On one of the last remaining islands of the Chesapeake Bay, generations of working watermen have found a home.
Settled in the late seventeenth century, Tangier Island spans a five-mile stretch of water and has never supported more than 1,500 people. Its small size and relative isolation have allowed its residents to maintain a close connection to the past, keeping old customs and a distinct Tidewater dialect alive.
Modern families—with surnames like Crockett, Pruitt, Parks and Dise—can trace their lineage back hundreds of years, and the island’s economy remains tied to the harvest of crabs, fish and oysters. But these tenuous traditions are threatened by worsening water quality and sea-level rise.
In December, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team called together decision-makers and watermen for a shared meal and stakeholders’ discussion at one of Tangier Island’s four sit-down restaurants.
Watermen from Tangier and neighboring Smith Island spoke of the problems they see in and on the Bay and how they might be more involved in the management decisions that directly impact their livelihoods.
Held in the community in which these watermen live and work, the meeting allowed many of them to speak and be heard in a new and significant way.
One of the most pressing problems for the watermen is the flow of sediment into the Bay. As sediment runs off of land and into the water, sand and silt block sunlight from reaching the grass beds that offer shedding blue crabs refuge when their soft shells make them most vulnerable.
Soft-shell crabs are critical to the Tangier Island economy. And a loss of grass beds—which one waterman called “the life blood of the Chesapeake Bay”—could mean a loss of soft-shell crabs. “The habitat,” a second waterman said. “It just ain’t there.”
Seawalls have been put in place to slow the erosion of the island. But as sea levels rise, the land sinks and storms like Sandy, Irene and Isabel grow stronger and more frequent, Tangier continues to wash away.
The northernmost portion of Tangier Island is called Uppards. Once home to a store, a school, a church and a collection of homes, the life of Uppards has disappeared, leaving behind one tumbledown trailer and stretches of marsh, sand and beach.
In October, a small cemetery was uncovered on Uppards by the winds and waves of Superstorm Sandy. Headstones in the graveyard bear the common surname Pruitt. The once-buried bones of those who died in the 1880s are now visible aboveground.
This fall, Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell and officials from the Army Corps of Engineers pledged to build a $4.2 million jetty that will protect the island’s harbor. Some see the long-awaited initiative as a beacon of hope, while others believe it serves only to slow inevitable erosion.
As Tangier Island shrinks, the costs of fuel and gear and living rise, placing further pressure on the island’s aging watermen.
But what career alternatives does a waterman have? Some take jobs aboard tug boats. Other host tours for visitors from the mainland. And still others have found work as captains and educators at island study centers operated by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
But most Tangier residents would find it difficult to obtain work off the island, where a 45-minute ride on a ferry or mail boat is needed to make it to the nearest town. One waterman lamented this lack of options: “We don’t have the opportunity to get a land job.”
A dependence on the fish and shellfish of the Bay has created a conservation ethic in many Tangier watermen, including Tangier Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge. Eskridge spoke of the importance of restoration efforts in a time of environmental change, and of preserving natural resources in order to preserve Tangier careers and culture: “A sustainable resource is more important to a waterman than anyone else.”
Access high-resolution images of Tangier Island on the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
“You’re going to want to take those off for this.” Alicia points to my gloves.
Exposing my hands to the cold – the kind of bitter cold that strikes only in the middle of winter, in the middle of night, in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay – did not seem like something I’d ever “want” to do. Why did I volunteer for this again?
But Alicia Berlin, leader of the Atlantic Seaduck Project, has given me the job of untangling something called a "mist net." The net’s delicate fabric is quick to catch on fabric as we stretch it forty or so feet across the Chesapeake Bay. So I reluctantly shed the gloves, exposing my bare hands to winter’s icy chill.
Alicia and her team hope to capture surf scoters and black scoters in the mist net, and then arm them with GPS-like trackers that allow researchers to monitor the ducks’ migration patterns and feeding habits.
Since sea ducks only visit the Chesapeake Bay in winter, and since they are most active in the pre-dawn hours, Alicia’s team works in the cold darkness to assemble the mist net and trap these vacationing birds.
I quickly realize that unraveling the mist net is the easy job. The other volunteer I’m working with is leaning over the edge of the raft, his bare hands in the water; his headlamp the only source of light to illuminate his task.
He’s huffing and puffing and shivering as he pulls our raft along the anchor line, waiting for me to untangle the net above him before we can move forward. I stand nearly on top of him, praying I don't trip and fall overboard into the black, bone-chilling water just a foot below us. It’s so cold I can smell it.
Minutes later, we’re staring at our end product: what looks like a large volleyball net floating in the middle of the water, surrounded by two dozen decoys (plastic fake ducks) bobbling on the frigid waves. The darkness is turning gray, so we rush to our second location and set ourselves on repeat.
Once we finish our setup, there’s nothing left to do but wait. I try to force myself to stay alert – to listen for ducks calling, to search the horizon for flying silhouettes coming towards our decoys – but I can't. The frosty weather is numbing every part of my body, even though I’m wearing a ridiculous-looking "survival suit," a garment reminiscent of Randy's snow suit in A Christmas Story.
I’m not the only one who’s falling asleep sitting up. I met Alicia and her team on the Eastern Shore at 1 a.m., giving me just three hours of sleep. The more consistent volunteers are completely exhausted, pulling all-nighters followed by eight-hour work days. This collective sleep deprivation leads to an interestingly honest team dynamic and contributes to a plethora of freak accidents. (Alicia somehow drove our boat directly into a mist net just minutes after we had set it up.)
One can only hope that our lack of sleep will pays off, but not a single duck has flown into the mist nets all week. Perhaps tonight will make up for team’s previous disappointments.
Apparently, mist netting isn’t the most effective technique to capture sea ducks. According to Alicia, night lighting is far more successful. A team goes out on the water in the middle of the night, preferably in rainy weather, and shines flood lights on the water to locate ducks. Volunteers then capture the unsuspecting ducks in nets.
Captured ducks are kept in cages on the boat until morning. Then they’re transported to Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel, Maryland, where a surgeon implants the tracking devices in the ducks. (Alicia assures me the ducks can't feel the device.) The next evening, lucky volunteers set the sea ducks free on the Chesapeake Bay.
(Image courtesy Andrew Reding/Flickr)
The number of sea ducks wintering on the Chesapeake Bay has decreased in recent years due to food availability and the effects of climate change. Many sea ducks rely on bay grasses that only grow at certain depths and are affected by algae blooms and high temperatures.
I’m awakened at sunrise by honks and quacks. My raft mates and I scope out the skies in different directions, identifying packs of ducks that will hopefully visit our mist net. My eyes follow pair after pair flying toward the net; but at the last minute, each one goes over or around it. Perhaps these birds are smarter than we give them credit for.
The larger boat that’s watching the second net has similar bad luck. That team decides to sneak up on a pack and drive the birds in the general direction of our nets. After a mess of quacking and fluttering, the ducks head not for the net, but directly toward our raft!
We chase the ducks around the Bay until 10 or 11 that morning, but not a single sea duck gets caught in the nets we worked so hard to set up. 'Tis the unpredictable nature of wildlife biology, the team says. Everything is a constant experiment: from the team's capture technique to the location of the nets to the weather. Failure is simply part of the learning process. Alicia is confident that tomorrow will bring better luck, and that night lighting next week will guarantee results.
We disassemble the mist net and head toward the shore, just in time to beat the growing waves that signal an approaching rain storm.
I've never been happier to bask under an automobile's heat vents.
Every Sunday morning at 8, a handful of bird enthusiasts flock to Dyke Marsh, the only freshwater marsh along the upper tidal Potomac River. The Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve, located south of Alexandria, Va., is home to almost 300 species of birds. The marsh is classified as a “globally rare” habitat, one that’s particularly unique in this dense, urban area just outside the nation’s capital.
(Image courtesy of Friends of Dyke Marsh)
Since 1975, the nonprofit volunteer group Friends of Dyke Marsh (FODM) has helped preserve, restore and celebrate this rare ecosystem. In addition to arranging weekly bird watching trips, FODM sponsors scientific surveys, leads school groups, removes invasive plants, organizes cleanups and builds public appreciation for the marsh.
FODM supports scientific surveys that illustrate the marsh’s irreplaceable habitat. Freshwater tidal marshes are flooded with fresh water with each incoming high tide, and include a variety of rare emergent grasses and sedges rather than shrubs.
“Dyke Marsh is a remnant of the extensive tidal wetlands that used to line the Potomac River,” explains FODM president Glenda Booth. “It provides buffering during storms. It absorbs flood waters. It’s a nursery for fish. It’s a rich biodiverse area in a large metropolitan area. We think it’s important to preserve what little is left.”
With the support of FODM, a Virginia Natural Heritage Program employee completed a survey of dragonflies and damselflies on the preserve in spring 2011. In addition, members conduct a breeding bird survey every spring. Last year, FODM recorded 78 species. The highlight? A confirmed breeding eastern screech-owl, the first documented in 20 years.
(Image courtesy of Friends of Dyke Marsh)
“Our biggest challenge is to stop that erosion and restore Dyke Marsh,” says Booth.
Dyke Marsh was already destabilized in 1959, when Congress added it to the U.S. National Park system. USGS scientists largely attributed this to human impacts: sand and gravel mining that gouged out substantial parts of the marsh and removed a promontory that protected the wetland from storms, leaving Dyke Marsh exposed and vulnerable.
FODM works with the National Park Service to enhance wetland habitat and slow erosion of the marsh’s shoreline.
Educating neighbors about their connection to Dyke Marsh and fostering appreciation of this scenic area are also essential components of FODM’s preservation goals.
(Image courtesy of Friends of Dyke Marsh)
Like most other parts of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, invasive plants are a problem in Dyke Marsh. “A lot of people plant things that are aggressive and not native, and these plants end up in the marsh.” And pollution that flows into streams throughout Fairfax County eventually empties into Dyke Marsh, threatening its wildlife and habitat.
Preserving Dyke Marsh is a goal that extends beyond the marsh itself, according to Booth. “We have to make sure that activities on our boundaries are compatible with preservation goals.” That means advocating for regulations that prohibit jet skiing, which disturbs the marsh’s nesting birds in spring.
Visit FODM’s website to learn more about upcoming outreach and educational opportunities and to find out other ways you can enjoy Dyke Marsh.
Hurricanes, earthquakes, a freezing cold winter and a blistering hot summer – 2011 has been an interesting year for weather in the Chesapeake Bay region. Scientists with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center have written some preliminary thoughts about the bizarre weather and its link to conditions in the Bay in a post on SERC’s blog, Shorelines.
While SERC tends to focus on the long-term picture rather than brief snapshots, this year has prompted more than a few raised eyebrows among our scientists. What does it mean for the environment? What does it mean for Chesapeake Bay? And can any of it be linked to climate change?
Visit SERC’s blog to read more about the link between 2011 weather and the Chesapeake Bay.
Image courtesy Iris Goldstein/Flickr
The Maryland Commission on Climate Change has released a report outlining strategies to reduce the effects of climate change on Maryland’s land, water and people.
The report, called the Phase II Strategy for Reducing Maryland’s Vulnerability to Climate Change: Building Societal, Economic and Ecological Resilience, includes a section devoted to the Chesapeake Bay and aquatic ecosystems. More than 80 experts worked together to develop the strategy.
Maryland state agencies will use the Phase II Strategy along with its companion, the Phase I Strategy for Sea Level Rise and Coastal Storms (2008), to guide and prioritize their policies on adapting to climate change.
With more than 3,000 miles of shoreline, Maryland is the fourth most vulnerable state to climate change and rising sea levels in the nation. Because the Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States, the effects of climate change here have implications for similar bays and ecosystems.
The report’s chapter on Bay and Aquatic Ecosystems concludes that climate change will alter the distribution of species and habitats in Maryland, and may in fact worsen conditions that are already putting stress on these species and habitats. Rising temperatures, precipitation shifts and sea level rise are all expected to affect aquatic plants, animals and their habitats.
Climate change is also expected to alter the interactions between humans and the Bay. Fisheries and recreational opportunities may diminish due to sea level rise. Wetlands in the state may become degraded, limiting the protection of sensitive shorelines during storms.
The report offers recommendations for Maryland to reduce current stressors on the Bay and aquatic ecosystems as well as proactive steps to stop future damage. These include increasing monitoring and assessment to guide future decision-making and assessing current management efforts used to protect critical habitats and ecosystem services.
In particular, the report recommends protecting coastal habitats and streamside forest buffers to address land use changes along the state’s waterways.
For more information about the report and the Maryland Commission on Climate Change, visit Maryland’s website.
A recently released report by the U.S. EPA shows that many areas around the Bay’s shoreline are already witnessing the effects of sea level rise and that vulnerable tidal marshes may erode more rapidly over the next century because of climate change.
The report, Coastal Sensitivity to Sea-Level Rise: A Focus on the Mid-Atlantic Region, examines the impacts of sea level rise on the human communities and wildlife habitat of the Mid-Atlantic coast, including Chesapeake Bay. According to the EPA, the Mid-Atlantic region is one area of the U.S. that will likely see the greatest impacts of climate change due to rising waters, coastal storms and a high population concentration along the coastline.
At the 20th century rate of sea level rise (3-4 mm per year), extensive areas of marsh in the Bay (depicted in red in the image to the right) will become marginal, or only able to survive under optimal conditions. Other low-lying areas, depicted in blue, will be fully submerged at the current rate of sea level rise. The report cites evidence that sea level rise is increasing due to climate change, which would accelerate erosion of the Bay’s marshes.
A clear example of the effects of sea level rise can be seen on the Bay’s marsh islands, many of which have already been lost or severely eroded. These islands are vital to bird species like terns, black skimmers and American oystercatchers, which use the islands to nest and breed. On the mainland shoreline of the Bay, nearly all of the beaches are eroding, which has led many waterfront property owners to install hardened shorelines as protection.
In addition to the effects of sea level rise, the report details the efforts of state and local governments throughout the Mid-Atlantic to protect coastal communities against erosion. Maryland is noted as having the most stringent policies on development along the Chesapeake and coastal areas. The state’s Critical Area laws limit development within 1,000 feet of the shoreline.
“Our state is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change -- including sea level rise,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley in response to the EPA report. “We are making real progress in both preparing for the impacts of climate change but also in reducing the actions that contribute to it.”
However, the report shows that most shoreline protection structures are designed to protect properties from current sea level, rather than the anticipated increases. “Preparing now can reduce the eventual environmental and economic impacts of sea level rise,” reads a report highlight.
Waterfront property owners interested in learning more on how they can protect their shoreline from erosion and sea level rise can visit Maryland DNR’s website for more information.