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.
Just over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, residents in Centreville, Md., spent Saturdays building rain gardens, installing native plants and talking to their neighbors about improving the health of the Corsica River, a tributary of the Chester River.
(Image courtesy Corsica River Conservancy)
Volunteers with the Corsica River Conservancy (CRC) are seeking to remove the Corsica from the official list of impaired waterways. This goal requires major pollution reduction and habitat enhancement projects.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways for Corsica River area residents to help. All watershed residents are eligible to apply for a free rain garden valued at up to $2,000. Volunteers can also get involved with CRC’s oyster gardening and shoreline restoration projects. Take a look at this interactive map to find a project near you.
Check out this blog post from the Chesapeake Bay Trust to learn more about the Corsica River Conservancy.
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.
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.
If you have been to Tangier Island, feel free to skip this post. However, if you were like me and planned on visiting forever but never got around to it, read on, my friend.
I had the opportunity to join the Chesapeake Bay Foundation a few weekends ago on their venture out to Port Isobel, just east of Tangier Island. The foundation was conducting a weekend workshop for students who graduated from their VOICES program; I just tagged along to shoot some pics.
Let me start by saying that the sunrises and sunsets are ridiculous! As a photographer, I wouldn’t say my favorite genre is shooting these types of landscapes. But honestly, you can’t help it at Tangier.
The first thing that came to mind when I walked onto the island itself was, “Wow, no way does a mix of Pleasantville and the 1950s still exist like this in the world.” Contrary to my assumptions, it does.
Now, granted I am only 23 and thus my previous statement is void (being as that I never saw the 1950s), I still concluded that this is one of the most unique places I have ever been. The island is home to about 500 residents and almost as many golf carts. Throw in the population of cats, and you have yourself a pretty populated little town.
The main street is a continuous line of crab shacks. It’s incredible. Many commercial watermen still call Tangier home. The question is, for how long?
I had the pleasure of meeting a local from Tangier, Captain Charles, who walked me around the island and talked to me about Tangier’s past, present, and future. He said he could trace his family roots on Tangier back to the 1700s.
With the erosion that is slowly eating away at the island, and the number of residents moving to the mainland, it makes you question how much longer this unique and special culture can continue to exist. When you add on regulations for watermen and increasing costs involved with the industry, it begs the question… does Tangier Island have the ability to sustain itself?
You’ve probably seen the ESPN commercials that feature Tangier Island. The locals seem extremely appreciative of tourism and the support that comes from it. However, tourists come to see why the island is unique, and with the loss of the watermen and crabbing culture, that uniqueness may continue to slip.
Despite all that, you would think the folks on the island don’t have a care in the world. They are an extremely friendly group of people that are proud of their heritage and the land they grew up on.
I strongly suggest making a trip out to Tangier Island if you have a weekend, or even a night, to spare. There are several bed and breakfasts on the island where you can stay. The heritage museum is a must-see as well; the works from a few “artists in residence” are more than worth checking out.
Yesterday I visited the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center (CBEC), located in Grasonville on Maryland's Eastern Shore. It's an excellent spot for an afternoon walk, with trails that wind through salt marshes and loblolly pine stands. According to its website, CBEC has four miles of trails, two observation towers and two observation blinds, which are great to take photos from. There's also a one-mile water trail, with canoes and kayaks on-site available to rent (though it was a little too chilly to be out on the water yesterday!).
CBEC is also part of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, a network of over 150 sites in Maryland, Virginia, D.C., Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware and New York. Gateways include water trails, parks, wildlife preserves, museums and more. If you're looking for a way to experience the Chesapeake Bay or your local river, the Gateways Network has lots of spots to offer.
CBEC is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. It's about a 20-minute drive from the Bay Bridge and there's a $5 per person admission charge. I hope you're able to go check it out!
On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, pollution from development and agriculture are much-debated issues affecting the Chesapeake Bay's health. But one of the region's most destructive forces is unseen by many: a large, beaver-like rodent that digs out and feeds on the roots of marsh grasses.
Nutria are an invasive species that live in the Delmarva Peninsula's marshes and wetlands. Since their introduction in the 1940s, nutria have eaten through thousands of acres of marshland on the Eastern Shore. Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County has been especially hard-hit: nutria have destroyed more than half of the marshes there -- nearly 7,000 acres.
Marshes and wetlands are important because they protect clean water by filtering out pollutants and reducing shoreline erosion. They also provide opportunities for outdoor nature activities such as paddling, hiking, hunting and bird-watching.
Additionally, wetland destruction by nutria costs Maryland’s economy $4 million per year in lost environmental services from the degradation of farmland, property, water quality, commercial fisheries and outdoor activities. Recent reports estimate that figure will increase to $30 million per year by 2050 if nutria are left unchecked.
To combat nutria’s destruction of valuable marshland, a group of federal, state and local organizations has come together to eradicate the invasive rodent from the Eastern Shore.
The Maryland Nutria Project began in the late 1990s as the Maryland Nutria Project Partnership, a group of 22 organizations that joined together to investigate the potential to eliminate nutria from Eastern Shore marshes. In 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received federal funding to develop a strategy to eradicate nutria in Maryland.
Today, the Maryland Nutria Project is one of a small handful of highly successful invasive species programs in the United States. Since its work began in 2002, the Project has removed nutria from almost 150,000 acres of wetlands in Caroline, Dorchester, Somerset, Talbot and Wicomico counties.
The Maryland Nutria Project’s trapping efforts were originally concentrated in a 95,000-acre “nutria eradication zone,” which included Blackwater, the state-owned Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area, the privately owned Tudor Farms, and other nearby private lands.
“Except for monitoring activities, the Project is finished in the nutria eradication zone,” said Dan Murphy, program supervisor with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Field Office. “We are continuing to expand out of Dorchester County into nutria-infested marshes in Caroline, Somerset, Talbot and Wicomico counties.
Marshes have shown a remarkable ability to recover once nutria are removed from an area. But without a continued effort to eradicate them, nutria will re-infest and once again destroy wetlands. The Project must expand its efforts into the remaining five southern Maryland Eastern Shore counties and the Delaware and Virginia portions of Delmarva -- a total of more than 400,000 acres of wetlands.
“The challenge ahead is for the Project to continue to expand into surrounding marshlands while preventing re-infestation of previously trapped habitats on state, federal and private lands,” Murphy said. “This will require the trapping team to work in much larger areas and expand the trapping zone on a much broader front.”
Based on current staffing, progress and field efforts, the Maryland Nutria Project estimates that it will eradicate nutria from the Eastern Shore by 2013. After that time, Project members will continue to monitor marshes and remove any nutria they find.
The Nutria Management Team, led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Field Office, oversees the nutria eradication project. Other members of the Maryland Nutria Project include:
Learn more about nutria and the Maryland Nutria Partnership from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Officials in Delaware and Maryland have signed on to a bi-state effort to ensure long-term stewardship of the Nanticoke River, a major component of the new Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail and one of the newest sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network.
The Nanticoke River is the largest Bay tributary on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, flowing from southern Delaware to Tangier Sound. The Nanticoke region is revered for its landscape of maritime forests and bald cypress swamps, which is very similar to the time when Captain Smith explored the river 400 years ago.
Maryland officials plan to preserve more than 275 acres of farmland in Vienna, Md., to implement a “greenbelt” along the town’s western and southern edges. The greenbelt will protect the rural and historic character of this riverfront town by clearly defining where growth should occur.
Collaborative projects among the two states, the National Park Service, the Friends of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Water Trail and regional associations, businesses and citizens will include:
View the full Nanticoke Partnership Agreement and more information from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control
On any given afternoon, thousands of cars and trucks speed along Route 301 on Maryland's upper Eastern Shore, rolling past forests, rivers and soybean fields on their way north to Delaware or south to the Bay Bridge.
(Image courtesy Eastern Shoreway Alliance)
Staff with Adkins Arboretum hope motorists will soon travel on Route 301 for another reason: to see the road itself.
Since early 2002, the arboretum has led the Eastern Shoreway Alliance, a partnership of local organizations and individuals interested in conserving the rural character of this well-traveled road. The group's mission is to protect the stretch of Route 301 between Queenstown, Maryland, and the Maryland/Delaware state line from the development and urbanization threatening many of the Eastern Shore's most scenic areas.
“We want to preserve a sense of place, so you know where you are in the world,” said Ellie Altman, executive director of Adkins Arboretum and co-chair of the Eastern Shoreway Alliance. Much of that “sense of place” has already been lost around the Chesapeake Bay region, as chain restaurants and retail stores make once-unique towns look like any other place in the United States.
Take a drive north on the Eastern Shoreway — the name the Alliance has chosen for Route 301 — into Delaware, and the threat becomes a reality. New homes, stores, hotels and restaurants sit atop land where corn and soybeans grew just a few years ago. Bulldozers and “land for sale” signs along the road indicate that more development is on its way.
(Image courtesy AARoads)
This type of development is not unique to Delaware. Across the Bay watershed — and the country — new construction is concentrated along existing major roads. Although roads are necessary to modern life, they are often gateways to development and the first places where gas stations and strip malls pop up.
Back on the Maryland portion of Route 301, the scene is much closer to the traditional image of rural Delmarva. Volunteers with the arboretum have been working hard to protect this landscape by removing invasive plants and restoring meadows along the road. Dozens of signs mark these areas, which soak up excess polluted runoff and provide habitat for beneficial birds, bugs and butterflies.
With the addition of these meadows, the Eastern Shoreway now acts as a “linear arboretum” where travelers can see some of the Eastern Shore's native plants and flowers outside of Adkins' 400-acre facility in Ridgely, Maryland, according to Altman.
(Image courtesy Eastern Shoreway Alliance)
Through its website, the Eastern Shoreway Alliance markets the road as a travel destination for tourists from Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. And next year, one of the group's biggest goals will be achieved when the Eastern Shoreway is printed in the Maryland State Highway Administration's Scenic Byways Guide. It will be one of the state's few high-speed roads designated as a "scenic byway."
“Normally you think of scenic byways as backroads, not highways,” said Altman. “But highways can — and should — be beautiful, too.”
From the beginning, the State Highway Administration has been a willing participant in this project. The Eastern Shoreway Alliance is working with the agency to reduce mowing along the highway and put up signs at the crossings of the Chester and Sassafras rivers, two Bay tributaries. The group also wants to add literature on the road's significance to the highway's welcome center.
The effort isn't perfect. Billboards litter a few points along the road, advertising politicians, available land and car insurance companies. Although encroaching development can't be stopped entirely, the Eastern Shoreway Alliance hopes that future structures can be built in a way that does not harm the road's natural scenery.
Most importantly, the group has managed to garner support and build a sense of urgency among the area's residents to protect the land along this “beautiful highway.”
“People think it will be here forever,” said Altman of the road and its unspoiled scenery. “We want to interpret, protect and restore the road's environment and show travelers that you can have development that fits in with nature.”