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.
Cover crops, streamside trees and nutrient management plans: all are exceptional ways to reduce nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. And for father and son duo Elwood and Hunter Williams, restoring the Bay begins with conservation practices and a shift in mentality.
“We knew coming down the road that we needed to do a better job with keeping the water clean,” Hunter said. “We decided that if there was going to be a problem with the streams it wasn’t going to be us.”
Excess nutrients come from many places, including wastewater treatment plants, agricultural runoff and polluted air. When nitrogen and phosphorus reach waterways, they can fuel the growth of large algae blooms that negatively affect the health of the Bay. In order to reduce these impacts, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has implemented a Bay “pollution diet,” known as the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).
Since the passing of the TMDL, many farmers in the watershed have felt the added pressure of the cleanup on their shoulders, but for the Williams family, having the foresight to implement best management practices (BMPs) just seemed like the environmentally and fiscally responsible thing to do.
”We don’t want to get to a point where regulations are completely out of control,” Hunter explained. “Farmers know what they’re putting on the ground so we have the ability to control it. Most people who have yards don’t have a clue what they’re putting on the ground when they use fertilizer. The difference has to be made up by the farmers because we know exactly what is going on to our soil.”
The Williams family began implementing BMPs on Misty Mountain Farm in 2006 by teaming up with the Potomac Valley Conservation District (PVCD). The government-funded non-profit organization has been providing assistance to farmers and working to preserve West Virginia’s natural resources since 1943.
The PVCD operates the Agricultural Enhancement Program (AgEP), which has steadily gained popularity among chicken farmers and livestock owners located in the West Virginia panhandle and Potomac Valley. While these two districts make up just 14 percent of West Virginia’s land mass, these regions are where many of the Bay’s tributaries begin—so it is important for area landowners to be conscious of pollutants entering rivers and streams.
AgEP is designed to provide financial aid and advice to farmers in areas that the Farm Bill does not cover. PVCD is run in a grassroots fashion, as employees collaborate with local farmers to pinpoint and meet their specific needs.
“It [AgEP] has been very well received,” said Carla Hardy, Watershed Program Coordinator with the PVCD. “It’s not [the U.S. Department of Agriculture] dictating how we spend our money, it’s the local, state and individuals saying, “These are our needs and this is how our money should be spent.” Farmers understand that in order to keep AgEP a voluntary plan they need to pay attention to their conservation practices.”
Hunter admits the hardest part of switching to BMPs was changing his mindset and getting on board. Originally, Hunter was looking at the Bay’s pollution problems as a whole, but with optimistic thinking and assistance from PVCD, he realized that the best way to overcome a large problem was to cross one bridge at a time.
It wasn’t long before the Williams family started to see results: fencing off streams from cattle led to cleaner water; building barns to overwinter cows allowed them to grow an average of 75 pounds heavier than before, making them more valuable to the farm.
By using BMPs, the Williams family has set a positive example for farmers across the watershed, proving that with hard work and a ‘sky is the limit’ mentality, seemingly impossible goals can be met.
Hunter points out, “We are proud to know that if you are traveling to Misty Mountain Farm you can’t say, “Hey these guys aren’t doing their part.”
Video produced by Steve Droter.
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.
After eleven years, $40 million and more than 16,000 linear feet of pipe, West Virginia is set to bring a new wastewater treatment plant online and make huge cuts to the pollution it sends into the Chesapeake Bay.
Under construction in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, the Moorefield Wastewater Treatment Plant will replace four existing plants with one new system, marking a significant milestone in the headwater state’s efforts to curb pollution and improve water quality. Expected to go into operation this fall, the plant will remove 90,000 pounds of nitrogen and 93,000 pounds of phosphorous from West Virginia wastewater each year.
Funded by a range of sources—including the West Virginia Economic Development Authority, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—the new plant is heralded as evidence that thoughtful planning and forward-thinking—especially where pollution regulations are concerned—can help a community move toward conservation and environmental change.
In the 1990s, the hundreds of wastewater treatment plants that are located across the watershed could be blamed for more than a quarter of the nutrient pollution entering the Bay, as the plants pumped water laden with nitrogen and phosphorous into local rivers and streams. Such an excess of nutrients can fuel the growth of algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and, during decomposition, rob the water of the oxygen that aquatic species need to survive.
But in the last decade, technological upgrades to wastewater treatment plants have surged, and the pollution cuts that result mean these plants now contribute less than 20 percent of the nutrients still entering the Bay.
According to Rich Batiuk, Associate Director for Science with the EPA, the uptick in upgrades can be attributed to a number of factors.
“Wastewater treatment plants have always been regulated,” Batiuk said. “But [until the last decade], there wasn’t the science or the political will or the … water quality standards that could drive the higher levels of wastewater treatment that result in lower levels of nitrogen and phosphorous flowing into the watershed.”
As the science behind wastewater engineering has improved and the incentives for implementing upgrades have grown, more plants have begun to make changes. Some implement a “zero discharge” plan, using nutrient-rich effluent to feed agricultural crops rather than excess algae. Others—like the Moorefield plant—expose wastewater to nutrient-hungry microbes that feed on nitrogen and phosphorous; the resulting sludge, modified without the addition of chemicals, can be turned into compost rather than fodder for the local landfill.
Such modern upgrades to otherwise aging infrastructure have been celebrated as a boon for local communities and the wider watershed. While the Moorefield plant will, in the end, curb pollution into the Bay, it will first curb pollution in the South Branch of the Potomac River, into which it sends its effluent.
"The South Branch of the Potomac is a unique place,” Batiuk said. “People fish there, they swim there. This new plant helps more than the Chesapeake Bay.”
And Moorefield residents—including the Town of Moorefield Public Works Director Lucas Gagnon—plan to witness this local change firsthand.
“The residents in this area are aware of the Chesapeake Bay and its needed [nutrient] reductions,” Gagnon said. “But the biggest benefit for the local folks will be the reduction of nutrients in local waterways.”
“There are many people that fish and boat the South Branch,” Gagnon continued. “When this plant goes online, the water quality will be greatly enhanced, and they will have a much cleaner, better river to enjoy.”