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Bay Blog: Patuxent River

Jul
22
2014

Maryland Department of Natural Resources links watermen with chefs

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.

Jenna Valente's avatar
About Jenna Valente - Jenna is the Communications Office Staffer for the Chesapeake Bay Program. She developed a passion for conservation through her outdoorsy nature and being raised in Hawaii, Washington State and Maine. A graduate of the University of Maine's Communication program, she loves any opportunity to educate the public about the importance of conserving the environment.



Apr
02
2014

New wastewater treatment technologies create clean water in Chesapeake Bay

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.

Learn more.



Jan
16
2014

Photo Essay: Patent tonging for oysters on the Patuxent River

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.



Jun
12
2013

Bernie Fowler measures a sneaker index of 34 inches at annual wade-in

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.



Sep
25
2012

University of Maryland receives federal grant to curb stormwater runoff into Chesapeake Bay

The University of Maryland has received close to $700,000 in federal funding to help communities reduce stormwater runoff.

Using a software program to pinpoint pollution hot spots and an innovative brand of social marketing to boost citizen engagement, the university will embark on a multi-year project to increase the adoption of conservation practices in two watershed communities: the Wilde Lake watershed in Howard County, Md., and the Watts Branch watershed in Washington, D.C., whose waters flow into the Patuxent and Anacostia rivers, respectively. 

Stormwater runoff, or rainfall that picks up pollutants as it flows across paved roads, parking lots, lawns and golf courses, is the fastest growing source of pollution into the Chesapeake Bay. Best management practices can reduce the flow of stormwater into creeks, streams and rivers, from the green roofs that trap and filter stormwater to the permeable pavement that allows stormwater to trickle underground rather than rush into storm drains.

But best management practices cannot work without the citizens who put them into action. 

"We need to work with communities, rather than take a top-down approach [to stormwater management]," said project lead and assistant professor Paul Leisnham. "For the long-term successful implementation of these practices ... we need communities to be involved."

The university has partnered with local schools, religious organizations and grassroots associations (among them the Maryland Sea Grant, the Anacostia Watershed Society and Groundwork Anacostia) in hopes of breaking down barriers to the adoption of best management practices and increasing community involvement—and thus, investment—in local, long-term environmental conservation. 

From left, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, University of Maryland assistant professor Paul Leisnham and U.S. EPA Region 3 Administrator Shawn M. Garvin

U.S. Senator Ben Cardin commended the project at a Bladensburg Waterfront Park event as a creative and results-driven way to reduce stormwater runoff. 

"It's going to allow us to make a difference in our [local] watershed, which will make a difference in the Chesapeake Bay," Cardin said.

The funding, which totaled $691,674, was awarded through the Sustainable Chesapeake Grant program administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.



Jun
13
2011

Bernie Fowler sees his sneakers through 31.25 inches of water

Former Maryland State Senator Bernie Fowler saw his white sneakers through 31.25 inches of water at the 24th annual Patuxent River wade-in on June 12. This was down three inches from last year and a far cry from the 60-plus inches of water Fowler could see his sneakers through during his youth.

About 100 government officials, environmental leaders and members of the community joined Fowler at Jefferson Patterson Park, where the annual Patuxent River wade-in is now held. Fowler had previously hosted the wade-in near his childhood home on Broomes Island.

The Patuxent wade-in is held on the second Sunday of June each year to draw attention to the muddy, polluted waters of the river and Chesapeake Bay. Fowler speaks of the days of his youth when he could wade up to his shoulders in his beloved Patuxent and still see the river's bottom, teeming with crabs and fish swimming among the grasses and oyster shells.

The "sneaker index" is a measurement of the deepest point at which Fowler can still see his white sneakers as he wades into the Patuxent River.

The Patuxent River wade-in has spawned community wade-ins on many creeks and rivers throughout Maryland.



Jun
15
2010

Bernie Fowler Measures "Sneaker Index" of 34.5 Inches at Annual Patuxent River Wade-In

Former Maryland State Senator Bernie Fowler saw his white sneakers through 34.5 inches of water at his 23rd annual Patuxent River wade-in on June 13. Though this was a 9-inch improvement from 2009 and the highest level since 2004, it is still far from the 60-plus inches Fowler could see his sneakers through during his youth.

Fowler, members of the community and environmental leaders from throughout the state this year welcomed the annual Patuxent wade-in to its new permanent home at Jefferson Patterson Park. Fowler has hosted the wade-in near his childhood home on Broomes Island since 1988.

Fowler hosts a wade-in on the second Sunday of June each year to draw attention to the muddy, polluted waters of the Patuxent River and Chesapeake Bay. He speaks of the days of his youth when he could wade up to his shoulders in his beloved Patuxent and still see the river's bottom, teeming with crabs and fish swimming among the grasses and oyster shells.

The "sneaker index" is a measurement of the deepest point at which Fowler can still see his white sneakers as he wades into the Patuxent River.

The Patuxent River wade-in has spawned community wade-ins on many creeks and rivers throughout Maryland. To find out about a wade-in on your local river, visit Maryland DNR's tributary teams website.



Jun
15
2009

Bernie Fowler Sees His Sneakers Through 25.5 Inches of Water at Annual Patuxent River Wade-In

At his 22nd annual Patuxent River Wade-in on June 14, former Maryland State Senator Bernie Fowler saw his white sneakers through 25.5 inches of water -- similar to last year’s measurement of 26 inches but still far from the 60-plus inches Fowler could see his sneakers through during his childhood.

Fowler proclaimed “a new day” for the Patuxent River and Chesapeake Bay due to recent commitments by the governors of Maryland and Virginia and the federal government to strengthen cleanup efforts. He told the crowd of nearly 200 people who came to Broomes Island, Md., for the wade-in not to focus on the river’s poor water quality.

“Today is a day that we want to cleanse that from our thinking and think of this as a new beginning, a time when we will not forfeit our optimism or relent our determination to make this river better,” Fowler said. “We will not stop until this Patuxent River glistens again.”

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley echoed Fowler’s sentiments, encouraging those gathered to help the river and the Bay get better for future generations.

“We need to get our hearts out of the dead zone and our hands and feet into the rivers, where we know we can make a difference,” O’Malley said.

Fowler hosts a wade-in on the second Sunday of June each year to draw attention to the muddy, polluted waters of the Patuxent River and Chesapeake Bay. He speaks of the days of his youth when he could wade up to his shoulders in his beloved Patuxent and still see the river's bottom, teeming with crabs and fish swimming among the grasses and oyster shells.

Since Fowler's first wade-in, other wade-ins have sprung up on creeks and rivers across Maryland and become popular springtime community events.

The annual Patuxent wade-in will have its own “new beginning” next year, when it will move from its usual Broomes Island location to Jefferson Patterson Park, its new permanent location.



Jun
08
2008

Bernie Fowler Wade-in Brings Community, Leaders Together to Focus on Water Quality

Bernie Fowler saw his white sneakers through 26 inches of water during his annual wade-in on the Patuxent River on Sunday, June 8. While it was an increase from last year’s measurement of 21 inches and a vast improvement from the 8 inches recorded 20 years ago in 1988, this year’s measurement did not come close to the estimated 50-plus inches he could see through in the 1960s.

U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) measures the water line on Bernie Fowler's denim overalls. Fowler saw his white sneakers through 26 inches of water at his 21st annual wade-in.

About 100 people braved the heat and humidity for Fowler’s 21st annual wade-in, ranging from schoolchildren to community residents to politicians and environmental leaders, including U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Maryland Secretary of the Environment Shari Wilson.

While the measurement -- called the “Sneaker Index” -- did not reach historically high levels, enthusiasm for the Bay’s future did, as speakers pointed out the significant increases in funding during the past year for the Chesapeake restoration effort.

Fowler, a retired Maryland state senator, hosts a wade-in at Broomes Island on the second Sunday of June each year to draw attention to declining water quality in the Patuxent and larger Chesapeake watershed. He speaks of the days of his youth when he could wade up to his shoulders in his beloved Patuxent and still see the river's bottom, teeming with crabs and fish swimming among the grasses and oyster shells.

Since Fowler's first wade-in, others have sprung up on tributaries across the state, becoming popular springtime community events.

View video from this year’s Bernie Fowler wade-in from WTOP.



Jun
01
2007

Bernie Fowler Wade-in Draws Attention to Patuxent Water Quality

Former Maryland State Senator Bernie Fowler remembers the days of his youth, when he could wade up to his shoulders in his beloved Patuxent River and still see the river's bottom, teeming with crabs and fish swimming among the grasses and oyster shells.

Unfortunately, that picture was not so clear at Fowler's annual Patuxent River wade-in on June 10, when he could see his white sneakers through just 21 inches of water.

On the second Sunday in June for the past 20 years, Fowler has hosted a wade-in at Broomes Island, Md., to measure the depth of water clarity in the Patuxent. More importantly, Fowler uses his annual wade-in to raise public awareness of declining water quality in the river due to nutrient and sediment pollution.

“If we can wade out chest-high and see my feet, and see the little crabs and the grass shrimp clearly, then, we will be there,” said Fowler.

The water line on Fowler's denim overalls is measured and recorded in the “Bernie Fowler Sneaker Index.” Measurements have been as high as 44.5 inches in 1997 and as low as 8 inches in 1989—all a far cry from the 60-plus inches of water Fowler could see through when he was young. This year's measurement of 21 inches was down from 27.5 inches last year.

Despite this year's low reading, spirits were high among the approximately 100 people gathered for the wade-in. Fowler and other attendees expressed optimism about the future of Bay restoration, due to increased public awareness of the environment and a number of environmental and Bay-related bills that became law this year in Maryland.

Others, including Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) praised Fowler for his work to raise awareness of water quality issues in the Patuxent and larger Bay watershed.

“The Patuxent River has known no greater friend, advocate and defender than Bernie Fowler,” said U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), wearing a “Fowler's Followers” t-shirt. “God created the Patuxent River, and then God blessed the river by giving it Bernie Fowler.”

Since Fowler's first wade-in in 1988, annual wade-ins have begun on more than a dozen other tributaries throughout Maryland, including the Choptank, Patapsco, Potomac, Nanticoke and South rivers.



Jun
12
2006

Bernie's Wade-In Highlights Clarity Problems for River and Bay

Bernie Fowler remembers the days when he could wade up to his shoulders in his beloved Patuxent River and still see the river's bottom, teeming with crabs and fish swimming among the grasses and oyster shells.

Today the picture is not so clear. The river has been clouded by years of nutrient pollution and sediment runoff. Even at waist height, it is hard to catch a glimpse of the bottom.

To draw attention to this issue, Bernie began wading into the Patuxent River each year to measure water clarity. “If we can wade out chest high and see my feet, and see the little crabs and the grass shrimp clearly, then, we will be there,” said Bernie, who has waded into the river on the second Sunday of every June since 1988.

This year, on June 11, a crowd of more than 100 gathered with him, including school children, river advocates and Maryland gubernatorial candidates Martin O'Malley and Doug Duncan. All spoke of a declining river in need of help and protection.

Following the speakers, Bernie waded into the river hand-in-hand with friends, relatives and others, until he could no longer see his shoes. The waterline on Bernie's denim overalls—known as the “sneaker index”—was measured at 27.5 inches, similar to last year's mark of 27 inches.

While the river's health appears to be holding steady, it will take a concentrated effort by many to bring it back to the clear conditions that Bernie remembers. Improved water clarity could cause an ecological domino effect, with more underwater grass beds that filter water, produce oxygen and soften wave action. Water clarity is indicative of a healthy river and Bay, and is a key component of water quality, which the Bay Program is working to improve.



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