Flying low over the Chesapeake Bay, it’s not actually the water that draws your attention—except for the sporadic glint of sunlight reflected off of its calm surface. Instead, it’s the patchwork landscape and the rate at which a quiet farm field gives way to grids of streets or wriggling stretches of wetlands.
And there’s another reason to pay attention to all that land: because the Chesapeake Bay is so shallow—its average depth is just 21 feet—and because so much land area feeds into it, the health of the Bay depends greatly on how the land is treated.
With the support of a volunteer pilot from the nonprofit organization LightHawk, we took a look around the northern edges of the Chesapeake Bay to see some of the ways the land has been shaped by the people living there.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page
Photographs and text by Will Parson
Oyster populations throughout Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay have generally improved over the past decade, according to a report from the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR). But while oysters within state-designated sanctuaries have continued to thrive in recent years, populations in areas open to harvest have declined.
Three types of oyster management areas are designated in Maryland: active aquaculture, or oyster farming; sanctuaries, where harvesting is not allowed; and Public Shellfish Fishery Areas, or PSFAs, which are open to public harvesting.
Low disease mortality combined with successful reproductive seasons in 2010 and 2012 helped boost populations of the Bay’s iconic bivalve in both fished and sanctuary areas. But as oyster biomass in sanctuaries continued to increase through 2014 and 2015, populations in areas open to fishing declined in those years. According to the report, this is likely due to the harvest of those oysters born in 2010 and 2012—inside the sanctuaries, these older oysters were continuing to grow and reproduce.
In 2010, Maryland adopted an updated oyster management plan, expanding the range of sanctuaries and designating areas to remain open to harvest. The study marks the first evaluation in DNR’s commitment to review the plan’s effectiveness every five years and to propose adjustments if necessary. But the report suggests it’s too early to conclude that oyster restoration efforts have been successful.
“Given the complexity of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, five years has not been long enough to show how oyster populations respond to the absence of harvest,” the report states. Still, the report recommends making adjustments to current sanctuary boundaries, while continuing to maintain sanctuaries in 20 to 30 percent of the Maryland portion of the Bay.
The State Oyster Advisory Commission, a 23-member group created to advise DNR on oyster-related matters, is expected to review the report and make recommendations on the state’s oyster restoration efforts, including postponed work in the Tred Avon River.
The report is available on the Maryland Department of Natural Resources website.
The Chesapeake Bay has more than 11,600 miles of shoreline. Evidence of its changing tides can be observed along much of the region, whether it is a high water mark on a dock piling, a line of seaweed on a beach or a shorebird pulling shellfish from the mud of a temporarily exposed flat.
In some watershed cities—like Annapolis, Maryland—the difference between high and low tides is about one foot. In others—like Norfolk, Virginia—this difference can reach up to three feet. We have built our roads, homes and buildings around the regular movement of this water. But as sea levels rise, land subsides and natural barriers to coastal flooding are lost, our coastal cities will face more impactful high-tide flooding that occurs regardless of heavy winds or rain.
High-tide flooding has also been called sunny-day, shallow coastal or nuisance flooding. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) records a high-tide flood when one of its local tide gauges measures a water level above the local threshold for minor impacts. While the depth and extent of high-tide floods can vary, the nuisances that result are far from minor: disrupted transportation, degraded stormwater management systems, flooded roads, homes and businesses, and strained maintenance budgets.
Rates of high-tide flooding on all coasts are rising. In a June 2016 report on the state of high-tide nuisance flooding in the United States, NOAA researchers attribute increasing flood frequencies to local sea level rise—which itself is attributed to the melting of ice on land as the air warms and the expansion of seawater as oceans warm—and local land subsidence, or the settling or sinking of land. Indeed, according to the report, “annual flood rates have increased locally by two or three times or more as compared to the rate experienced 20 years ago.”
Of the 28 local long-term tide gauges operated by NOAA, four are in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Together, these four cities—Annapolis and Baltimore in Maryland, Norfolk in Virginia and the District of Columbia—experienced a total of 128 high-tide flood days in 2015, with Baltimore and Norfolk experiencing local totals just two days and one day below the highest historical record. These floods were likely exacerbated by El Niño, which affected winds and storm tracks along the mid-Atlantic and West coasts.
The 2016 outlook for each of these four cities is lower than the number of flood days the cities observed in 2015: 15 flood days are expected to occur in 2016 in Baltimore, 47 in Annapolis, 33 in Washington, D.C., and 8 in Norfolk. However, NOAA expects future outlooks to underestimate flood days because of the increasingly “nonlinear response” flood frequencies will have to sea level rise. Furthermore, the agency’s high-tide flood outlook does not account for flooding compounded by local rainfall, and precipitation in the watershed is expected to increase in response to climate change.
While we cannot reverse the effects of climate change that have already been observed in the region—which include warming temperatures, rising sea levels and more extreme weather events, as well as coastal flooding, eroding shorelines and changes in the abundance and migration patterns of wildlife—we can enhance our resiliency against them. To build resiliency against high-tide flooding, for example, cities have relied on flood barriers to block rising water, drafted ambitious plans to raise low-lying streets and constructed new facilities higher off the ground.
Through the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, the Chesapeake Bay Program has committed to increasing the resiliency of the region’s communities, living resources and wildlife habitats to the adverse impacts of changing environmental conditions. Learn about our work to monitor and assess the trends and impacts of climate change and to pursue, design and construct restoration and protection projects that will enhance the resiliency of our ecosystem.
Air quality improvements throughout the Potomac River watershed—due primarily to the Clean Air Act—have helped improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay, according to research from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES).
When cars, power plants and other sources emit air pollution, it can be carried by wind and weather over long distances until it falls onto land or directly into the water. In fact, scientists estimate that one third of the nitrogen in the Chesapeake Bay comes from the air—through a process known as atmospheric deposition. And while studying water quality trends in the Upper Potomac River Basin, UMCES scientists confirmed that reductions in atmospheric nitrogen deposition are playing a large role in improvements in the area’s water quality.
“Most best management practices—like a riparian buffer or retention pond—only impact a relatively small area,” said Keith Eshleman, professor at UMCES’ Appalachian Laboratory and co-author of the study. “You can think about the Clean Air Act as a best management practice that affects every square meter of the watershed.”
Experts at the Chesapeake Bay Program will be able to incorporate the findings into their modeling efforts, in order to better simulate the benefits of the Clean Air Act on reducing nitrogen pollution. The study—along with other research, monitoring and data collected over the past decade—will support Bay Program decision-making during the upcoming Midpoint Assessment of the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL.
Last year, the Chesapeake Bay Program released an interactive story map illustrating how Clean Air Act regulations, as well as decades of enforcement actions, led to a steady decline in air pollution across the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
The study—“Declining nitrate-N yields in the Upper Potomac River Basin: What is really driving progress under the Chesapeake Bay restoration?”—can be found online.
On a June morning at Baltimore’s Middle Branch Park, a few steps from the Patapsco River, Molly Gallant addresses a group of eighth graders like a drill sergeant in a life vest.
“Hands up if this is your first time in a kayak, ever,” said Gallant, the high sun irradiating her tanned, freckled shoulders and red hair. Gallant, an Outdoor Recreation Programmer with Baltimore City Recreation and Parks, counted aloud six raised hands.
“For those of you that have not been out before, the secret to kayaking is pressing your knees to the sides, okay?” Gallant said. “And you let your hips rock with the water and your upper body stay straight.”
The few dozen students had come that morning from Collington Square Elementary School, located roughly two miles northeast of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, for a program called Kids in Kayaks. In its first year, roughly 500 Baltimore students have taken part in the program, funded by the National Park Service and the Baltimore National Heritage Area. It has given many children their first experience on the water that has defined their hometown.
The program began with in-classroom orientation by staff from the National Park Service Chesapeake Bay Office.
“We went out to the schools beforehand to talk to students about what was going to happen,” said Kate Marks of the National Park Service. Marks said the overview also included discussion of “the history of the region and human impact on the landscape over the past 400 years.”
Participating schools then made two trips—in fall and spring—to the 150-acre park for entry-level kayak lessons taught by Gallant and other Recreation and Parks staff as well as on-land activities hosted by various partners including the National Park Service, the Maryland Zoo, the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House, and Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine.
“Every organization has their own mission, their own reason why they’re doing this,” Gallant said. “I think the common interest for all of us is that it’s really, really important to start engaging urban populations in the natural resources that are available to them.”
During the primer on water safety and paddling, expressions on the students’ faces ranged from giggles to frightened anticipation. A boy asked if there were any animals in the water.
“There is nothing the water that is going to eat you,” Gallant said, sensing the boy’s concern.
Gallant first talked with the National Park Service about the idea for Kids in Kayaks as an outdoor recreation program in order to get Baltimore children engaged in the historical, cultural, and ecological heritage of their hometown.
She said the environmental aspect is the first one the children pick up on.
“It’s this secret way of developing stewardship where you cannot go out on the water and have a good time and not start forming those connections,” Gallant said. “It makes you think twice about throwing litter on the ground.”
“You get to look out there and see this big massive green area that is Ft. McHenry—you get to see the flag flying out there,” Gallant said. “You get to see why this is important to Baltimore, why Baltimore was developed as a port town, why we are where we are.”
That day, as half of the children took to the water, the other half followed Peter Martin, a Naturalist at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, for a guided nature walk to learn about some of the animals and insects living at Middle Branch Park.
“We’ll see those same things out on the water,” Gallant said. “So it’s really very complementary.”
The trips are intended to be entry-level kayaking lessons, but Gallant has also seen a lot of personal growth in the children—something that was never written into the program.
“One of the young ladies that had come to us this spring was extremely fearful,” Gallant said. “It took us about 20 minutes to even get her in the boat. Tears. Anxiety. She just did not think that she could do it. So by the end of the trip, not only was she able to do it, she was actually towards the front of the pack. So that second trip for her—no hesitation.”
The newcomers from Collington Square struck a similar chord of confidence on the water.
“It happens in different variations on a lot of different levels with a lot of different kids,” Gallant said.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page
Video, photos and text by Will Parson
According to fisheries experts, the Chesapeake Bay blue crab stock is not depleted and overfishing is not occurring. Nevertheless, experts recommend maintaining a risk-averse, or cautious, approach to blue crab management: just two years ago, adult female blue crabs were considered depleted. Even after a 183 percent rise in their population between 2014 and 2016, their numbers remain below target levels.
The 2016 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report was released by the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC). It includes blue crab population and harvest data from Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, as well as expert recommendations on maintaining a sustainable blue crab fishery.
According to the report, the start of the 2016 crabbing season saw an estimated 194 million adult female blue crabs in the Bay. This marks a 92 percent increase from last year’s abundance of adult females, which the Chesapeake Bay Program tracks as part of its progress toward the goals and outcomes of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. Because adult female blue crab abundance is above the 70 million threshold, the blue crab stock is not considered depleted. And because just 15 percent of adult females were harvested in 2015—well below the 25.5 percent target—overfishing is not occurring.
“The blue crab population is at a healthy level,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Biologist and CBSAC Chair Glenn Davis in a media release. “It is encouraging to see adult females rebound from a depleted state… but that also serves as a reminder of how quickly things can change with this animal.”
In its report, CBSAC—which includes scientists and representatives from state agencies and academic institutions, as well as federal fisheries experts—recommends the improvement of harvest and fishing effort estimates, the jurisdictional coordination of complementary management measures and the evaluation of an allocation-based blue crab management framework. An allocation-based management framework would allocate an annual total allowable catch (TAC) of blue crabs for the Bay’s commercial and recreational fisheries among its three management jurisdictions: Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission. The report recognizes the importance of future stock assessments in providing in-depth scientific guidance to support blue crab management.
“It’s great to see that the Chesapeake Bay blue crab population has increased over the past two years and we are close to achieving the target of 215 million adult female blue crabs outlined in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement,” said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Chesapeake Bay Office Director and Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team Chair Peyton Robertson in a media release. “The annual Advisory Report continues to provide valuable counsel for jurisdictional fishery managers as they work toward sustaining the blue crab population at that level over the long term.”
For more than a century, the United States has worked to protect the wilderness around us with parks, preserves and sanctuaries. While natural spaces of all shapes and sizes can benefit wildlife, only one government-designated wilderness program was established in order to build a network of wildlife habitat: the national wildlife refuge system.
The first national wildlife refuge was established in 1903. Today, there are more than 560 wildlife refuges in the nation, whose 150 million acres of land and water are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and marked with the emblem of a flying blue goose. Fifteen wildlife refuges are located in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, protecting forests, fields, ponds, marshes, swamps and shorelines in Maryland and Virginia. Federally owned land—which includes wildlife refuges—accounts for about 26 percent of the 8.37 million protected acres in the region, and is integral to our work to safeguard wildlife habitat from development. Learn about five wildlife refuges in the watershed below.
1. Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge (Rock Hall, Md.). Established in December of 1962, this 2,285-acre island refuge is located where the Chester River meets the Chesapeake Bay. The island was among the first parts of Maryland to be settled by European colonists: between 1658 and 1680, two men acquired the entire island tract by tract. Today, the island’s forests, grasslands, ponds and tidal marshes offer critical feeding and resting grounds to hundreds of species of migratory birds. Ducks, swans and geese are particularly abundant in late fall and early winter, and refuge staff have documented peaks of more than 50,000 waterfowl at one time on or near the refuge. The refuge provides visitors with opportunities to walk and bike, view wildlife, boat, fish, crab and hunt for turkey and white-tailed deer.
2. Patuxent Research Refuge (Laurel, Md.). Established in December of 1936, this refuge has expanded from its original 2,670 acres to encompass more than 12,800 acres between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. It is the only wildlife refuge established to support wildlife research. The Patuxent Wildlife Research Center is operated by the U.S. Geological Survey, whose staff specialize in research related to wildlife and natural resources science, from the status and trends of bird populations to the effects of chemical contaminants on wildlife. One of its most famous programs involves the captive breeding of whooping cranes: biological technicians raise more than 30 chicks each year, releasing most to a non-migratory flock in Louisiana and training the rest to migrate from Wisconsin to Florida. While the grounds that house the research center are not open to the public, the refuge’s North Tract and impressive National Wildlife Visitor Center provide visitors with opportunities to walk, view wildlife, fish and hunt.
3. Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge (Cape Charles, Va.). Established in 1984 to promote migratory and endangered species management, this 1,123-acre refuge located at the tip of the Delmarva Peninsula was once a military fort. During World War II, Fort John Custis protected naval bases in Virginia Beach and Norfolk. In 1950, the U.S. Air Force took ownership of the fort, renamed it the Cape Charles Air Force Station and occupied the area until 1981. Today, the refuge is valued as one of the most important stopover sites for migrating birds and butterflies in the nation. Each fall, songbirds, raptors and monarch butterflies gather at the refuge to feed and rest before resuming their migrations south. More than 400 bird species have been seen in and around the refuge, and on peak days, 100,000 monarch butterflies have been seen on refuge roosts. The refuge’s wood- and shrublands, fields, ponds and marshes are also valuable to insects (including the endangered northeastern beach tiger beetle), mammals and other critters. The refuge provides visitors with opportunities to walk, view wildlife, boat and hunt for white-tailed deer.
4. Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge (Lorton, Va.). Established in February of 1969, this 2,227-acre refuge sits on a boot-shaped peninsula between the Potomac and Occoquan rivers. While an airport and residential community were planned for the land in the early 1960s, local resident Elizabeth van Laer Speer Hartwell launched a campaign to halt the development and protect the bald eagles that called the Potomac River home. As a result, this refuge—located just 18 miles south of Washington, D.C.—became the first that was established for the explicit protection of the bald eagle and one of four named after women. It encompasses almost six miles of shoreline, 2,000 acres of mature hardwood forest and 207 acres of tidal freshwater marsh that is home to a large breeding colony of great blue herons. The refuge provides visitors with opportunities to walk, view wildlife and hunt for white-tailed deer.
5. Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge (Warsaw, Va.). Established in 1996, this refuge is the newest of four that compose the Eastern Virginia Rivers National Wildlife Refuge Complex. While it currently consists of 8,720 acres of forests, grassland, marshland and swamps, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to protect 20,000 acres of habitat along the Rappahannock and its tributaries over time. The refuge is home to breeding bald eagles and migrating birds, and provides visitors with opportunities to walk, view wildlife, boat, fish and hunt for white-tailed deer.
In 2016, the Chesapeake Bay Commission worked with the legislatures of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia to designate the second week in June of each year as Chesapeake Bay Awareness Week—a time to celebrate the culture, history and natural beauty of the nation’s largest estuary.
From June 4th through 12th this year, residents and visitors alike participated in this inaugural celebration by attending events, participating in restoration activities and learning about the importance of the Chesapeake Bay. Below are just a few of the ways communities marked the occasion.
Across the watershed, the first day of Chesapeake Bay Awareness Week coincided with National Trails Day. Events across the watershed encouraged hikers young and old, beginners and experts to enjoy the outdoors.
How did you celebrate Chesapeake Bay Awareness Week? Let us know in the comments!
Scientists expect low river flow and reduced nutrient-rich runoff from the Susquehanna and Potomac Rivers this spring to result in an average to slightly smaller-than-average dead zone in the main stem of the Chesapeake Bay this summer.
Aquatic life—from blue crabs to underwater grasses—relies on dissolved oxygen to survive. When nutrient-fueled algae blooms die and decompose, the resulting areas of little to no oxygen, known as dead zones, can suffocate underwater plants and animals. The latest forecast predicts a mid-summer hypoxic, or low-oxygen, zone of 1.58 cubic miles: close to the long-term average. The anoxic, or no-oxygen, zone is expected to reach 0.28 cubic miles in early summer and grow to 0.31 cubic miles by late-summer.
This forecast, funded by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is based on models developed at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the University of Michigan and relies on estimated nutrient loads from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). According to USGS, 66.2 million pounds of nitrogen entered the Chesapeake Bay in from January to May 2016, which is 17 percent lower than average nitrogen loadings.
Over the next few months, researchers with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) will monitor oxygen levels in the Bay, resulting in a final measurement of the Bay’s dead zone later this year.
Former Maryland State Senator Bernie Fowler saw his sneakers through 31 inches of water at the 29th annual Patuxent River Wade-In on June 12. High winds and rough waters meant this year’s “sneaker index”—the deepest point at which Fowler can still see his shoes as he wades into the water—measured far lower than 2015’s 44.5 inches.
Since 1988, the now 92-year-old Fowler—clad in his signature white sneakers—has held the wade-in on the second Sunday in June, to bring attention to the polluted waters of the Patuxent River and the Chesapeake Bay. The event moved to Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in 2010 after decades on Broomes Island.
In his youth, Fowler could wade into the Patuxent up to his chest and still see fish, shellfish and underwater grasses. But nutrient and sediment pollution in the river have led to degraded water clarity and fueled algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching the river bottom. The 1960s sneaker index of 57 inches now serves as the benchmark for a restored Patuxent River.
A new Coastal Resiliency Assessment from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and The Nature Conservancy of Maryland & D.C. will help state and local decision-makers focus conservation and restoration activities on coastal communities that are most at risk of flooding, erosion, sea level rise and other hazards.
More than 7,000 miles of shoreline make up Maryland’s coast—which borders both the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean—and these areas are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels, severe storms and erosion. The Coastal Resiliency Assessment worked to identify regions that are most at risk, existing natural lands that can provide protection and key places to target conservation and restoration efforts. According to the study, habitats like forests and wetlands currently protect 22 percent of the state’s coastal areas and their communities.
The assessment has been incorporated into the Maryland Coastal Atlas—an interactive hub of ocean, estuary and shoreline spatial data—so planners can identify high-priority areas for projects. Data found in the assessment includes an index of high-, moderate- and low-hazard shorelines; places where habitat plays a role in risk reduction; communities at risk of flooding; areas where existing marshes could provide coastal protection; and priority shorelines for conservation and restoration projects.
May is National Biking Month, and the Chesapeake region has hundreds—if not thousands—of miles of bike paths and trails to explore. Biking can make for a fun afternoon and is a great way to explore an area while getting some exercise! From short loops to long regional trails, here’s a list of eight paths to explore by bike.
Originally serving as a way for horses to pull coal-filled barges down the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, the C&O towpath is now a multi-use trail stretching 185 miles from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland. The trail runs along the Maryland side of the Potomac River, is mostly wooded and offers sights of beautiful scenery and wildlife.
The trail has restrooms, camping areas, lookout points, historic sights and much more. While there are some paved sections, the path is mostly an even, hard-backed dirt trail. If 185 miles isn’t enough biking for you, once you reach Cumberland, you can continue another 150 miles on the Great Allegheny Passage all the way to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Pine Creek Trail, located at the bottom of Pine Creek Gorge (also known as the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon), is a 61-mile trail that runs along the river that gives the area its name. Running from Stokesdale to Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, this paved, low grade trail has multiple restrooms and runs through several small towns, making it perfect for a quick ride or a multi-day tour through northcentral Pennsylvania. Almost the entire trail runs along Pine Creek, offering spectacular views of the water, rock outcroppings, waterfalls and wildlife like eagles, osprey, wild turkeys and otters.
Originally a railroad line, High Bridge Trail stretches over 30 miles from Burkeville to Pamplin, Virginia. The main attraction of the trail is its namesake, High Bridge, which stretches 2,400 feet across the Appomattox River, and is 125 feet high. Built in 1853, High Bridge is the longest recreational bridge in Virginia and is among the longest in the U.S. It is both a Virginia Historic Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places.
High Bridge Trail is wide, generally flat and made of crushed limestone, with restrooms and picnic tables along the trail. The trail is over 30 miles long, but those who want a shorter ride can start off in nearby Farmville and bike the four and a half miles from downtown to the bridge. No matter the length, High Bridge Trail offers beautiful views of central Virginia’s woodlands and rural farmlands.
The Cross Island Trail offers views of woods, farmland, marshes and the Bay as you bike across Kent Island in Maryland. This flat, paved trail runs six miles, making it ideal for an easy afternoon bike ride. Start in the west at Terrapin Beach Park and take a break at one of the restaurants on the eastern side at Kent Narrows. Or, if you’re starting in the east, Terrapin Park is a great place for a picnic break or a short hike before biking back.
Located in Laurel, Delaware, Loblolly is a five mile trail in Trap Pond State Park. The trail loops around the pond and also takes riders through forests, across bridges, over dams and past the historic Bethesda Church’s cemetery. Visitors can access a hiking path via Loblolly Trail that takes them to Cypress Point where they can also get a view of bald cypress trees.
Jones Falls Trail is located in Baltimore, Maryland, and runs over nine miles from the Inner Harbor to northwestern Baltimore. While this trail is relatively hilly, it never exceeds a five percent grade and follows along the Jones Falls stream for much of its route
It begins in an urban setting, starting at the Inner Harbor and heading through downtown Baltimore up to Penn Station. For those who prefer more nature on their bike rides, the trail then runs past Penn Station along the Jones Falls stream and crosses into Druid Park, a 745-acre park which houses Druid Lake, the Maryland Zoo and the Rawlings Conservatory and Botanic Gardens. The trail remains mostly nature until it ends at the Cylburn Arboretum and Cylburn Mansion.
Completed in 2015, the Virginia Capital Trails runs for 52 miles from Richmond to Jamestown, Virginia’s current and former capitals. This flat and paved path follows along the James River and offers scenic ride, going past several historic sites and properties. The trail is dotted with amenities—spots for bike rentals, repair stations, rest areas and even opportunities for geocaching.
8. Bacon Ridge
While still a new trail and undergoing a new phase of development, Bacon Ridge is a great place for those more interested in mountain biking. Located in Crownsville, Maryland, Bacon Ridge is ideal for families and beginning riders, due to its relatively few obstacles such as rocks and roots. The trail’s first two-and-a-half mile loop was completed in 2015, but the trail will ultimately extend up to 12 miles.
Where do you like to bike in the Chesapeake region? Let us know in the comments. If you want to find more bike paths close to home, check out Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, American Trails or SingleTracks.
Scientists at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) measured a modest improvement in Chesapeake Bay health in 2015, once again giving the estuary a “C” in their annual Chesapeake Bay Report Card.
Although the “C” grade has remained the same since 2012, the score of 53 percent marks one of the three highest since 1986: only 1992 and 2002 scored as high or higher. But unlike 2015, both those years accompanied major droughts, and according to UMCES researchers, that makes these results particularly notable.
“We’d expect to see improvements after a drought year because nutrients aren’t being washed into the Bay, fueling algae blooms and poor water quality,” said Bill Dennison, Vice President for Science Applications at UMCES, in a release. “However, in 2015 streamflow was below normal, but nowhere near the drought conditions in 1992 and 2002. Thus, the high score for 2015 indicate that we’re making progress reducing what’s coming off the land.”
The Bay Health Index is based on 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. Most of these indicators improved over the previous year; only phosphorus pollution worsened from 2014 to 2015.
"The information being released today by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science is very positive and consistent with the trends the Chesapeake Bay Program has been witnessing over the past few years,” said Nick DiPasquale, Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program. “We should take the opportunity to celebrate these results, but we should also recognize that the long term success of our work to restore water quality and the health of this vitally important ecosystem will depend on stepping up and sustaining our efforts over the long-term to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution discharges to streams and rivers throughout the watershed."
The Chesapeake Bay’s adult female blue crab population has increased 92 percent since the population was surveyed last winter. While the current adult female blue crab abundance of 194 million is well above the overfishing threshold, it remains below the 215 million abundance target.
Maryland and Virginia estimate the Bay’s blue crab population through an annual winter dredge survey. Over the course of three and a half months, scientists visit 1,500 sites around the Bay, using metal dredges to pull up crabs over-wintering in the mud.
Results of the 2016 winter dredge survey show the Bay’s total blue crab population has increased from 411 million to 553 million since last winter. Results also show the number of adult females has risen from 101 million to 194 million. The number of juvenile crabs has increased from 269 million to 271 million, which is just above the long-term average.
“The crab stock has been on a rollercoaster for most [of] the last decade,” said Virginia Marine Resources Commissioner John M.R. Bull in a media release. “We’ve seen a few great years of reproduction followed by awful years of abundance. Two years does not make a trend, and this news inspires both wary optimism and cautious management.”
In the short term, Maryland officials do predict a good crab season. “Due to a milder winter, favorable currents and tides, and wise Bay-wide management measures, the Maryland crab population continues to rebound and strengthen,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service Director Dave Blazer in a media release. “With an increase in abundance and steady recruitment, we fully anticipate a robust crab season this year.”
The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks the adult female blue crab population as an indicator of Bay health, and in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement committed to maintaining a sustainable blue crab population based on a target of 215 million adult females. The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC), which includes scientists and representatives from states, academic institutions and the federal government, will use this data to make recommendations on sustaining the blue crab population in its 2016 Blue Crab Advisory Report, expected to be released this summer.
It’s a cold, overcast day in Mid-March, and dozens of onlookers are huddled around a wooden shelter, watching steam billow off the top of a cast-iron pot. The gathering is part of the 46th Annual Maple Syrup Festival, held at Maryland’s Cunningham Falls State Park, and a curious audience is listening to Maryland Park Ranger Jeremiah Corbin describe how the sweet sap produced by sugar maple trees is boiled into pure maple syrup.
Each year, volunteers and attendees at the festival celebrate all things maple syrup. Visitors can partake in a pancake breakfast, sample maple candies and creams, and watch a demonstration of the syrup-making process, from techniques used hundreds of years ago to current tree-tapping technologies.
When it comes to maple syrup production, Maryland isn’t first on the list—in fact, the state ranks near the bottom of U.S. syrup production (Vermont, of course, is number one). Of the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s six states, New York ranks highest, accounting for more than 15 percent of U.S. production. Pennsylvania typically accounts for around five percent, while Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia may produce a few thousand gallons of maple syrup a year. But much of the region falls along the southern edge of maple syrup production, meaning these may be some of the first areas to experience how a changing climate affects this cultural and economic tradition.
Late-winter temperatures—warm, sunny days followed by cool nights—are crucial to start the flow of the sugar maple’s watery, slightly-sweet sap. But temperatures across the globe have been steadily rising, with 2015 the warmest year on record, and these warmer temperatures could affect the habitat and health of trees like the sugar maple.
As temperatures warm, certain areas may no longer be suitable habitat for tree species that are common today, including the sugar maple. The Maryland Climate Action Plan suggests maple-beech-birch forests are likely to fade northward and be replaced by species currently found south of the state. Even low-range predictions from the U.S. Forest Service’s Climate Change Atlas suggest suitable habitat for sugar maples will retreat to the northern reaches of the watershed over the next 100 years.
According to scientists with the Acer Climate and Socio-Ecological Research Network, or ACERnet, the potential effects of climate change on maple syrup production could include not only the amount of trees available to tap, but also the health of those trees, the tapping season and the quality of sap. If suitable sugar maple habitat shifts northward, climate-stressed trees left in the area may become more susceptible to threats like pests and disease. And although syrup producers have already seen tapping seasons starting earlier and becoming more unpredictable, more research is needed on whether climate change will affect the sweetness of the sap.
Still, there’s no need to bid farewell to locally-made syrup just yet. By adapting to a changing tapping season, producers in northern states may be able to continue collecting sap. And advanced technologies like vacuum tubing systems may help those in southern ranges continue production, at least for a little while. Either way, the maple syrup festivals of the next century may look quite different from the ones we’re used to today.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Text by Stephanie Smith
Images and captions by Will Parson
From December to March, assessing the health of the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population means long stints on the water for scientists from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). Every year the blue crab winter dredge survey samples 1,500 randomly-chosen sites divided equally between Virginia and Maryland waters, in a partnership between VIMS and the Fisheries Service of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The data provides a bay-wide estimate of blue crab populations that helps agencies determine how many can be harvested without hampering the recovery of one of the Chesapeake Bay’s defining resources.
After a clear, calm sunrise in the second week of March, the VIMS team left their headquarters in Gloucester Point, Virginia, with 742 of 750 sites under their belt. Their boat, the R/V Bay Eagle, is their home during trips lasting up to four days at a time. With just eight sites left to sample using their six-foot-wide crab dredge, this would be a relatively short day—the last one of the season.
“That sort of puts a smile on our face,” said Mike Seebo, a VIMS marine scientist who has worked on the winter dredge survey since its second winter in 1990.
The dredge relies on the blue crab’s winter behavior of burrowing into the mud and lying dormant when the temperature drops below 45 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. When the crabs wake up in the coming months, the mature females will migrate to lower-salinity spawning grounds in the Bay’s tributaries, a journey of up to 150 miles for crabs reaching the northernmost habitats.
And many of the crabs will end up harvested, steamed and covered in Old Bay seasoning. For one of the region’s mainstays, the numbers coming from the survey teams will be highly awaited.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page
Photos and text by Will Parson
Video by Steve Droter
Warm weather may have delayed waterfowl migrations to Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay shoreline and Atlantic coast, according to the results of Maryland’s 2016 Midwinter Waterfowl Survey. While experts from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) counted more diving ducks in their aerial surveys than in 2015, fewer dabbling ducks, geese and swans were observed.
According to a DNR release, abnormally warm weather in the eastern United States delayed the migration of waterfowl to the Chesapeake region, resulting in an overall waterfowl count of 663,000—lower than last year’s 855,000 birds and below the five year average of 759,460.
This year’s total included 69,800 dabbling ducks (a decrease from 90,800 in 2015) and 246,000 diving ducks (up from 192,000 in 2015). The increase in diving ducks can be attributed to teams observing more scaup and ruddy ducks, particularly along the Chester River and the Bay’s shoreline in Calvert County. Survey teams also observed dramatically smaller numbers of Canada geese: 293,800, or 42 percent fewer than were counted in 2015.
The USFWS Division of Migratory Bird Management pools these survey results with those from other states to get a sense of the distribution and population size of waterfowl wintering along the Atlantic Flyway, the migration route that follows the Atlantic coast of North America.
Learn more about the Midwinter Waterfowl Survey.
When it comes to scientific data, older isn't typically better. But when you are teasing out environmental trends, like temperature change, it helps to have a long record. The Chesapeake Biological Laboratory (CBL) in Solomons, Maryland, is the oldest state-supported marine laboratory on the East Coast, and it touts the longest continuous record of water temperature in the Chesapeake Bay.
CBL's 750-foot research pier on the Patuxent River was first built in 1936, and in 1938 scientists started walking out to collect thousands of daily temperature and salinity readings. Today, anyone can observe live water conditions at the pier online. In the 70 years after 1938, the laboratory documented a 2.7 degree Fahrenheit temperature increase in the water around the pier.
"And that's given a unique, long-term record that’s shown the essential elements of climate change,” said Dr. David Secor, a fisheries ecologist at CBL who first reported the trend. “That motivated our group to begin to look at how young fish that we collect here by the pier may change."
Secor’s lab has performed seining studies since 1999. His team first used a 100-foot seining net to focus on bluefish, which morphed into a project on menhaden. “We’ve basically shoe-stringed this effort along,” Secor said, describing short-term funding sources. “And I think we have a dedicated, motivated group of students and myself that will hopefully continue this on throughout my career.”
The most common species caught by the seine are Atlantic silverside, bay anchovy, and Atlantic menhaden. Another 10 percent is bluefish, blue crab, white perch, striped bass and spot. Secor said future observations depend on how well species can adapt to temperature change as well as seasonality—the conditions in spring and winter that “set the clock” for what fish are present later in the year.
“What we may see in the future, with warming, is a disruption of that clock,” Secor said. “Maybe we’ll see higher production of some things like blue crabs, but we may see diminished production of fish that don’t do so well in warmer waters such as striped bass, perch and black sea bass.”
“We saw a kingfish last year for the first time in our series,” Secor said. “These kinds of fish that we already see visiting the lower Chesapeake Bay will be coming up this way more frequently.”
Regardless of the fish that will be seen, one fair prediction for the future is that the CBL pier will be there to support the science.
“This pier has been here in purpose for 70 years but it’s been replaced several times, and that too is the result of climate events,” Secor said. “Hurricanes and tropical storms have really taken a bite out of this pier on occasion.”
In 2010, after several recent storms, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science received a $1.7 million grant to rebuild the pier from the National Science Foundation as part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. In 2011, Hurricane Irene dealt additional damage before construction began the next year. The pier received several new pilings, an upgraded pump house, and new instrumentation to measure greenhouse gases in the air.
“It’s been rebuilt now,” Secor said, sitting on the pier’s new deck. The full length of the pier is now covered in a corrugated material designed to allow water—and fallen car keys—to pass through uninhibited.
“It’s made out of much more flexible, much more enduring materials.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page
Video, Images and Text by Will Parson
The Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay dead zone measured slightly smaller than average this past summer, supporting scientists’ June prediction of a smaller than average hypoxic zone in the nation’s largest estuary.
Dead zones are areas of little to no dissolved oxygen that form when nutrient-fueled algae blooms die and decompose. This decomposition process removes oxygen from the surrounding waters faster than it can be replenished, and the resulting low-oxygen conditions can suffocate marine life.
Each summer, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) collect water samples to measure the hypoxic volume of the Bay. At 3,806 million cubic meters, the Maryland portion of this year’s dead zone was the 13th smallest in 31 years of sampling.
According to a report from the DNR, the size of the dead zone was likely due to reduced rainfall earlier this spring.
Striped bass spawning success has improved in the Chesapeake Bay, according to scientists from both Maryland and Virginia.
Tracking the number of young-of-the-year striped bass in the Bay, or those rockfish that are less than one year old, helps scientists evaluate the health of the striped bass stock. To determine this number, scientists take a series of seine net samples in select striped bass spawning areas—like the Choptank, Potomac and Nanticoke rivers in Maryland and the Rappahannock, York and James rivers in Virginia—each summer. The resulting “juvenile abundance index” serves as an early indicator of future fish populations, helping managers predict the amount of striped bass that will be available to fishermen in the coming years.
“Striped bass are a… resilient species when given favorable environmental conditions for reproduction and survival,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton in a media release. “The robust reproduction should give Maryland anglers hope for a successful striped bass season in a few years’ time.”
In each Maryland sample, researchers caught an average of 24 juvenile striped bass; the state’s abundance index value rose from 4.06 to 10.67 this year, which is the eighth highest on record. In each Virginia sample, researchers caught an average of 12 juvenile striped bass; the Commonwealth’s abundance index value rose from 11.37 to 12, which is about equal to average historic values. There, striped bass spawning success has been average or above average in 12 of the last 13 years, which indicates consistent production in Virginia nurseries.
Striped bass hold great value in the watershed: the fish is a top predator in the food web and a critical catch for commercial and recreational fishermen. Fishing bans set in the late 1980s helped striped bass recover from harvest and pollution pressures, and experts now consider it a recovered species.
As the sun breaches the horizon in Easton, Maryland, the blanket of fog begins to dissipate, revealing the still waters of an 18-acre wetland and rows of organic vegetables. This is Cottingham Farm, the work of an environmental-lawyer-turned-farmer named Cleo Braver and a host of helping hands.
This 156-acre farm has undergone a variety of changes before arriving at its current state. The land was once used to grow wheat to feed Washington’s army. It then hosted peach orchards in the late 1800s and early 1900s. After the end of World War II, substantial changes in agriculture swept the nation—industrial monocrops, pesticides and fertilizers—and eventually made their way to what is now the Cottingham property. When Braver purchased the land in 1998, it was primarily used to grow corn.
Though Braver’s professional background is in the environmental field, she was unaware of the impact certain agricultural techniques—both on her own property and other area properties—were having on regional waterways. But after spending many evenings peering out at Goldsborough Neck Creek, which winds behind her house before meeting the Miles River and emptying into the Chesapeake Bay, she began noticing how the fish behaved strangely at the surface of the water. After some research, she learned about the creek’s poor water quality and how the heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers was partially responsible.
Braver’s interest in producing healthy food while minimizing her impact prompted her to make a change. By chance, she met Ned Gerber of Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage, who assisted with transforming the property by installing buffer strips to reduce sediment and nutrient runoff, replacing corn with organic vegetables and building a wetland housing 30 species of plants.
Gerber helped Braver utilize the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), a federal USDA Farm Bill program that supports the implementation of habitat on private lands. CREP covered 90 percent of the construction costs for the wetland, and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources picked up the remaining sum. Gerber and Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage continue to manage and maintain the wetland today.
But what Braver is perhaps most proud of on Cottingham is the evolution of the food production there and how it gives people greater access to healthy produce and meat. With the help of farm manager Jenn Djambazov and several employees, Braver now grows at least 50 different organic vegetables and raises pastured pigs. Organic matter in the property’s soil is slowly rebounding, and, to top it off, business is good. Cottingham sells produce through its CSA, as well as in local stores and restaurants.
Braver acknowledges the process has been a lot of work and has required time, expertise and funding from a range of parties. But she maintains that the transition to organic farming is more accessible than many people think, and she advocates for giving it a chance. “I’m not saying convert all of your feed corn to organic vegetables. I’m not saying that all,” she clarifies. With a slight smile at the corners of her mouth, she continues, “But try a piece of it. Take five acres out…”
It could make all the difference.
Images and text by Keith Rutowski
Last month, the final load of juvenile oysters was cast into Harris Creek’s 350-acre oyster reef, marking over two billion oysters planted in the sanctuary. One of the largest oyster restoration projects in the world, the reef in Harris Creek—a tributary of Maryland's Choptank River—is the first of ten Chesapeake Bay tributaries needed to fulfill the oyster restoration goals of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.
The juvenile oysters, known as spat, all came from the University of Maryland's Horn Point Hatchery. Oyster restoration in Harris Creek has been a collaborative effort between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Army Corps of Engineers, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Oyster Recovery Partnership, the Nature Conservancy and other groups, such as the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Scientists will continue to monitor the health of the Harris Creek oysters as they look toward restoring more tributaries of the Chesapeake.
We first documented Harris Creek in 2012, when roughly a quarter of the construction and seeding at Harris Creek was complete.
Text and images by Will Parson
Videos by Will Parson and Steve Droter
Four partnerships in the Chesapeake Bay watershed will receive more than $150,000 through the Five Star and Urban Waters Restoration Program, which supports the restoration of urban rivers, wetlands and stream banks across the United States.
In the District of Columbia, the Earth Conservation Corps will join with several other partners to restore portions of the Anacostia River and to connect communities with hands-on urban birds programming.
In Baltimore, Outward Bound Baltimore will protect the city’s urban birds by restoring habitat, reducing collision hazards for birds and creating awareness of migratory species that travel through the city. The Living Classrooms Foundation at Masonville Cove will work with the Hispanic Access Foundation to engage local Hispanic church congregations in conservation activities focused around urban watershed issues and the Monarch butterfly.
The Alice Ferguson Foundation, Trash Free Maryland and other partners will trawl the surface of the Chesapeake Bay for samples of microplastics, to better understand and educate others about the level of plastic pollution in local waters.
Each of these projects will help support work toward achieving the goals of the recent Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, in particular those outcomes related to citizen stewardship, diversity and toxic contaminants.
The Five Star and Urban Waters Restoration Program began in 1999 as a partnership between the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Association of Counties and the Wildlife Habitat Council. In addition to the four projects inside the Bay watershed, the program will fund 60 projects in 28 other states.
While the abundance of adult female blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay is below target, fisheries experts have reported the blue crab stock is not depleted and overfishing is not occurring.
According to the 2015 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report, released by the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC), the start of the 2015 crabbing season saw 101 million adult female blue crabs in the Bay. This marks a 47 percent increase from last year’s abundance of adult females, which the Chesapeake Bay Program tracks as an indicator of Bay health. Because blue crab abundance is above the 70 million threshold, the blue crab stock is not considered depleted. And because just 17 percent of adult females were harvested in 2014—well below the 25.5 percent target—overfishing is not occurring.
In its report, CBSAC urged the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) to maintain a risk-averse management approach to protect juvenile crabs, whose numbers fluctuate from year to year. The committee, which is made up of scientists, academics and government representatives and housed under the Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team (GIT), also recommended evaluating the establishment of a Bay-wide allocation-based management framework.
An allocation-based management framework would allocate an annual “total allowable catch” of male and female crabs to Maryland, Virginia and the PRFC. In the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, the Bay Program committed to evaluating the establishment of this framework. “[This report] directly supports our efforts to achieve the blue crab outcomes set forth in the [Watershed] Agreement, using the best science available to provide meaningful input to management decisions made by jurisdictions,” said Peyton Robertson, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Chesapeake Bay Office Director and Sustainable Fisheries GIT Chair, in a media release.
Scientists expect the Chesapeake Bay to see a slightly smaller than average dead zone this summer, due to reduced rainfall and less nutrient-rich runoff flowing into the Bay from the Susquehanna River this spring.
Dead zones are areas of little to no dissolved oxygen that form when nutrient-fueled algae blooms die and decompose. Resulting low-oxygen conditions can suffocate marine life. The latest forecast predicts an early-summer no-oxygen zone of 0.27 cubic miles, a mid-summer low-oxygen zone of 1.37 cubic miles and a late-summer no-oxygen zone of 0.28 cubic miles. This forecast, funded by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is based on models developed at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the University of Michigan.
Nutrient pollution and weather patterns influence dead zone size. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), 58 million pounds of nitrogen entered the Bay in the spring of 2015, which is 29 percent lower than last spring’s nitrogen loadings.
Researchers with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) will measure oxygen levels in the Bay over the next few months. While the final dead zone measurement will not take place until October, bimonthly updates on Bay oxygen levels are available through DNR’s Eyes on the Bay.
Last year, our partners opened 17 boat ramps, fishing piers and other sites that grant public access to rivers, streams and the Chesapeake Bay. Virginia opened 14 sites, while Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York each opened one. There are now 1,225 public places that allow people across the watershed to walk, play, swim, fish and launch their paddleboats, sailboats and powerboats into the water.
Partnerships between local, state and federal agencies and non-profit organizations have been essential in developing these sites: a soft launch for paddlecraft opened on the Chickahominy River with support from the James River Association. Walking trails, wildlife viewing platforms and interpretive signs were built on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service land along Mount Landing Creek with support from the Virginia State Park Youth Conservation Corps. And a boat dock, wildlife viewing platform and public pavilion, as well as fishing access, were established at the Zimmerman Center for Heritage on the Susquehanna River with support from Pennsylvania’s Fish and Boat Commission, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and Department of Transportation, as well as the National Park Service and local donors.
As development continues across the watershed, demand for places that allow the public to reach the water remains high. State, federal and local governments are often the guardians of these places, providing opportunities for everyone to enjoy the region’s natural and cultural bounty. Because physical access to the Bay and its tributaries remains limited—with real consequences for quality of life, the economy and long-term conservation—our partners set a goal in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement to bring the total number of access sites in the watershed to 1,439 by 2025. And because public access to open space and waterways can create citizen stewards who care for local resources and engage in conservation, we track public access as an indicator of our progress toward fostering environmental stewardship.
“As an avid kayaker, I know the importance of having access to rivers, creeks and streams throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” said Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale in a media release. “As we come to know the resource through access to it, we will understand its value. Once we know its value, we will be more inclined to take actions to protect it. Public access is critical to restoring this vital ecosystem.”
Former Maryland State Senator Bernie Fowler saw his sneakers through 44.5 inches of water at this year’s 28th annual Patuxent River Wade-In on June 14. This marks the deepest measurement of the “sneaker index”—the deepest point at which Fowler can still see his shoes as he wades into the water—since 1997.
Fowler holds the wade-in each year on the second Sunday in June to bring attention to the polluted waters of the Patuxent River and the Chesapeake Bay. After decades on Broomes Island, the event moved to Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in 2010.
In his youth, Fowler could wade into the Patuxent up to his chest and still see fish, shellfish and underwater grasses. But nutrient and sediment pollution in the river have led to degraded water clarity and fueled algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching the river bottom. The 1960s sneaker index of 57 inches now serves as the benchmark for a restored Patuxent River. While still well below this target, this year’s measurement is close to double last year’s depth of 23 inches.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
On a verdant spring morning, tie-dye clad students of the Gunston School, a private high school of about 160 students in Centreville on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, gather on the dew-covered front lawn to participate in a team-building exercise. Giggling teens in conga line formations scramble around in an attempt to follow directions shouted through a megaphone by Emily Beck, the sustainability coordinator for the school. It’s Earth Day; there’s an electric energy in the air.
A one-mile access road offers the tranquility of hundreds of lush acres of farm fields, all placed under permanent conservation easement, leading up to 32 acres of campus that are nestled into the nape of the Corsica River. The rural expansiveness sets the tone for a core message that is threaded throughout everything the Gunston School does: sustainability.
Out of the 2,220 schools in Maryland, only 20 percent—or 450—of them, including the Gunston School, are certified through the Maryland Association for Environmental & Outdoor Education (MAEOE) as Green Schools. Certified schools must meet a stringent set of criteria that includes benchmarks such as school-wide environmental behavior changes, water conservation, pollution reduction, instruction on environmental issues and many more.
Certified green schools are also required to hold an annual celebration of green practices; for the Gunston School, that materializes in the form of a daylong Earth Day celebration planned and organized by the students. Instead of attending class, students participate in a morning of workshops conducted by students, faculty and outside presenters and an afternoon film session and green fair. This year’s celebration focused on the intersection of land, livestock and wildlife and offered programs such as poetry in nature; oyster restoration through the Chesapeake Environmental Center; community supported, organic and sustainable farming practices; and a number of road, campus and shoreline cleanups.
Being a green school is embedded in the core of the Gunston School’s identity. “The Gunston School has embraced being a green school; we first applied in 2011 and we reapplied this year,” said Beck. “That has really helped to inform the students, teachers, faculty and administration about what a school can be in terms of a role model in the community.”
The Gunston School’s overarching mission is to help students grow and thrive in a way that way that will prepare them for not only college, but also to be lifelong leaders. The curriculum takes a personalized approach, with instructors working closely with each student to help them develop their leadership skills and academic strengths with a special emphasis on global awareness and sustainable living. In that focus, the school is able to harness their location and pair it with lessons through their Chesapeake Bay Studies program, an integral part of the curriculum that has been in existence for more than 20 years.
Although the Bay Studies program is weaved into lesson plans throughout the year, it culminates in an annual weeklong series of experiential seminars designed to get the students in and on the Bay. By partnering with organizations such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Outward Bound and the Sultana Project, students are directly exposed to and informed about the ecological problems surrounding the Bay and its watershed.
“Students learn in many different ways; we have students who are classic book learners for whom getting into the Bay helps to bring that book learning alive, and we have students who are more hands on learners and they transfer that knowledge that they got during their hands on experience back into the classroom,” said John Lewis, Headmaster of the Gunston School. “I think that if the students aren’t ever really in the Bay or immersed in the watershed, they’re sort of just abstract environmentalists—they’re not actually seeing the impacts and the dynamics of the Bay system and that goes for not just kids, but also the teachers.”
Patience and adaptation are the name of the game when it comes to taking students outdoors for lessons. “The biggest fear [for teachers] of taking students outside is that they will run wild, and it’s a downside of our current education system is that the only time that kids get to go outside is for recess. So, the times that you take them outside, their mentality is recess,” said Beck.
At the Gunston School, pairing lessons with the natural world means students have learned over the years that being outside means learning, and they remain engaged. If a distraction happens, like an eagle flying by, teachers are content with taking a moment to appreciate the sighting and even adapting their lesson to their surroundings if need be, because, like many things in life, it’s important to expect the unexpected and go with the flow.
Although outdoors learning is an ideal opportunity for both teachers and students, some challenges can come along with it. Not all schools have the ample space and natural resources that the Gunston School is fortunate enough to have access to. “There are opportunities to create teaching environments in the barest amount of space or make use of your indoor environment if it is not possible to get out of doors,” said Beck. “The natural world is all around us, it’s just changing your focus a little bit to see the learning opportunities.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
Images by Will Parson
The Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population has seen a modest rise, increasing 38 percent since the population was counted last winter. While an increase in blue crabs is an indicator of Bay health, the adult female crab population remains below its target, indicating the variability of the blue crab population and the complexities of managing the fishery.
Maryland and Virginia measure the Bay’s blue crab population through an annual winter dredge survey. Over the course of three and a half months, scientists visit 1,500 sites around the Bay, using metal dredges to pull up crabs over-wintering in the mud.
Results of the 2015 winter dredge survey show the Bay’s total blue crab population has increased from 297 million to 411 million since last winter. Results also show the number of spawning-age females has risen from a depleted 69 million to 101 million. The number of juvenile crabs has jumped from 199 million to 269 million, which is just above the long-term average.
According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the cold winter and resulting low water temperatures contributed to a “substantial mortality” among blue crabs, killing an estimated 19 percent of adults.
“We are pleased that crab numbers increased despite the harsh winter temperatures,” said DNR Secretary Mark Belton in a media release.
The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks the adult female blue crab population as an indicator of Bay health. The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC), which includes scientists and representatives from the federal government, state governments and academic institutions, will use this data to make recommendations on sustaining the blue crab population in its 2015 Blue Crab Advisory Report, expected to be released this summer.
Each spring, migratory fish use the rivers and streams of the Chesapeake Bay watershed to move between fresh water and the saltier ocean. Anadromous species—like American shad, hickory shad and blueback herring—return from the ocean to lay their eggs in fresh water, while catadromous species—like the American eel—move from streams to the ocean to spawn. While dams and culverts can block the movement of these fish, dam removal and fish passage construction projects have reopened thousands of area stream miles to fish migration.
According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, 33 fish species have ascended a fish lift, ladder or other structure in the state. While this indicates the value of fish ladders, lifts and other structures that help move fish over dams, it’s important to note the shift that new research has brought to fish passage restoration.
“Our [fish passage] program has changed over the years,” said Nancy Butowski, who manages fish passage in Maryland and serves as a member of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Fish Passage Workgroup. “In the 1990s, it was focused on providing fish passage through ladders. But…fish passages are not 100 percent efficient. Now, we prefer dam removal.”
Dam removal can benefit a wider range of species—like the resident fish who also move up and downstream at different times of year—and the stream itself, Butowski said. Depending on the dam, its removal can even benefit human health: there have been several deaths at the Patapsco River’s Bloede Dam, which is slated for removal.
Maryland has worked with Pennsylvania, Virginia and the Nature Conservancy to develop a tool that will prioritize fish passage restoration projects. It takes close to 40 different characteristics into account, including how many miles a project would open, how much a project would cost and whether there are migratory fish currently using the waterway. Through the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, the Bay Program has committed to reopening 1,000 more stream miles to migratory fish by 2025. Learn more about our work to reopen fish passage.
Representatives from states across the Bay region recently signed a cooperative accord that will help reduce the amount of nitrogen flowing from onsite wastewater systems into local waterways.
At the Chesapeake Bay Program office last week, representatives from Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia signed a Memorandum of Cooperation to share data related to the performance of advanced pretreatment technologies for “onsite wastewater treatment systems,” often called septic systems. Pretreatment of wastewater allows for the removal of potentially harmful pollutants such as nitrogen—but these technologies are often costly, and their approval takes time. Under the arrangement, information-sharing across states will help expedite the approval and deployment of these technologies, as well as offer cost savings to manufacturers and consumers.
Onsite septic systems account for less than five percent of the nutrients flowing to the Bay; advanced pretreatment technologies are expected to reduce nitrogen from these systems by at least 50 percent, as compared to conventional systems. Improvements in wastewater treatment will help achieve the clean water goals of the new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, which encompasses the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).
If you’ve ever watched a solitary ant explore your countertop, you might have marveled at its tiny size. You also might have questioned how something seemingly insignificant can be such a nuisance in your aspiringly sterile kitchen. Then you remember what your tiny pioneer heralds — the impending arrival of thousands of her sisters — and she suddenly seems like a more formidable adversary.
At a few millimeters short of a typical carpenter ant, microplastics are another case of both extreme smallness and overwhelming magnitude. Microplastics are the fragments, pellets, sheets, fibers, microbeads and polystyrene that begin as improperly discarded plastic bottles and trash that get washed into our waterways. At less than five millimeters in length, they are nearly imperceptible. But plastic doesn’t degrade like most organic material, meaning the total amount of plastic in the environment doesn’t really change as it breaks down, allowing microplastics to persist in most surface waters around the globe, including the Chesapeake Bay.
University of Maryland Professor Dr. Lance Yonkos is the primary author on a study of microplastics collected from four tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay — the Patapsco, Magothy, Rhode, and Corsica Rivers. Of the 60 samples taken by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) Marine Debris Program, all but one contained microplastics.
To Yonkos, it’s not really a surprise there are microplastics in the Bay.
“We have many of the prime sources for creating and introducing microplastics to aquatic environments,” Yonkos said. Roads are a main contributor because they promote physical degradation of plastics and provide easy transport via storm drains to Bay tributaries. Yonkos listed wastewater treatment plant effluent and substantial shipping traffic.
As plastic fragments become smaller, a greater number of animals are able to swallow them—as exemplified by the recent case of a whale killed by a shard from a DVD case. When these materials break down enough reach the level of microplastics, even filter feeders like oysters can consume them.
Smaller pieces also mean more surface area, Yonkos said, which could mean more leaching, either of chemicals from the plastic itself or of the environmental contaminants that cling to its surface.
“In this way, microplastics might serve as a vehicle for introducing bioaccumulative contaminants to the food chain,” Yonkos said. The concentration of such toxic contaminants can become magnified at higher levels of the food web.
But, the science isn’t clear yet on whether microplastics represent a serious environmental or human health concern.
“Since we don’t really know yet, it is a little disconcerting to think that most of the plastics we have created over the past 70 years are still in the environment,” Yonkos said.
And microplastics are here to stay. With no feasible method for removing microplastics that are already in the environment, measures like improved recycling and decreased use of offending products — like those that include microbeads, which would be banned by the state of Maryland according to legislation passed recently — could improve the situation going forward.
“The take home message is prevention,” Yonkos said. “If we want to reduce microplastics in the oceans we need to limit their release at the source.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
With the presence of historic places like Cross Street Market, it is no wonder why Baltimore is lauded as ‘Charm City.’ Nestled into the heart of Federal Hill and just blocks away from the Inner Harbor, the market is a favorite of visitors and locals alike. One restaurant in particular, Nick’s Oyster Bar, can be found brimming with purple-clad fans on Raven’s game days, drinking beer and slurping down oysters that are served up with a smile by local personality and shucking pro, George Hastings.
Standing amidst the hustle and bustle of the market is Hastings, a cheery man in a flat cap, greeting passersby with a warm smile on his face and a hearty laugh. As he interacts with customers, it quickly becomes clear that this man is a cherished local celebrity.
Hastings, a decorated oyster shucker, grew up in Southwest Baltimore, learning his craft at the age of 14 from his neighbor, a native to the Northern Neck of Virginia along the Rappahannock River who brought his skills to Baltimore during the Great Depression when he came looking for work. “I would come to Cross Street Market with my neighbor to pick up oysters to take to different venues,” Hastings said. “At that time, Nick’s was not here and the seafood part of the market was owned by someone else until 1971. Mr. Nick had three sons that were all in my age group – I got to be friends with them and started shucking oysters for them once the restaurant opened.”
After years honing his skills at oyster roasts and other catering events, he began participating in and exceling at local shucking competitions. “I entered a few shucking contests and was fortunate enough to win those,” explained Hastings, “I also entered the National Oyster Shucking Contest and won that twice – and for that I got to represent the United States at the International Oyster Festival in Galway, Ireland.”
The National Oyster Shucking Contest is held in Saint Mary’s County, Md., every year during the third weekend in October. The festival has been around for 49 years with 2016 marking the 50th anniversary. “It’s going to be a big time,” said Hastings in reference to the 50th anniversary celebration. “Lord willing, I will be there. I have to keep the young guys honest,” he continued.
Shucking competitions are based on speed and presentation, participants are timed on how long it takes to open two dozen oysters. “There is a lot of anticipation, there is a countdown then you just go into a frenzy of opening two dozen oysters as fast and furious as you can. When you’re finished you put your hands up and nine out of ten shuckers will be shaking from the adrenaline,” said Hastings
At that time, three watermen judges grade the shucker’s handiwork, adding penalty seconds for every infraction that they find. They are looking for the oysters to be whole, uncut, not punctured and severed loose from the shell with no dirt, grit or mud particles in them.
Just like most things, perfecting a shucking technique takes time and dedication. “The old saying is, ‘How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice,’” said Hastings. When competing, he aims to shuck a dozen oysters per minute as clean and as fast as he can. “I hope not to get any more than a minute in penalty seconds. You can win with a [total] time of three minutes or less,” he explained.
There are many ways to shuck an oyster, and in Hasting’s opinion, any way that you can open it – whether with a knife, screwdriver or hammer – is just fine. His preferred method, however, is a traditional mid-Atlantic stabbing style as opposed another popular method of opening the bivalve by its hinge. Both styles can be viewed in the tutorial below.
For those working to perfect their form, Hastings recommends wearing gloves and proceeding with caution as the shells are very sharp and often cut more people than the knives do. Additionally, for those that enjoy eating oysters, “don’t put the shell in your mouth,” he warns. “Slurp it up off the top like kissing or pick it up with a fork. If there is bacteria in and around that oyster, it will be on the outside of the shell, not the inside. It’s the silt and stuff that is on the outside that could be detrimental to you.”
In addition to shucking, Hastings also gives back to the cause by partnering with the Oyster Recovery Partnership (ORP) to help with shell recycling, restoration events and fundraisers. “A very dear friend of mine, Vernon P. Johnson Jr., and I contacted ORP about looking to restaurants for recycled shells. ORP was looking for shells at the time to put spat on to grow oysters and we noticed that there were a lot of restaurants and caterers that would throw the shells away. We thought that if they [the shells] could be captured, it would be a great way to collect shells – and that’s the idea that started the Shell Recycling Alliance,” explained Hastings.
One oyster can filter up to 60 gallons of water per day and can play a big role in improving water quality, which is why restoration efforts aim to restore populations to healthy levels in the Chesapeake Bay. “It’s a sustainable thing, we plant oysters, we can eat them, we save the shells, we plant more oysters and continue with the cycle,” said Hastings. “My wish is for the Bay to be as healthy as it was prior to the industrial revolution. That’s the biggest thing that knocked the Bay into the weeds – so to say,” he continued. “I think we can come back from that now, but we must remember that it took us 100 years to get here, restoration is not going to happen overnight. It could very well take another 100 plus years to get back to that.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images by Will Parson
The tale of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad is revered as one of the most influential moments in the emancipation of slaves in the United States. As the birthplace of Tubman, the Eastern Shore of Maryland holds a rich history in its expansive farm fields, quaint settlements and wetlands that nestle into the crooks and creeks of the Chesapeake Bay. Many individuals, municipalities and organizations have learned the stories of those that traversed the trail, risking their lives for freedom, and have collaborated to permanently preserve important landmarks along the Underground Railroad.
The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway spans 125 miles through Caroline and Dorchester Counties in Maryland. Along it, visitors can explore the secret network of trails and buildings of the Underground Railroad, a path forged by freedom-seeking slaves and abolitionists in the 19th century. It does not take long for those on the trail to learn the trials, tribulations and successes that occurred along the way - all because a few people decided to band together to overcome adversity and do extraordinary things.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images by Will Parson
Captions by Jenna Valente
Andy, my next-door neighbor, is a fisherman. We talk from time to time across our backyard decks. Andy has never asked me about the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement signed in June 2014. But if he did, how would I explain it? Are the ten goals of the Agreement connected?
Of course they are. Think fish, think Chesapeake Bay, and the mind conjures rockfish, crabs and oysters - restored and protected. That’s Goal 1, Sustainable Fisheries. What do fish, wildlife and other living things need to survive? Vital Habitats made up of restored underwater grasses, streams, forest buffers and tree canopy (Goal 2). Habitats require good Water Quality, which means reducing pollutant loads flowing into the Bay (Goal 3). But is water quality alone enough? Nope: Toxic Contaminants, such as mercury and PCBs, harm both wildlife and human health and must be reduced (Goal 4).
Are we finished? Not yet. Our good waters must remain healthy (Healthy Watersheds, Goal 5). Without increasing our leadership – citizens and elected officials committed to restoration – our efforts are for naught (Stewardship, Goal 6). Our Chesapeake Bay region is blessed with ecologically valuable and treasured lands that protect our waters and enhance our lives (Land Conservation, Goal 7).
What brings the magic of the Bay home most of all? Experiencing it – swimming, boating and fishing – which means increased Public Access (Goal 8). Future leadership is essential; our children must graduate from school with the knowledge and skills to protect and restore our lands and waters (Environmental Literacy, Goal 9). And our restoration efforts must account for changing climactic conditions and sea level rise (Climate Resiliency, Goal 10).
So, that's it: ten steps to a restored Chesapeake Bay. Have a good day, Andy.
For many of the people living upstream of the Chesapeake Bay, daily life doesn’t involve crab pots or oyster dredges. A group of such Bay novices — including one member who had never been on a boat — assembled in Crisfield, Md., this fall to take a ferry to Smith Island, one of the last two inhabited islands in the Chesapeake Bay. Actually a small cluster of low-lying stretches of land, Smith Island and its Virginia neighbor Tangier Island carry a rich cultural history dating back to the 1600s. Over the years, they have been subjected to the extreme weather conditions in the open Chesapeake Bay and forces of sea level rise and land subsidence that have already claimed surrounding islands. The trip, organized by the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Forestry Workgroup, gave the foresters the chance to experience the unique life of a Chesapeake waterman.
“These participants are engaged in work throughout the watershed that directly benefits the quality of the Bay, but often they have very little experience on the Bay itself,” said Craig Highfield of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the Forests for the Bay initiative, who has facilitated the excursion for the past two years. “This trip is a way to connect their work with a community that relies so intimately with a healthy Bay.”
Over the course of two and a half days, the group of foresters followed educators from Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Smith Island environmental education center, taking in the unique culture, exploring the changing environment and finding new connections that bring the Bay closer to home.
“I think this group was able to draw similarities between the rural communities they work with — who rely on the natural resources on the land — with this rural community that relies on the natural resources of the Bay,” said Highfield.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
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 houses, 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.