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.
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe has been selected to chair the Chesapeake Executive Council, beginning January 1, 2015.
The Chesapeake Executive Council, established in 1983, is responsible for guiding the Chesapeake Bay Program’s policy agenda and setting conservation and restoration goals. Members include the governors of Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, the Mayor of the District of Columbia, the Chesapeake Bay Commission Chair and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator.
“I am humbled that my colleagues on the Chesapeake Executive Council have selected me to lead our collective efforts at this critical time in the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay,” said Governor McAuliffe. “Not only are we engaged in the implementation of the recently signed Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, but we are continuing the difficult work of meeting our water quality goals under the framework of the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load. The Chesapeake Bay is a national treasure and an enormous economic asset for Virginia and our neighboring states. I look forward to working with my counterparts in this region to restore and protect the Bay for generations to come.”
Governor McAuliffe succeeds Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who became chair in December 2013. Under the leadership of Governor O’Malley, the Executive Council adopted the landmark Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. He also served two consecutive terms as the Executive Council Chair in 2007 and 2008 and was instrumental in developing two-year milestones that focus on short-term, achievable goals.
"The Bay has been at the top of my agenda during my two terms as Governor and I have been honored to have served as chair three times during my tenure,” said Governor O’Malley. “I know Governor McAuliffe will provide the leadership necessary to meet our collective goals, and I wish him along with the other members of the Council well.”
Nobody enjoys paying taxes or fees to the government. Whether or not you believe in “big government,” April 15th is no one’s favorite day of the year. But it’s important to remember that when we put money into local governments, we benefit from what good government offers. It’s easy to feel more positive about paying a fee when you know the money is being put to good use.
Three Maryland towns – Berlin, Oxford and Salisbury – recently decided to be examples of what I’d call responsible, Bay-friendly government when each of them voluntarily established its own stormwater utility. A stormwater utility operates in a similar way to an electric or water utility; it generates funds by charging a fee for service and uses those funds to improve the community’s quality of life by updating sewer systems, addressing flooding issues, reducing polluted runoff in local waters and better planning for the impacts of climate change. These programs were not requirements from the state or federal government; rather, residents felt it was necessary and appropriate to create a funding source to deal with the problems facing their communities.
In January 2013, the town of Berlin passed legislation to reduce flooding and clean up local rivers and streams. The fees established by this legislation will generate almost $600,000 annually to improve stormwater management, repair existing infrastructure and reduce chronic flooding. Over time, this stormwater utility will save the town money by avoiding damage to the city’s infrastructure and reducing the impacts of flooding on local businesses.
In 2012, the town of Oxford – working with the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC), the Mid-Atlantic Environmental Finance Center and other partners – conducted an assessment of the town’s existing stormwater conditions. The recommendations of the assessment included the creation of a stormwater utility. Over the years, residents of Oxford have seen more areas flood on a more frequent basis and felt they had to find a solution. Town Manager Cheryl Lewis believes the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will give flood insurance discounts to communities that take action to address stormwater issues themselves.
Salisbury recently became the latest Maryland town to voluntarily establish a stormwater utility through a unanimous decision by its city council. But these programs aren’t exclusive to Maryland – across the Chesapeake Bay region, local governments have taken charge to help protect their local waters. From Washington, D.C., to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to Lynchburg, Virginia, cities large and small have not only established stormwater utilities but have also implemented stormwater credit programs to reward homeowners who install rain gardens, pervious pavement, green roofs and other methods of reducing the amount of runoff from their property.
In many of these cases, these programs are dealing not simply with nuisance flooding, but with chronic flooding that disrupts business and results in lost income. While some opponents of the stormwater utility approach refer to the fees as a “rain tax,” supporters see it as a way to protect local waterways and drinking water sources from polluted stormwater runoff.
It’s encouraging to see groups rise above the rhetoric, recognize there is a problem, and take positive action and responsibility to address it, instead of waiting to be forced to make a change. These issues affect their community, their homes and their businesses, and they are taking charge.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy endorsement or action.
When thinking of wine, Maryland may not be the first state that comes to mind, but for the Deford family, the artful pairing of responsible land management and master craftsmanship at Boordy Vineyards has put the Free State on the wine aficionado map.
Nestled in the rolling countryside of Long Green Valley in Hyde, Maryland, a mere 30 minutes outside of Baltimore, the 240-acre property provides solace to visitors, melting away the stressors of daily life with views of rich vegetation, historic farmland and 25 acres of intricately arranged rows of grapevines.
The family strives to develop a lasting connection with the community and welcomes visitors year-round by regularly hosting events. “Everything we do here has an educational component to it because wineries are unusual in Maryland, farming is increasingly rare and we are constantly competing with other views of how the countryside around Baltimore County should be managed,” said Robert Deford, President and owner of Boordy. “We really want farming to succeed here.”
To Deford, a twelfth generation Marylander and the fourth generation to be raised on the farm, success and sustainability go hand-in-hand. In 2000, the family placed the property under permanent conservation easement through Maryland Environmental Trust, allowing the farm to proceed without having to compete with development money by taking the option to sell the land to developers off the table. “We look at land not as an empty resource to be built on, but as something to be tended to and taken care of. For me, sustainability means the ability to realize the dream of continuing to live and work here,” explained Deford.
The 25 full-time and 75 part-time employees have adopted the Defords’ mission of sustainability and assist in the efforts to be as efficient as possible. “If we are not sustainable by definition, we are going to go out of business at some point. The land is what sustains us, so if we treat it badly the system is going to crash,” said Deford.
A number of best management practices have been implemented on the vineyard to reduce the establishment’s energy demands and impact on the environment. Staff hand-pick the fruit – avoiding the use of machinery – to ensure only the highest-quality grapes end up in the wine; the rest are left for wildlife, like birds, to scavenge. Grass grows freely in between the vines to stabilize the soil and mitigate runoff of sediment into the adjacent stream on the property. Additionally, all stems and pomace are composted post-production and returned to the fields as fertilizer.
A wetland was created at the head of the stream to catch any residual runoff before it enters the waterway, eventually making its way to the Gunpowder River and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay. The wetland serves not only as a pollution buffer but also as habitat to countless species of wildlife such as beavers, ducks, white-tailed deer and raptors. “Another thing that is great is we have excluded all livestock [from the stream], and it is astounding the fish people are finding down there, especially the American eel. I think it is a great model for what can be done to a stream that was really in distress,” said Deford.
The family is mindful of their greenhouse gas emissions and works to reduce their outputs by using the carbon dioxide created in the fermentation process to stir their red wine tanks. The carbon dioxide is collected, builds up and eventually erupts through the tank – stirring the wine and saving electricity. “There is an interesting concern over the fact that when you make wine you emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; however, what I always point out to people is that just up the hill is the other end of it – those vines take in carbon dioxide, so really it’s just a cycle,” notes Deford.
Helpful for Boordy has been the advent of the local food movement, a developing culture focused around locally-produced food and the process of getting it from the farm to the table. With the movement comes a growing consumer demand to meet the farmer and know where food comes from. “This isn’t just liquid in a bottle,” said Deford. “A lot more goes into it.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page
Rapid population growth and development remain the top threats to the health of the Potomac River Watershed, according to the Potomac Conservancy’s eighth annual State of the Nation’s River report. But the advocacy group hopes implementing smart growth strategies will help the waterway withstand pressure from a growing community.
Despite being listed as the nation’s most endangered river by American Rivers in 2012, the Potomac River’s overall health has improved in recent years. In 2013, the Potomac Conservancy raised the waterway’s grade to a “C” after giving it a “D” grade in 2011. Now, with an estimated 2.3 million new residents expected to move into the communities along its shores by 2040, the Conservancy fears a rapidly changing landscape could undo years of progress toward restoring the Potomac.
“Population growth is likely to bring positive changes to our region including more jobs, higher home values, and a more robust local tax base,” the report states. “But, left unplanned, that growth could also spell disaster for the health of our lands, waterways, and drinking water sources.”
With the region facing forest loss, polluted rivers and streams and an aging water infrastructure, the report offers a range of “smart planning opportunities” as strategies to meet the needs of a growing population without further harming local waters. The Conservancy hopes approaches including forest buffers, mixed-use communities and rain gardens, along with a focus on redevelopment in existing areas rather than new development on untouched lands, will allow for the continued improvement of the Potomac River’s health.
Nestled next to Patuxent River State Park in Laytonsville, Maryland, are the 220 rolling, vegetation-rich acres of Waredaca horse farm. Husband and wife Robert and Gretchen Butts are the second generation to manage the family farm since Robert’s parents purchased the property in 1953. To them, Waredaca is more than just a business: it is their home.
The farm has evolved from a summer camp to a boarding stable for more than 80 horses, 30 of which are directly owned by Waredaca; recreational and competitive riders board the rest. The farm continues to host a youth summer camp, hold eventing competitions and offer year-round riding lessons. “To be able to make a living doing things you love—and to do it at home—is the best. This place is my life, and that’s pretty special,” Robert said.
The Butts’ connection to their land has sparked a deep sense of environmental stewardship within their family. “We’ve been here our whole lives, and plan on being here a long time. I think for a large portion of the agricultural community, that’s the case. Many have been motivated conservationists for years,” Robert explained.
A prominent part of Maryland’s environmental efforts to conserve farmland has included the equine community. “In recent years, certainly the state and Montgomery County have clarified in legislation that horses are a part of agriculture and therefore the services and outreach pertain to them,” said Robert. “Outreach to the equine community has been particularly important to [increasing] participation [in restoration initiatives].”
The Maryland Horse Council has been a strong partner with the state’s Farm Stewardship Certification and Assessment Program (FSCAP), which certifies agricultural stewards throughout the state. Since its development in 2010, FSCAP, administered by the Maryland Association of Soil Conservation Districts (MASCD), has conducted 131 reviews on 108 farms and certified 91 agricultural conservation stewards protecting 27,000 acres in 16 counties. The Maryland Horse Council has helped FSCAP certify 20 horse farms.
According to the state, any farm with more than eight “animal units”—normally defined as one mature cow weighing about 1,000 pounds and her suckling calf—is required to follow a nutrient management plan to ensure that excess manure is properly disposed of. Assessors from FSCAP are trained by the Maryland Department of Agriculture to review nutrient management plans with the same attention to detail provided by official inspectors. Assessors also inspect other “best management practices” (BMPs), which reduce pollution and improve habitat on farmland. When certified, each steward gets his or her own webpage on the FSCAP website and the landowner receives a large sign to place on their property, advertising their environmental stewardship.
“The program was created in order to provide some positive recognition for farmers that are doing a great job [caring for the land], in light of what seems like fairly constant criticism about agriculture’s role in polluting the Chesapeake Bay,” said FSCAP Project Leader Gerald Talbert. “We carefully gathered core partners for this program because we wanted both the agricultural and the environmental communities to be involved.”
"Many stewards feel that certification means more than just personal recognition; it’s also good for business,especially with farms that deal directly with the public” Talbert said. “ So far, we’ve provided 91 signs, but there are 133 signs displayed.
By working together, Robert and Gerald were able to identify and address a streamside fencing issue that thwarted Waredaca’s certification efforts. The problem has since been fixed and the farm has been certified.
The Butts follow a nutrient management plan, composting their manure and spreading it on their fields to encourage rich soil and healthy pastures. They have also put a number of BMPs in place: a manure storage facility, a spring-fed water tank and stream-side buffers with fencing to keep horses out of streams, thereby keeping the surrounding creeks and streams clean.
The Butts also practice rotational grazing. Strategically moving livestock to fresh pastures can allow previously grazed fields to regenerate, and is a preferred practice for fighting overgrazing. But many farmers do not have the space to rotate their grazing pastures, leading to field erosion and the sedimentation of rivers, streams and the Bay.
“We are very blessed to have a lot of room where the horses can roam,” Robert said. “Lack of space can be a limiting factor for many [horse-owners]. Overgrazing is a very common thing in the horse business, and will be hard to eliminate completely because of the way horses eat. Cows don’t eat the grass all the way down to the ground, but horses do,” he explained.
Through the efforts of programs like FSCAP and the willingness of farmers like the Butts to sign on to voluntary conservation programs, stewardship certification programs are gaining traction among the agricultural community. “Part of the effort here is not just to recognize those folks that have already done a great job, but to also provide incentive for someone to step up and put those one or two BMPs in place that they may have been missing to meet the standard,” said Talbert.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
The R/V Rachel Carson is docked on Solomons Island. At 81 feet long, the red and blue research vessel stands out against the deadrise workboats that share the Patuxent River marina. Her mission today is to lead researchers from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) to the Chesapeake Bay’s dead zone.
Every summer, this so-called “dead zone” forms in the main stem of the Bay. The area of low-oxygen water is created by bacteria as they feed on algae blooms growing in nutrient-rich water. The dead zone persists through the warm summer months because the Bay is stratified into two layers: a surface layer of lighter, fresher water that mixes with the atmosphere, and a bottom layer of denser, saltier water, where oxygen depletion persists. These layers won’t mix until the cooler temperatures of autumn allow the surface waters to sink.
To find the dead zone, Director of Marine Operations and Rachel Carson Captain Michael H. Hulme takes us to one of the deep troughs that run down the center of the Bay. Geologic remnants of the ancient Susquehanna River, these troughs can reach up to 174 feet deep in an estuary whose average depth is just 21 feet. Hulme anchors offshore of Calvert Cliffs State Park.
The boat is equipped with a dynamic positioning system, which holds it in place regardless of wind or waves. This allows the captain to step away from the helm and offer his hands on deck. “Being able to hover over that [specific] latitude and longitude is what makes the Rachel Carson so unique,” said Hulme. It’s also one of the reasons the vessel is so useful to scientists, who often return to the same sampling site again and again over time.
UMCES Senior Faculty Research Assistant David Loewensteiner drops a CTD overboard. The oceanography instrument takes eight measurements per second, tracking conductivity, temperature and depth as it is lowered through the water. Connected to the ship with a cable, the CTD sends data to a laptop in the boat’s dry lab. We measure 2.04 mg/L of dissolved oxygen in surface water, and just 0.33 mg/L at 98 feet deep. Critters need concentrations of 5 mg/L or more to thrive; these are “classic dead zone” conditions.
Dead zones are bad for the Bay. Like animals on land, underwater critters need oxygen to survive. In a dead zone, immobile shellfish suffocate and those fish that can swim are displaced into more hospitable waters. “If you were a self-respecting fish and oxygen was [low], what would you do?” asked Bill Dennison, Vice President for Science Applications and Professor at UMCES. “Swim away.”
First reported in the 1930s, the appearance of the dead zone in the Bay is linked to our actions on land: as we replace forests with cities, suburbs and farms, we increase the amount of nutrients entering rivers and streams. This fuels the growth of algae blooms that lead to dead zones. “Hypoxia [or low-oxygen conditions] is driven by what we do on the watershed,” said UMCES Assistant Professor Jeremy Testa. “The Bay is naturally set up to generate hypoxia because of that [stratification] feature. That said… when there were no people here, there was not much hypoxia.”
While it is our actions on land that created the dead zone, it is our actions on land that can make the dead zone go away. Research has shown that certain pollution-reducing practices—like upgrading wastewater treatment plants, lowering vehicle and power plant emissions and reducing runoff from farmland—can improve the health of local rivers and streams. Scientists have also traced a decline in the duration of the dead zone from five months to four, which suggests that conservation practices gaining traction across the watershed could have very real benefits for the entire Bay.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by E. Guy Stephens/Southern Maryland Photography. Captions by Catherine Krikstan.
Eight of the top 10 U.S. cities that have seen an increase in “nuisance flooding” alongside rising seas are on the East Coast, according to a new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Four of the top 10 cities are in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Annapolis and Baltimore lead the list with a 925 and 920 percent increase in their average number of nuisance floods since 1960. Washington, D.C., has seen a 373 percent increase, while Norfolk has seen a 325 percent increase.
According to the report, nuisance flooding—or minor flooding that closes roads, overwhelms storm drains and compromises infrastructure never designed to withstand inundation or saltwater exposure—will worsen as sea level rise accelerates. Indeed, nuisance flooding has become “more noticeable and widespread” because of rising seas, sinking land and the loss of natural flood barriers.
“As relative sea level increases, it no longer takes a strong storm or a hurricane to cause flooding,” said William Sweet, oceanographer and lead author of the report, in a media release. “Flooding now occurs with high tides.”
Image courtesy rwillia533/Flickr
The study was conducted by scientists at the Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services, who compared data from 45 tide gauges with reports of nuisance floods; whether or not a nuisance flood has taken place is determined at the local level by a National Weather Service threshold. It is hoped the findings will “heighten awareness of a growing problem” and “encourage resiliency efforts in response to” sea level rise.
An understanding of where floods are occurring is integral to building climate resiliency. Once coastal communities know where environmental threats and vulnerabilities lie, they can take steps to move growth and development away from the coast, enhance preparedness efforts to protect human health and protect and restore wetlands, buffers and barrier islands that might shield the shoreline from strong wind and waves.
The Chesapeake Bay Program has set a goal to increase the climate resiliency of the watershed’s living resources and public infrastructure, using monitoring, assessment and adaptation to ensure the region withstands the impacts of a changing climate.
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.
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.
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.
Researchers at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) measured minimal changes in Chesapeake Bay health in 2013, once again giving the estuary a “C” in their annual Chesapeake Bay Report Card.
This grade was the same in 2012, up from a “D+” in 2011. The Bay Health Index was reached using several indicators of Bay health, including water clarity and dissolved oxygen, the amount of algae and nutrients in the water, the abundance of underwater grasses, and the strength of certain fish stocks, including blue crab and striped bass. Introduced in this year’s report card, the Climate Change Resilience Index will measure the Bay’s ability to withstand rising sea levels, rising water temperatures and other impacts of climate change.
UMCES Vice President for Science Applications and Professor Bill Dennison attributed the Bay’s steady course to local management actions. While pollution-reducing technologies installed at wastewater treatment plants have improved the health of some rivers along the Bay’s Western Shore, continued fertilizer applications and agricultural runoff have stalled improvements along the Eastern Shore, Dennison said in a media release.
For close to 50 years, Nick Carter has owned 33 acres on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Aside from a house, a few sheds and a trail or two, much of this land has returned to its natural state: former farm fields have become bogs, wetlands and forests, pushed along by natural growth and Carter’s deep-seated desire to create healthy habitat and clean water.
Carter’s property runs next to the Choptank River, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay. Close to one-third of the Choptank watershed is forested, covered with the tree-and-shrub-filled habitat considered the most beneficial land use for the Bay. Forests absorb airborne pollutants, keep nutrients and sediment from entering our rivers and streams, and provide food, shelter and safe migration paths for wildlife. It is for these reasons that Carter has allowed forests to dominate his land.
“I’d like to see this little bit of property go back to old growth,” Carter said, referring to a type of forest that has evaded unnatural changes for a century or two. Carter and his wife purchased their property when he finished graduate school in 1966. For 35 years, Carter worked as a fish biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Now, he offers informal tours to naturalists, native plant societies and school groups, carrying along a walking stick that effectively points out the things visitors might not notice.
Take the plants, for example. There are 250 species on Carter’s property, and in one two-hour walk it seems he can point out most of them. There are spring ephemera like jack-in-the-pulpit and pink lady’s slipper, the latter of which has a relationship with underground fungi that make them almost impossible to transplant. There are cinnamon ferns and sphagnum moss in a bog that Carter is particularly proud of because he created it with the simple act of laying down a few logs to form a makeshift dam. And there are the pine and oak trees that dominate the upland woods, including the willow oak whose acorns are so small that blue jays can pick them up and carry them in their beaks.
Then there are the reptiles and amphibians. Carter has counted 30 species of these, from the tree and wood frogs that favor damp habitat to the broad-headed skink and Eastern fence lizard that like forests with abundant leaf litter. Leaves that litter the ground conserve water, recycle nutrients and offer shelter to small critters. Its presence on Carter’s land can be felt as soon as you step from the hard pavement of Draper’s Mill Road to the soft, spongy forest floor.
Carter’s woods are home to charismatic fauna, too, including 30 species of mammals and 85 species of birds. Because so much of the property is forested, it serves as suitable habitat for “forest interior dwelling” birds, or those birds that need the moderate temperatures and light levels found deep within the woods. Carter has spotted pine warblers, prothonotary warblers and ovenbirds, but on our walk we spotted a bird that was much bigger and a little less particular about its habitat: a female wild turkey on her nest in a grove of skunk cabbage.
These critters flourish here because Carter has done so little to disrupt the natural processes of the world around him, aside from building the dam that led to the bog and managing some invasive species. While Maryland’s white-tailed deer often chew up low-growing plants, changing the structure of area forests, Carter’s dogs have warded them off with their loud howls. And when invasive plants like autumn olive, oriental bittersweet, English ivy and bush honeysuckle start to grow, Carter steps in to exert control. “Some I spray, some I cut, some I pull,” he said.
The changes that have taken place on Carter’s land present a classic case of succession: disturbed ground is replaced by shrubs, shrubs are replaced by pines and pines are replaced by hardwoods. In other words, this land works “the way it ought to work,” Carter said. And it reminds us of the habitats the Maintain Healthy Watersheds Goal Implementation Team is working to preserve in order to demonstrate the challenge of protecting streams.
Carter’s work to bring people onto his property could help further this goal, as he shares knowledge that can inform and inspire his visitors. “Here’s a little piece of land on which I can make all the rules,” Carter said. “Here, I can make this land good for the Bay and its rivers. And I can show people what’s good for the Bay and its rivers.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by Steve Droter and Jenna Valente. Captions by Catherine Krikstan.
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.
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.”
Upgrading wastewater treatment technologies has lowered pollution in the Potomac, Patuxent and Back rivers, leading researchers to celebrate the Clean Water Act and recommend continued investments in the sewage sector.
Introduced in 1972, the Clean Water Act’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit program regulates point sources of pollutants, or those that can be pinpointed to a specific location. Because wastewater treatment plants are a point source that can send nutrient-rich effluent into rivers and streams, this program has fueled advancements in wastewater treatment technologies. Biological nutrient removal, for instance, uses microorganisms to remove excess nutrients from wastewater, while the newer enhanced nutrient removal improves upon this process.
Researchers with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) have linked these wastewater treatment technologies to a cleaner environment. In a report released last month, five case studies show that wastewater treatment plant upgrades in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia improved water quality in three Chesapeake Bay tributaries.
The link is clear: excess nutrients can fuel the growth of algae blooms, which block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and create low-oxygen dead zones that suffocate marine life. Lowering the amount of nutrients that wastewater treatment plants send into rivers and streams can reduce algae blooms, bring back grass beds and improve water quality.
In New Insights: Science-based evidence of water quality improvements, challenges and opportunities in the Chesapeake, scientists show that new technologies at Baltimore’s Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant led to a drop in nitrogen concentrations in the Back River. Upgrades at plants in the upper Patuxent watershed led to a drop in nutrient concentrations and a resurgence in underwater grasses in the Patuxent River. And improvements at plants in northern Virginia and the District lowered nutrient pollution, shortened the duration of algae blooms and boosted underwater grass growth in the Potomac River.
Image courtesy Kevin Harber/Flickr
The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks wastewater permits as an indicator of Bay health. As of 2012, 45 percent of treatment plants in the watershed had limits in effect to meet water quality standards. But a growing watershed population is putting increasing pressure on urban and suburban sewage systems.
“Further investments in [wastewater treatment plants] are needed to reduce nutrient loading associated with an increasing number of people living in the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” New Insights notes.
On a blue bird day in Church Creek, Maryland, a white pickup truck bounces down a dirt driveway, splashing through fresh mud puddles and leaving ripples in its wake. The low whirring of female Northern pintail ducks in the middle of their courtship is exuberant, and there is excitement in the air – it is almost time for the birds to make their long migration north.
The truck rounds a bend and hundreds of waterfowl take flight, seeking solace in the nearby Honga River. Landowner Jerry Harris steps out of the truck, his two hunting dogs, Bo and Maddie, in tow. Jerry has owned Mallard Haven River Farm for nearly 20 years and has transformed it from an open pasture to an ideal stopover site for thousands of waterfowl migrating along the Atlantic Flyway.
Harris recounts purchasing the farm as an open pasture with a ditch down the center in the late ‘90s. Initially, he battled saltwater intrusion and high-tide floods of the Chesapeake Bay. His solution involved closing off the connection between the ditch and the Bay and creating a freshwater storage area that can now hold up to 6.5 million gallons of water. With financial assistance from the state of Maryland, Ducks Unlimited and North American Wetlands Conservation Act Grants (NAWCA), he built berms to create a series of separate water impoundments for use by waterfowl across 80 acres of the 230-acre farm.
Harris has hired two full-time employees to help maintain the property. “We’ve tried to do everything to improve the efficiency of our work,” Harris said. “We have pipes in all the impoundments that lead to a main water storage ditch, so we can connect our portable pumps right to the pipes and drive the water wherever we would like. If we’re irrigating this field during a dry period we don’t have to hook hoses up or anything.”
Because his land is privately owned, Harris has the freedom to experiment with unconventional conservation practices. His latest endeavor? Moist soils management, or the slow draw down of water from the impoundments to foster the growth of wetland plants like smartweed, fall panicum and fox tail. “As the water gradually comes down, it will support different kinds of weeds, and if you are good enough at it you can have a whole platter of foods that fulfill the ducks’ dietary needs,” Harris said. Moist soils management is good for the wildlife and the farmer: it cuts fertilizer use, and mechanical tilling is only needed about once every five years.
In the past, Harris grew corn on his farm to provide high-energy food for visiting waterfowl. Harris admits that deer and their affinity for corn have presented a challenge to his habitat management practices. For this reason, he plans to grow rice instead. “It’s literally the same kind of high-carbohydrate food that corn is,” Harris said. “The big advantage is that the deer don’t eat rice. In some fields, nearly half of the corn crop gets eaten by the deer.”
Harris has been an avid hunter since he was a young boy; growing up hunting with his grandfather on the bays north of San Francisco cultivated his passion for conserving wildlife habitat. He now owns three farms in Maryland and one in Montana, all under conservation easements through Ducks Unlimited, the largest land conservation owner in the United States, of which he sits on the board.
“The farm is big enough that on a windy day you can be shooting on the farm and the upwind birds will still be there. With the wild ducks, the thing you want to do if you want to keep them is not disturb them too much, otherwise they find another place to go,” Harris said. He has even calculated exactly how many ducks he and his guests can harvest in a year without negatively impacting waterfowl populations, setting the limit at 175 ducks from all four farms.
Harris designates 20 percent of his time to sitting on the board of Ducks Unlimited and of Waterfowl Chesapeake, a Maryland-based non-profit whose mission is to create, restore and conserve waterfowl habitat in the Chesapeake Bay Region. Together they help draw awareness to protecting area wetlands.
Judy Price, the executive director of Waterfowl Chesapeake, has helped the organization raise more than $5 million for habitat restoration and conservation education projects. Waterfowl Chesapeake, the umbrella organization of the annual Waterfowl Festival, held in November in Easton, Maryland, recently created an alliance for waterfowl conservation that consists of a panel of scientific experts that offer advice to current and prospective habitat restoration initiatives. They have also created a restoration project registry, expanding the visibility of high-value projects to the public and potential funders.
When asked why protecting waterfowl habitat is a priority, Price responded, “The annual migration of waterfowl truly enhances our lives throughout the Chesapeake region and, in particular, the Eastern Shore. Not only do we gain ecological benefits, but also significant economic value, from a healthy waterfowl community. By focusing on maintaining strong habitat, hopefully, we can avoid people, years from now, saying, ‘I remember seeing ducks and geese in the skies. Whatever happened to them?’”
Images by Steve Droter. To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
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.
Pollution-reducing practices can improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and have already improved the health of local rivers and streams, according to new research from the Chesapeake Bay Program partnership.
In a report released today, several case studies from across the watershed show that so-called “best management practices”—including upgrading wastewater treatment technologies, lowering vehicle and power plant emissions, and reducing runoff from farmland—have lowered nutrients and sediment in local waterways. In other words, the environmental practices supported under the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Farm Bill are working.
Excess nutrients and sediment have long impaired local water quality: nitrogen and phosphorous can fuel the growth of algae blooms and lead to low-oxygen “dead zones” that suffocate marine life, while sediment can block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and suffocate shellfish. Best management practices used in backyards, in cities and on farms can lower the flow of these pollutants into waterways.
Data collected and analyzed by the Bay Program, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) have traced a number of local improvements in air, land and water to best management practices: a drop in power plant emissions across the mid-Atlantic has led to improvements in nine Appalachian watersheds, upgrades to the District of Columbia's Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant have lowered the discharge of nutrients into the Potomac River and planting cover crops on Eastern Shore farms has lowered the amount of nutrients leaching into the earth and reduced nitrate concentrations in groundwater.
“In New Insights, we find the scientific evidence to support what we’ve said before: we are rebuilding nature’s resilience back into the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, and the watershed can and will recover when our communities support clean local waters,” said Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale in a media release.
But scientists have also noted that while we have improved water quality, our progress can be overwhelmed by intensified agriculture and unsustainable development, and our patience can be tested by the “lag-times” that delay the full benefits of restoration work.
“This report shows that long-term efforts to reduce pollution are working, but we need to remain patient and diligent in making sure we are putting the right practices in place at the right locations in Chesapeake Bay watershed,” said UMCES President Donald Boesch in a media release. “Science has and will continue to play a critical role informing us about what is working and what still needs to be done.”
UMCES Vice President for Science Applications Bill Dennison echoed Boesch’s support for patience and persistence, but added a third P to the list: perspiration. “We’ve got to do more to maintain the health of this magnificent Chesapeake Bay,” he said.
“We’ve learned that we can fix the Bay,” Dennison continued. “We can see this progress… and it’s not going to be hopeless. In fact, it’s quite hopeful. This report makes a good case for optimism about the Chesapeake Bay.”
At sunrise, the Roughwater heads out of its Solomons Island harbor and onto the Patuxent River. Driven by a captain who has worked the Chesapeake Bay for two decades, the boat stops over an unseen reef. Simon Dean and his crew—Brian Elder and Jason Williams—are wearing waterproof bibs and white rubber boots, and are ready to bring in oysters.
Known as patent tonging, the work that takes place on the Roughwater moves in one fluid motion: hydraulic tongs enter the water, grab a mess of oysters and dump them with a crash onto a metal culling table. Three-inch grooves built into the table’s edge help the crew cull, or sort the oysters by size. Good oysters are tossed into a plastic basket, while too-small bivalves and empty shells go back overboard.
The patent tongs are controlled by foot pedals: one pushes the tongs up and down, while the other swings them open and closed. “At the end of the day, your feet are more tired than your hands,” Dean said.
As a waterman, Dean’s work is dependent on the seasons. During the winter, he oysters. During the summer, he crabs and takes fishing parties out on the Bay. He bought the Roughwater in 2009, and was “running everybody else’s boat before that.”
Wooden-handled culling hammers help Dean and his crew knock undersized oysters off of bigger bivalves. Young oysters attach themselves to adults in order to grow, forming dense reefs that offer habitat to fish, crabs and other critters. While concrete is often used to construct artificial reefs, shell makes the best substrate for spat.
Watermen must work to “get as much shell off as you can,” Dean said. In part, this is because buyers prefer the look of a clean oyster. And in part, it is because shell must go back into the Bay, where it will provide a new place for young oysters to settle.
In an effort to restore natural oyster populations to the Bay, shell recycling programs have popped up across the region and lawmakers have established oyster sanctuaries and strengthened harvesting restrictions. But this seems to have fueled tension between states and the industry and fed the belief that watermen often work in conflict with the law.
Dean and his wife, Rachel, are working to change this oft-held perception, using heritage tourism to teach both children and adults about estuarine life and the role that watermen play in the region’s history and economy. “We’re not poachers. We’re not outlaws. We’re not thieves,” Dean said. And he hopes that Solomons Island Heritage Tours will “break down that stigma that watermen have [against them].”
Dean and his crew don’t have time for conversation while the tongs are running. Dean thinks about how he will sell his oysters, and how he will compete with other watermen. By the end of the day, they have reached their patent tonging limit: 15 bushels per license, with two licenses per boat. Dean will sell some of these to restaurants and some to individuals. But will he ever keep any for himself? “I like them,” Dean said. But when it comes to eating them, “I just don’t have time.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by E. Guy Stephens/Southern Maryland Photography.
Captions by Catherine Krikstan.
The reduction of power plant emissions in the mid-Atlantic has improved water quality in the Chesapeake region, according to new research from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES).
Image courtesy haglundc/Flickr
Researchers at the university’s Appalachian Laboratory have traced improvements in the water quality trends of nine forested watersheds located along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains to the Clean Air Act’s Acid Rain Program. Passed in 1990, the Acid Rain Program led to a 32 percent drop in human-caused nitrogen-oxide emissions in 20 states. As these emissions have declined, so too has the amount of nitrogen found in some Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia waterways.
In other words, while the Acid Rain Program only intended to reduce the air pollution that causes acid rain, it had the unintended consequence of reducing the amount of nitrogen oxide particles landing on the region’s forests, thus improving local water quality.
“Improvements in air quality provided benefits to water quality that we were not counting on,” said UMCES President Donald Boesch in a media release.
Once nitrogen oxide particles are emitted into the air, wind and weather can carry them long distances. In time, these particles fall onto the land or into the water. Nitrogen that enters rivers and streams can fuel the growth of algae blooms, which block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and create low-oxygen “dead zones” that suffocate marine life. Scientists estimate that just over one-third of the nitrogen polluting the Bay comes from the air.
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.
The Chesapeake Executive Council named Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley its new chair at its annual meeting, held this morning at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.
The Chesapeake Executive Council was established in 1983, and is responsible for guiding the Chesapeake Bay Program’s policy agenda and setting conservation and restoration goals. O’Malley served two consecutive terms as chair in 2007 and 2008, and accepted this morning’s transfer of leadership from District of Columbia Mayor Vincent C. Gray, who became chair in July 2012.
At a public press conference, O’Malley promised to lead the Bay Program and its partners into a new era of progress and accountability, which he hopes will include the signing of a new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. The agreement, now in its draft form, will be the fourth of its kind and will set a series of goals and outcomes that will guide restoration across the watershed.
“I thank my fellow council members for the opportunity to once again take the helm of this partnership, and to help get a new Bay agreement signed, sealed and delivered to the 18 million souls who call the Chesapeake’s watershed home,” O’Malley said in a media release.
A longtime champion of the Bay, O’Malley has during his career developed an innovative restoration tracking tool, undertaken the largest oyster restoration project of its kind and spearheaded Maryland’s efforts to meet its milestones under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or “pollution diet.”
Former Chesapeake Executive Council chair Gray was also commended for his environmental initiatives, including his government-led plan to make the District of Columbia the healthiest, greenest and most livable city in the United States.
Garden beds filled with native plants, parking spots reserved for fuel-efficient vehicles and plant-covered roofs that trap rainfall before it runs into storm drains: these simple steps to “go green” have turned a Southern Maryland community college into a model of conservation.
Located less than five miles from the Patuxent River, the College of Southern Maryland’s (CSM) Prince Frederick campus has become home to a green building that shows students and citizens alike the benefits of green infrastructure.
Indeed, green building has become the norm for new facilities in a state that has long championed smart growth and all that it entails, from funding development inside of existing communities to protecting rural areas from suburban sprawl. Maryland legislation passed in 2008 even requires building projects of a certain size to be certified as green, whether it is through the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Certification program or the Green Globes system. At 30,000 square feet, the academic building in Prince Frederick fit the bill of needing to be green.
“[Earning green certification] was a mandate from the state,” said Richard Fleming, CSM vice president and dean of the Prince Frederick campus. “It’s a laborious process, but it has also been exciting, because I had never worked with [a green building] before.”
Fleming has worked with community colleges for 35 years, and was until 2009 the vice president for academic affairs at Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton, Va. The chance to construct a new building on the fastest-growing campus in the CSM network attracted him to this new position at his sixth college in as many states.
Opened in September and funded in part by the state, the Prince Frederick building is the second LEED-certified building in Calvert County. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, which operates the LEED certification program, green buildings can lower energy use and operational costs; reduce waste and carbon emissions; and provide healthy indoor spaces for building occupants. These are all benefits that Fleming hopes to see.
“The goal behind LEED is to one, reduce water consumption, and two, reduce energy consumption,” Fleming said. “We should, after a period of time… start to see some kind of gas savings, electrical savings, energy savings.”
To earn LEED certification, building projects collect points based on different aspects of their construction. The higher their final score, the higher the certification level earned. Fleming hopes that the Prince Frederick building will reach gold status, and gave us a tour of some of the items on its green building checklist: large windows that flood the space with natural light; green roofs that capture rainfall; bike racks that encourage public transportation; bio-retention cells that collect stormwater from sidewalks and parking lots; and native, drought-tolerant plants—like black-eyed Susans, American beautyberry and Joe-Pye weed—that fill up garden beds.
Students and faculty “are all very pleased with [the new building],” Fleming said. But it is not just the campus that will benefit.
“This is a building that’s open to the public,” said Dorothy Hill, lead media relations coordinator for CSM. The campus has hosted film festivals and concert series, and the new building’s 3,000-square-foot meeting space has been called the best in Calvert County.
“At the dedication, people were very interested in learning what LEED certification was all about,” Hill said. “The community comes here, and will be able to see… that we’re stewards of the environment, and we care about the community.”
Photos by Jenna Valente.
It is 1862 and the nation is in the midst of the Civil War. You are standing at the southernmost tip of the western shore of Maryland. To your left, the rising sun dances over the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. To your right, a ship chugs up the Potomac River, making its way to Washington, D.C. The wind whips and there is a nip in the air; winter is coming and all you have to keep warm is one wool blanket and a small tent.
For many Civil War soldiers at what is now Point Lookout State Park, this scene was a reality. Once a popular summer resort, this tract of land became home to a hospital and prison camp in the 1860s. One hundred years later, the site became a state park. Today, it is a place where history and the environment meet.
Although the park’s picturesque surroundings make it an ideal spot for visitors, it faces a number of environmental challenges. During strong storms, the site can experience coastal flooding. At times, rising tides create a temporary island, cutting off the point from the rest of the park. To protect the land from the rising seas of climate change and to combat erosion, staff have placed riprap barriers along much of the park’s shoreline.
“It has been very interesting to see how the weather affects the park throughout the year,” said Melissa Boyle, assistant park manager at Point Lookout. “When it’s stormy or during a hurricane, I can see how rough the water is and I think about what kind of place this could have been one or 200 years ago, when we didn’t have all of the luxuries that we have today.”
But the park’s history began before the Civil War, with the construction of the Point Lookout Lighthouse.
Built in the 1830’s, the Point Lookout Lighthouse was a much-needed navigational beacon to ships travelling up the Potomac River and the Bay. While advances in technology mean the lighthouse is no longer in use, the Point Lookout Lighthouse Preservation Society continues to care for the structure. Once a month, the volunteer group even opens the building for guided tours to show visitors what it might have been like to be the lighthouse keeper that lived here.
Some visitors have reportedly experienced paranormal activity in the lighthouse and around the park. Although park staff cannot confirm these allegations, these experiences could be linked to the old age of the lighthouse and the rich war-related history of the park. Because of its haunted reputation, the site sees an increase in break-ins and vandalism around Halloween, forcing park police to step up their patrol.
After the Civil War began, Hammond Hospital was built at Point Lookout. At the time, the hospital was considered to be a state of the art facility: its wagon wheel shape kept different wards separate and created an advanced ventilation system to suppress fire.
In addition to the hospital, three forts were built. But, due to sea level rise and erosion, only one—a reconstructed Fort Lincoln—remains.
Point Lookout was also home to a Civil War prison camp that held Confederate soldiers. The camp was designed to hold 10,000 people, but it regularly held 20,000; over its lifetime, it held 52,000 prisoners. The prisoners would often eat off of the land and were known to scavenge for blue crabs, oysters and rats. At the end of the war, the prison was largely deconstructed. Most of its materials were recycled, but some remain underwater near the park’s fishing pier.
Aside from a handful of park staff and public citizens, the people who once lived at Point Lookout have been replaced with wildlife. Pelicans, eagles and osprey abound, and the park is even home to a great blue heron rookery. Point Lookout is also a popular resting spot for migratory birds and monarch butterflies.
Today, recreation is the primary use of the park. Point Lookout offers more than 100 campsites, a life-guarded beach, canoe and kayak rentals, fishing sites and more than 1,000 acres for visitors to explore. “People should visit Point Lookout State Park because it is where history and the environment meet,” Boyle said. “There is a lot to learn from the park, and fall is a good time to visit. It is a period of transition. Come learn about the Civil War history while taking in the marvelous views and imagining what it would be like to be a soldier that was issued only one wool blanket to sleep under through the winter.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by Steve Droter. Captions by Jenna Valente.
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.
For almost two decades, state and federal partners have worked to rebuild Poplar Island in the Maryland waters of the Chesapeake Bay. Once home to a sawmill, a general store and a schoolhouse, the island succumbed to sea level rise, shrinking to a fraction of its size by 1996. Rebuilt using sand and sediment dredged up from the bottom of the Bay and hand-planted with native marsh grass, the island has become a refuge for 175 species of shorebirds, songbirds, waterfowl and raptors.
Eastern bluebirds, black ducks and snowy egrets are among the birds that nest on Poplar Island, but it is the osprey whose presence stands out. Their sprawling nests can be found on wooden platforms, abandoned barges and Bay-side rip-rap. Plentiful food and nesting space mean Poplar’s osprey population is healthy, and can give researchers like Rebecca Lazarus an idea of what the birds should look like under the best environmental circumstances.
Working with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Lazarus is studying contaminant exposure in osprey around the Bay. Because the birds sit at the top of the food chain, their health is an indicator of environmental problems. Tracking the buildup of chemical compounds in the eggs and blood of birds that Lazarus calls a “sentinel species” can tell us what toxics are present in our rivers and streams.
Lazarus started her season of research when ospreys returned to the Bay in mid-March. The University of Maryland doctoral candidate and USGS employee visited nests, counted eggs and watched the ospreys grow.
Once the chicks hatched, Lazarus used motion-activated game cameras to monitor their diets. The birds on Poplar eat almost exclusively striped bass and menhaden, reminding us that the management of these two fisheries has a big impact on the balance of the Bay ecosystem.
As the chicks grew, Lazarus tagged each one of them with a metal band. She measured their weight and culmen length, and took samples of blood to test for chemical contaminants.
The last large-scale study of contaminant exposure in osprey was conducted close to a decade ago, and found elevated concentrations of polychlorinated biphenyls (or PCBs) and flame retardants in egg samples from the Anacostia and middle Potomac rivers. Lazarus hopes her updated research will show us what contaminants persist in the watershed, posing potential threats to wildlife and human health.
The birds on Poplar are healthy and serve as a benchmark against which Lazarus can compare those that nest in more polluted parts of the Bay. Ospreys experienced such a strong population boom after the United States banned the insecticide DDT and other contaminants that they are now nesting along urbanized waterways where dense development, wastewater treatment plants and the flow of pharmaceuticals and other new toxics into our water have concern about their potential to thrive.
By monitoring the link between clean water, contaminant-free fish and healthy osprey, Lazarus has taken a holistic approach to her research. Once published, her findings could help state and federal agencies develop plans to mitigate pollution or prioritize contaminants of concern. And they will help improve the environmental quality, ecosystem integrity and sustainability of the Bay.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by Steve Droter and Olivier Giron.
Captions by Catherine Krikstan.
More than 40 miles of the Patapsco River will be opened to the annual migrations of herring, alewife and American shad once the waterway’s lowermost dam is removed.
Bloede Dam has blocked the passage of migratory fish for close to a century. It has also posed a public safety hazard, creating strong currents that have killed a number of swimmers. Its removal is the next step in the Patapsco River Restoration Project, and will be funded by a $3.57 million grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Restoration Center to American Rivers.
American Rivers has worked on the Patapsco project for the past five years with NOAA, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Friends of the Patapsco Valley State Park. The river’s Union and Simkins dams were removed in 2010 and 2011 in order to create better habitat for fish and a safer swimming hole for people.
“Removing one dam can make a major difference in the health of a river and its fisheries. But removing multiple dams… is really a game-changer,” said Serena McClain, director of river restoration at American Rivers, in a media release.
The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks the opening of fish passage as an indicator of Chesapeake Bay health, and has achieved 91 percent of its goal to open more than 2,800 miles of fish passage by 2014. Because dams, culverts and other barriers can disrupt the natural flow of rivers, their removal can mean a boost in habitat, a drop in pollution and improved protection from flooding.
Learn more about the removal of Bloede Dam.
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
As summer heats up and people head outdoors, many will turn to public access sites to meet their recreational needs. Boat launches, boardwalks and wildlife observation trails can put people in touch with the rivers, streams and open spaces that surround the Chesapeake Bay. For watershed residents and visitors to the Bay's northwestern shore, Sandy Point State Park has been a treasured public access site for generations.
The multi-use park offers year round recreational opportunities. There are piers and jetties for fishing, beaches for swimming and lounging, four miles of forested trails for hiking, 22 ramps for launching motor boats and paddlecraft, and six finger piers that participate in Maryland’s Clean Marina Initiative. The park is also home to picnicking areas and a store that sells picnic supplies, a concession stand, a handful of basketball courts and youth group camping grounds.
David Powell of Glen Bernie, Md., frequents Sandy Point with his family in order to fish and soak up some sun on the beach—things that he believes can build character, strengthen family bonds and create lasting memories.
“It’s all about the next generation,” Powell said. “You have got to teach the next generation all of the things that we grew up with and this is the way to do it. This is heaven right now. For someone who works 70 hours a week, this is great for morale. I don’t own waterfront property, so having access to the Bay is so important.”
Father and son duo Moses and Darius Gilliam of Catonsville, Md., visit the park four or five times each summer. On this particular day, the Gilliams were accompanied by family members from France who were eager to spend some time on the Bay during their visit.
Fishing is the Gilliams’ favorite activity at Sandy Point, but Darius also enjoys the time and space that it gives him to play with his brother and sister. Moses explains: “I’ve lived around the Bay since 1986. To me, Sandy Point State Park provides a safe atmosphere. I feel relaxed here, like nothing [bad] is going to happen. This is a good thing for the family. It’s a good environment. It takes the stress away just to relax and soak up the sun.”
James and Vanessa Jones of Pikesville, Md., are also self-proclaimed “fish-aholics.” The husband and wife try to visit Sandy Point at least once a week, donating whatever they catch to families and friends that do not have the opportunity fish on the Bay.
“It’s important to have places like this,” Vanessa Jones said. “[This park offers] so many things that we would have never taken advantage of [otherwise], like the seafood festival and the lights at Christmas and you see deer all the time down here. It’s just a beautiful setting. ”
Luis Diaz of El Salvador and Maria Shemiakina of Russia fish right off of the rock jetties almost every weekend. “I mean look,” Luis said. “We’ve got our fishing rods, we’ve got our watermelon and we are going to stay here on the Bay for maybe three hours or longer. We do this almost every other day! Where else can you go in Maryland if you like sport fishing and hanging out by the water? This is the best.”
As development continues across the watershed, demand for public access remains high. With help from the National Park Service (NPS) and the Public Access Planning Action Team, the Chesapeake Bay Program tracks public access as a measure of Bay restoration. These sites can bolster public health. They can improve our quality of life. And—perhaps most importantly—they can inspire their visitors to become a part of Bay conservation.
View more photos on the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Captions by Jenna Valente
Scientists at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) have measured an improvement in Chesapeake Bay health, giving the estuary a “C” in its latest Chesapeake Bay Report Card.
Up from a “D+” in 2011, the Bay Health Index of 47 percent takes into account seven indicators of Bay health, including water clarity and dissolved oxygen; the amount of algae, nitrogen and phosphorous in the water; the abundance of underwater grasses; and the health of the benthic or bottom-dwelling community. While underwater grasses continued to decline, the rest of the indicators improved in 2012.
Image courtesy EcoCheck/Integration and Application Network
“I’m cautiously optimistic about the health of the Chesapeake Bay,” said UMCES Vice President for Science Applications and Professor Bill Dennison in a media release. “We are seeing progress in our efforts to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous levels. In addition, water clarity, which had been declining, has leveled out—and may even be reversing course.”
According to the report card, these improvements are due to a number of weather events. While excess rainfall can push nutrient and sediment pollution into rivers and streams, a dry summer in 2011 led to improvements in water clarity and dissolved oxygen and the favorable timing and track of Superstorm Sandy meant the storm did less damage to the Bay than some feared.
Learn more about the 2012 Chesapeake Bay Report Card.
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.
An online mapping tool is now available to help resource managers and restoration partners rebuild oyster reefs in the Chesapeake Bay.
Released this month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Oyster Decision Support Tool displays a range of information relevant to oyster restoration, from historic reef boundaries and maps of the seafloor to the rate of oyster disease, death and spatfall on bars in Maryland waters.
Over the past two centuries, native oyster populations have experienced a dramatic decline as habitat loss, disease and historic over-harvesting have taken their toll. But by filtering water, forming aquatic reefs and feeding countless watershed residents, the bivalves are an essential part of the Bay’s environment and economy.
But a new report from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) indicates that reef restoration could be more effective if paired with stronger harvest limits.
“Oysters should be able to come back if we help them out by reducing fishing pressure and improving their habitat,” said Michael Wilberg, Associate Professor at the UMCES Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, in a news release.
Dredging and tonging for oysters can damage reefs, pushing oysters onto unsuitable soft-bottom habitat or making them more vulnerable to suffocating sediment. According to the Wilberg-led study, if oysters were allowed to reproduce naturally and fishing were halted, it would take just 50 to 100 years for oyster abundance to reach as high a level as the Bay could support.
Learn more about the oyster population study.
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.
Former Maryland State Senator Bernie Fowler saw his sneakers through 34 inches of water at the 26th annual Patuxent River Wade-In on June 9. This marks a one-inch drop from last year’s “sneaker index,” which is what Fowler has come to call the deepest point at which he can still see his shoes as he wades into the water.
Fowler holds the wade-in each year to bring attention to the polluted waters of the Patuxent River and the Chesapeake Bay. This year marked the fourth wade-in to be held at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, after decades on Broomes Island.
In the 1950s, Fowler could wade into the Patuxent up to his chest and still see fish, shellfish and underwater grasses. But as nutrient and sediment pollution are pushed into the river, algae blooms and suspended silt block sunlight from reaching the river bottom and degrade water clarity. The 1950s sneaker index of 63 inches now serves as the benchmark for a restored Patuxent River.
Fowler’s infamous white sneakers were retired before this year’s wade-in, but will be preserved for permanent display at the Calvert Marine Museum.
View more photos on the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Baltimore Harbor scored a C- on its latest water quality report card, marking a modest improvement from the previous year’s failing grade. According to the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore and Blue Water Baltimore, who released the Healthy Harbor Report Card earlier this month, the Harbor met water quality standards 40 percent of the time in 2012.
Image courtesy Affordable Memories Photography of Fredericksburg/Flickr
While the spring of 2012 brought an algae bloom, a fish kill and a sewage spill to the Harbor, the summer saw little rainfall and a drop in the amount of polluted runoff being pushed off of streets and into the urban waterway.
The nonprofits behind the release of the report card hope to make the Harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020, and have embarked on a number of environmental initiatives to achieve this goal. More than 50 floating wetlands continue to capture stormwater runoff, absorb excess nutrients and provide habitat to water-filtering invertebrates after being installed along the Harbor’s shoreline. And students from five Baltimore City public schools have formed Green Teams to boost local awareness about the region’s persistent trash problem.
Learn more about the Healthy Harbor Report Card.
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.
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.
For the past decade, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay has led Project Clean Stream--a vast network of organized annual trash cleanups along the Bay's many tributaries--to help clean up the Bay and connect residents to their local waterways.
During this year's unified day of service on Saturday, April 6, a group of 13 volunteers gathered near the small town of Marydel on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where resident Carol Sparks (not pictured) had reported an illegal dump site along a drainage ditch running adjacent to her property.
According to Sparks, residents from two nearby trailer parks often travel along the foot path adjacent to the ditch, and some have been dumping trash here for years. "I've called everybody and it seemed like nobody wanted to do anything about it. I finally contacted Debbie Rowe, the mayor of Marydel, and she's the one who organized this group, bless her heart."
"I got a call from the property owner that the ditch was in disrepair," said Rowe (below left, with volunteer Wilbur Levengood, Jr.), who had recently learned about Project Clean Stream through the Choptank Tributary Team, a volunteer watershed group from Easton, Md. "To be honest, I didn't know this was back here."
Jennifer Dindinger chairs the Choptank Trib Team, which was searching for neglected sites in neighboring Caroline County where they could make a bigger impact during this year's Project Clean Stream effort. "You don't see trash floating down the Choptank River, but there are places like this that, although it might not end up in the main stem of the Bay, negatively impact life along the tributaries to the river."
Despite the strong odor and armed with garden rakes and stainless steel dip nets, Project Clean Stream volunteers spent their Saturday morning combing through layers of algae in the stagnant drainage ditch. "It's just a nice thing to do on a sunny day," said William Ryall, a fellow Choptank Trib Team volunteer and wetland restoration engineer from Easton, Md. "All of these ditches are connected to the Bay, so it's really important to get this stuff out of here."
"We need everyone to understand how important the drainage is to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and what it will do health-wise and for the environment if we do it correctly," said Wilbur Levengood, Jr., president of the Caroline County Commissioners. "We don't need to bring huge machines in here and disturb a lot of earth to achieve the drainage, we just need to keep it clean."
According to Levengood, the many drainage ditches in Caroline County are an environmental compromise critical to this landscape. "Without these ditches, ponds and wetlands like the one next door to here would otherwise require chemical pesticides to control the mosquito population. Cleaning up the trash will lower the water level in this ditch by a few inches and get the water moving again."
While most of the trash collected from the Marydel site was of the household variety--36 bags total, including diapers, beverage containers and rotting food--a tell-tale oil slick is evidence of even more hazardous materials lying beneath the surface.
According to Levengood, non-salvageable appliances like television sets and mattresses, as well as toxic materials like motor oil and other automotive fluids that cost money to discard, are often thrown into the drainage ditches along Caroline County roads.
"It's not just necessarily that it looks bad. It's an all-around health hazard, and if we don't keep the water going it's just going to get stagnant and cause mosquitoes and more problems," said Mayor Rowe, who recruited local youth to help with the cleanup. "Now that we know it's here, we can all help as a community to help keep it clean and it'll be safe for everybody."
"My mom is friends with Ms. Debbie [Rowe], so she asked if I could come help with cleaning up trash from the ditch," said Gary Colby of Marydel (top), who in turn recruited his friend Daniel Santangelo. "I just wanted to help out Marydel," Santangelo said.
According to Rowe, part of the dumping problem stems from the challenge of cross-cultural communication. More than half of Marydel's population are Hispanic or Latino immigrants, but today's effort to reach the town's young people seems to be paying off.
"I just offered to help my buddies out," said Carlos Martinez (left), who moved to Marydel last year from Mexico City and volunteered with friends Omar Fuentes (center) and Jordy Cordova (right). "I know it's not young people littering because I know my friends."
"I think we just need to recycle more," said Cordova. Fuentes agrees. Like Mayor Rowe, he says "I never even noticed the trash in the ditch, and I've lived here for 10 years."
During a well-deserved break from the cleanup, Mayor Rowe and the other volunteers discussed the idea of posting bilingual signs to explain the ditch's importance in controlling the mosquito population, and to warn of health risks associated with litter and water pollution. Omar Fuentes and Jordy Cordova agree that signs in Spanish might help curb the littering problem, and promised to talk to their neighbors about the ditch. For first-time cleanup volunteer Wilbur Levengood, Jr., this point made the purpose of the day's effort overwhelmingly clear: "This project puts all aspects of people together working for the better, and we just need more of that."
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.
Maryland Public Television (MPT) will celebrate the nation’s largest estuary with a week of Chesapeake Bay-related programming, to begin on Sunday, April 21.
Image courtesy Maryland Sea Grant
During Chesapeake Bay Week, a dozen programs will explore some of the most pressing issues facing the watershed, from the future of the agriculture and seafood industries to the health of iconic critters and waterways. An hour-long special called “Who Killed Crassostrea virginica?” will take a look at the demise of the Bay’s native oyster, while a 30-minute program called “The Last Boat Out” will follow a family of Virginia watermen as they question staying in the business of seafood harvesting.
Bay history, too, will be part of the annual event: “Black Captains of the Chesapeake” will highlight African Americans who have captained on the Bay, while “Growing Up on Tilghman” will explore what it was like to grow up in this quiet watermen’s community on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
“There is really rich content within these shows,” said Betsy Peisach, MPT’s managing director for education marketing and outreach. Peisach encourages teachers, in particular, to bring these programs into their classrooms where possible. And for those who teach middle-school science, MPT has developed an online interactive that allows students to explore the Bay, whether it is through a virtual tour of the Bay’s varied ecosystems or an online cinema that features clips from Outdoors Maryland.
MPT will wrap up Chesapeake Bay Week with a concert and volunteer-a-thon to connect viewers with volunteer opportunities across the watershed.
The Chesapeake Bay Program is a sponsor of Chesapeake Bay Week this year. Learn more.
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.
Harris Creek is a tributary of the Choptank River. Located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the waterway has been thrust into the spotlight as the first target of the oyster restoration goals set forth in the Chesapeake Bay Executive Order: to restore oyster populations in 20 Bay tributaries by 2025. Existing reefs will be studied, bars will be built, larvae will be raised and spat-on-shell will be planted in this federally mandated attempt to boost populations of the native bivalve.
Already home to productive and protected oyster reefs, Harris Creek’s good water quality and moderate salinity should allow for high rates of reproduction and low rates of disease—both critical factors in ensuring oyster survival. Indeed, natural “spat set,” or the settling of wild oysters on reefs, was observed in Harris Creek last year, and continued natural spat set could reduce the number of hatchery-raised oysters that are needed to complete the restoration plan.
Over the past two centuries, oyster populations across the Bay have experienced a dramatic decline. Habitat loss, disease and historic over-harvesting have taken their toll, and populations now stand at less than one percent of historic levels. But as filters of water and builders of reef habitat, oysters are critical to the health of the Bay.
As of December 2012, reef construction and seeding for more than a quarter of Harris Creek’s 377 targeted acres were complete, and partners project that more than half of the construction and seeding for the rest of the creek’s reefs will be complete by the fall of 2013.
But it will take a lot for a reef and a tributary to be deemed “restored.” Partners will look not just for the presence of oysters, but for the expansion of oyster populations in the years following restoration efforts. The goal is an ambitious one, but many believe the Harris Creek project will serve as a model for the restoration of other tributaries in support of the Executive Order goal.
Video produced by Steve Droter.
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.
Most of us who live in urban or suburban settings really don’t know what a healthy stream looks like. In some cases, we can’t even see the streams that run under our roads and shopping centers because they’ve been forced into pipes; out of sight, out of mind. The remnants of streams we can see have often been filled with sediment and other pollution, their ecology altered. The plants and animals that used to live there have long since departed, their habitat destroyed. This didn’t happen overnight. The environment is suffering “a death by a thousand cuts.”
I recently got the chance to visit the Cabin Branch stream restoration project, not far from my neighborhood in Annapolis, Md. The project is being undertaken by Underwood & Associates on behalf of the Severn Riverkeeper Program, and is one of many stream restoration projects taking place across the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
In 2005, a volunteer cleanup removed 40 tons of tires and debris from Cabin Branch. Image courtesy Severn Riverkeeper Program.
Cabin Branch discharges to the streams and wetlands of Saltworks Creek and the Severn River, which bring water into the Bay. Aerial photos taken after a modest rain are dramatic testament to a severely damaged ecosystem that causes the Severn to run the color of chocolate milk. This same phenomenon—one of sedimentation and stormwater runoff—is repeated in streams and rivers that run through thousands of communities throughout the watershed.
Image courtesy Severn Riverkeeper Program.
It was gratifying to see the Cabin Branch project firsthand—one of many efforts to heal the damage done unknowingly by many decades of development. Like many projects of this nature, the Severn Riverkeeper Program had to overcome some bureaucratic red tape to get the permits they needed, but their perseverance will be worth the impact in helping clean local waters and the Bay.
Image courtesy Tom Wenz/EPA CBPO.
Fortunately, we are learning better ways to manage stormwater runoff through low impact development and the use of green infrastructure, which help to mimic the cleansing functions of nature. It will take some time before this patient is restored to good health, but we are on the mend.
On private piers up and down Harris Creek, hundreds of metal cages hang from ropes into blue-green water. Inside each cage are countless little oysters, which will grow here, safe from predators and sediment, during their first nine months of life. Once the spat are large enough, they will be pulled out of their short-term shelters and put onto boats to be replanted on protected reefs just a few short miles away.
The cages—along with the bivalves inside them—are cared for by volunteers with the Tilghman Islanders Grow Oysters (TIGO) program, itself a local branch of the Marylanders Grow Oysters program that is managed by the Phillips Wharf Environmental Center (PWEC).
Now in its second season, TIGO has recruited more than 80 volunteers across the so-called “Bay Hundred” region—from Bozman and Neavitt to Wittman and Tilghman Island—to further oyster restoration efforts in the Chesapeake Bay.
Over the past two centuries, native oyster populations have experienced a dramatic decline, as habitat loss, disease and historic over-harvesting have taken their toll. But programs like this one give hatchery-grown oysters a head start before they are put into the Bay to replenish critical underwater reefs.
The TIGO program has attracted a wide range of restoration enthusiasts, from the middle-school student who has tracked her oysters’ growth for a science fair project to the neighbors who have competed against each other to grow more and bigger oysters. The main draw? What little effort is involved.
“Growing oysters is an effort, but it’s a really easy effort,” said TIGO coordinator Carol McCollough. “And we remove as many of the roadblocks as we possibly can for people who want to do this.”
Aside from a promise to keep cages free of excess sand and silt, the program doesn’t ask too much of its volunteers—and this has worked to its advantage.
H. Truitt Sunderland is a Wittman resident whose cages are filling up fast after six months of growth. The oysters have gone from mere millimeters to one and two inches in size, and a host of other critters—like grass shrimp and gobies, mud crabs and skillet fish—have taken up residence on this makeshift reef just as they would do on oyster bars in the Bay.
Sunderland’s home sits on Cummings Creek, and Sunderland has used the ease of the work involved—“I don’t even know how they can call this volunteer work,” he laughed—to involve his neighbors. Now, there are 24 cages on 12 piers in this single stretch of water.
Tilghman Island resident and fellow volunteer Steve Bender has had a similar experience. “The process is simple,” Bender said, standing on a wooden pier that juts into Blackwalnut Cove. “It’s not that demanding. It’s not that difficult to care for [the oysters].” And in response to his encouragement, Bender’s neighbors have been “glad” to join.
While projects like this one are a small drop in the restoration bucket, McCullough hopes that TIGO can cast a personal light on conservation for all those who are involved.
“We [at PWEC] inform, inspire and involve,” McCullough said. “We’re all about getting people to commit to [changes in] behaviors. It’s very easy to give money. It’s less easy to write letters. And I think in many ways, it’s even less easy to do something personal—to do restoration work on your own.”
But for McCullough, it’s possible that the simple act of caring for a cage of oysters could act as a stepping stone toward further involvement in the Bay.
“Oysters have become very exciting to people,” McCullough said. “They recognize that every single additional oyster in the Bay is a positive thing. That oyster restoration is something that’s bigger than they are.”
For more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Photos by Multimedia Coordinator Steve Droter.
On a winter morning in Annapolis, Md., a snow-covered truck pulls into the parking lot of a local seafood restaurant. A man in white boots and rubber gloves steps out of the cab, a metal door swings open behind the building and plastic trash cans full of oyster shells are exchanged between restaurant chef and shell recycler.
The trade is just one stop on a route that connects the 130 members of the Shell Recycling Alliance: a group of restaurants, caterers and seafood wholesalers that save their unneeded shells—some in five-gallon buckets, some in 14-gallon trash cans, some in 55-gallon wheeled bins—for pick up by Tommy Price.
Price is a Special Programs Specialist with the Oyster Recovery Partnership, a conservation group that has for two decades worked to restore oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. As a driver in the partnership’s fleet of trucks—which are complete with shell recycling logos and oyster-themed license plates—Price has watched the Shell Recycling Alliance grow, generating more than 1,000 tons of shell that are an integral piece in the oyster restoration puzzle.
Sent to an environmental research lab and oyster hatchery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the shells are cured, power-washed and put to work as settling material for the billions of oyster larvae that are planted to replenish reefs across the Bay.
Over the past two centuries, native oyster populations have experienced a dramatic decline as habitat loss, disease and historic over-harvesting have taken their toll. But by filtering water, forming aquatic reefs and feeding countless watershed residents, the bivalves have become an essential part of the Bay’s environment and economy.
It is this link between businesses and the Bay that inspired Boatyard Bar and Grill to sign on to the Shell Recycling Alliance.
“The Bay is a huge economic engine for this area,” said restaurant owner Dick Franyo. “Look at what we do here—it’s all about fishing, sailing, ‘Save the Bay.’ It’s where we come from. It’s what we think about.”
Franyo, who sits on the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s board of trustees, has upheld a conservation ethic in much of what his restaurant does. It donates at least one percent of its annual revenue to environmental organizations; it composts all of its food waste; it recycles oyster shells alongside glass, metal and plastic; and it spreads the word about the restoration efforts that still need to be made.
All Shell Recycling Alliance members are given brochures, table tents and “Zagat”-style window stickers to use as tools of engagement, teaching customers and clientele about the importance of saving shell.
“Shell is a vital ingredient in oyster restoration,” said Stephan Abel, executive director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership. “It’s like flour in bread.”
Indeed, it has become such a valuable resource that a bill has been proposed that would give individuals and businesses a $1 tax credit for each bushel of shell recycled.
“The Bay, restoration and oysters—it’s all one story,” Abel said. And without oyster shells, the story would be incomplete.
A recent assessment of Superstorm Sandy shows the hurricane did less damage to the Chesapeake Bay than some feared, thanks in large part to its timing and track.
According to a University of Maryland report, the late-October hurricane whose path traveled north of the Bay had “ephemeral” impacts on Bay water quality—especially when compared to past storms.
The summertime arrival of Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972, for instance, coincided with a critical growing period for oysters, crabs and underwater grasses, and had a damaging effect on all three. But because Sandy arrived in the fall, the nutrients and sediment that it sent into the Bay were unable to fuel harmful algae blooms or damage the underwater grasses that had already begun to die back for the season. And while Tropical Storm Lee in 2011 brought heavy rainfall and a large plume of sediment to the Susquehanna River, the bulk of Sandy’s rainfall was concentrated elsewhere, meaning minimal scouring of sediment from behind the Conowingo Dam and “virtually no sediment plume” in the Upper Bay.
These findings echo those released in November by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
Read more about the ecological impacts of Sandy on the Chesapeake Bay.
Imagine a summer afternoon spent on Tuckahoe Creek. As the waterway narrows, the branches of streamside trees form a canopy over paddlers, painting the sky green from one shore to another.
Image courtesy Serafin Enriquez/Flickr
Located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Tuckahoe Creek borders Caroline, Queen Anne’s and Talbot counties. Much of the 21-mile tributary to the Choptank River is bordered by wooded marshland. In Tuckahoe State Park, visitors can launch canoes and kayaks into the creek, hikers and horse-lovers can walk or ride 20 miles of scenic trails and fishermen can press their luck in a 60-acre lake.
When you think of the Baltimore-Washington corridor, you don’t often think of rock climbing, trout fishing or horseback riding.
But you can find all of that and more in the 1,400 acres that surround Morgan Run, a stream that begins near Eldersburg, Md., and flows into Baltimore County’s Liberty Reservoir.
Image courtesy Evan Parker/Flickr
In the Morgan Run Natural Environmental Area, miles of trails will transport you to a place far from beltways and buses. Be prepared to weave in and out of different habitats, from open fields to aging forests. Birders can spot songbirds and raptors, and climbers can find bouldering opportunities along streamside trails.
Image courtesy Jive/Flickr
Fishing is a popular sport in Morgan Run. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) stocks the stream with eastern brook trout to keep the important fish in our tributaries.
Equestrian trails attract solitude-seeking horseback riders. Local riders created these trails in the early 1990s. Today, there are 11 miles of open field and woodland trails to enjoy.
A yearlong survey of anglers along the Anacostia River has confirmed that many fishermen are catching, sharing and consuming contaminated fish.
While fishing advisories in Maryland and Washington, D.C., have been in place for more than two decades, these warnings are often not seen, understood or listened to—and as many as 17,000 residents could be consuming fish caught in the Anacostia.
Image courtesy Len Matthews/Flickr
Located less than one mile from the nation’s capital, the Anacostia River has long suffered environmental degradation. Polluted runoff from urban streets and hazardous waste sites has caused toxic chemicals to build up in the water and in the bodies of fish, which could cause disease or development disorders in those who consume them.
According to the results of a survey that studied the social behavior of Anacostia anglers, a complex set of factors is driving the sharing and consuming of locally caught and potentially contaminated fish: past experience and present beliefs, a lack of awareness of the health risks involved and an overriding desire to share their catch with those who might otherwise go hungry.
Image courtesy LilySusie/Flickr
Research conducted through hundreds of interviews along fishing “hotspots” and a community survey that canvassed the lower Anacostia watershed found that 40 percent of fishermen had never heard that fish from the Anacostia could make them sick. Some anglers thought visual cues—like obvious lesions, cloudiness in the eyes or the color of a fish’s blood—would help them determine the health of a fish, or that related illnesses would soon be apparent rather than chronic or long-term. If a fisherman had not fallen ill from a meal of fish before, then he might perceive the fish to be healthy or think that his preparation methods made it clean.
Research also found that current advisories do not resonate among diverse anglers. Just 11 percent of fishermen had seen a sign or poster, and even fewer had received warning material with a fishing license or reviewed related information online. And English-only outreach is not effective among a population in which one-quarter speaks a language other than English at home.
Image courtesy 35millipead/Flickr
But how can Anacostia anglers be reached?
"The answer to this problem will be far more complex than simply telling anglers not to share their catch,” said Steve Raabe, principal of the Maryland-based research firm that conducted the survey.
The Anacostia Watershed Society, among the partners behind the survey, agrees. While the non-profit’s director of public policy acknowledged this study is not a “silver bullet solution,” he hopes it will bring about positive change.
“We are hoping [the study] will be the catalyst to engage all stakeholders—federal and local governments, food security and hunger organizations, environmental and health organizations, as well as residents—to come up with answers,” Brent Bolin said.
“Through this research effort, we have already begun identifying potential solutions,” Bolin continued, from directing better messaging to affected populations to expanding urban gardens, farmers markets and other programs that will address the long-term challenges of clean water, food security and human health.
Impaired by trash, rated poor for nutrient pollution and listed as unsafe for human contact much of the time, Baltimore Harbor scored a failing grade on its most recent Healthy Harbor Report Card.
Image courtesy Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore
While community engagement in conservation is on the rise—volunteers have planted trees, picked up trash and even painted murals around storm drains to make a connection between streets and streams—algae blooms, dead zones and fish kills remain a problem for the urban watershed.
According to the Healthy Harbor Report Card, water quality in Baltimore Harbor did not improve in 2011, when spring and fall rains pushed pollutants into the water.
From a spring shower to a fall hurricane, the flow of pollutants into Baltimore Harbor is closely tied to regional rainfall. The amount of litter collected in the Harbor in 2011, for instance, spiked when water flow was at its highest after Tropical Storm Lee. Sewage overflows, too, were linked to large storms, when rainwater seeped into sewer pipes and pushed harmful bacteria into the Harbor.
Image courtesy Blue Water Baltimore/Flickr
To combat these problems, the non-profits behind the Healthy Harbor Report Card have engaged students and citizens in a mission to make the Harbor swimmable and fishable within the next decade. Blue Water Baltimore, for instance, has curbed stormwater runoff on school grounds and helped Clean Water Communities develop plans for cleaning and greening their neighborhoods. And the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore has published a Healthy Harbor Plan to provide Baltimoreans with a roadmap for Harbor clean-up.
Learn more about the Healthy Harbor Report Card.
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.
This Halloween, thrill-seeking river rats can take a trip to a graveyard—a ship graveyard! Mallows Bay, located on the Maryland shore of the Potomac River, contains the largest known shipwrecked fleet in the Western Hemisphere. A quick search on Google Maps or a look at this image from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) shows the fleet’s massive imprint on the waterway.
This steamship fleet was intended to be used during World War I. But faulty construction and the war's end rendered the fleet useless. The steamship vessels, totaling more than 200, were towed to Mallows Bay, where they were packed together so tightly that you could, according to reports, walk for a mile without touching the water.
Local watermen protested, afraid that such a high concentration of “garbage” would affect their livelihoods. Some vessels were burned, but many others were left to sink and rot.
Today, many are visible above water, but some 140 more lurk beneath the Potomac’s surface.
The above-water steamships are now home to non-human inhabitants. Great egrets can be found nesting on the decks, while vegetation peeks out from beneath the rust. On some vessels, trees as high as 50 feet tall have sprouted!
Perhaps the “haunting” nature of Mallows Bay is not one of humans that have been left behind, but resources that have been ill-disposed and forgotten.
Want to see this ghost fleet for yourself? Launch a canoe or kayak at Charles County’s Mallows Bay Park to explore the ships up close!
Sometimes, even a single tree can make a difference. And it helps when that tree is a big one.
For six seasons, Baltimore County has held a Big Trees sale in an effort to put big, native trees in Maryland backyards. Since its inception in 2009, the program has sold more than 750 trees to Maryland residents, augmenting the state’s existing forests and moving Baltimore County closer to its pollution reduction goals.
Big trees are integral to the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Forests clean polluted air and water and offer food, shelter and rest stops to a range of wildlife.
But big trees can be hard to find. To provide homeowners with the native trees that have high habitat value and the heft that is needed to trap polluted runoff, species like pin oak, sugar maple and pitch pine are grown in a Middle River, Md., reforestation nursery. The one-acre nursery, managed by Baltimore County’s Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability (EPS), began as a staging ground for large-scale plantings but soon expanded to meet a noticeable residential need.
“We used to give incentives to homeowners to buy large trees at retail nurseries,” said Katie Beechem, Environmental Projects Worker with the EPS Forest Sustainability Program. “But we found that homeowners were buying smaller species—flowering dogwood, crape myrtle—that didn’t achieve the same benefits…that large native trees like oaks and maples and river birch can provide. We were able to fill this big tree niche.”
Emails, signs and word-of-mouth spread news of the sale to homeowners. Some travel from the next town over, while others come from as far as Gettysburg, Pa., to walk among rows of seedlings in black plastic pots.
Staff like Jon-Michael Moore, who supervises the Baltimore County Community Reforestation Program, help residents choose a tree based on growth rate and root pattern, soil drainage and sunlight, and even “urban tolerance”—a tree’s resistance to air pollution, drought, heat, soil compaction and road salt.
One Maryland resident picked up 15 trees to line a fence and replace a few that had fallen. Another purchased two trees to soak up stormwater in his one-acre space. And another chose a chestnut oak simply because she had one when she was a kid.
Out of the 12 tree species that are up for sale, oaks remain the favorite.
Whether red, black, white or pin, oaks are often celebrated as the best big tree. Oaks thrive in a range of soils, drop acorns that feed squirrels, woodpeckers and raccoons and create a home for thousands of insects.
Discussing the oak, Moore mentions University of Delaware professor Doug Tallamy. The entomologist once wrote that a single oak tree can support more than 500 species of caterpillars, which will in turn feed countless insect-loving animals.
But can one big tree make a difference for the Bay? Moore nodded: “Every little bit helps.”
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.
Kelley Cox knows what it takes to bring fresh seafood to the table—and to keep fisheries thriving in the Chesapeake Bay. Cox is part of a family of watermen that has worked for five generations out of Tilghman Island, Md. When Hurricane Isabelle destroyed 200 feet of their seafood buying dock in 2003, Cox did not want her heritage to be destroyed with it. She envisioned a place where she could preserve her family's legacy while teaching the public to steward the environment and the Bay. Two years later, Phillips Wharf Environmental Center (PWEC) was born.
Image courtesy PWEC/Facebook
Named after Cox's father, Garland Phillips, owner and operator of Phillips Wharf Seafood, PWEC now hosts educational programs and tours of the Bay. The center also coordinates a tree planting project and oyster growing program for residents of the three-mile long Tilghman Island. A marine biologist by profession but a waterman by blood, Cox makes sure the center’s educational efforts address both Bay ecology and Bay heritage.
Image courtesy PWEC/Facebook
Mobile Marine Fun
From preschoolers to third-graders, students can hold horseshoe crabs and diamondback terrapins or play predator, prey and pollution games to better understand how the Bay ecosystem works—all on board a converted school bus better known as the Fishmobile. This traveling marine science center visits schools, summer camps and even birthday parties! Other educational programs at PWEC allow students to race crabs, dress up as a waterman and cruise the Choptank River and the Bay to watch watermen work.
Image courtesy PWEC/Facebook
If you have residential or commercial waterfront property or keep your boat in a marina on Tilghman Island, you can volunteer for Tilghman Islanders Grow Oysters (TIGO)! Participants place PWEC-provided cages of oyster spat into the water and give them a shake once every week or two. After nine or 10 months, the growing oysters are transported to a sanctuary and replaced with new spat. The program has placed 200 cages in the water, but PWEC won’t stop until every pier on the island is growing spat.
Ecology cruises allow participants to see Tilghman Island in a new light—from the water! Excursions for local artists allow participants to paint or draw the island from an evening ride aboard the Express Royale.
Farmers, foresters and an active coalition of landowners and citizens have been honored for their efforts to conserve, restore and celebrate Chesapeake forests.
From planting native trees and shrubs to engaging students in forest conservation, the actions of the winners from across the watershed crowned them Chesapeake Forest Champions in an annual contest sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.
Image courtesy Piestrack Forestlands LLC
Three farmers were named Exemplary Forest Stewards: Ed Piestrack of Nanticoke, Pa., and Nelson Hoy and Elizabeth Biggs of Williamsville, Va. Ed Piestrack and his wife, Wanda, manage 885 acres of forestland and certified Tree Farm in Steuben County, N.Y. The Piestracks have controlled invasive plants and rebuilt vital habitat on their property, installing nest boxes, restoring vernal pools and planting hundreds of trees on land that will remain intact and managed when it is transferred to their children.
Image courtesy Berriedale Farms
Close to 400 miles south in the Cowpasture River Valley sits Berriedale Farms, where Nelson Hoy and Elizabeth Biggs manage land that forms a critical corridor between a wildlife refuge and a national forest. Hoy and Biggs have integrated their 50-acre Appalachian hardwood forest into their farm operation, protecting the landscape while finding a sustainable source of income in their low-impact horse-powered forest products business.
Image courtesy Zack Roeder
Forest Resource Planner Zack Roeder was named Most Effective at Engaging the Public for his work as a forester in Pennsylvania’s largely agricultural Franklin and Cumberland counties. There, Roeder helped farmers manage and implement conservation practices on their land and helped watershed groups plant streamside forest buffers. Roeder also guided a high school in starting a “grow out” tree nursery and coordinated Growing Native events in local communities, using volunteers to collect native hardwood and shrub seeds for propagation.
Image courtesy Savage River Watershed Association
The Savage River Watershed Association in Frostburg, Md., was commended for the Greatest On-the-Ground Impact. In a watershed whose streamside trees have shaded waterways and provided critical habitat to Maryland’s rare reproducing brook trout fisheries, the organization has worked to conserve area forests, removing invasive plants and putting more than 4,000 red spruce seedlings into the ground.
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.
What comes to mind when you hear the words “Chesapeake Bay?” Maybe you remember childhood summers spent mostly under water, on the shore making mud pies or even on the dock, catching crabs. Maybe you think of long days of crabbing with your grandfather, a recent kayaking adventure or something less glamorous, like the trash in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
Each of the watershed’s 17 million residents has a different relationship with the Bay, and a different reason for protecting it. We rarely share these reasons in everyday conversation, but hearing why our friends and neighbors value this tremendous resource will help us realize the multiple reasons for Bay restoration.
Image courtesy Beth Filar Williams/Flickr
Hear what water quality in the Bay means to poultry farmers, watermen, developers and more Eastern Shore residents in a series of video interviews, part of “Let’s Be Shore,” a project recently launched by Maryland Humanities Council.
For more information, visit the Chesapeake Bay Trust’s Blog.
The Chesapeake Bay was among the first regions settled by European explorers, and at one point, much of it was up for grabs. In the 1650s, Dutch conquistadors wanted to extend their rule of New Amsterdam (New York) into Maryland. They sent a man named Augustine Herrman to Maryland’s colonial capital, St. Mary’s City, to present their case to the governor. Herrman’s expedition left from New Castle, Delaware, and sailed down the modern day Bohemia River, to the Elk River, and then into the Chesapeake Bay. Although Herrman and his team weren’t able to convince the Maryland governor to allow the Dutch to move east, Herrman was so impressed with the region’s beauty that he himself decided to settle there.
(Image courtesy William Johns/Flickr)
After striking a deal with Maryland leaders, Herrman received 4,000 acres in northeast Maryland, between the Elk River and the Bohemia River (formerly named the Oppoquermine River). Since Herrman was a native of Prague, which was then Bohemia, he named his new home “Bohemia Manor” and renamed the river.
As part of the deal, Herrman agreed to create a map of the Chesapeake Bay. The detailed account of the region was used throughout the next century.
(Image courtesy Maps of Pennsylvania)
Herrman and his surveying crew predicted the concept of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, constructed nearly 150 years later. In 1661, he wrote, “the Mingaskil and aforesaid Bohemia River run there within a league [3 miles] from each other from where we shall in time have communication with each other by water."
As Herrman’s reputation and importance grew, he convinced Maryland leaders to make northeastern Maryland its own county; as a result, Cecil County was born, and the region was separated from Baltimore County.
Although the Bohemia was navigable in Herrman’s time, today, the 5-mile tributary to the Elk River in southwestern Delaware and northeastern Maryland has since filled with sediment from agricultural operations, rendering it unsuitable for boat navigation.
A drawbridge, known as the “Bohemia River Bridge,” allowed people and farm goods to cross the Bohemia until the late 1990s, when it was demolished. Today, Maryland Route 213 crosses the river in its place, providing gorgeous views of the meandering river.
More from the Bohemia River:
A trip through the forested hills of Allegany County, Maryland may take you back to a time before interstate highways and blog posts like this one. Nestled between the largely uninterrupted landscapes of western Maryland, the Evergreen Heritage Center (EHC) honors the region’s past while showcasing environmental efforts of the future.
(Image courtesy Chesapeake Bay Trust)
The Evergreen Museum features the foundation of a home built by an early settler in the late 1700s, and the Evergreen Coal Trail traces the path of coal cars from the early 1900s.
The center’s environmental education programs encourage students to get outside and explore, rather than sit in front of their television or computer. Through partnerships with Allegany County Board of Education, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Chesapeake Bay Trust, Maryland teachers can attend workshops that introduce ways to involve their students in interdisciplinary environmental activities. Also, students can participate in on-the-ground learning projects.
The center is also working with 300 students and experts to develop a “green” site project plan that integrates outdoor learning stations, gardens, trails, nature play spaces and wildlife habitats into EHC’s 130-acre campus.
To learn more about Evergreen Heritage Center, read this blog post by EHC’s environmental education coordinator on the Chesapeake Bay Trust’s blog.
Finally – school’s out and warm weather is here! We know you’re eager to get away to your nearest beach and bury yourself in the sand with a new book. But did you know there are dozens of beautiful parks and natural areas on the way to major beaches such as Rehoboth Beach, Virginia Beach and Ocean City? Here are eight places you can enjoy the beauty of the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers along the way to your summer destination. After all, some of life's greatest joys are in the journey, not in the destination!
1. Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve (Portsmouth, Va.)
Just 20 minutes west of Virginia Beach, Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve provides urban wildlife in the Norfolk/Portsmouth metro region with 142 acres of tidal and non-tidal habitat. Expect to encounter foxes, river otters, oysters and crabs along the preserve's trails. Before you go, check out Hoffler Creek’s events listings for specialties like sunset kayak tours, night owl kayak paddles by moonlight, and early morning bird walks!
2. Dutch Gap Conservation Area (Chester Va.)
(Image courtesy John.Murden/Flickr)
Just south of Richmond, Dutch Gap Conservation Area surrounds Henricus, the second successful English settlement in Virginia. Bordered by the James River, the 810-acre area contains a blue heron rookery and has been described as a "birder's dream." A diversity of habitats attract a range of flying friends: in wetlands, look for pintails and kingfishers; in meadows, you'll find goldfinches, indigo buntings and kingbirds; and in forests, expect to see scarlet tanagers and red-eye vireo. Hike or bike the 4.5 mile Dutch Gap Trail, which circumnavigates a tidal lagoon. Kayak or canoe the Lagoon Water Trail (perfect for beginner paddlers), or schedule a night to camp under the stars at the area's primitive camp site.
3. Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge (Cape Charles, Va.)
(Image courtesy Xavier de Jauréguiberry/Flickr)
Drive over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Bay Tunnel near Virginia Beach to arrive at the southernmost tip of the Delmarva Peninsula. Here, nearly 1,300 acres of tidal wetlands and hiking trails sport colorful views of sunsets and sunrises; enjoy being surrounded by water on three sides! The area is one of the most important avian migration funnels in the country, meaning it provides vital stopover habitat for birds and butterflies migrating south for the winter and north for the summer. Return in the winter for a trip to Fisherman Island, a remote island home to sensitive bird species and untouched shoreline.
4. Nassawango Creek Preserve of the Nature Conservancy and Furnace Town (Snow Hill, Md.)
Just south of Salisbury, Maryland, one of the northernmost stands of bald cypress trees leak tannins into the Nassawango Creek, giving this pristine Chesapeake Bay tributary a deceptive tea-like color. Bald cypress trees grow completely in the water, and are most abundant in swamps in the deep southeast United States. Visitors to the 15,000-acre Nassawango Creek Preserve can paddle among these green giants or explore upland forest habitat on the preserve's many trails. Expect to see rare plants like indian pipe and pink lady slipper, and migratory birds such as scarlet tanagers and prothonotary warblers.
Along the edge of the preserve, hidden in the Pocomoke State Forest, a brick structure stands tall among the trees. It is the remnants of an iron furnace that at one time attracted hundreds of people – miners, firemen, bargemen and sawyers – to the area. From 1831 to 1850, village residents gathered iron ore from the bogs surrounding Nassawango Creek and loaded iron bars onto barges that were floated down the creek to the Pocomoke River and the Chesapeake Bay. Today, you can get a glimpse of what life was like in the 1830s mining village by visiting the Living Heritage Museum.
5. Pickering Creek Audubon Center (Easton, Md.)
(Image courtesy Pickering Creek Audubon Center)
If you're driving to Ocean City or Assateague Island, you'll likely pass hundreds of cornfields, strawberry fields and trucks full of chickens. Farming is a significant part of the heritage of Maryland's Eastern Shore, but the agricultural industry is often blamed for polluting the Chesapeake Bay.
At Pickering Creek Audubon Center in Easton, 270 acres are farmed according to "best management practices" that reduce the amount of animal bacteria, chemicals and pesticides that end up in the bay. Visitors can learn the past and future of farming in the region, or hike through hardwood forests, fresh and brackish marshes, meadows and wetlands. A Children's Imagination Garden will let your little ones connect to nature, and a display of live reptiles allows them to get up close and personal with our scaly friends!
6. Trap Pond State Park (Laurel, Del.)
Trap Pond was created in the late 1700s to power a sawmill during the harvesting of bald cypress trees from these southwestern Delaware freshwater wetlands. Fortunately, not all of the trees were harvested, and today, Trap Pond provides a home for the northernmost stand of bald cypress trees in the United States. The thick bald cypress marsh envelops visitors in a blanket of shade, making this park the perfect destination for a hot summer day.
Within the park, Trussum Pond is the best place to view the largest of these trees. Biking, camping, boating and disc golf are just some of the recreational opportunities available at the 2,700 acre park.
7. James Branch Nature Preserve and Water Trail (Laurel, Del.)
Unlike Trap Pond, which, as a state park, exists primarily for recreational purposes, James Branch Nature Preserve's first priority is protecting and enhancing a delicate ecosystem for future generations. As the largest of the state's nature preserves, James Branch's 685 acres are mostly composed of bald cypress trees – the oldest-growth in the state! Visitors can canoe and kayak the James Branch Water Trail. Since there is the chance of encountering downed trees, low-hanging branches, and floating and submerged logs, the trail is only recommended for intermediate to advanced paddlers.
8. Adkins Arboretum (Ridgely, Md.)
For some people, it's difficult to imagine your garden untouched by invasive, exotic weeds aggressively overtaking native vegetation. But at Adkins Arboretum, you can explore 400 acres of native plant gardens and wildflower meadows. Adkins is the only public garden or arboretum that focuses solely on plants native to the mid-Atlantic coastal plain. Located at the intersection of the piedmont and coastal plain, and the junction of the north and south, Adkins supports more than 600 species of native shrubs, trees, wildflowers and grasses. Visitors can understand nature through the lens of art and history; an ongoing art exhibit features natural themes by regional artists, and Adkins describes nature's relationship to the Underground Railroad throughout the region. Before you visit, be sure you check the arboretum’s list of programs and guided walks.
A trip down the Manokin River in Somerset County, Maryland, is like taking a trip back in time. Many area residents make a living harvesting and selling fish and shellfish. Restaurants, highways and shopping centers are hard to come by. At least one large property (at the mouth of the river) has been nearly untouched since the 17th century.
(Image courtesy Wayfarer Cruiser/Flickr)
The 17-mile long Chesapeake Bay tributary cuts through farm fields and small towns as it flows southeast from Princess Anne and into Tangier Sound. A large portion of that land is designated as habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife, ensuring that the river remains abundant with critters. On the north side of the Manokin, Deal Island Wildlife Management Area’s 9 miles of trails and scenic roads offer views of great egrets and colorful summer sunsets. To the south, Fairmont Wildlife Management Area is home to waterfowl in the winter and migratory shorebirds in spring and autumn.
At the river’s mouth, historic buildings dating from the early 18th to the mid 20th centuries paint a picture of the Manokin’s past inhabitants. The buildings are located on a property known as the “Manokin Settlement,” and are united by a web of family connections. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, the Manokin Historic District offers a vista downriver to Tangier Sound and upriver to Princess Anne that’s believed to remain unchanged from the 17th century.
Surrounded by preserved forested marshes, early 18th century town buildings, and residents that understand the tides the way most of us understand a clock or a calendar, the Manokin seems to be a river out of the past. Unarguably, it’s a past worth protecting.
(Image courtesy forest_choir/Flickr)
More from the Manokin River:
When I moved to Annapolis last August, I wanted to be located near water and close to where I work at the Bay Program’s Eastport office. I moved into an apartment adjacent to Truxtun Park on Spa Creek. I enjoy kayaking, and the park has a boat ramp. In pretty short order, I met several people from the Spa Creek Conservancy, a local volunteer group working to restore and protect the creek. The Conservancy may be small in numbers, but it is huge in heart and enthusiasm.
(Image courtesy Spa Creek Conservancy)
On Saturday, April 14, I had the opportunity to join with other Conservancy members in a Project Clean Stream cleanup. When we assembled at the Chesapeake Children’s Museum, we were joined by a troop of Daisy Scouts out for a day of learning about the environment. They were as energetic as a swarm of bumble bees buzzing around a patch of wildflowers.
Along with the water, coffee, donuts, gloves and plastic bags at the volunteer sign-in table, we also set up a great aerial photo of the Spa Creek watershed that showed our location and all the areas that drain into the creek. The world looks a lot different from that vantage point. It was interesting to see how much of the area was covered by roads, rooftops and parking lots. These hard surfaces prevent rainwater from soaking into the soil to recharge streams and groundwater supplies.
During the cleanup, there was evidence everywhere of our consumer-based economy: plastic bottles, aluminum cans, fast food wrappers, plastic shopping bags, certain unmentionables, and even an occasional tire or two. As Aldo Leopold, a noted naturalist and conservationist once said, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” Those words are perhaps even more meaningful now than when he first spoke them more than 70 years ago.
What I’ve witnessed working with the incredible members of the Spa Creek Conservancy, the Watershed Stewards Academy, the South River Federation and other local, civic-minded environmental groups throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed is a strong desire to re-establish that sense of community where we live, work, play and pray – to think about how nature functions and why we need to find ways to live in harmony with it. We get lost in our own sense of self-importance as we travel at 60 miles per hour (or more) trying to get from one place to another. Often, we don’t allow ourselves to spend a few hours a week seeking to understand nature. To paraphrase another great thinker, “We don't value what we don't know; we don't protect what we don't value."
The Spa Creek cleanup was a good way to reconnect with nature and see firsthand how, perhaps unintentionally or unconsciously, we abuse it. Once we understand that, we will all be motivated to do something about it.
“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.
An unusual sequence of weather events, including a wet spring, a hot, dry summer, and two tropical storms, caused the Chesapeake Bay’s health to decline in 2011, according to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
(Image courtesy Chesapeake EcoCheck)
Scientists gave the Bay a D+ on the latest Chesapeake Bay Report Card, an annual assessment of the health of the Bay and its tidal rivers. The score of 38 percent was the second lowest since assessments began in 1986 and down from a C- in 2010.
Only two areas – the lower western shore and the Patapsco and Back rivers – improved last year. The rest of the Bay’s segments remained the same or got worse. Scientists recorded lower scores in the Patuxent River, Rappahannock River, James River, Tangier Sound, and the upper and middle Bay.
"The spring rains and hot, dry summer followed by Tropical Storm Lee and Hurricane Lee led to poor health throughout Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries," said Dr. Bill Dennison of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. "While we have been making considerable progress in various restoration activities, these results indicate we still need to do much more to reduce the input of nutrients and sediments from stormwater runoff into the Bay."
The Bay’s health is largely affected by weather conditions. Rainfall carries pollution from farms, cities and suburbs to storm drains, streams and eventually the Bay. Even as the government, communities and citizens work to reduce pollution, an increase in stormwater runoff can mask the effects of these improvements.
Wet weather last spring washed more nutrient pollution into the water, fueling the growth of algae blooms that blocked sunlight from reaching bay grasses. Hot, dry weather allowed these algae blooms to persist through summer, leading to low-oxygen “dead zones” in the Bay’s bottom waters. In late summer, the Bay was slammed by the effects of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, both of which worsened water clarity.
"The report card clearly indicates that the Chesapeake Bay watershed is a dynamic ecosystem subject to severe weather events," said Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale. “The silver lining is that the Hopkins-UMCES study of 60 years of water quality data concluded that a decrease in the frequency and severity of dead zones in the Bay is the direct result of implementing measures to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. We know what works; we just need to do more of it."
The Chesapeake Bay Report Card, produced by the EcoCheck partnership, offers a timely and geographically detailed assessment of the health of the Bay’s water quality and aquatic life. Visit EcoCheck’s website for more information about the report card, including region-specific data and downloadable graphics.
Growing up, Carol McDaniel spent a summer or two playing in northeast Ohio’s streams. Catching salamanders and crayfish helped her develop affection for the outdoors. After working 30 years as a nurse in Baltimore, McDaniel is now reliving her childhood in western Maryland, where she monitors streams, searches for macroinvertebrates and mobilizes volunteers with the Savage River Watershed Association (SRWA).
“We were always into the outdoors even though we didn’t work outdoors,” McDaniel says. Her husband, Joe, is a retired scientific computer programmer. “When it got to the point where we were trying to retire, we wanted to pick a place that our kids would want to visit.”
The place they chose was a home on top of a ridge in the Youghiogheny River watershed. The Youghiogheny is not part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed (the “Yough” – pronounced yah-k – flows to the Mississippi River), but it borders the Savage River watershed, one of the most pristine corners of the Chesapeake region.
The Savage River watershed is the largest natural remaining native brook trout habitat in the Mid-Atlantic. Brook trout are able to live in the majority of the 30-mile-long Savage River and its tributaries because the water is highly oxygenated and stays cool (below 68 degrees) year-round. Because brook trout have such steep habitat requirements, they are used as an indicator species. More brook trout in a stream tells scientists that the water is healthy.
But the watershedmay not be healthy much longer. What McDaniel describes as the “inevitable” Marcellus Shale drilling poses a threat to the region. One spill, she says, and the brook trout would be gone.
Another constant issue is landowner habits, such as allowing cows to defecate in steams. Such actions spread beyond private property and into the river system. This problem is particularly serious in rural areas such as Garrett County, where residents may own large parcels of land.
Fortunately, residents involved with SRWA are working together to mitigate and monitor the river system. Since the organization first began (in 2006, with an ad in the local paper calling for “stream monitoring volunteers”), members have grown to include trout fishermen, professors and students at nearby Frostburg State University, part-time residents who vacation in the region, farm landowners, and interested streamside property owners. These diverse perspectives are a tremendous benefit to the organization, as input from every one of watershed's 1,500 residents is essential if the Savage River is to remain healthy.
“We're trying as an organization to walk a delicate line, and not be perceived as a radical tree hugging group,” explains Annie Bristow, SRWA treasurer. “We really want landowners to be on board and for us to be perceived as an organization that can help them.”
Most recently, a couple came to a SRWA meeting asking for the group’s assistance. Their property along the Savage River had begun to rapidly erode due the massive snowmelt during the winter of 2010. SWRA received a grant, and restoration is to begin in spring of 2013.
(Image courtesy Savage River Watershed Association)
“I try to have hope, but everyone keeps telling me that this is going to happen.” Bristow is referring to natural gas extraction from the Marcellus Shale region in western Maryland. “I guess it is inevitable.”
The Marcellus Shale is a sedimentary rock formation in the Appalachian province that contains deep underground deposits of natural gas. Its use is fairly widespread; according to USGS, in 2009, 25 percent of the energy consumed for electricity, cooking and heating the United States came from natural gas.
As the demand for affordable energy sources increases, energy companies have begun to drill through the rock to extract natural gas. Widespread concern about the environmental effects of this “fracking” process has led to regulations against it in Maryland. Although this protects Maryland's water resources, the bordering states of Pennsylvania and West Virginia have fewer natural gas drilling regulations.
“There are sections of Garrett County where there are only nine miles between Pennsylvania and West Virginia, so Maryland (in between) is still affected greatly,” explains Bristow. “There's drilling sites in West Virginia and Pennsylvania that affect our tributaries, and those streams are already being monitored.”
SRWA seeks to monitor the health of streams before drilling occurs to develop a “baseline” for post-drilling comparison. After undergoing rigorous training by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Bristow and McDaniel trained SRWA volunteers to measure water quality indicators such as temperature, pH and conductivity on 13 sites along the Savage River and its tributaries.
While SRWA and Maryland DNR have been monitoring streams long before the Marcellus Shale debate began, the potential effects of natural gas drilling serve as a new incentive to keep an eye on the Savage River.
“I think when they do begin drilling, we are going to see people concerned about the watershed coming out of the woodwork,” says McDaniel.
One reason the Savage River's water temperature is cool enough for brook trout is the shade provided by eastern hemlock trees along its banks. But these dense hemlock forests may not survive much longer; a tiny insect known as the hemlock woolly adelgid is sucking sap from hemlock trees and killing them. Just as SRWA is preparing for the inevitable Marcellus Shale development, volunteers are also expecting streamside hemlocks to disappear due to this invasive sap-sucker.
To avoid eroding soil, increased water temperatures and other perils that come with bare stream banks, SRWA has planted 4,000 red spruce trees along the Savage River’s shoreline. This spring, they plan to plant 500 more.
(Image courtesy Savage River Watershed Association)
If you drive on Interstate 68 into Garrett County, you'll see a number of farms, each with its own accompanying man-made pond.
“When this area was turned into farmland after it was logged at the turn of the last century, every farmer dug a pond,” explains McDaniel.
Ponds and other unshaded, open areas quickly heat up in warmer months. When these ponds are attached to the Savage River and its tributaries, they dump warm water into the system. This affects water quality, water temperature, and consequently, brook trout.
“One of the things we would like to start doing is to take these ponds off the stream at no expense to the farmer or landowner,” explains McDaniel.
SWRA supported a project that rerouted a pond belonging to the City of Frostburg. “We turned the pond into a three or four acre wetland and re-routed the stream,” says McDaniel. “Within two or three months, there were baby trout in the stream!”
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.
When a tornado hit John Long's home in June 2009, the last thing on his mind was the Chesapeake Bay. He lost the entire back half of his home, as well as ten trees on his property. After a few weeks of waiting for insurance proceedings, Long was permitted to pick up the debris scattered across his backyard, which just so happened to border Bread and Cheese Creek, a tributary of the Back River in Dundalk, Maryland.
When Long ventured down to the creek to gather the pieces of his broken home, he found more than he was expecting.
"Beneath my shingles and siding was several years of shopping carts, fast food trash, and just about anything else you can imagine," Long explains.
(Image courtesy Michael Wuyek/Flickr)
The trash wasn’t limited to Long’s property. "As I walked through more of the stream, I discovered it was the same everywhere. I was saddened because the beautiful little stream I remembered from my childhood was gone."
Long transformed his devastation into action. He contacted Baltimore County officials, who repeatedly told him that there was no money for a cleanup operation. But he didn't let that stop him. Eventually, the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability loaned him a dumpster, trash bags and a small crew. Clean Bread and Cheese Creek was born.
At the group’s first-ever cleanup, Long and 40 volunteers roamed a small portion of the creek, using their own tools to clear brush and their own bags to collect trash. Long’s parents grilled hamburgers and hot dogs for the hungry workers.
"Since then we have grown to generally draw about 140 people each cleanup, but we are still entirely funded through donations and staffed entirely by volunteers," explains Long.
Clean Bread and Cheese Creek's goal is as simple as its name states. However, funding the cleanups and enforcing illegal dumping policies isn’t quite as easy.
"Garbage bags, tools, first aid kits, flyers, posters, gloves, bottle water, food and other supplies are all from donations," Long explains. "We have the volunteers and the will, but the resources keep becoming more difficult to come by."
The group’s biggest source of funding is bake sales, courtesy of Michelle Barth, the group’s treasure and an acclaimed baker. Gold’s Gym has also been the group’s biggest sponsor, donating bottled water and advertising for cleanups.
While bottled water and bake sale profits may seem insufficient, Long explains that his “Type A thriftiness” allows a little go a long way.
“If I’m not at a cleanup, I’m at a flea market or yard sale, picking up supplies. You can buy shovels for five bucks, instead of thirty at the Home Depot.”
One may think that witnessing the overwhelming amount of trash in Bread and Cheese Creek (and often hauling it up stream banks) would change Long's view of his neighbors. But he does not speak of Dundalk residents as inconsiderate, lazy or lacking in environmental stewardship. Rather, he says that his volunteers' hard work outweighs the illegal dumping activities of others.
(Image courtesy Thomas Schwab/Flickr)
"I have volunteered at other cleanups throughout the state and you will never find people more dedicated and proud of their community," Long says. "I have worked with these people in the heat, the cold, and in the rain and they continue to laugh and joke while digging out shopping carts or pulling plastic bags from briars."
Of course, there’s only so much volunteers can do by themselves. A challenge occurs when the group hauls tires and shopping carts out of a section of the creek on Saturday, only to find a washer and dryer in their place on Sunday.
In addition to cleaning up after dumping events, Clean Bread and Cheese Creek is working to prevent them. "The illegal dumping we encounter seems to be from contractors and businesses more than individuals," Long says. "This dumping occurs primarily at night and behind business bordering the creek. We are currently working with businesses to have cameras installed in areas where the dumping occurs."
(Image courtesy John Long/Flickr)
Another challenge to Bread and Cheese Creek is Dundalk’s stormwater management system. When rain falls on lawns, parking lots, shopping centers and other paved surfaces, it carries trash and toxins (such as oil, gas, antifreeze, pesticides and fertilizer) directly into Bread and Cheese Creek.
"The only way to stop this from occurring is for there to be a complete overhaul of the stormwater managements systems in the Dundalk area so we can meet modern standards," Long says. Sustainable stormwater management techniques such as rain gardens allow stormwater to soak into the soil, rather than running off into streams.
"Unfortunately, every time this problem is addressed with Baltimore County, we are told there is no money for this. However, how much will this cost everyone in our efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay?”
The Bread and Cheese Creek of Long's childhood was rarely affected by litter; but its pristine condition in the early 1800s is unimaginable today. British and American troops camped along the creek's banks during the War of 1812's Battle of North Point. The creek got its unusual name from these soldiers, who would sit by the stream as they ate their rations of bread and cheese.
The creek is perhaps best known for the heroic sacrifice of two young American soldiers. In 1814, Daniel Wells (age 19) and Henry McComas (age 18) waded through the stream to sneak up on British General Robert Ross. They shot and killed the general, but were killed with the British's return fire.
"American soldiers died along this creek defending our county in our nation’s second war for independence," explains Long. "This important part of our history should not be left the eyesore it currently is."
Long sees honoring the creek’s past as one way to create hope for the future. To commemorate the stream's significance in the War of 1812, Long and volunteers are attempting to clean the entire length of Bread and Cheese Creek by 2014, just in time for the War of 1812 Bicentennial Celebration.
Because the creek played such a significant role shaping America's history, it will be added to the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail.
Since Long organized the first cleanup in 2009, 608 volunteers have removed a total of 52 tons of trash, including some odd and "vintage" items like bathtubs, part of a tombstone and an unopened bottle of Pepsi from the 1980s.
(Image courtesy John Long/Flickr)
From these numbers, it may seem like Long and his team must work 40 hours a week collecting trash. But like all Clean Bread and Cheese Creek members, Long has a day job.
Clean Bread and Cheese Creek understands that other commitments may prevent residents from thinking they can offer any help.
"Everything makes a difference, no matter how small," Long says. "We have volunteers who call on the phone and say 'I can only volunteer for an hour, is that okay?’ We are happy to have their help for fifteen minutes! During those fifteen minutes they are picking up trash someone else would need to clean up!"
The smallest efforts add up; over the last three years, streamside residents have noticed a significant improvement in Break and Cheese Creek.
"Minnows, crayfish and frogs which were once abundant in the stream are coming back – at night we can hear the bullfrogs singing again," Long testifies.
As wildlife reappears along the creek and eyesore trash is removed, Dundalk residents have come to appreciate the group that tramples through their backyard creek on Saturday mornings. This community support has led Long to transform what was initially a simple cleanup effort into an official 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Long is completing the process in the next few months, and is eager to acquire a label that will enable him to apply for grants.
(Image courtesy John Long/Flickr)
With this potential for additional funding, Long will expand the group’s effort beyond trash pickup. Invasive plant removal and native planting projects are at the top of his list. Such projects will help enhance wildlife habitat and protect water quality along Bread and Cheese Creek.
If you live in the Dundalk area, you’ve probably already seen signs along Merritt Boulevard advertising Clean Bread and Cheese Creek’s April 14th cleanup. If you can’t make that event, the group has several other upcoming cleanups and fundraising events listed on its website.
Don’t want to get dirty? Don’t sweat it. There’s plenty of ways businesses, schools, groups and individuals can help.
If you’re not sure what you’re getting yourself into, be sure to check out Long’s extensive photo library of volunteers, trash and the creek.
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.
In Maryland’s Washington, D.C. suburbs, Beaverdam Creek flows past agricultural fields, an abandoned airport, the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and parts of the University of Maryland campus before flowing into Indian Creek, and then the Anacostia River.
(Image courtesy thisisbossi/Flickr)
The diverse suburban surroundings of Beaverdam Creek bring many challenges, including litter, polluted stormwater runoff and eroding stream banks. Luckily, the area’s dense population provides lots of volunteers to plant trees and organize cleanups that help improve habitat and water quality in and around this beautiful stream.
Although Beaverdam Creek may be a lesser-known Anacostia River tributary, it is one of the most scenic. The stream flows through Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, acres of federally owned farm fields used for experimental composting, weed control and honeybee projects. Beaverdam Road, which runs through this facility, offers an excellent view of the area. The road is a favorite of bike commuters traveling between Laurel and Greenbelt.
Beaverdam Creek’s 14-square-mile watershed is home to plants and wildlife you might not expect to see just a few miles outside the nation’s capital. Pitcher plants – large, insect-eating plants – grow in bogs near the creek. You may also see river otters flirting along the banks, great blue herons hunting for fish, and bald eagles swirling overhead.
(Photo courtesy taoboy49/Flickr)
More from Beaverdam Creek:
Don’t go chasing waterfalls along Gwynns “Falls,” the 25-mile-long stream that originates in Reisterstown, Maryland, and empties into the Patapsco River in Baltimore City. You won’t find any. Despite the stream’s name, there are no natural waterfalls along Gwynns Falls’ course.
(Image courtesy Jim Carson/Flickr)
The term “falls” was first used by Captain John Smith, the first known Englishman to navigate the stream. Smith wrote how the stream tumbled over “felles,” or large rocks and boulders. This confusing reference to rocky streams as “falls” was also applied to Baltimore’s Jones Falls and Gunpowder Falls, neither of which have natural waterfalls.
Although Gwynns Falls’ rocky bottom prevented the stream from being used for navigational purposes, its fast-flowing waters powered 26 mills that boosted Baltimore’s industry into the 20th century. Perhaps the most successful of these mill operators was the Ellicott family, which built a series of millraces and a dam that diverted more water towards their mills. Several historic mill sites are located along the Gwynns Falls Trail, one of the largest urban wilderness parks on the East Coast. The 15-mile-long greenway connects 30 Baltimore neighborhoods and transverses five public parks.
(Image courtesy Jim Carson/Flickr)
An afternoon along the Gwynns Falls Trail is a lesson in both history and nature. Go back in time as you explore the site of the historic Windsor Mill; awe at the miniature railroad and Crimea mansion at Leakin Park; look for a waterwheel that pumped water to the Crimea mansion; and walk among tulip poplars, sycamores and sweetgum trees. It’s all just a few miles from the Inner Harbor, but you’ll feel worlds away from urban life.
Gwynns Falls also cuts through Owings Mills, an area that has experienced a high rate of development in recent years. Fortunately, additional public land holdings have allowed a portion of this area to remain forested. Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area consists of 1,900 acres of unique serpentine habitat that protects rare insects and endangered wildflowers. Soldiers Delight’s seven miles of trails are open to hikers and hunters most of the year.
More to see and learn about Gwynns Falls:
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.
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.
Agricultural ditches in Kent County, Delaware, flow through farm fields and into Marshyhope Creek, a 37-mile-long tributary of the Nanticoke River. This scenic waterway begins in Harrington, Delaware and runs across the Maryland state line, meandering through Caroline and Dorchester counties before emptying into the Nanticoke River at Sharptown.
(Image courtesy WWJB/Flickr)
Outdoor enthusiasts should explore the 3,800-acre Idylwild Wildlife Management Area, located east of the Marshyhope in Caroline County. A mix of agricultural fields and forests attract red-crested pileated woodpeckers, as well as bluebirds, beavers, wild turkeys, woodcocks, gray foxes and more. Idylwild will please anglers, hunters and wildlife watchers alike. Bring your bike, ATV or hiking shoes and hit the trails.
Marshyhope Creek also winds through Federalsburg, a quaint Maryland town whose slogan is “Pride in the Past, Hope in the Future.” The town’s name comes from a Federalist Party meeting in the early 19th century. If you’re fond of hiking and biking, you’ll want to check out the 2.5 mile Marshyhope Hike and Bike Trail in town. Be sure to cross the Harrison Ferry Bridge to get an excellent view of the Marshyhope.
(Image courtesy of Nathan Bolduc/Bridgehunter)
Have you been to Marshyhope Creek? Tell us what you thought about it!
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.
You may recognize the name “Sideling Hill” from the impressively steep mountainside interrupted by Interstate 68 in western Maryland, about two hours outside of Washington, D.C. If you’re the type that’s impressed by scenery, a westward trip means stopping at the Sideling Hill Rest Stop and Visitors Center to explore the mountainside, which is almost desert-like in its lack of forests.
(Image courtesy dlhdavidlh/Flickr)
Despite its barren appearance, Sideling Hill Creek, which runs through this mountain, is one of the healthiest streams in the entire state of Maryland. With 287 stream and tributary miles and only 2,200 residents in its watershed, this Potomac River tributary is a fortunate one because it suffers from few human impacts.
Here’s a few ways to explore Sideling Hill Creek:
Look out for rare wildflowers
Sideling Hill is so pristine that it supports an endangered wildflower called harperella (Ptilimnium nodosum). In fact, harperella can only be found in ten places in the world! It’s rumored that this flower also grows in West Virginia along Sleepy Creek and a few Cacapon River tributaries.
Trout, turkey and more
The 3,100 acre Sideling Hill Wildlife Management Area provides opportunities for hunters, anglers and anyone else who enjoys beautiful mountain scenery. In the spring, look out for turkey gobblers as they display their colorful feathers. Old logging roads challenge hikers with a variety of terrains. If you love to canoe or kayak, be sure to visit Sideling Hill in spring to explore one of the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s most scenic local waterways.
Learn about what you’re viewing
With its steep ridges and deep valleys, Sideling Hill is home to unique plants, wildlife and geologic formations. So when you visit, take some time to learn about what you’re looking at! The Nature Conservancy offers a Sideling Hill Creek audio tour that will introduce you to the specific types of rocks and plants found in the area. When your trip is over, you’ll not only be refreshed from the beautiful scenery, but also more knowledgeable about the creek’s link to the greater Bay watershed.
(Image courtesy mdmarkus66/Flickr)
Have you been to Sideling Hill? Tell us how you liked it in the comments!
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has proposed more than $52 million for Chesapeake Bay restoration in fiscal year 2013, nearly double last year’s allotted amount. The money would fund the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund, which supports projects that reduce polluted runoff and other types of nonpoint source pollution to the Bay and its rivers.
The trust fund provides dedicated funding for the most cost-efficient restoration practices, targeted in areas where pollution reductions will be most effective. It is made up of money generated through motor fuel and rental car taxes.
Since its creation in 2007, the trust fund has provided $58 million for pollution reduction projects throughout Maryland. According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), this funding has prevented more than 3.5 million pounds of nitrogen, more than 330,000 pounds of phosphorus and more than 470 tons of sediment from entering local streams, creeks, rivers and the Bay.
Some restoration highlights for the proposed funding include:
For more information about the proposed funding, including a county-by-county breakdown of funding and a complete 2013 workplan, visit Maryland DNR’s website.
Named after the nearby Catoctin Mountains, Catoctin Creek begins near Myersville, Maryland, and flows south for 28 miles, entering the Potomac River near Brunswick. Frederick County residents and National Park Service employees have dedicated the last few years to restoring bridges and waterfowl habitat in the creek’s watershed.
(Image courtesy Chesapeake Bay Foundation/Flickr)
Little Catoctin Creek converges with Catoctin Creek near Doub's Meadow Park in Myersville, a spot that's a favorite of Little League Baseball teams and residents looking to take a nature walk. Close by, a stream restoration project funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation improved the creek's streamside habitat. The location now serves as a place for local students to learn about stream ecology.
Catoctin Creek transverses the quaint town of Middletown, Maryland, and the new Catoctin Creek Park and Nature Center. The nature center's activities run throughout the year. An upcoming Green Roof Astronomy Series leads visitors in star-gazing and marshmallow roasting. A springtime nature festival celebrates Catoctin Creek with family-friendly activities.
Nearby, you may be able to watch waterfowl thanks to potholes constructed by the Potomac Watershed Partnership. When it rains, the potholes fill with water and provide ducks a place to breed in spring and migratory birds a place to stop for food in winter. Before it was restored as a wetland, the property was a poorly drained agricultural area.
Further south, where the Catoctin flows into the Potomac, the restored 140-year old Catoctin Aqueduct spans the creek. Of the 11 stone aqueducts on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, the Catoctin Aqueduct was known to be the most beautiful. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
(Image courtesy Steve 1828/Flickr)
After a series of storms and floods collapsed two of its three arches in October 1973, the aqueduct was replaced by a steel frame bridge that allowed C&O Canal bikers and hikers to cross the creek. The Catoctin Aqueduct Restoration Fund began raising funds to restore the aqueduct in 2006; the aqueduct restoration was completed this past October.
More near Catoctin Creek:
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.
Spend a Saturday morning walking along the Sligo Creek Trail in Takoma Park, Maryland, and you'll likely see at least one family trekking through the brush with a trash bag, picking up discarded aluminum cans and plastic grocery bags. These are the members of Friends of Sligo Creek (FOSC), a community volunteer organization that has worked since 2001 to clean up this tributary of the Anacostia River. The organization has now swelled to more than 500 members – an impressive figure for a nine-mile-long creek, even in this densely populated Washington, D.C., suburb.
(Image courtesy Mark Ames/Flickr)
Sligo Creek’s watershed is ethnically and economically diverse, encompassing everything from million dollar homes to public housing. This diversity is both a challenge and an opportunity for FOSC, which aims to be an environmental organization that genuinely reflects the interests and values of its eclectic community.
Stormwater Committee Leader Ed Murtagh reveals that although Sligo Creek's watershed is home to a varied population, a number of residents are professional environmental experts. "We have EPA employees, natural history experts, Smithsonian workers living in this area. There's a lot of folks who care about these things."
Also unique to Sligo Creek is its urban setting. Flowing through the D.C. suburbs of Silver Spring, Takoma Park and Hyattsville, the creek faces challenges specific to high-density areas, where human impacts are everywhere. Polluted stormwater runoff, land development, and the spread of invasive weeds are some specific challenges Sligo faces.
"It’s pretty common now to see rain barrels and rain gardens," Murtagh says. But when he started volunteering with FOSC in 2002, stormwater infrastructure wasn't so cool. "We try to make it a social thing," he explains, holding education and outreach activities for the community to learn more about beneficial landscaping.
For example, FOSC has sponsored sustainable gardening tours to showcase rain gardens and native plants that homeowners have planted along the creek. According to Murtagh, it's an excellent opportunity to reach out to friends and neighbors interested in gardening.
Additionally, FOSC’s website provides an excellent description of stormwater basics to explain "what happens when it rains" to those who can’t make an event.
When a developer proposed building a cell phone tower on Sligo’s oak-hickory uplands, FOSC knew the project would not only destroy woodlands, but increase erosion and sediment pollution in the creek. Working with neighbors, FOSC members organized successful protests that led to the project being abandoned in early 2011.
Additionally, the cell phone tower proposal would have contradicted Takoma Park’s interest in increasing wildlife habitat in the community. This year, the city became the first in Maryland to be certified by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) as a Community Wildlife Habitat.
NWF’s Backyard Wildlife Habitat certifications are popping up across the country (look for these yard signs). A Community Wildlife Habitat certification, however, is a larger undertaking. Food-bearing plants and water sources must be installed throughout the community so critters can travel throughout different neighborhoods, rather than being isolated to small areas.
In Takoma Park, the certification required that four schools, four public spaces and 150 backyards provide native wildlife with food, water, shelter and a place to rear young. FOSC’s Bruce Sidwell worked with the Takoma Horticulture Club and the Takoma Foundation to garner community support and provide technical assistance to participating neighbors.
(Image courtesy Friends of Sligo Creek)
Invasive weeds grow at much higher rates in urban areas (like the Sligo Creek watershed) than in rural areas. That’s because of us: humans spread seeds and disturb soil when we hike and bike through natural areas, allowing harmful weeds to invade new areas.
How is FOSC battling the somewhat overwhelming invasive weed problem? By splitting up the job. The group has designated a "Sligo Steward" for each of the creek’s 15 stream tracts. Sligo Stewards organize invasive weed removal days, as well as litter pickups. It’s each Sligo Steward’s job to make sure his or her section of the creek is in good health. The Sligo Steward program helps build community, gives neighbors a common goal and fosters a sense of ownership of the creek.
But FOSC volunteers know the fight against invasive weeds reaches beyond their organization. That’s why FOSC has joined forces with the Montgomery County Parks Weed Warriors program, which trains volunteers how to properly remove invasive weeds and sponsors group work days in natural areas.
The partnership between FOSC and the Weed Warriors has been successful at teaching members about invasive weeds and increasing participation in weed removals in the community. This November, a record number of volunteers participated in a Weed Warrior work day at Sligo Creek.
What else is special about Friends of Sligo Creek?
With separate committees for stormwater, invasive plants, water quality, litter, outreach and even natural history, Friends of Sligo Creek is structured in a way that covers all "environmental bases."
In addition to its many neighborhood events, FOSC holds a "Sweep the Creek" trash cleanup twice a year. During last fall’s Sweep the Creek, 222 FOSC volunteers collected 167 bags of trash. According to Murtagh, the amount of trash that volunteers have picked up at each event has decreased significantly over the past 10 years, even as the region’s population has grown.
It seems like all the great work FOSC volunteers are doing is making a difference toward a cleaner Sligo Creek, Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay.
(Image courtesy Friends of Sligo Creek)
More from Friends of Sligo Creek:
Here in the Chesapeake Bay region, it’s easy to use winter as an excuse for, say, drinking lattes, neglecting your exercise regimen and catching up on your favorite television show instead of getting outdoors. These indulgences provide me with some comfort in the face of frigid temperatures, high winds and slick road conditions.
But as my jeans get tighter and my skin gets paler, I’ve become inspired to conquer the season and all its hazards (realistically speaking, that is). Rather than hibernating like an animal, I’m putting my four-wheel-drive to use and showing winter who’s boss!
From cross country skiing to bird watching to doing donuts on frozen lakes, there are some outdoor experiences you can only have during our coldest season. We’ve compiled a list of six great places across the Bay watershed to experience winter. Just think how much better that hot cocoa will taste after you’ve felt the winter wind in your face!
If a winter flu’s got you down, a dip in Berkeley Springs may save your health. George Washington himself frequented Berkeley Springs to bathe in the warm mineral waters that flow from five main sources in the town. The springs discharge 2,000 gallons of clear, sparkling water per minute. The water remains at 74.3 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. It isn’t quite hot tub temperature, but it’s still warmer than a typical winter day.
The town even holds a Winter Festival of the Waters each year to celebrate the springs!
(Image courtesy @heylovedc/Flickr)
A drive through rolling hills, orchards and farmland will bring you to Catoctin Mountain Park and Cunningham Falls State Park, located the base of the Appalachian Mountains. Rock climbing, trout fishing, cross country skiing, winter hiking and horseback riding are just a few of the activities these recreational areas offer.
(Image courtesy Compass Points Media/Flickr)
The forests covering the parks are known as “second growth.” The “first growth” forest was logged extensively in the 18th and 19th centuries to support local agriculture and produce charcoal for the nearby Catoctin Ironworks Furnace. In the 1930s, the land was set aside and reforested by President Roosevelt’s Work Progress Administration.
Hikers and cross country skiers will come across waterfalls and large, 500 million-year-old boulders. These rocks have been exposed as the Appalachian Mountains have flattened out over time. Trails at Cunningham Falls center around the waterfall for which the park is named. Known locally as McAfee Falls, it is the largest cascading waterfall in the state of Maryland.
Venture to Hills Creek State Park, near the Pennsylvania/New York border, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by nothing but forests. Four hundred acres of state park land are bordered by nearly 13,000 acres of state game lands, making the park an ideal destination for trappers and hunters. Winter sports fanatics will be in heaven – the park’s five and half miles of trails are open to hiking and cross country skiing in winter.
(Image courtesy Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources)
Take the kids sledding on the hill near the seasonal beach; with adequate snow cover, you’ll be able to fly! If you’re lucky, you may be able to ice skate on the 137-acre Hill Creek Lake. (The park doesn’t monitor ice thickness, but does provide updates on winter conditions.)
In the winter, scenic mountain vistas are all the more impressive; without any greenery in the way, you can see for miles. For breathtaking winter views, visit Loyalsock State Forest, part of Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountain region. The park’s elevation is relatively high for the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which means you can count on winter conditions every year.
The park manages two trails specifically for cross country skiing, but skiers are welcome anywhere. Thirty-five miles of trails transverse the park, connecting visitors to a 130-mile regional trail system. Snowmobiling is also popular here.
(Image courtesy Richban/Flickr)
(Image courtesy Patuxent Research Refuge)
If winter travel isn’t in the cards for you, look no further than Patuxent Research Refuge, the 13,000-acre wildlife refuge halfway between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland. You’ll be surprised by how secluded you’ll feel just 20 minutes off I-295 (Baltimore/Washington Parkway).
Borrow binoculars and birding guides from the visitor center and walk the family-friendly trails to catch a glimpse of cardinals, tundra swans and Canada geese. The visitor center also hosts public programs for kids and houses life-sized “stuffed” animals and interactive exhibits that explain the National Wildlife Refuge system.
Seasonal hunting is also popular on the refuges’ North Tract.
If you’re still itching to get a little snow, head to the southernmost selection on our list. During this time of year, Shenandoah’s weather is unpredictable – often 10-20 degrees cooler than temperatures in the valley. Leafless trees allow you to see for miles across the park’s nearly 200,000 acres. Portions of Skyline Drive and visitors’ services are closed through March, but hiking, backcountry camping and simple Sunday drives are still welcomed! Look for bobcat tracks in the snow along the trails. If you’re brave and fit, check out the magnificent view at the top of Old Rag.
(Image courtesy Brandon Feagon/Flickr)
Now you tell us: what’s your favorite Chesapeake Bay place to explore in winter?
Owl handler, goat walker, Monarch butterfly tagger…these are just a few of the roles volunteers take on with the Howard County Conservancy. The conservancy is headquartered in a 300-year-old farm house on a 232-acre property near Woodstock, Maryland, making it an ideal location for Howard County residents to escape from the hustle and bustle of their daily lives.
Image courtesy Chesapeake Bay Trust
The Howard County Conservancy’s mission is two-fold. Like most conservancies, it is dedicated to preserving natural areas. But the Howard County Conservancy is also committed to educating and engaging the public. The property’s historic buildings, four miles of trails and 140 species of birds make it a must-see for any Marylander. Who knows – you may enjoy it so much that you decide to become a volunteer!
For more information about the Howard County Conservancy, visit the Chesapeake Bay Trust’s blog to read how one man became an “accidental” conservancy volunteer.
Bald cypress trees emerge from the water, their branches convoluted and their greenery draping, haunting and lush. Their structure is impressionistic, and somehow looks more like a painting than a photograph. The scene seems to belong in Louisiana, Mississippi or any other place you’d expect to find alligators, Cajun river monsters and Spanish moss…
But this is Delaware – Sussex County, home of the Great Cypress Swamp. This forest – the largest of its kind on the Delmarva Peninsula – forms the headwaters of the 73-mile-long Pocomoke River, the Chesapeake Bay’s easternmost tributary. With depths ranging from 7 to 45 feet and a width of less than 100 feet, the Pocomoke is rumored to be the deepest river for its width in the world.
At the Great Cypress Swamp, you can walk (or boat) among the northernmost stands of bald cypress in the United States. How do these swamp giants survive in high water? Their “knees,” of course! Bald cypress trunks have “knees,” or knots near the water’s surface, which allow the trees to send oxygen from the air down into their root system underwater…kind of like a snorkel!
Acid from the bald cypress roots contributes to the Pocomoke’s dark, tea-stained color. This may be what gave the river its name; locals will tell you that Pocomoke means “black water.” However, experts will tell you that it means “broken ground,” referring to the indigenous tribes’ farming methods. I’m not sure who’s right or wrong, but the color of the water is unique. As one writer put it, the Pocomoke’s water offers the perfect reflection surface for cypress and other trees that line the river banks.
As the Pocomoke flows south into Maryland, it forms the boundary between Wicomico and Worcester counties. At Porter’s Crossing, the river begins to narrow as it flows southwest. It runs through Snow Hill and Pocomoke City before emptying into Pocomoke Sound in the Chesapeake Bay.
Along the way, you can find birds – and lots of them! One hundred seventy-two different species have been recorded in the area. The Pocomoke’s marshes are some of the best places in the Atlantic Flyway to observe both warblers and waterfowl.
If you’d like to take to the “black water” yourself, check out local canoe and kayak rental companies in Pocomoke City and Snow Hill. Hiking trails in Pocomoke River State Forest, Pocomoke River State Park and the Nassawango Preserve of The Nature Conservancy reveal views of the swamps surrounding the river. If you’re lucky, you can get up-close and personal with some of the river’s non-human residents!
For you history buffs, be sure to visit the Furnace Town Living History Museum, a nature and archeology site dedicated to preserving the history of the Nassawango Iron Furnace, started in 1829 near Snow Hill.
(Image courtesy Uncommon Fritillary/Flickr)
Fishing is also excellent in the Pocomoke. Expect to find largemouth bass and panfish, but keep a lookout for pickerel and longnose gar. Since the Pocomoke is a tidal tributary, figuring out the tides is key to having a good fishing experience!
Have you been to the Pocomoke River? Tell us all about it!
Natural Resources Specialist Paul Carlson reaches up a red oak tree, his eyes fixated on the 3-inch-diameter vine that has wrapped itself around the oak’s trunk.
The vine is known as Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) and its effect on the red oak is comparable to a boa constrictor’s on a human: it strangles the tree and prevents the bark from receiving sunlight, which all trees need to survive. Sometimes the bittersweet vine’s weight will even uproot the tree.
In other words, if this vine is left alone, it’s very likely that the red oak will die. Along with it will disappear the wildlife habitat, forest cover, carbon absorption, erosion control, shade and other important benefits the tree provides.
“Once you recognize it, you’ll see it everywhere,” Carlson says, in reference to the bittersweet vine. He pulls out a pruner and a folding saw and slashes away at the bittersweet. I can almost hear the red oak take a breath.
You may not realize it, but not all plants are good. Oriental bittersweet is one of dozens of non-native weeds, trees, shrubs and grasses that are aggressively invading the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s delicate ecosystems.
As their name suggests, non-native weeds are not originally from this region. Therefore, they do not have any predators, parasites or pathogens here to limit their spread. Invasive weeds:
It’s estimated that invasive weed damage and control costs the United States $138 billion annually.
Ecologists, conservationists, gardeners and park maintenance staff across the Chesapeake Bay watershed are constantly looking for cost-effective ways to control these plant invaders.
Carlson and Montgomery County Parks Forest Ecologist Carole Bergmann – who can provide the name and origin of any plant I point to without consulting a field guide or iPhone app – have found an economically feasible and environmentally effective solution to the non-native weed invasion in Montgomery County, Maryland.
It’s called “Weed Warriors”: a county parks volunteer program that trains and certifies volunteers to identify and remove invasive weeds. Since the program began in 1999, Montgomery County’s Weed Warriors have put in more than 40,000 hours of volunteer service.
As the forest ecologist for all 36,000 acres of parks in Montgomery County, Bergmann realized she needed volunteers if she wanted to make a dent in the problem. “I knew that I couldn’t possibly do all the things I wanted to do without getting more people involved and giving them more responsibility and control.”
Last month, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay named Bergmann a 2011 “Chesapeake Forest Champion” for her work engaging more than 800 volunteers through the program.
At the final Weed Warrior training of the year in early November, volunteers follow Bergmann and Carlson through the forest surrounding Rockville’s Meadowside Nature Center, where the program is headquartered. Bergmann instructs her new volunteers to focus on vines during the winter season, and Carlson wrestles with the fall foliage to demonstrate correct vine removal tactics. The group passes around each vine and shrub, touching the bark, counting leaf lobes, and even smelling berries. It’s essential for Weed Warriors to correctly identify these plants.
“If you don’t know, don’t pull,” Bergmann implores. A plant may look like an invasive weed at first glance, but it could be an important native species that birds and squirrels depend on.
While removing all of the invasive weeds in Montgomery County is not feasible, Bergmann insists that isn’t her goal.
“The benefit of Weed Warriors isn’t just technical assistance. It’s that these volunteers understand enough to tell their neighbors, ‘Don’t buy English ivy.’”
The aggressive nature of invasive weeds requires that entire communities get on board with their extermination. In high-traffic and urban areas, such as Montgomery County, seeds of invasive plants such as kudzu and Japanese barberry often enter parks on the soles and bike tires of families and recreationists. Home owners are usually unaware that the exotic ornamental plants in their yard can invade parks and forests, overwhelming native vegetation and wildlife habitat.
“What’s really important is getting people to understand these things,” Bergmann says. “And in a way, to love the natural world.”
Bergmann knows that a sense of attachment to the natural world is what drives many Weed Warriors to volunteer. She has designed her program to foster this connection. Once volunteers complete a one-hour interactive computer training and attend a two-hour field workshop, the new Weed Warriors receive leather gloves, a hat and a “green card” that allows them to remove weeds at any Montgomery County park, whenever they want.
“People don’t always want to work in a group on the third Saturday of the month in a park across the county from where they live,” Bergmann explains. “They want to work in their park, the park that they watch their kid play baseball in every Saturday.”
Vincent Bradley of McKenney Hills decided to become a Weed Warrior after he participated in his neighborhood’s biannual cleanup this fall.
“At the cleanup, I saw this plant, porcelainberry, just taking over all of the others,” Bradley recalls.
Like many other invasive weeds, porcelainberry was planted by millions of unknowing gardeners because of its pleasant, ornamental beauty: berries ranging in color from deep purple to brilliant turquoise. But to Bradley, the plant’s destruction in his neighborhood park was anything but beautiful.
Bradley began to pull on the bittersweet vines that elevated the porcelainberry. One day, a cleanup supervisor stopped him to explain that he was using the wrong technique: tugging on the vines instead of simply cutting them. Bradley decided he had more to learn if he wanted to make a difference.
“I always appreciated nature,” he says. “My father taught me about trees when I was a kid, and ever since, I’ve been interested.”
Bergmann advises Bradley and other Weed Warrior volunteers to maintain this sense of curiosity. “Come back every season,” she says. “You need to keep learning about your surroundings. It will make you happier.”
As invasive weeds continue to spread, policies are catching on. Many invasive plants are no longer sold in garden stores. Some municipalities, cities – even entire nations – are enacting legislation to limit their distribution.
For example, England has outlawed the cultivation of Japanese knotweed since 1981. In 1990, the UK classified the plant as a “controlled waste,” meaning that even the soil that once contained the plant must be disposed of at a licensed landfill.
Bergmann has some simple advice for all Weed Warriors, certified or not.
Want to get involved?
You can help stop the spread of invasive plants by signing up to become a Weed Warrior. Training takes place on the last Wednesday of the month from April to October. If you can’t make the commitment to become a certified Weed Warrior, you can still make a difference. Special Project Weed Warrior events offer community members the chance to learn about and remove invasive plants in their local county parks.
No matter where you live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, you can still help stop the spread of invasive weeds. Here are a few invasive plant resources that can help you do your part:
(Porcelainberry image courtesy Steve Guttman/Flickr)
The Potomac Conservancy has awarded the Potomac River’s health a barely passing “D” grade in its fifth annual State of the Nation’s River report.
Population growth and poor land use practices are the primary causes for the river’s pollution, according to the report. The Potomac River’s “two worlds” – rural farms and mountains to the west and the urban landscape to the south – pose different challenges.
Throughout the report, the Potomac Conservancy provides a vision of greater accountability, efficiency and enforcement actions to improve land use practices and water quality. These include strong federal and state stormwater laws, and changing local codes to protect riparian forest buffers, promote well-managed farms, better regulate large farm operations and treat pollution before it enters local waterways.
“We know what needs to be done, but this region is going to have to find the political will to make the hard choices,” according to Potomac Conservancy President Hedrick Belin. “Investing a dollar today to reduce pollution will return clean water dividends for years to come.”
For more information about the state of the Nation’s River report, visit the Potomac Conservancy’s website.
Image courtesy Michael Renner/Flickr
A new study analyzing 60 years of water quality data shows that efforts to reduce pollution from fertilizer, animal waste and other sources appear to be helping the Chesapeake Bay’s health improve.
The study, published in the Nov. 2011 issue of Estuaries and Coasts, was conducted by researchers from The Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES).
The research team found that the size of mid- to late-summer low oxygen areas, called “dead zones,” leveled off in the Bay’s deep channels during the 1980s and has been declining ever since. This is the same time that the Bay Program formed and federal and state agencies set the Bay’s first numeric pollution reduction goals.
“This study shows that our regional efforts to limit nutrient pollution may be producing results,” said Don Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “Continuing nutrient reduction remains critically important for achieving bay restoration goals.”
The study also found that the duration of the dead zone – how long it persists each summer – is closely linked to the amount of nutrient pollution entering the Bay each year.
For more information about the dead zone study, visit UMCES’s website.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has purchased 825 acres of land along the Nanticoke River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to expand Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
The purchase conserves two tracts of land: one along a section of the Nanticoke River near Vienna and another to the north on Marshyhope Creek near Brookview.
The land has been identified as prime habitat for migratory waterfowl such as black ducks, blue-winged teal and wood ducks, as well as for bald eagles and the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel. Additionally, the southern land tract is located along the Nanticoke section of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Water Trail.
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is one of the nation’s premier national wildlife refuges. It consists of more than 27,000 acres, including one-third of Maryland’s tidal wetlands and some of the most ecologically important areas in the state.
Visit Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge’s website to learn more about the refuge and the expansion.