappearing grasses and the continued arrival of invasive species—is changing bass habitat and could have an effect on future fish.
For decades, scientists with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have collected data on the distribution of largemouth bass, tracking the species and monitoring the state’s two sanctuaries in order to gather the knowledge needed to keep the fishery sustainable. Established in 2010 on the Chicamuxen and Nanjemoy creeks, both of which flow into the Potomac River, these sanctuaries have been fortified with plastic pipes meant to serve as spawning structures. And, it seems, these sanctuaries are in high demand during spawning season.
On an overcast day in April, three members of the DNR Tidal Bass Survey team—Joseph Love, Tim Groves and Branson Williams—are surveying the sanctuary in Chicamuxen Creek. Groves flips a switch and the vessel starts to send electrical currents into the water, stunning fish for capture by the scientists on board. The previous day, the team caught, tagged and released 20 bass; this morning, the men catch 19, none of which were tagged the day before.
“This [lack of recaptures] indicates that we have quite a few bass out here,” said Love, Tidal Bass Manager.
Indeed, the state’s largemouth bass fishery “is pretty doggone good,” Love continued. “That said, we recognize that the ecosystem is changing. And I don’t think anybody wants to rest on the laurels of a great fishery.”
As Love and his team learn how largemouth bass are using the state’s sanctuaries, they can work to improve the sanctuaries’ function and move to protect them and similar habitats from further development or disturbance.
“We can speculate where the best coves are, but this is the ground truthing that we need to do,” Love said.
In the fall, the team will return to the cove to count juvenile bass and report on juvenile-to-adult population ratios. While the assessment of the state’s sanctuaries is a small-scale project, it is one “aimed at the bigger picture,” Love said.
Love’s team is “doing what we can to improve the use of these coves by bass.” And protecting bass habitat and improving water quality will have a positive effect on the coves overall, creating healthier systems for neighboring plants and animals.
“By protecting these important areas, we are also protecting the larger ecosystem,” Love said.
Photos by Jenna Valente. To view more, visit our Flickr set.
Tumor rates among catfish in the Anacostia River are down, according to a new report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
Biologists with the agency’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office have studied the brown bullhead catfish for decades as an indicator of habitat status and the success of cleanup efforts. The bottom-dwelling fish is sensitive to contaminants that accumulate in the mud in which it finds its food, often developing liver and skin tumors after exposure to cancer-causing chemicals.
Image courtesy USDA/Wikimedia Commons
Brown bullheads in the Anacostia River once had the highest rates of liver tumors in North America, but recent USFWS surveys show that tumors in the fish have dropped. While the rate is still higher than the Bay-wide average, this improvement could indicate that exposure to chemical contaminants is on the decline.
Liver tumors in fish are caused by exposure to sediment that is contaminated with polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. PAHs can be found in coal, oil and gasoline, and enter rivers and streams from stormwater runoff, waste sites and the atmosphere.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) have coordinated a number of recent cleanup efforts to lower PAH contamination in the watershed, from improved stormwater management and more frequent street sweeping to the targeted inspection of local automobile repair shops to lower loadings of oil and grease.
Read more about Tumors in Brown Bullhead Catfish in the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers.
When cold weather arrives, blue crabs up and down the Chesapeake Bay stop their scurrying. The summertime rush of food-hunting and mate-finding is over, and the crustaceans will spend the winter months buried in sand and sediment. It is at this moment that researchers in Maryland and Virginia must strike: to count the crabs while they are still.
Known as the winter dredge survey, this annual count of the Bay’s blue crab population is a critical part of blue crab management. Without an accurate estimate of blue crab abundance, fisheries managers cannot set harvest limits for the season ahead.
“The winter dredge survey is the most vital tool that we have in crab management,” said Chris Walstrum, a natural resources biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “This is the best chance we have to assess the [blue crab] population, because the crabs are stationary.”
Walstrum and his team are responsible for counting crabs in Maryland waters; the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) conducts the winter dredge survey in the Virginia portion of the Bay. Between the two agencies, a total of 1,500 Bay sites are visited over the course of three and a half months before the numbers are crunched and fisheries managers can make recommendations on how blue crab harvests should or shouldn’t change.
On a warmer-than-normal January morning, Walstrum is aboard a boat in Broad Creek, a tributary of the Choptank River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The DNR vessel has been captained for more than a decade by Roger Morris, a fifth-generation waterman who used to dredge for crabs commercially and whose skills are invaluable to the success of the survey.
“Whether people like it or not, the winter dredge survey is the whole basis for our [blue crab harvest] limits,” Morris said. “That’s why I try to do the best I can do at it. It takes experience. You just can’t walk on a crab dredge boat and expect to catch crabs.”
At each survey site—six of them in this particular waterway—Morris will line up his boat and drop its so-called Virginia crab dredge into the water. The metal dredge is towed along the bottom for one minute before it is hoisted back on board, where the newly caught contents of its mesh liner are dumped out and sorted through. In each catch, there are brown leaves, oyster shells, little fish and, more often than not, a collection of blue crabs.
Each crab is weighed, measured and sexed before it is tossed back into the water. This provides an accurate picture of the blue crab population, as researchers track the number of young crabs that will form the backbone of the fishery next fall and the number of females that will produce the next generation of blue crab stock.
“The winter dredge survey provides us with a cornerstone piece of data from which to operate our [blue crab] management,” said Brenda Davis, chief of the DNR Blue Crab Program.
“It’s a long-running survey, and it’s been consistently accurate,” Davis said. “It gives us a good, static picture of the number of crabs in the Bay.”
Video produced by Steve Droter.
The blue crab population in the Chesapeake Bay has dropped, but a substantial boost in the number of spawning-age females has offered officials a piece of good news in spite of this disappointing decline.
According to the results of the annual winter dredge survey, which measures the blue crab population in Maryland and Virginia, the number of spawning-age females in the Bay has risen 52 percent. The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks this number as an indicator of Bay health, and an increase is a sign that management methods to conserve adult female crabs are working. But an overall decline in the Bay’s blue crabs—from 765 million in 2012 to 300 million in 2013—could lead to the tightening of commercial harvest restrictions.
Image courtesy Benjamin Wilson/Flickr
Scientists have attributed the decline in blue crabs not to overfishing, but to high mortality rates among juveniles. While last year’s winter dredge survey measured an unprecedented number of juvenile crabs in the Bay, last summer and fall saw an alarming loss of blue crab habitat and a large influx of red drum, which often feed on young crabs. Young blue crabs are also known to feed on each other when population densities are high.
“It is important to keep these results in perspective,” said Jack Travelstead, commissioner of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC), in a news release. “Five years ago this fishery was declared a federal disaster. That is no longer the case: overfishing is no longer occurring, a good fisheries management framework is in place, the stock is healthy and spawning-age females are doing well. If not for the disappointingly small reproductive year class we would have much to celebrate.”
In an effort to make up for this shift in blue crab abundance, Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) are pursuing strategies to establish a 10 percent cut in the commercial harvest of female blue crabs. Both Maryland and the PRFC will consider adjusting or enacting daily bushel limits, which have been put in place in Virginia. Maryland and Virginia will also consider shortening their crab seasons, and it seems likely that Virginia’s winter dredge fishery will remain closed.
The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC) will draft their 2013 Blue Crab Advisory Report over the next few weeks.
Read more about the 2013 winter dredge survey results.
According to the results of a survey conducted by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), oyster abundance has increased in state waters for the second consecutive year and more of the bivalves are withstanding pressures from pollution and disease.
The 2012 Fall Oyster Survey, which has monitored the status of the state’s oyster population since 1939, found a 93 percent oyster survival rate—the highest since 1985—and a lower-than-average prevalence of MSX and dermo, two diseases that have decimated the Chesapeake Bay’s native oysters in recent decades.
In a news release, DNR Fisheries Service Director Tom O’Connell attributed these successes to the establishment of oyster sanctuaries, which are closed to harvest and which could allow oysters to build up a natural disease resistance.
Maryland is currently restoring oyster reefs in the Harris Creek and Little Choptank River sanctuaries, as part of a federally mandated effort to restore oyster populations in 20 Bay tributaries by 2025.
Read more about the 2012 Fall Oyster Survey results.
More than half of the nation’s river and stream miles are in poor health, according to a new study from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The latest National Rivers and Streams Assessment, a sampling effort conducted during the summers of 2008 and 2009, found that 55 percent of the nation’s rivers and streams are in poor condition and 23 percent are in fair condition, their health impaired by nutrient pollution, a loss of streamside vegetation and bacterial and chemical contaminants.
These same stressors have impacted the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal waters. Excess nutrients can fuel the growth of algae blooms that suck oxygen from the water, creating “dead zones” within which animals cannot survive. A loss of streamside vegetation can boost erosion and push sand, soil and sediment into waterways, blocking sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and smothering the habitat that some aquatic organisms need to live or breed. And chemical contaminants—like, for instance, mercury—can accumulate in the tissues of fish, leading to fish consumption advisories in polluted waterways.
But rivers and streams are critical to the health of humans and wildlife alike, as sources of drinking water, food and habitat. According to the EPA, this survey suggests the need to better address pollution at its source, whether it is urban, suburban or agricultural runoff or the treatment of wastewater.
The federal agencies leading the watershed-wide effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay have released a progress report highlighting the work that was completed last year.
Federal agencies and state and local partners have added 20 new monitoring stations to the Bay and its tributaries, expanding their ability to track changes in water quality and pollution. They have established conservation practices across Bay farms and forests, installing streamside fencing to keep livestock out of waterways and planting cover crops to reduce the need for nutrient-laden fertilizers. And they have planted close to 100 acres of oyster reefs in a Maryland tributary and opened more than 30 miles of Virginia and Pennsylvania streams to eels, shad and other diadromous fish, restoring habitat for some of the watershed’s most critical critters.
But much remains to be done, and the Federal Leadership Committee for the Chesapeake Bay has outlined future work in a 2013 action plan.
“EPA and our other federal partners are pleased to report the tangible progress we’ve made over the past year, which will inform, guide and accelerate our collective actions going forward,” said EPA’s Nick DiPasquale, Chesapeake Bay Program Director. “The federal agencies and our partner jurisdictions are accountable to the citizens living near the local rivers and streams that also stand to benefit from this critical restoration work. Through our commitments, the prospects for increased momentum and improvements to the Bay’s health should be encouraging to everyone.
This winter saw an increase in waterfowl along Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay shoreline and Atlantic coast.
While pilots and biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) counted fewer diving and dabbling ducks this winter than they did in the 2012 Midwinter Waterfowl Survey, these same crews counted more geese.
According to a DNR news release, both Canada geese and snow geese were “noticeably more abundant during this year’s survey,” with crews counting 462,000 Canada geese—a three-year high—and 83,300 snow geese—a five-year high. Biologists have attributed the boost in goose numbers to two factors: last spring’s successful nesting season and December snow cover in New York and southern Canada, which encouraged geese to migrate into the Bay region right before the survey was taken.
While more geese could mean more damage to area farms—as the birds forage on green cover crops and grain crops—most farmers “have learned to deal with the problem,” said Larry Hindman, wildlife biologist and Waterfowl Project Leader with DNR. Fluttering plastic flags, bald eagle effigies placed in the middle of fields and the loud bang of a rifle or shotgun have all proven effective at deterring persistent geese, Hindman said, and those farmers who need extra help can find assistance and advice in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Damage Management program.
Resident Canada geese can pose a problem for rural, suburban and urban residents alike, and are considered overabundant in the region. While the birds do provide hunters with a chance for recreation, resident geese can overgraze wetlands and lawns and leave their droppings to pollute local rivers and streams. While the Midwinter Waterfowl Survey does not make a distinction between resident and migratory geese—as both stocks look the same during an aerial survey—DNR researchers do monitor the resident population using leg bands recovered from hunters.
The Midwinter Waterfowl Survey is used as an index of long-term wintering waterfowl trends. The estimates measure waterfowl populations along the Atlantic Flyway, which is a bird migration route that follows North America’s Atlantic Coast and Appalachian Mountains.
Read the full waterfowl survey results on the DNR website.
Chemical contaminants continue to afflict the Chesapeake Bay watershed, raising concern over water quality and the health of fish, wildlife and watershed residents.
Close to three-quarters of the Bay’s tidal waters are considered impaired by chemical contaminants, from the pesticides applied to farmland and lawns to repel weeds and insects to the household and personal-care products that enter the environment through our landfills and wastewater. But so-called “PCBs” and mercury are particularly problematic in the region, according to a report released last week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
Both PCBs—short for “polychlorinated biphenyls”—and mercury are considered “widespread” in extent and severity, concentrating in sediment and in fish tissue and leading to fish-consumption advisories in a number of rivers and streams.
The District of Columbia, for instance, has issued such advisories for all of its water bodies, asking the public not to consume catfish, carp or eels, which are bottom-feeding fish that can accumulate chemicals in their bodies. While the District’s Anacostia and Potomac rivers raise the greatest concern in the watershed when it comes to fish tissue contamination, a November report confirmed that many Anacostia anglers are sharing and consuming potentially contaminated fish, sparking interest in reshaping public outreach to better address clean water, food security and human health in the area.
While PCBs have not been produced in the United States since a 1977 ban, the chemicals continue to enter the environment through accidental leaks, improper disposal and “legacy deposits”; mercury can find its way into the atmosphere through coal combustion, waste incineration and metal processing.
Exposure to both of these contaminants can affect the survival, growth and reproduction of fish and wildlife.
The Chesapeake Bay Program will use this report to consider whether reducing the input of toxic contaminants to the Bay should be one of its new goals.
The federal agencies leading the watershed-wide endeavor to restore the Chesapeake Bay have outlined next year’s cleanup and restoration efforts in a 2013 action plan.
The work that the Federal Leadership Committee for the Chesapeake Bay has set out for fiscal year 2013 will build on established projects and begin new initiatives to restore clean water, recover habitat, sustain fish and wildlife, and boost land conservation and public access across the watershed. Supporting efforts will also expand citizen stewardship, respond to climate change and strengthen science.
The 2013 action plan includes a list of tangible efforts that federal agencies and state and local partners have pledged to undertake, from monitoring the return of migratory fish to streams in which passage barriers have been removed to helping landowners implement conservation practices on farms and in forests.
The action plan is meant to meet the goals set forth in the federal Strategy for Protecting and Restoring the Bay, which in 2009 called for the restoration and protection of the watershed. Close to half a billion dollars has been requested for the work outlined in the plan; the plan will be followed this spring with a progress report.
The federal agencies leading the watershed-wide endeavor to restore the Chesapeake Bay are seeking feedback on a draft action plan that outlines next year’s cleanup efforts.
From increasing public access to the Bay and its rivers to boosting conservation practices on farms and private lands, the action plan is meant to meet the goals set forth in the federal Strategy for Protecting and Restoring the Bay, which in 2009 called for the restoration and protection of the watershed.
Some of the proposed restoration plans are extensions of established projects, while others are new initiatives.
The action plan is open for public comment through November 27. Comments can be submitted through an online feedback form.
A paddler, a swimmer or a hiker itching to cool his tired toes can stand at the edge of a stream and judge the water. Is it clear? Is it clean? Are there critters at hand? But he won’t find an answer to his most basic question: How healthy is my waterway?
Enter the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In celebration of the Clean Water Act, the EPA has launched a new website to help users learn more about the health of their local rivers, streams and lakes.
Using information gathered from state water quality monitoring reports, the smart phone and tablet-friendly site reveals where pollution has been reported and what is being done to reduce it.
Users can engage a smart phone’s GPS to list waters within a five-mile radius or enter a zip code or place name into a search box to check on locations throughout the United States.
A few quick searches for rivers and streams in the Chesapeake Bay watershed show polluted and unpolluted waters. Happy Creek in Front Royal, Va., was deemed polluted in 2008, harboring disease-causing bacteria and other microbes. But West Virginia’s Seneca Creek was assessed as unpolluted in 2010. Other waters remain “unassessed” or untested due to shortages in staff and funding.
The website’s simple descriptions and ultra-local perspective are meant to make science more accessible, understandable and relevant.
Learn more about How’s My Waterway.
Striped bass spawning success is at an all-time low in the Chesapeake Bay.
Image courtesy Eddie Welker/Flickr
To track striped bass reproduction rates, biologists take a series of summer seine net samples at more than 20 sites in four striped bass spawning areas. This year, the average number of juvenile striped bass caught in each sample was 0.9. Last year’s juvenile striped bass index was 34.58; the long-term average is 12.
Biologists have blamed unfavorable weather for the decline.
“Generally, warm winters and dry springs are unfavorable conditions for fish that return to freshwater to spawn,” said DNR Striped Bass Survey Project Leader Eric Durrell. Like the striped bass, white perch, river herring and other anadromous fish also experienced low reproductive success this year.
But biologists “do not view this low value as an imminent problem,” said DNR Fisheries Director Tom O’Connell. “Three consecutive years of poor reproduction would be necessary to trigger mandatory conservation measures.”
According to the 2011 Striped Bass Stock Assessment released by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, striped bass along the Atlantic coast are not overfished and overfishing is not occurring.
Restoration partners in Maryland have put more than 600 million oyster spat into the Chesapeake Bay in the largest targeted restoration effort the watershed has ever seen.
While habitat loss, disease and historic over-harvesting have contributed to a dramatic decline in native oyster populations, the peculiar bivalves that filter water, form aquatic reefs and feed countless watershed residents are critical to the Bay’s environment and economy.
According to a report from the Oyster Recovery Partnership, a portion of the 634 million oyster larvae that partners planted in 2012 went into the Upper Bay, where last year an influx of fresh water from spring rains and late-summer storms led to widespread oyster death.
But most of the “spat on shell”—or young oysters “set” onto large oyster shells—went into Harris Creek, a tributary of the Choptank River that was declared an oyster sanctuary in 2010. There, partners hope to restore 360 acres of oyster reef, constructing new reefs and seeding this habitat with spat; close to one-third of this goal has been planted so far.
To fuel restoration efforts, the Horn Point Laboratory Oyster Hatchery produced a record-breaking 880 million spat in 2012, marking the fifth year in a row that spat production has exceeded half a billion. The largest hatchery on the (east coast), the Cambridge, Md., lab produces disease-free oyster larvae for use in research, restoration, education and aquaculture.
Horn Point Laboratory will host an open house on Saturday, October 13.
The University of Maryland has received close to $700,000 in federal funding to help communities reduce stormwater runoff.
Using a software program to pinpoint pollution hot spots and an innovative brand of social marketing to boost citizen engagement, the university will embark on a multi-year project to increase the adoption of conservation practices in two watershed communities: the Wilde Lake watershed in Howard County, Md., and the Watts Branch watershed in Washington, D.C., whose waters flow into the Patuxent and Anacostia rivers, respectively.
Stormwater runoff, or rainfall that picks up pollutants as it flows across paved roads, parking lots, lawns and golf courses, is the fastest growing source of pollution into the Chesapeake Bay. Best management practices can reduce the flow of stormwater into creeks, streams and rivers, from the green roofs that trap and filter stormwater to the permeable pavement that allows stormwater to trickle underground rather than rush into storm drains.
But best management practices cannot work without the citizens who put them into action.
"We need to work with communities, rather than take a top-down approach [to stormwater management]," said project lead and assistant professor Paul Leisnham. "For the long-term successful implementation of these practices ... we need communities to be involved."
The university has partnered with local schools, religious organizations and grassroots associations (among them the Maryland Sea Grant, the Anacostia Watershed Society and Groundwork Anacostia) in hopes of breaking down barriers to the adoption of best management practices and increasing community involvement—and thus, investment—in local, long-term environmental conservation.
From left, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, University of Maryland assistant professor Paul Leisnham and U.S. EPA Region 3 Administrator Shawn M. Garvin
U.S. Senator Ben Cardin commended the project at a Bladensburg Waterfront Park event as a creative and results-driven way to reduce stormwater runoff.
"It's going to allow us to make a difference in our [local] watershed, which will make a difference in the Chesapeake Bay," Cardin said.
The funding, which totaled $691,674, was awarded through the Sustainable Chesapeake Grant program administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed might soon have an easier time putting pollution credits on the market.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has awarded $2.5 million to five Bay organizations to improve the infrastructure behind water quality trading markets, which allow buyers to purchase "pollution credits" for reductions or cuts in pollution that landowners have made on their properties.
From better determining demand for credit to improving outreach to hundreds of eligible farmers, the planned improvements aim to benefit both the land and those who work it. A farmer who uses conservation practices to reduce his runoff of nutrients or sediment, for instance, can produce on-farm energy savings and water quality credits while improving the environmental health of his land.
Watershed recipients of Conservation Innovation Grants program funding include the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Maryland Department of Agriculture, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation and the Borough of Chambersburg, Pa.
The Conservation Innovation Grants program is administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). This year, an additional $23.5 million has been awarded to more than 50 recipients across the nation for innovative and conservation-minded agricultural practices, from improving soil health to increasing on-farm pollinator habitat.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has released its evaluations of the final Phase II Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) from Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. The evaluations are available online at the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay TMDL website.
Each state and the District of Columbia developed its own cleanup plan, in collaboration with local governments and conservation districts. The plans outline steps each jurisdiction will take toward restoring the thousands of streams and rivers that make up the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
“The Phase II WIPs represent a transition from planning to implementing the necessary practices at the local level,” said EPA mid-Atlantic Regional Administrator Shawn M. Garvin.
Through the Chesapeake Bay Program partnership, state and federal officials have committed to having all of the needed pollution control measures in place to fully restore the Bay no later than 2025.
“The smallest ripples are often the largest fish,” Matt Sell tells me as he waves his fishing line back and forth over a dimple in the water. The scene may seem appropriate for a Saturday afternoon, but it’s actually a Wednesday morning, and Matt is at work as a brook trout specialist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) Inland Fisheries Division.
Clad in chest waders and a t-shirt, Matt is armed with a fishing pole and the instincts of someone who’s been angling most of his life. His fishing efforts are rewarded with a 6-inch brook trout – exactly the species he was looking to catch.
In most parts of the state, a brook trout would be a rare catch. More than 55 percent of Maryland’s sub-watersheds have lost their entire brook trout population, and only 2 percent of the state’s sub-watersheds have a healthy population.
Why the sudden and steep population decline? Brook trout have very specific habitat requirements that are threatened by development, urbanization and poor land management.
“Brook trout need cold, very clean water with no sediment,” explains Alan Heft, biologist with Maryland DNR’s Inland Fisheries Division. “They need specific sizes of gravel in certain areas of the stream to reproduce. If they don’t have these conditions, they can’t exist.”
When excess sediment erodes from stream banks and construction sites, dirt gets into the gravel beds where brook trout spawn, hardening the bottom into a concrete-like material. And when water temperatures rise above 68 degrees due to factors such as hot summers and lack of a tree canopy along the edge of a stream, a brook trout’s internal system shuts down.
“Brook trout are kind of like the canary in the coal mine,” Alan says. “When you have a large brook trout population, you know that you have good water, clean water and a protected watershed. When you lose the brook trout, you know that you have problems.”
Because brook trout have such steep habitat requirements, they are used as an indicator species: their presence indicates whether or not a watershed is healthy. By closely monitoring brook trout populations, scientists can learn not just about the fish, but about water quality in a river system.
But monitoring brook trout requires more than just fishing. Although there are many methods used to monitor the fish, Matt and Alan have chosen radio tags, which they insert into each fish’s skin through a quick, painless surgery. The radio tags allow Matt, Alan and other scientists to follow the movements of brook trout for the next year or so.
When I follow Matt and Alan on their Wednesday morning fishing excursion, they bring me to a dense forest of eastern hemlocks. Mountain laurels hug the shallow stream banks, blocking the sun and forming a blanket of shade over the river. With the lush layers of forest, the serenity of fishing and the absence of human influence, it feels as though we’ve traveled back in time. But we’re actually on western Maryland’s Savage River, a 30-mile-long tributary of the Potomac River and the largest remaining native brook trout habitat in the mid-Atlantic.
Although brook trout have been eliminated from the majority of Maryland’s waterways, these fish have remained in the Savage River for a few reasons. With just 1,500 residents, the Savage River watershed has not been subjected to the fast-paced development taking place in other parts of the Chesapeake Bay region. About 80 percent of the watershed is state-owned, meaning that the vast majority of the land around the river is safeguarded from development and managed to enhance water quality and brook trout habitat. (Plus, who wouldn’t want to live in a traffic-free, forested oasis in the Appalachian mountains?)
“Typically with brook trout habitat in the east, outside of Maine and a few places in New York, all of the tributaries are disconnected. There’s damage or dams or pollution, and they can’t go from one spot to another,” Alan explains. “But these fish can go up to 30 miles in one direction. They can go up Poplar Lick six miles; they can go down to the reservoir. It’s incredibly unique and there’s hardly anything like this left. It’s our gem.”
Sure, there’s plenty of room for the fish to travel, but Alan, Matt and others with the Eastern Brook Trout Venture want to know exactly where the Savage River’s brook trout swim throughout the seasons. “In order to answer our questions, we implemented this radio tagging study last year,” Matt tells me. “Last year, we had one fish move about three miles overnight. I had one fish that moved about four miles from where it was tagged.”
These sudden movements tell Matt and Alan that some factor encouraged the fish to move far – and fast. “It seems the impetus for these fish to leave the river in the summer months was an increase in water temperature,” Matt says. “In the winter months, they move back.”
By identifying the fish’s preferred habitats, biologists will be able to manage the land to imitate these favored spots, which will help keep the river’s brook trout population healthy.
The large-scale decline of brook trout is not due to overfishing. However, harvesting these fish certainly won’t help rebuild populations. That’s why Maryland DNR decided to create a special regulation for brook trout harvesting in sections of the Savage River watershed.
“You can fish for brook trout with an artificial lure only, and you can’t keep them,” Alan says. “The result so far has been phenomenal, for both the population and for the quality of the fishing.”
(Image courtesy Jon David Nelson/Flickr)
It may be difficult to understand how Matt and Alan’s brook trout restoration efforts in the Savage River – 200 miles from the shores of the Chesapeake Bay – are connected to the Bay’s health. After all, western Maryland is a far cry from the crabs, oysters and sailboats associated with the nation’s largest estuary.
“Water rolls downhill,” Matt says simply. “It has since the beginning of time and it will continue to do so. If we can protect the water quality here, as it continues to move downstream, it has a better chance as it flows on towards the bay.”
So the restoration efforts Matt, Alan and other brook trout scientists dedicate their careers to aren’t so far removed from the Chesapeake after all. “These streams out here 200 miles from the Bay are vital,” Alan says. “When you add up all the water in these small headwater streams, it’s an amazing amount of water.”
The Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population increased 66 percent in 2012 to its highest level since 1993, according to the annual blue crab winter dredge survey conducted by Maryland and Virginia.
The enormous increase was fueled by a “baby boom” – an almost tripling of the juvenile crab population, from 207 million last year to 587 million. This figure smashed the old record of 512 million juvenile crabs set in 1993.
Overall, the Bay’s crab population has risen to 764 million, more than triple the record low of 249 million set in 2007. That deep decline set in motion four years of concentrated efforts to rebuild the stock.
“Just a few short years ago, the future did not look bright for our blue crab population,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. “Our female crabs were being overfished, and our fishery was at risk of complete collapse. We teamed up with our neighbors in Virginia and at the Potomac River Fisheries Commission to make the tough choices, guided by science, to reverse that population decline.”
Bay-wide, the crab harvest has increased substantially since 2008, when 43 million pounds were caught. In 2011, an estimated 67.3 million pounds of crabs were harvested from the Bay.
Not all news from the survey was bright: the number of spawning-age females dropped by roughly 50 percent to 97 million. However, this figure is still above the health threshold. Maryland and Virginia will work together to produce a management strategy to avert another stock decline for this segment of the crab population.
Visit the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ website for more information about the winter dredge survey and the 2012 blue crab figures.
Six of the seven Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions – Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia – have submitted their final cleanup plans as part of the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, a “pollution diet” that aims to put in place all restoration measures needed for a clean Bay by 2025.
The final cleanup plans, officially known as Phase 2 Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs), were submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last Friday. New York submitted its draft plan, and is working with the EPA to finalize that plan.
The cleanup plans were developed by each individual state and the District, working closely with counties, municipalities and other local partners. The cleanup plans identify specific restoration measures each jurisdiction will take to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution to the Bay and its local rivers.
According to the guidelines set in the TMDL, at least 60 percent of necessary pollution reductions must be achieved by 2017. Chesapeake Bay Program partners have committed to putting all needed pollution control measures in place no later than 2025.
Visit the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay TMDL website to review and learn more about the cleanup plans.
Seven federal agencies involved in Chesapeake Bay restoration have released a progress report and action plan that detail achievements and initiatives toward the goals outlined in the federal Strategy for Protecting and Restoring the Chesapeake Bay.
The federal government releases a progress report and action plan each year as part of the strategy, which was developed in response to President Obama’s May 2009 Chesapeake Bay Executive Order.
The fiscal year 2011 progress report details the steps federal agencies took toward achieving strategy goals. Although much of the year focused on setting a “road map” for the future, federal agencies also collaborated to eliminate duplication of efforts, enable best use of resources, and bring each agency’s unique skills to restoration projects.
The fiscal year 2012 action plan includes a list of tangible efforts federal agencies will tackle to improve the Bay’s health. Some of these initiatives are continuations of projects stared the previous year, whereas others are new initiatives that build on the past.
The seven federal agencies included in these reports are the Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Homeland Security, Interior and Transportation.
Visit the Chesapeake Bay Executive Order website to read the progress report and action plan.
Fewer acres of bay grasses grew in the shallows of the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal rivers in 2011, according to scientists with the Chesapeake Bay Program. Bay grass acreage fell to an estimated 63,074 acres in 2011, down from 79,664 acres in 2010. This is the lowest Bay-wide acreage measured since 2006.
Because of heavy rainstorms that led to cloudy, muddy conditions that blocked monitoring efforts, only 57,956 acres of bay grasses were actually mapped in 2011. However, scientists believe about 5,119 acres of bay grasses may have been present during the height of the growing season, leading to the final estimated Bay-wide figure of 63,074 acres.
Bay grasses – also known as submerged aquatic vegetation or SAV – are a critical part of the Bay ecosystem. These underwater meadows provide fish, crabs and other aquatic life with food and habitat, absorb nutrients, trap sediment, reduce erosion, and add oxygen to the water. Bay grasses are also an excellent measure of the Bay's overall condition because their health is closely linked with the Bay’s health.
“2011 was the year that bucked two trends we’ve seen over the last decade,” said Lee Karrh, chair of the Bay Program’s Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (SAV) Workgroup. “The Upper Bay had major decreases after years of increasing or sustained high acreages. On the other hand, the brackish parts of the Middle Bay witnessed dramatic increases in 2011, after prolonged decreases since the turn of the century.”
Experts agree that extreme weather conditions in 2010 and 2011 led to the substantial decrease in bay grasses. According to Bob Orth, scientist with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) and coordinator of the annual bay grass survey:
In the upper Bay (from the mouth of the Susquehanna River to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge), bay grasses covered approximately 13,287 acres, down from 21,353 acres in 2010. This is most likely an underestimate because scientists did not monitor the area until November, once muddy conditions improved but well past the end of the growing season. One bright spot in the upper Bay was the more than doubling of bay grass acreage in the Chester River and near Eastern Neck.
In the middle Bay (from the Bay Bridge to Pocomoke Sound and the Potomac River), bay grasses decreased 4 percent to an estimated 34,142 acres, down from 35,446 acres in 2010. (Only 29,023 acres were mapped, but scientists estimate that an additional 5,119 acres may have been present.) Large eelgrass losses were observed in Tangier Sound. These were offset by widgeon grass gains in many areas, including Eastern Bay and the Choptank River.
In the lower Bay (south of Pocomoke Sound and the Potomac River), bay grasses covered 15,645 acres, down 32 percent from 22,685 acres in 2010. Hot summer temperatures in 2010 led to this significant drop in acreage, which offset any gains that followed in 2011. Eelgrass in many parts of the lower Bay had been recovering from similar heat-related losses that took place in 2005.
Despite Bay-wide losses, there were a few bits of good news for bay grasses last year. The huge, dense bed on the Susquehanna Flats – which has increased threefold in size over the past 20 years – survived the late summer tropical storms, showing how resilient healthy bay grass beds can be to natural disturbances. Also, scientists recorded the first-ever bay grass bed in the mainstem James River since the area was first surveyed in 1998.
Annual bay grass acreage is estimated through an aerial survey, which is conducted from late spring to early autumn. Residents can do their part to help restore bay grasses by not fertilizing in the spring and planting more plants to reduce polluted runoff from backyards.
For detailed information about 2011 bay grasses acreage, including aerial photos and year-to-year comparisons, visit VIMS' SAV blog. For more information about the aerial survey and bay grass monitoring efforts, visit VIMS’ SAV website.
Virginia added approximately 840 miles of streams and 2 square miles of estuaries to its list of impaired waters in 2012, according to the state’s latest water quality report, released by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Virginia must develop more than 1,000 cleanup plans to restore the health of these and other polluted waterways.
About 260 miles of streams were removed from the list after achieving water quality standards, while another 230 stream miles were partially delisted.
In total, about 13,140 miles of streams and 2,130 square miles of estuaries are listed as “impaired,” which means they do not support aquatic life, fish and shellfish consumption, swimming, wildlife and/or public water supplies. Approximately 5,350 miles of streams and 140 square miles of estuaries are considered in good health.
Every two years, Virginia monitors about one-third of its watersheds on a rotating basis. The state completes a full monitoring cycle every six years. Since 2002, Virginia DEQ has assessed 98 percent of the state’s watersheds.
The full water quality report is available on Virginia DEQ’s website. The public is invited to comment on the report until April 27. Virginia DEQ will host a webinar summarizing the report’s results on April 9 from 10 to noon.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) will provide $4 million in grants to local governments to help reduce pollution to the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers.
The Local Government Green Infrastructure Initiative will create grants of up to $750,000 to support local governments as they implement the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, a “pollution diet” that sets limits on the amount of harmful nutrients and sediment that can enter the Bay.
The grants will support the design and implementation of projects that use green infrastructure – such as road maintenance programs and flood plain management – to produce measureable improvements in the health of local waterways. Through the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Local Government Advisory Committee, local government representatives can share best practices and evolving strategies to achieve water quality goals.
The EPA will select localities that represent the diverse characteristics of local governments throughout the Bay’s 64,000-square-mile watershed, including rural counties, predominantly agricultural communities, rapidly growing suburban localities, small cities and major urban municipalities.
NFWF will administer the grants through its Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund. Since 2000, the fund has provided $68.9 million in grants for more than 700 projects throughout the Bay watershed.
For more information about this and other grant opportunities, visit NFWF’s website.
The number of ducks, geese and swans wintering along Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic shorelines was down slightly in 2012 compared to 2011, according to scientists with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
(Image courtesy Dominic Sherony/Flickr)
Survey teams counted 633,700 waterfowl this winter, as compared to 651,800 during the same time in 2011.
An unusually mild winter in the Mid-Atlantic region likely contributed to the lower population. Scientists counted fewer Canada geese, but more diving ducks, particularly scaup. Canvasback totals were the second lowest level ever recorded; however, more birds of this species were observed arriving after the survey was finished.
Maryland survey results are ultimately pooled with results from other states to measure the population and distribution of waterfowl up and down the Atlantic Flyway, according to Larry Hindman, DNR’s waterfowl project leader.
Visit DNR’s website for more information about the waterfowl survey, including a complete list of species and survey population figures.
Maryland farmers planted nearly 430,000 acres of cover crops in fall 2011 through the state’s Cover Crop Program, the largest planting in Maryland history, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA). The 2011 figure exceeds Maryland’s 2013 Chesapeake Bay pollution reduction milestone for cover crop plantings by 21 percent.
Cover crops are widely considered one of the most cost-effective and environmentally sustainable ways to control soil erosion and reduce nutrient pollution to the Bay and its rivers in winter. Collectively, the 429,818 acres of cover crops planted in 2011 will prevent an estimated 2.58 million pounds of nitrogen (60 percent of Maryland’s total pollution reduction milestone goal) and 86,000 pounds of phosphorus from entering the state’s waterways.
Farmers plant cover crops such as rye, wheat and barley in the fall after summer crops are harvested. As they grow, cover crops recycle unused plant nutrients remaining in the soil, protect fields against wind and water erosion, and help improve the soil for next year’s crop.
To learn more about Maryland’s cover crop program, visit MDA’s website.
Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia are generally on track to meet pollution reduction goals for the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers by 2025, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) evaluations of the jurisdictions' cleanup plans.
The six Bay states and the District of Columbia recently submitted their Phase II Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) and their 2012-2013 pollution reduction milestones. These plans lay out how each jurisdiction will meet pollution reduction goals set by the EPA in the Chesapeake Bay TMDL.
Overall, the jurisdictions built considerably upon their Phase I plans, according to the EPA. The Phase II plans provide more specific cleanup strategies and detail restoration actions on a local level.
EPA evaluations and feedback on each jurisdiction’s cleanup plan are available on the Chesapeake Bay TMDL website. The EPA is still reviewing New York’s plan, which was submitted after the deadline.
The EPA will continue to work with the jurisdictions between now and March 30, when the final Phase II WIPs are due.
More of the Chesapeake Bay’s baby oysters appear to be surviving threats from pollution and disease, according to new data from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The 2011 Fall Oyster Survey shows a 92 percent survival rate, the highest figure since 1985.
“This is more than double the survival rate in 2002, when record disease levels killed off 58 percent of the population,” DNR Fisheries Service Director Tom O’Connell said. “The overall biomass index — which measures population health by volume — is also up 44 percent over last year. Not only did these baby oysters thrive under ideal growing conditions, this year we also found a new, high spatset in high-salinity areas such as the Tangier Sound.”
High flows from heavy rain storms last spring and late summer affected oysters above the Bay Bridge; however, that represents a relatively small part of the total oyster population. The lower salinities that resulted from higher freshwater flows actually proved beneficial to the majority of Maryland’s oysters because less-salty water keeps diseases at bay.
The survival rate is the percentage of oysters found alive in a sample. Sampling took place at 263 oyster bars in the Bay and its tributaries over two months last fall. Maryland’s oyster survey is one of the longest running resource monitoring programs in the world; the state has been keeping track of oyster population survival, reproduction and disease levels since 1939.
In another positive bit of news, scientists at the Cooperative Oxford Laboratory report that the frequency and intensity of the oyster diseases MSX and Dermo are low. Both of these once-devastating diseases now occur at the lowest levels on record.
For more information about the oyster survey, visit Maryland DNR’s website.
The Chesapeake Bay Trust, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the state of Maryland will award more than $400,000 to cities and towns throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed through the newly expanded Green Streets, Green Jobs, Green Towns grant initiative.
The Green Streets grants will help communities that want to accelerate greening efforts to improve livability, economic vitality, and protection of local waterways and natural areas. Projects selected will improve watershed protection and stormwater management through low-impact development practices, renewable energy use and green job creation.
“Green streets and green infrastructure are investments that create jobs and save money while also providing multiple environmental and quality of life benefits,” EPA Regional Administrator Shawn Garvin said.
Grant assistance of up to $35,000 is available for infrastructure project planning and design. Grants of up to $100,000 will be awarded for implementation and construction.
Last year, 10 cities and towns in Maryland were awarded grants to fund the planning and design of green infrastructure projects. This year, the program is providing double the overall funding.
The Green Streets grant program is open to local governments and non-profit organizations in urban and suburban areas throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, including Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia.
For more information about the Green Streets, Green Jobs, Green Towns grant program, visit the Chesapeake Bay Trust’s website. The deadline to submit proposals is March 9, 2012.
As the sun rises, bald eagles swoop from tree to ground; Canada geese honk happily in a nearby field; and a crew of scientists, boaters and trappers begin a day’s work at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge, Maryland. The mission? To keep the marshes that fringe the shoreline along this part of the Chesapeake Bay from disappearing.
Although wetland degradation can be attributed to a variety of factors, the field crew at Blackwater is focusing their efforts on one cause they believe can be easily controlled: an invasive rodent called nutria. Native to South America, nutria were introduced to the United States in the early 20th century for their fur, which was thought to be valuable at the time. These 20-pound animals with the build of a beaver and the tail of muskrat may seem harmless, but their effect on marshes across the United States has been devastating.
An overindulgent diet of wetland plants, a lack of natural predators and ridiculously high reproduction rates are characteristics that have led nutria to be labeled as an “invasive species.” Simply put, this means they aren’t originally from here, and they harm the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.
Nutria eat 25 percent of their body weight in marsh plants per day. Let’s put that into perspective: if you’re a 120-pound woman, you’d have to eat 30 pounds of plants each day to eat like a nutria. And since marsh plants don’t weigh all that much, you’d find yourself eating a lot of vegetation.
To make matters worse, nutria tear up the roots of marsh plants when they eat, making it impossible for new plants to grow. As a result, large areas of marshland erode away to open water.
“One property owner on Island Pond had a 300-acre marsh property. Now there’s about 30 acres left,” describes Stephen Kendrot, who works on the Nutria Eradication Project for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS).
Aerial photographs of Blackwater depict a similar scenario. The refuge has lost 50 percent of its wetlands since nutria were introduced in the 1940s. The photos below depict Blackwater in 1939 (left) and 1989 (right.)
Certainly, this loss is a tragedy for Eastern Shore landowners. And while residents may be disappointed that they can’t look out at a beautiful marsh view or help their children find frogs in their backyard wetland, loss of marshland also results in irreversible ecological consequences.
Marsh plants are incredibly beneficial to the environment because they:
In the early 1990s, U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff fenced off random quarter-acre plots in Blackwater’s marsh, excluding nutria but allowing other animals to enter. After several growing seasons, the marsh plants inside the enclosure began to grow, while the vegetation outside the fencing declined. This finding proved that nutria was the direct cause of marsh loss.
Like most rodents, nutria are prolific breeders. This means that those areas with just one or two nutria won’t stay that way for long. Female nutria are fertile as young as six months old, and they can become pregnant again just 24 hours after giving birth. (Essentially, a lifetime of being pregnant.)
“Sometimes we miss a couple animals and they might find each other and start a new population,” explains Kendrot.
As the nutria problem grew serious, federal and state agencies, universities and private organizations partnered to form the Nutria Eradication Project. The project team is made up of academically trained biologists and Eastern Shore natives who have been trapping nutria since they were kids.
Although nutria have been eradicated from Blackwater since the project took off in 2002, there are still substantial populations in other, less densely populated areas. These are the spots the Nutria Eradication Project is now targeting.
Today, Kendrot and I tag along with the field team to survey for nutria on the Wicomico River, an area where residents have reported nutria.
Mario Eusi, who has been trapping nutria for years, drives our boat down the Wicomico River and turns into a narrow inlet. This area is privately owned, but the landowners have granted the team permission to access their property. This type of support is critical to the project’s success.
“About half the nutria we find are on private property,” Kendrot explains. “And almost all the property on the Wicomico is privately owned.”
Consequently, the team dedicates lots of time to public outreach. Kendrot and other team members make phone calls and sit down at kitchen tables across Wicomico and Dorchester counties to explain the harmful effects of nutria. The team must assure landowners that if they grant access to their land, they are preventing their property from disappearing. From this perspective, the federally funded Nutria Eradication Project is actually a public service to waterfront landowners – the team does their best to prevent residents’ marshland from sinking into the Chesapeake Bay.
Today we are tracking nutria, which means looking for signs such as scat, paw prints, chewed plants, flattened grass beds – anything to prove “a nutria was here.” A good tracker must have both a keen knowledge of what nutria signs look like and the sharp senses to catch them, regardless of weather conditions or the speed of the boat cruising down the river. The team also tracks nutria through other methods, including dogs, radio collars and hidden video cameras.
Finding the “nute” is the bigger half of the battle. “Trapping is the easy part,” the field team assures me. Team members must first find signs of nutria before they can decide where to set traps in the spring. I admit: I’m relieved I won’t have to see any nutria in traps today.
The tide is rising, so we have to be quick; soon, the water will wash away paw prints and make it difficult to identify nesting areas. Eusi points out the difference between nutria and muskrat scat. His eye for detail and ingrained awareness of the great outdoors makes him an excellent tracker.
Suddenly, we find a nesting site: an area of flattened grasses that looks like someone has been sitting in the marsh. The signs multiply, and soon the team is out of the boat, bushwhacking through twelve-foot high cattails. I try to catch up, but my foot gets stuck in the mud, and soon I am up to my hips in wetland!
As we continue through the marsh, we find one of the most conclusive signs of an active nutria population: a 10-foot-wide “eat-out,” or an open area where nutria have eaten all of the grasses and their roots. These bare, muddy areas, stripped of all vegetation, eventually erode away into open water.
When we spot a larger “eat-out” not a few steps away, it occurs to me that the two areas will likely merge into one giant mud flat. The cattails I just bushwhacked and the mud I sank into will soon disappear forever into the Wicomico River.
Since we have successfully tracked nutria on the Wicomico today, the team can now think about how to trap the animals.
When a nutria is trapped, it drowns quickly. Team members record the age and sex of each nutria to determine if it is newly born or if it was missed during the previous round of trapping. One way to estimate a nutria’s age is to weigh its eyeballs, because the lenses grow at a fixed rate throughout its life.
Dead nutria have another benefit: carcasses left in the wild provide food for bald eagles, turtles and other wildlife.
While the term “eradication” may conjure up images of ruthless killers, the field team does not seek to conquer these rodents. Rather, the goal is to preserve the wetlands that support the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem and define the culture and economy of Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
The team’s work also benefits the region’s economy as a whole. It’s estimated that nutria cost Maryland $4 million in lost revenue in 2004 alone. The Bay’s crab and oyster fisheries are just two of countless industries that depend on coastal wetlands. The natural filtering capabilities of marsh plants cost millions of dollars to imitate with wastewater treatment plants. Nutria eradication doesn’t just save our wetlands; it also saves our money.
Nutria are often confused with beavers and muskrats, two native and ecologically important mammals. The Fish and Wildlife Service offers a nutria identification page on its website to help you distinguish the difference between these three similar-looking species.
If you think you may have nutria on your property, you should contact the Nutria Eradication Team.
In Louisiana, the nutria infestation problem is even worse. The current generation is carrying on the traditions of fur-bearing trappers thanks to the state’s Nutria Control Program, which pays trappers per nutria they collect. The state even promotes nutria trapping by providing recipes for dishes such as smoked nutria and nutria chili!
Real fur may no longer be a faux pas for the environmentally conscious fashionista. Coats and hats made from nutria fur are considered by many to be “green and guilt-free.” George Costanza thought so, anyway: in an episode of Seinfeld, he replaces Elaine’s lost sable hat with another made from the fur of this invasive rodent.
Maryland will provide more than $19 million in grants to reduce nutrient pollution to the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers by upgrading technology at four wastewater treatment plants in the state. Upgrading wastewater treatment facilities to remove more nitrogen and phosphorus from treated sewage is a critical part of meeting Bay cleanup goals.
The four facilities that will be upgraded are:
Biological nutrient removal (BNR) uses microorganisms to remove nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater during treatment. Wastewater treated at facilities using BNR contains less than 8 milligrams per liter (mg/l) of nitrogen. Enhanced nutrient removal (ENR) improves upon the nutrient reductions achieved through BNR. Wastewater treated at facilities using ENR contains 3 mg/l of nitrogen and 0.3 mg/l of phosphorus.
Funding for the upgrades comes from Maryland’s Bay Restoration Fund – also known as the “Flush Fee.” To learn more about wastewater treatment plant upgrades in Maryland, visit the Maryland Department of the Environment’s website.
Biologists with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recorded the fourth highest success rate for striped bass spawning in the Chesapeake Bay in 58 years, according to the 2011 Young of the Year Striped Bass Survey.
The survey figure of 34.6 is well above the long-term average of 11.9 and 2010’s 5.9. Striped bass spawning success varies from year to year due to factors such as water temperature, winter snowfall, spring river flow rates and weather conditions. The strong 2011 figure shows that when conditions are right, striped bass are capable of producing a large population of young.
During the 2011 survey, DNR biologists counted 47 different species among the more than 59,000 fish collected at 22 sites in the upper Bay and on the Choptank, Potomac and Nanticoke rivers. The survey also documented an increase in the abundance of juvenile blueback herring, a species that had decreased dramatically, and white perch, another important food and sport species.
Visit Maryland DNR’s website for more information about the striped bass spawning survey.
This is the fourth year the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s oyster hatchery has produced more than 500 million disease-free baby oysters, called spat. The Oyster Recovery Partnership works with the university, as well as the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other partners to collect and plant oysters in the Bay and its rivers.
The Oyster Recovery Partnership also processed more than 70,000 bushels of oyster shell in 2011. About 10,000 bushels were collected through the Shell Recycling Alliance, a program that takes used oyster shells from more than 100 restaurants, caterers and seafood distributors in the region. Baby oysters must attach themselves to other oysters to grow and survive, so it’s critical to collect as many used oyster shells as possible to reuse in oyster reef restoration efforts. The Shell Recycling Alliance now provides 15 percent of the oyster shells Maryland needs for its restoration efforts.
Visit the Oyster Recovery Partnership’s website to learn more about the group’s oyster restoration efforts.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved new standards to control polluted stormwater runoff from roads, buildings and other developed areas in Washington, D.C.
The District’s renewed municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4) permit requires that redevelopment projects in the city install runoff-reducing practices to slow the flow of polluted stormwater to the Anacostia and Potomac rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.
The required practices include:
Roads, rooftops, parking lots and other hard surfaces channel stormwater directly into local rivers and streams, carrying pollution and eroding streambanks. The renewed permit will help the District in meeting its Bay pollution reduction goals and Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP).
Visit the EPA’s website to learn more about the new stormwater permit and standards.
The Maryland Department of Agriculture has received $650,760 from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service to implement progressive management practices for drainage systems on the Eastern Shore.
The funding, awarded through a Conservation Innovation Grant, will help the state meet its Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) goals. The state will use the funding to use the most advanced technology available to protect the Bay and help reduce pollution while meeting modern drainage needs.
“There are 820 miles of public ditches on the Eastern Shore that were originally designed to manage agricultural drainage,” said Agriculture Secretary Buddy Hance. “Today, those ditches also support storm water drainage from urban town centers, state highways, and commercial and residential development. As a result, many of these ditches are very seriously stressed.”
Most of the Eastern Shore’s ditches were constructed in the 1960s and 1970s in Caroline, Worcester, Wicomico and Somerset counties. Collectively, they drain 220,000 acres of land.
Over the past ten years, MDA has worked with the University of Maryland to develop technologies and management recommendations that reduce pollution and improve drainage ditch function. Using the NRCS grant, Maryland will identify and target the most stressed ditch systems. It will them implement management practices to reduce runoff and improve water quality, including water control structures, phosphorous absorbing materials, weed wiper technology, and algal turf scrubber technology.
Visit the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s website to learn more about the funding and the project.
The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will receive nearly $850,000 through a grant from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to help Chesapeake Bay watershed farmers convert manure to energy.
The grant will be used to help farmers in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia convert excess manure to energy to generate income. The project will also improve the Bay’s health by reducing land application of manure. Efforts will be concentrated in four of the region’s “phosphorus hot spots” – areas with high concentrations of phosphorus in the soil.
The funding was provided through the 2011 Conservation Innovation Grants, a program that invests millions in innovative conservation technologies that address natural resources issues.
"The grants will help to spur creativity and problem solving to benefit conservation-minded farmers and ranchers," said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Visit www.nrcs.usda.gov for more information about the recipients of the 2011 Conservation Innovation Grants.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation have placed 306 reef balls planted with millions of baby oysters in the Choptank River near Cooks Point.
Reef balls are three-dimensional structures that provide habitat for oysters and other aquatic organisms, including worms, mussels, striped bass and black sea bass. Reef ball plantings help restore oyster populations and promote thriving aquatic reef communities. Many reef-dependent species have not been seen in the Choptank River for many years.
Visit Maryland DNR’s website to learn more about the agency’s artificial reef initiative.
Biologists with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) are mapping phragmites along the York River as part of a strategy to control the invasive marsh plant.
The agency will use the phragmites location data to develop a web-based mapping tool. Landowners along the Mattaponi, Pamunkey and York rivers can use the map to see if phragmites is growing on their property. The map should be available on DCR’s invasive species page by winter.
“DCR is developing an improved web-based phragmites mapping application that will allow landowners to assess phragmites invasions on their own land in order to make plans for its control,” said DCR Project Manager Rick Myers.
Phragmites is a tall, perennial grass that grows in marshes. The non-native form of phragmites dominates other plants, forming monocultures that do not provide good habitat for wildlife. Although Virginia has treated thousands of acres with approved herbicides, phragmites is spreading fast because too few landowners are controlling it.
For more information, visit DCR's website.
The Chesapeake Executive Council announced progress toward Chesapeake Bay cleanup milestones, discussed plans for meeting requirements of the Bay “pollution diet,” and encouraged individual Bay stewardship at its annual meeting on July 11 in Richmond, Virginia.
Executive Council members in attendance included U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator and Executive Council Chair Lisa Jackson; Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell; Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley; Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett; District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray; Chesapeake Bay Commission Chair Sen. Michael Brubaker; U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan; and representatives from Delaware, New York and West Virginia.
Chesapeake Bay Program partners are currently working toward short-term pollution reduction goals called milestones. All seven Bay jurisdictions are currently on-track or ahead of schedule in meeting these milestones. The deadline for the current set of two-year milestones is December 31, 2011.
Executive Council members also talked about their watershed implementation plans (WIPs), local restoration plans that show how each jurisdiction will meet pollution reductions required by the Chesapeake Bay TMDL. The jurisdictions are now in the second phase of developing their draft plans, which are due at the end of 2011.
Additionally, the Bay Program’s three advisory committees – Citizens, Local Government, and Scientific and Technical – presented to the Executive Council about Bay restoration activities from their unique areas of expertise.
The 2011 Executive Council meeting was held at the Maymont Foundation, located on the James River in Richmond. Executive Council members spent part of the afternoon touring exhibits on topics such as native plants, Bay-friendly lawn care, and soil health and testing. The location was chosen to highlight the meeting’s “Get Grounded in Tour Watershed” theme, which stresses the importance of connecting people with their local waterways. Through its Nature Center and educational programs, Maymont offers local residents a place to learn about and connect with Virginia’s environment.
"The focus of our discussions today was on empowering every citizen in the Bay watershed to be part of restoring these important waters,” said Jackson. “The actions of federal, state and local governments are just the beginning of revitalizing the Bay. We are also counting on the partnership of millions of people who live in this region to join in protecting the waters that support their health, their environment and their economy."
The Executive Council sets the policy agenda for the Chesapeake Bay Program. Visit our Chesapeake Executive Council page for more information.
Eleven federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture, have joined together in a new initiative to revitalize the Anacostia and Patapsco rivers.
The Urban Waters Federal Partnership will focus on the two Chesapeake Bay region rivers, as well as five other waterways throughout the United States, as pilot locations for the new initiative. The partnership’s goal is to help underserved communities access and benefit from their local waterways.
Urban waterways like the Anacostia and Patapsco rivers provide local residents with drinking water and opportunities for fishing, boating and swimming. Cleaning up and restoring these rivers is essential to protecting human health, improving quality of life, and connecting people to their local natural areas.
For more information, visit www.urbanwaters.gov.
The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is seeking federal designation of several Northern Neck creeks and rivers as “no-discharge zones,” which would prohibit overboard dumping of treated or untreated sewage to reduce bacteria contamination in local waterways.
No-discharge zones promote the use of pump-out facilities and dump stations to safely dispose of sewage from boats. The certification of marine sanitation devices, which treat and/or hold sewage on vessels, is targeted to meet fishing and swimming standards in local rivers.
Shellfish harvest restrictions due to fecal bacterial contamination are common throughout Virginia’s tidal Chesapeake Bay tributaries. This contamination has been linked to a variety of sources, including failing septic systems and sewage discharge from boats.
DEQ is proposing no-discharge zones for select water bodies in Richmond, Lancaster, Northumberland and Westmoreland counties. The four-county proposal will be sent to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for review by July.
Virginia already has no-discharge zones in the Lynnhaven River in Virginia Beach, and in Broad Creek, Jackson Creek and Fishing Bay in Middlesex County. In the Lynnhaven River, one marina reported that pump-outs nearly doubled when the tributary was designated as a no-discharge zone. Fewer boat sewage discharges combined with other pollution-reduction measures led to the re-opening of 1,462 acres of condemned shellfish growing areas to commercial harvest.
DEQ and the Northern Neck Planning District Commission will host a public meeting on June 14 to summarize the no-discharge zone application. The meeting will be held at 6 p.m. in the A.T. Johnson Alumni Museum in Montross. DEQ will accept public comments on the application June 15 through July 15, 2011.
Visit DEQ’s website to learn more about Virginia’s “no-discharge zone” program.
EPA Senior Adviser for the Chesapeake Bay and Anacostia River Jeff Corbin discusses the challenge and importance of Chesapeake Bay restoration in our latest feature.
I have recently been given the opportunity by U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to serve as her senior advisor for the Chesapeake Bay and Anacostia River. I am both honored and humbled to serve in this role (as well as over-whelmed and sleep-deprived).
On my second day in my new position, I found myself in a late evening meeting with the EPA deputy administrator discussing urgent Chesapeake Bay issues. On his conference table was a report he recently received and on the cover was an aerial view of the Hoover Dam. If you’ve never seen what the Hoover Dam looks like from above, I can assure you that it is awe-inspiring. To think that we humans could build such a massive structure, divert enormous natural forces, and do it in the midst of the Great Depression, got me thinking - if we can build a Hoover Dam, surely we can restore the Chesapeake Bay and rivers that feed it.
I do not make that conclusive statement lightly. Full restoration of all of the Bay region’s waters will not be easy, cheap, or without stumbles and obstacles. So then why do I say we can do it? Because not a single person I have encountered in my 14 years of restoration work has said we shouldn’t restore the health of the Bay and its rivers. And I mean not a single person. Not an elected official, not a wastewater treatment facility operator, not a homebuilder, not a farmer – no one. And that gives me great hope.
This is not to say that various interests don’t have concerns about the timeframe for restoration, or funding concerns, or how the pollution reduction responsibilities were divvied up. But they all acknowledge that we need to figure out a way to get the job done. And we will. Through the states’ newly developed watershed implementation plans and the federal government’s recent Chesapeake Bay Executive Order Action Plan, we have the vision and the strategies to see this restoration effort through.
Interestingly, many of the people who sent me congratulatory notes after hearing about my new position also expressed their condolences. I realize that they did so jokingly, but it really made me wonder why so many people would make that comment.
Is it because the Bay partnership’s restoration efforts are under scrutiny? If so, why would we discourage scrutiny? We are committed to restoring a national treasure and investing significant federal, state and local revenues to do so – we should be scrutinized. But after the scrutiny, let’s come together and get on with our restoration work.
Is it because of the sizable projected costs? We’ve always known those costs existed – they’ve been spelled out in detail in the various “tributary strategies” developed a decade ago by the Bay jurisdictions, in reports prepared by the Chesapeake Bay Commission and the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Blue Ribbon Finance Panel in 2004. If we are now questioning whether the costs are sustainable, then were we ever really “committed” to meeting our previous “commitments?”
Or is it because of the sometimes seemingly insurmountable political divide that exists in Washington? If that is the case, I remind everyone of the following quote: “Preservation of our environment is not a liberal or conservative challenge, it's common sense.” Who said that? President Reagan, in his 1984 State of the Union Address. He then announced a sizable budget increase for the U.S. EPA – specifically for the purpose of restoring the Chesapeake Bay.
I ask that we stop thinking of the expenses of a clean Bay as “costs” and start treating them for what they really are: investments. Investments in clean water that will generate considerable economic gain for the region.
I ask that we redouble our efforts and commitment to do what it will take to fully restore the health of our rivers. Clean the rivers and the Bay will take care of itself. I am referring to the collective “we” – EPA and other federal agencies, Bay region states, districts and local governments, numerous stakeholder interests, and millions of Bay watershed residents.
In 1961, President Kennedy didn't say to the American people, "Let's try really hard to put a man on the moon"; rather, he committed the nation to do so by the end of the decade. If you go back and read the various Bay Agreements that have been adopted since 1983, the word “commitment” is used extensively.
So if we are serious when we say that the Chesapeake Bay is a “national treasure,” and we wish to honor our past commitments, then let’s gather the strength, will and resources to achieve the Bay equivalent of landing a man on the moon – or maybe something easier, like building a Hoover Dam.
We can do this – and the world is watching us.
Underwater bay grasses covered 79,675 acres of the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal rivers in 2010, according to data from scientists with the Chesapeake Bay Program. This is a 7 percent decrease from 2009, when bay grasses covered 85,914 acres of the Bay’s shallows.
Despite the drop, the 2010 bay grass acreage estimate ranks as the third-highest Bay-wide acreage since 1984, when the annual survey began.
"Even with the decreases in the 2010 bay grass coverage, the patterns are similar to previous years,” said Lee Karrh, living resources assessment chief with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and chair of the Bay Program's SAV Workgroup. “Many of the fresh and low salinity areas have very high abundances, including 16 that have reached their restoration targets. However, the saltier parts of the Bay continue to struggle, with most areas well below the restoration goals, with only the mouth of the James River exceeding the goal.”
Bay grass abundance is currently at 43 percent of the Bay Program’s 185,000-acre goal. This goal is based on approximate historic bay grass abundance from the 1930s to present.
“We were pleased that grasses remain healthy and abundant in two areas where nutrient pollution was reduced: the upper Potomac River and Susquehanna Flats,” said Bob Orth, scientist with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and leader of the baywide annual survey. “However, the overall condition for bay grasses remains one of concern with many areas still having few, if any, grass beds.”
In the upper Bay (from the Susquehanna Flats to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge), bay grasses covered about 21,353 acres. This is a 10 percent decrease from 2009. Large increases were observed in the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal and part of the Sassafras River. However, these were offset by large decreases in local rivers, including the Bush, Bohemia and Magothy. The massive grass bed in the Susquehanna Flats continues to dominate this area.
In the middle Bay (from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to the Potomac River and Pocomoke Sound), bay grass acreage decreased 11 percent to 35,446 acres. Most segments in this part of the Bay lost grasses. The largest percentage decreases occurred in the middle and lower central Bay, as well as the Choptank, Honga, Patuxent and Potomac rivers. Increases were seen in Tangier and Pocomoke sounds and the Manokin and Big Annemessex rivers, where eelgrass continued to come back following a 2005 die-off.
In the lower Bay (south of the Potomac River), scientists mapped 22,876 acres, a 1 percent increase from 2009. This is the fourth year that bay grasses in this part of the Bay have increased since 2005, when hot summer temperatures caused a dramatic large-scale eelgrass die-off. Most of the gains were in the upper Rappahannock, lower Piankatank, and the upper section and mouth of the James River. These gains offset losses in other areas.
“In 2010, our big concern arose in the lower Bay where eelgrass appeared to suffer another setback from the incredibly hot summertime temperatures,” said Orth. “Since we had mapped those beds prior to the heat wave, losses there are not reflected in our final figures. We believe the really hot summer temperatures in the early part of the growing season may have just cooked the grasses before we were able to map them, e.g. parts of the Honga River. The changes also occurred in areas dominated by just one species, widgeongrass, which has been shown to be a boom or bust species. 2010 may have been the hottest on record but it was those summer time temperatures in June that may have tipped the scale for SAV in some areas.”
Bay grasses – also known as submerged aquatic vegetation or SAV – are a critical part of the Bay ecosystem. They provide underwater life with food and habitat, absorb nutrients, trap sediments, reduce erosion, and add oxygen to the water.
Bay grasses are also an excellent measure of the Bay’s overall condition. The health of bay grasses is closely linked with Bay health. Annual bay grass acreage estimates are an indication of the Bay’s response to pollution control efforts.
Annual bay grass acreage is estimated through an aerial survey, which is conducted from late spring to early autumn. For more information about the aerial survey, and to view an interactive map of bay grass acreage throughout the Bay and its tidal rivers, visit VIMS’ website.
The Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population is at its second-highest level since 1997, according to results from the 2011 Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey. At 460 million crabs, the blue crab population is nearly double the record low of 249 million in 2007.
Additionally, the survey shows that there are 254 million adult crabs in the Bay, a figure that is above the 200 million population target for the third year in a row. This marks the first time since the early 1990s that there have been three consecutive years where the adult population was above the target.
These figures indicate that emergency crab management measures put into place in 2008 are helping the Bay’s blue crabs recover, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC).
“We continue to realize the benefits of the very tough decisions we made three years ago – decisions that are bringing us closer to our ultimate goal: a self-sustaining fishery that will support our industry and recreational fisheries over the long term,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.
“The stock’s improved status from just a few short years ago is neither a random event nor a reflection of improved environmental conditions,” said Dr. Rom Lipcius, who directs the Virginia component of the dredge survey for the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS).
The unusually high crab abundance allowed watermen to harvest more than 89 million pounds of crabs, the largest amount since 1993. In addition, recreational crabbing license sales increased by 8 percent in 2010. However, the combined commercial and recreational blue crab harvest did not exceed the target of 46 percent. This shows that a healthy crab industry can coexist with stronger regulations, according to VMRC.
Despite these positive figures, overall crab abundance declined due to this past winter’s deep freeze that killed as many as 31 percent of Maryland’s adult crabs, compared to about 11 percent in 2010. Crab reproduction – which is heavily influenced by environmental conditions – was also lower in 2011.
“It was a harsh winter and crab mortality was higher than normal. In fact, it was the worst we’ve seen since 1996,” said VMRC Commissioner Steven G. Bowman. “Thankfully, we acted when we did in 2008 to begin rebuilding the crab population, or the crab census results we see today would be grim indeed.”
“The evidence indicates we’ve succeeded in rebuilding the stock to a degree that it can withstand a perfect storm of rapid temperature drop as crabs move into their overwintering grounds in the lower end of the Chesapeake Bay, followed by a prolonged bout of cold weather,” said VMRC Fisheries Chief Jack Travelstead.
Abundance estimates for young of the year, mature female and adult male crabs are developed separately. Together, these groups of crabs will support the 2011 fishery and produce the next generation of crabs.
The annual Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey is the primary assessment of the Bay’s blue crab population. Since 1990, Maryland DNR and VIMS have sampled for blue crabs at 1,500 sites throughout the Chesapeake from December to March. By sampling during winter – when blue crabs “hibernate” by burying themselves in the mud – scientists can develop the most accurate estimate of the Bay’s blu crab population.
For more information about the blue crab survey results, view this presentation from Maryland DNR.
New tests by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) show lower levels of contaminants in the Chesapeake Bay’s striped bass (rockfish), prompting the agency to increase its recommendation for the amount of the popular fish residents can safely eat.
Revised fish consumption advisories increase the recommended meal limits for striped bass caught in the Bay for nearly every population group.
The recommended meal limits for the general population for smaller striped bass increased by 50 percent, from two meals to three meals per month
The advisories no longer include the recommendation that had existed for women and children for certain striped bass
The new recommendations stem from recent test results that show a significant decline in PCB levels in striped bass from Maryland waters. Median PCB levels fell by more than half in fish analyzed between 2001-2005 versus in 2009-2010.
Data also suggest that contaminant levels are even lower in striped bass fillets prepared without fatty portions of the fish.
“Contamination has decreased in the striped bass we tested,” said MDE Acting Secretary Robert M. Summers. “Although we do not have the data to identify a specific explanation for the decline, PCBs have been banned in the United States since 1979, and we’re encouraged by this positive indication of the improving quality of our waters.”
MDE has also released new consumption advisories for bluefish caught in the Bay. Based on new data, MDE recommends a limit of two meals per month for bluefish less than 15 inches long. Residents should avoid eating bluefish larger than 15 inches.
Fish consumption advisories provide recommended limits on how often certain fish can be eaten and still enjoy health benefits while minimizing risks. For Maryland waters, fish consumption advisories are available on MDE’s website and posted at many public fishing areas.
For more information about the revised striped bass consumption advisory, including detailed consumption advisory charts, visit MDE’s website.
Early March's heavy rains and snow melt caused a flood of nutrients and sediment to flow into the Chesapeake Bay from the Susquehanna River, according to scientists with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
This heavy runoff, which resulted in record poor water clarity in many areas, could harm bay grasses and cause more algae blooms to form in the Bay this spring and summer, especially if the wet weather continues.
Two days after a very heavy rainstorm that doused the region with 2+ inches of rain, the U.S. Geological Survey recorded a peak flow of 485,000 cubic feet/second (cfs) from the Susquehanna River at Conowingo Dam. This was well above the March average of 75,000 cfs and the highest average daily flow rate observed at the dam since September 2004, when floodwaters from Tropical Storm Ivan passed through.
Large amounts of fresh water flowing from the Bay’s rivers can erode stream banks and bring polluted runoff from the land into the Bay. Late winter and early spring are critical times for many of the Bay’s aquatic species. Bay grasses are just beginning to grow and many fish are starting to spawn.
Maryland DNR will continue to monitor water conditions to assess any short- or long-term storm effects of the wet weather.
For more information, visit Maryland DNR's website.
Scientists observed more than 640,000 ducks, geese and swans along Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay shoreline this winter as part of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ annual Midwinter Waterfowl Survey. This is a decline from 2010, when approximately 787,000 waterfowl were counted.
The decline is largely due to fewer Canada geese and snow geese being counted for the survey. Large numbers of geese likely went undetected because they were on farms and other inland habitats. Overall, the wintering Canada geese remained high.
More ducks were counted in 2011 (199,300) than in 2010 (173,700) due to snow and cold weather north of Maryland, according to DNR. In particular, there were more mallards and canvasbacks, as well as an exceptional number of gadwalls on the Susquehanna Flats.
The Midwinter Waterfowl Survey has been conducted annually throughout the United States since the early 1950s. Maryland survey results are ultimately pooled with results from other states to measure wintering waterfowl distribution and populations throughout the Atlantic Flyway, according to DNR Waterfowl Project Leader Larry Hindman.
“The survey is conducted in a coordinated manner across the Atlantic Flyway states to provide an annual index of the population size for important waterfowl species like black ducks, Atlantic brant and tundra swans,” Hindman said.
Visit Maryland DNR’s website to view the full survey results.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has appointed Jeff Corbin as her senior adviser on Chesapeake Bay restoration.
In his new position, Corbin will help coordinate all aspects of the EPA’s strategic Chesapeake Bay initiatives. He will also serve as the lead liaison among the EPA, other federal and state government agencies, and various stakeholders throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Corbin is currently a senior adviser to EPA Region 3 Administrator Shawn Garvin, with whom he works closely on Chesapeake Bay issues.
Prior to joining the EPA in 2010, Corbin served as assistant secretary of natural resources in Virginia. During that time he worked closely with the Chesapeake Bay Program when then-Gov. Tim Kaine was chair of the Chesapeake Executive Council.
Corbin also spent nearly 10 years with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, ultimately serving as its Virginia deputy director and senior scientist.
Administrator Jackson’s former senior adviser on the Chesapeake Bay, Chuck Fox, left the position at the end of last year.
The number of baby oysters in the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay is at its highest level since 1997, and more young oysters appears to be surviving the effects of diseases, according to a recently completed survey by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Since 1939, Maryland has monitored the status of the oyster population through annual field surveys. The surveys track three critical components of the oyster population: reproduction levels, disease infection levels and annual mortality rates.
The two-month 2010 fall population assessment covered 260 oyster bars and 399 samples throughout the Bay and its rivers. Scientists found 80 baby oysters (called spat) per bushel; about five times the 25-year average of 16.
The increased spat set is an immediate asset to Maryland’s expanded sanctuary program,” said DNR Fisheries Director Tom O.Connell. These protected oysters will grow and reproduce, contributing more oysters to the Bay's sanctuary and surrounding aquaculture and public fishery areas, and providing important ecological benefits such as water filtration and reef habitat.
Oyster spat were also widely distributed throughout the Bay and its rivers. While the largest amounts were in the lower Bay’s saltier waters, where reproduction is typically more successful, a moderate spatfall also occurred in fresher waters that generally have little to no spat sets. Some of these areas included the upper Bay as far north as Pooles Island and the upper reaches of the Chester, Choptank and Patuxent rivers.
Additionally, the frequency and intensity of the oyster diseases MSX and Dermo remains low. Dermo remains below the long-term average for the eighth consecutive year, and MSX has fallen after a spike in 2009. Oyster survivorship, measured by the percentage of living oysters per sample, was 88 percent, the highest level since 1985 and more than double the 2002 level.
"These moderate levels of natural oyster mortalities during recent years may reflect increases in disease resistances among oysters and their progeny that survived the severe disease pressures of the 1999-2002 drought,"said Chris Dungan, manager of oyster disease research at the NOAA Oxford Lab.
Since 2000, DNR, the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office and the University of Maryland have produced more than 2.5 billion oyster spat in hatcheries and planted then in Maryland waters. The partnership has also reclaimed thousands of acres of buried shells from derelict oyster reefs.
Visit Maryland DNR's website to view the full results of the oyster survey.
Today we’re introducing a new blog feature called “Ask a Scientist.” Each month, we'll take a question submitted through our website or Twitter (@chesbayprogram) and have a scientist from the Bay Program partnership answer it here on our blog.
Today's question is about restoring bay grasses in the Chesapeake Bay. One of our readers wanted to know if he could help restore bay grasses in his local creek by planting bay grass seeds. We turned to Mark Lewandowski, natural resources biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and member of the Bay Program's Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (SAV) Workgroup, for some expert advice.
Many people who live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed do everything they can to help the environment. They recycle, compost, use rain barrels, or plant native plants and shrubs. But people always want to know what else they can do.
Culturing oysters, growing wetland plants and planting underwater bay grasses all seem like good, easy ways to help. So what’s so hard about planting bay grasses? Isn’t it as simple as getting some seeds, planting them in an aquarium and watching them grow?
Many people have successfully grown grasses in their aquarium. But very few people have had success planting them in the Bay because the grasses do not survive over the long term. Selecting an appropriate site to plant bay grasses requires a lot of research and information.
Water quality is the biggest factor in bay grass survival. All bay grasses need enough light to photosynthesize, so clear water is critical. Each type of bay grass has very specific physiological needs that are different for each species.
The next requirement is proper substrate.; The bottom sediment can't be too sandy or the plant won't root. It can't be too silty or the transplant will just get buried. And it can't have too much clay. In addition, plants need the correct balance of nutrients to grow. Scientists have access to the most comprehensive data available, as well as specialized analytical tools that can pinpoint the sites where grasses might flourish.
In addition to finding the right conditions, you also need a large number of plants for the grasses to take hold. Planting a few square meters of bay grasses off the end of your pier is almost never successful. Bay grasses on the outside of a bed protect the core of the bed. So the grasses that are on the fringe will die back, protecting the center of the bed from waves and animal grazing.
Restoration would be easier if we could just buy seeds from a garden center. However, our experience is that only bay grass seeds collected from grass beds in the Bay have the best chance of survival. Even this is not an ideal or easy approach, though. Collecting seeds from the Bay depletes the seed stock that naturally replenishes bay grass beds. It also requires a permit from resource management agencies and may require specialized equipment to harvest. Additionally, it’s necessary to have specific knowledge of seed development to ensure that the seeds collected are mature and will germinate.
So keep doing the things you are doing to help the Bay already, but it may be best to leave bay grass restoration to the experts.
Visit Maryland DNR's website to learn more about the agency's bay grass restoration efforts.