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.
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.
Plumes of sediment, floating trash and pathogens that make once-swimmable water unsafe: pollution of all kinds continues to plague the Potomac River, as populations grow, pavement expands and stormwater runoff pushes various hazards into the 405-mile long waterway.
But for the Potomac Conservancy, a boost in incentives, assistance and enforcement just might save the nation’s river.
Image courtesy kryn13/Flickr
According to the advocacy group’s sixth annual State of the Nation’s River report, “too many stretches of the Potomac River are still too polluted to allow you to safely swim, boat or fish, or to support healthy populations of fish and other aquatic life.”
The cause? A “pending storm” of population pressure and development, said Potomac Conservancy President Hedrick Belin.
For Belin, more people means more development. More development means more pavement. And more pavement means more stormwater runoff.
The fastest growing source of pollution into the Chesapeake Bay, stormwater runoff is rainfall that picks up pollutants—in the Potomac River’s case, nutrients, sediment, pathogens and chemicals—as it flows across roads, parking lots, lawns and golf courses. It carries these pollutants into storm drains and rivers and streams, posing a threat to marine life and human health.
But cities and towns throughout the Potomac River basin are curbing stormwater runoff by minimizing their disturbances to the land. And it is this local, land-based action—the installation of rain barrels and green roofs, the protection of forests and natural spaces, the passing of pollution permits in urban centers—that the Conservancy thinks will push the river in the right direction.
In the report, the Conservancy calls on state and local decision-makers to strengthen pollution regulations, increase clean water funding and improve pollution-reduction incentives and technical assistance.
“The Potomac Conservancy is advocating for river-friendly land-use policies and decisions, especially at the local level,” Belin said. “Because defending the river requires protecting the land that surrounds it.”
Learn more about Troubled Waters: State of the Nation’s River 2012.
Charity walks, charity marathons—and charity paddles? From a nine-day paddle that spotlights the Potomac River to an 11-stop float plan from northeast Maryland to southeast Virginia, more organizations are getting out on the water to fundraise for the Chesapeake Bay.
In one effort to garner grassroots support, the District of Columbia-based Potomac Riverkeeper sent two paddlers down a stretch of the Potomac and documented the nine-day, 150-mile trip online. Joe Hage and Whit Overstreet—one the caretaker of the Sycamore Island Canoe Club, the other a member of the Potomac Riverkeeper staff—used Twitter, Facebook and regular blog posts to publicize their paddle and solicit mile-by-mile donations, raising more than $3,000 for a project that will create a Potomac River water trail designed for people in self-powered crafts.
Image courtesy Potomac Riverkeeper
Hage and Overstreet made their trip along Virginia's shore in red and orange sea kayaks, which held their camping gear, provisions and a couple of good luck charms: for Joe, a stuffed dog, and for Whit, a rubber duck, both found in piles of onshore trash. The trip, started each morning before sunrise, solidified the two paddlers' connection with the Potomac. But, as Overstreet said, it also opened a window for others to experience the river "from the comfort of their PCs."
Image courtesy Potomac Riverkeeper
As Hage and Overstreet paddled down the Potomac, travelers-in-spirit stuck at their desks could also check in with a third paddler: Lou Etgen, making an 11-day charity paddle down the entire length of the Bay. And just as the Internet helped Hage and Overstreet share their stories—a Tweet about the waves and water, a Facebook post signaling their arrival at a campsite—the Internet allowed Etgen to show his friends, colleagues and even complete strangers the sights and sounds of the watershed.
Image courtesy Lou Etgen
The Associate Director of Programs with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay made the sojourn from Havre de Grace, Md., to Cedar View, Va., for a number of reasons: to celebrate his 50th birthday, to reconnect with the water and to fundraise, first for the Alliance and second for Autism Speaks. Joined by a gear boat and an ever-changing group of fellow paddlers, each day Etgen spent on the water was a memorable one, whether he was marveling at underwater grasses on the Susquehanna flats or paddling alongside blue crabs and bald eagles. Throughout the trip, Etgen remained impressed with the water's health, while his readers remained engrossed in his writing.
"I spoke with many folks on my return who told me of waking up and going to their computer to check in on the blog from the night before," Etgen wrote in an online epilogue. "The blog comments from friends and folks I did not know were tremendous and helped to spur us on."
For Etgen, this show-and-tell turned out to be an integral part—even his favorite part—of the trip.
"This wasn't my trip," Etgen said. "This was our trip. It became so much bigger than my journey."
Image courtesy Lou Etgen
Overstreet and Hage also garnered online support, amassing countless "likes" and comments on the hundreds of photos taken with a smart phone and posted to their Facebook page from the water.
"We were able to show people that this is a feasible trip, rather than a challenging odyssey," Overstreet said. "People really seemed to enjoy it."
To read more, visit the Potomac Riverkeeper and Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay websites. To get out of cyberspace and into the water, find a public access site near you. Or, join the Waterkeeper Alliance on September 15 for the Rally for Clean Water, where a morning paddle on the Potomac will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act.
The prevalence of intersex fish in the Potomac River basin has raised concerns about river health.
Intersex conditions, the presence of both male and female characteristics in an animal that should exhibit the characteristics of just one sex in its lifetime, occur when chemicals like pesticides, pharmaceuticals or personal care products enter the water and disturb the hormonal systems of fish and other species. Because the hormonal systems of fish are similar to those of humans, anomalies found in fish are an indication these chemicals may also pose a risk to people.
Image courtesy August Rode/Flickr.
According to a report released by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), intersex conditions in male smallmouth bass are widespread in the Potomac River basin: 50 to 75 percent of male smallmouth bass collected in the South Branch Potomac River exhibited signs of feminization, as did 100 percent of those collected at sites in the Shenandoah.
In the case of male smallmouth bass, the "intersex condition" reveals itself in the presence of immature eggs in the testes and of a certain protein--vitellogenin, normally found only in egg-laying females--in the circulating blood. Both conditions indicate exposure to chemical contaminants, and can result in reduced reproductive success or, in the case of a shorter-lived species like the fathead minnow, population collapse.
Intersex conditions have been linked to sewage flow from wastewater treatment plants and to runoff from farmland and animal feeding operations.
A popular sport fish, the smallmouth bass experienced spring kills in the Potomac and James rivers. A number of smallmouth bass collected during this survey were also observed with skin lesions, leading researchers to believe the fish may be a sensitive indicator of watershed health.
The USGS and Chesapeake Bay Program partners will use these findings to better identify chemical contaminants and their sources, planning to develop toxic contaminant reduction outcomes by 2013.
Learn more about the hormonal disruption of fish in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
American Rivers has named the Potomac River the nation’s most endangered river on its 2012 list of the top ten most threatened rivers in America.
(Image courtesy Scott Ableman/Flickr)
Although the Potomac is cleaner than it once was, the river is still under threat from development, stormwater runoff from cities and suburbs, and pollution from farms. The Potomac is “emblematic of what’s at state for rivers nationwide,” according to the Potomac Conservancy, a local watershed group working to restore the nation’s river.
Visit the Potomac Conservancy’s website for more information about the Potomac River and its ranking as the most endangered river in America.
You may recognize the name “Sideling Hill” from the impressively steep mountainside interrupted by Interstate 68 in western Maryland, about two hours outside of Washington, D.C. If you’re the type that’s impressed by scenery, a westward trip means stopping at the Sideling Hill Rest Stop and Visitors Center to explore the mountainside, which is almost desert-like in its lack of forests.
(Image courtesy dlhdavidlh/Flickr)
Despite its barren appearance, Sideling Hill Creek, which runs through this mountain, is one of the healthiest streams in the entire state of Maryland. With 287 stream and tributary miles and only 2,200 residents in its watershed, this Potomac River tributary is a fortunate one because it suffers from few human impacts.
Here’s a few ways to explore Sideling Hill Creek:
Look out for rare wildflowers
Sideling Hill is so pristine that it supports an endangered wildflower called harperella (Ptilimnium nodosum). In fact, harperella can only be found in ten places in the world! It’s rumored that this flower also grows in West Virginia along Sleepy Creek and a few Cacapon River tributaries.
Trout, turkey and more
The 3,100 acre Sideling Hill Wildlife Management Area provides opportunities for hunters, anglers and anyone else who enjoys beautiful mountain scenery. In the spring, look out for turkey gobblers as they display their colorful feathers. Old logging roads challenge hikers with a variety of terrains. If you love to canoe or kayak, be sure to visit Sideling Hill in spring to explore one of the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s most scenic local waterways.
Learn about what you’re viewing
With its steep ridges and deep valleys, Sideling Hill is home to unique plants, wildlife and geologic formations. So when you visit, take some time to learn about what you’re looking at! The Nature Conservancy offers a Sideling Hill Creek audio tour that will introduce you to the specific types of rocks and plants found in the area. When your trip is over, you’ll not only be refreshed from the beautiful scenery, but also more knowledgeable about the creek’s link to the greater Bay watershed.
(Image courtesy mdmarkus66/Flickr)
Have you been to Sideling Hill? Tell us how you liked it in the comments!
West Virginia may be far from the sailboats and blue crabs that we normally associate with the Chesapeake Bay. But folks at the Cacapon Institute in the state’s eastern panhandle are helping students install rain gardens, speaking with local farmers about reducing pollution, and spearheading community education initiatives – all in the name of helping the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay.
(Image courtesy mdmarkus66/Flickr)
Founded by a husband and wife team in 1985, the Cacapon Institute was originally known as the Pine Cabin Run Ecological Laboratory. PCREL was established to research and teach Appalachian natural history and water quality issues around the Cacapon River, an 80-mile-long Potomac tributary that is designated by the EPA as an American Heritage River.
The Cacapon Institute’s dual mission of scientific research and education makes it stand out from organizations that emphasize one over the other. Today, the Cacapon Institute continues to balance community education and outreach with science “experiments” such as deer fencing and trout restoration.
Ever get sick of all this environmental talk? Do you think you could stop pollution if you were a county land manager or decision maker? The Cacapon Institute gives K-12 students that opportunity through its interactive Stream Cleaner Environmental Forum.
Stream Cleaner allows users to decide how land is used and see the effects of those decisions on natural resources. It’s an interactive, engaging way for students to learn about water and pollution issues.
The program is part of the greater Potomac Highlands Water School, a website that provides resources for teachers and students seeking to learn about their local environment. Slideshows, interactive games and vocabulary lists make it a hybrid of “old school” and digital learning. No matter what generation you belong to, it's worth a visit.
The Cacapon Institute isn’t just teaching students vocabulary words; it’s challenging them to collaborate on water quality projects.
(Image courtesy Cacapon Institute/Facebook)
Each spring, Cacapon sponsors the Stream Cleaner Environmental Forum, a program in which classes work together to develop solutions to specific, real-world pressures on the Potomac and the Bay.
Participating students learn from the best; collaborators range from local farmers and businesses to state and federal agencies. Projects such as Farmers as Producers of Clean Water hinge on input from local farmers about which best management practices they’d most likely adopt. By understanding the needs of different stakeholders and working with them to develop mutually beneficial solutions, Cacapon is creating a community that’s strengthened by cooperation, rather than oppressed by regulation.
The Cacapon Institute hopes that by starting with the younger generation, it can engage the wider community. This statement on its website says it all:
As educators, we work to create a future where a stream without a buffer looks as out of place as a smoker in a conference room looks today. To foster that vision, our environmental education efforts focus on students first and, through them, the larger community.
(Image courtesy Cacapon Institute/Facebook)
The Potomac Conservancy has awarded the Potomac River’s health a barely passing “D” grade in its fifth annual State of the Nation’s River report.
Population growth and poor land use practices are the primary causes for the river’s pollution, according to the report. The Potomac River’s “two worlds” – rural farms and mountains to the west and the urban landscape to the south – pose different challenges.
Throughout the report, the Potomac Conservancy provides a vision of greater accountability, efficiency and enforcement actions to improve land use practices and water quality. These include strong federal and state stormwater laws, and changing local codes to protect riparian forest buffers, promote well-managed farms, better regulate large farm operations and treat pollution before it enters local waterways.
“We know what needs to be done, but this region is going to have to find the political will to make the hard choices,” according to Potomac Conservancy President Hedrick Belin. “Investing a dollar today to reduce pollution will return clean water dividends for years to come.”
For more information about the state of the Nation’s River report, visit the Potomac Conservancy’s website.
Image courtesy Michael Renner/Flickr
A $2.6 billion project in Washington, D.C., will nearly eliminate combined sewer overflows (CSOs) to Rock Creek and the Anacostia and Potomac rivers, helping to improve the Chesapeake Bay’s health.
The Clean Rivers Project, led by the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water), is the largest construction project in the District since Metro was built.
Combined sewer overflows occur during heavy rainstorms, when the mixture of sewage and stormwater cannot fit in the sewer pipes and overflows to the nearest water body. CSOs direct about 2.5 billion gallons of sewage and stormwater into Rock Creek and the Anacostia and Potomac rivers in an average year.
The Clean Rivers Project consists of massive underground tunnels to store the combined sewage during rainstorms, releasing it to the Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant after the storms subside. The first, and largest, tunnel system will serve the Anacostia River.
Visit DC Water’s website for more information about the Clean Rivers Project.
Image courtesy Daniel Lobo/Flickr
The Potomac Conservancy has released its fourth annual State of the Nation’s River report, naming development a primary source of stress on farms, forests and the health of the water in the Potomac River region.
The report highlights changes in the way land is being used in the Potomac River region. Forests and working farmland, both economically and ecologically valuable features, are being lost as the area continues to grow. This ultimately affects the health of the river, which is a source of drinking water for Washington, D.C., and other communities.
The report also explores the potential of “green infrastructure” as a way to accommodate growth while also supporting the health of the river and the environment.
“We invest so much in our man-made infrastructure, like roads … Our green infrastructure deserves the same investment,” said Aimee Weldon, Potomac Conservancy’s senior director of restoration and land, about the need for a new system of connected forests, farms and river. “That investment in natural networks of connected lands will strongly support wildlife and provide benefits to human populations.”
The report illustrates many examples of good and bad land use practices in the Potomac region. One recent example took place in Loudoun County, Virginia, where more than 450 trees along 1.5 miles of the river were cut down to clear a view. According to the Potomac Conservancy, this action was legal under county rules, showing that codes and ordinances need to be updated to reflect the current nature of development.
“Through sufficient funding and thoughtful codes and ordinances, county, state and federal agencies can work with local partners and communities to build a strong network of lands and streams, which will maximize and protect public and private investments in land conservation and restoration,” said Hedrick Belin, president of the Potomac Conservancy.
A companion document, called the 2010 Potomac Agenda, recommends several actions to preserve forests and better manage farmland:
For more information about the State of the Nation's River, visit the Potomac Conservancy's website.