Shad abundance has surged in four Chesapeake Bay rivers, surpassing restoration goals in the Potomac and Rappahannock. While shad populations are critically low along the Atlantic coast, scientists hope to see rising trends continue in these two waterways. Shad spend most of their adult lives in the ocean, migrating into freshwater rivers and streams to spawn. Their return brings food to the Bay in the form of protein-rich eggs, adult shad that can be captured during the spawn and a new generation of shad that can offer forage to striped bass, bluefish and other species as they return to the sea.
Once one of the most valuable fisheries in the Bay, shad populations have declined in recent decades due to pollution, historic overfishing and the construction of dams that block the fish from reaching their spawning grounds. The Bay Program tracks the abundance of American shad in the James, Potomac, Rappahannock, Susquehanna and York rivers as an indicator of watershed health. Collectively, these five waterways account for about 90 percent of the Bay’s shad population, and each has its own population target.
Between 2000 and 2014, shad abundance in the Bay increased from 11 percent to 44 percent of the goal. The Potomac River has seen the most consistent rise in returning shad, but the Rappahannock has also seen notable highs. In 2014, abundance in the Potomac and Rappahannock reached 130 and 110 percent of the rivers’ respective targets.
Scientists attribute these increases to a series of factors, including improvements in water quality; a resurgence in underwater grass beds; moratoriums on shad harvest; an increase in habitat available to migratory fish; stocking efforts that reprint fish to rivers and kick-start local populations; and the overall suitability of the Potomac, in particular, as shad habitat.
“The Potomac River shad population has surpassed its sustainability target,” said Jim Cummins, director of living resources for the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin and co-chair of the Bay Program’s American Shad Indicator Action Team. “But we want to see recovery continue until a robust population is once again providing ecological benefits and supporting a fishery that includes some recreational harvest. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, anglers will be able to enjoy shad on the table and at the end of a line.”
Shad abundance remains negligible in the upper James and Susquehanna and variable in the lower James and York. Some variability is natural, but the continued scarcity of shad in the upper James and Susquehanna can be attributed to large dams. Through the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, the Bay Program has committed to opening more stream miles to migratory fish and improving our capacity to understand the role forage fish populations play in the Bay ecosystem.
As one of the most vulnerable regions in the nation to the effects of climate change, all aspects of life in the Chesapeake Bay watershed—from people and critters, to habitat and infrastructure—are at risk from its effects. Warming air and water temperatures, sea level rise and extreme weather events are expected to have a significant influence on the Bay region in the coming years, but many changes are already being documented. With recent record-breaking high temperatures, including last year and the first quarter of this year, some species are feeling the heat.
1. Cherry blossoms. Thousands of iconic cherry trees surround the Tidal Basin and national monuments of Washington, D.C., and their blossoms bring countless visitors to the area. Over the past 90 years, cherry blossoms have been blooming earlier, due in part to increasing average seasonal temperatures. Since 1921, Washington’s average March temperatures have warmed more than two degrees Fahrenheit, leading “peak bloom” for the cherry blossoms to shift five days earlier.
2. Chickadees. Two strikingly similar types of chickadees are common in backyards through the United States: in the Southeast, the Carolina chickadee is most common, while the black-capped chickadee dominates the northern states. A narrow band of overlap, called the “hybrid zone,” is where the two chickadees meet and interbreed—and it has been steadily moving northward as temperatures rise. According to one study, the zone has been shifting nearly 0.7 miles each year, moving a total of 7 miles in the past ten years.
3. Migratory waterfowl. The Bay region is a key stop for millions of migratory waterfowl during their seasonal flights. But milder winters have caused several bird species to visit in smaller numbers. Many canvasbacks have been stopping short along their migrations due to warming temperatures; one report shows the number of wintering canvasbacks in the Bay region declined from nearly 250,000 in the 1950s to 30,000 in recent years. Some tundra swans have been wintering on open rivers in Canada rather than the shallow waters of the Bay. These changes in waterfowl migrations can take a particular toll on recreational hunters, who are seeing fewer birds migrate through the region later in the season.
4. Fish. Nearly 350 species of finfish swim through the rivers, streams and open waters of the Bay region, and many of these species are particularly sensitive to changes in water temperature. Research suggests that the temperature at which native and migratory fish begin to spawn or migrate (typically 15 degrees Celsius) is occurring nearly three weeks earlier than it did in 1960. In particular, the black sea bass has been rapidly moving its range northward; communities in North Carolina who have typically caught a majority of the black sea bass catch have recently been traveling as far north as New Jersey to meet their quotas.
5. Bay grasses. Underwater grasses are a critical part of the Bay ecosystem, providing food and shelter for some of the Bay’s most iconic species, including young blue crabs. Bay grasses are particularly sensitive to excess rainfall and changes in temperature, meaning warming temperatures and more frequent, more extreme weather events are impacting their health. High temperatures during a 2005 heat wave are blamed for a massive die-off of eelgrass in the Bay, and while many areas have rebounded from the collapse, some eelgrass beds have not yet recovered.
6. Pine beetles. A changing climate doesn’t just affect the iconic, treasured species of the Bay region—it also make it easier for invasive species and pests, like the southern pine beetle, to move in. No bigger than a grain of rice, these beetles burrow under a tree’s bark and consume a layer of the tree, which disrupts the flow of nutrients and typically kills the tree in less than four months. Historically, the beetles were unable to survive north of Delaware. But warming temperatures, especially in the winter months, have allowed the pest to migrate northward along the East Coast, reaching as far as New York.
As environmental conditions continue to change, even more species will be threatened by rising seas, warming temperatures, extreme weather and habitat loss. Under the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, Bay Program partners are committed to building the climate resiliency of the animals, plants, habitats, infrastructure and communities throughout the region.
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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.
From the restoration of marshes, wetlands and forest buffers to the installation of urban, suburban and agricultural pollution-reducing practices, 45 environmental projects across the Chesapeake Bay watershed have received $9.8 million in funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s (NFWF) Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund.
Twenty-seven projects will be funded by the Small Watershed Grants Program, which supports on-the-ground restoration, conservation and community engagement. Eighteen more will be funded by the Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Grants Program, which finances the reduction of nutrient and sediment pollution in rivers and streams. The 45 projects will leverage more than $19.6 million in matching funds to improve the health of the watershed.
In Maryland, for instance, Civic Works will design and install rain gardens with community organizations, nonprofits and small businesses in Baltimore City. In Washington, D.C., the District Department of the Environment will retrofit seven drainage areas around a parking lot with low impact development techniques to slow down, cool off and clean up polluted stormwater. And in Pennsylvania, the Stroud Water Research Center will implement more than 120 “best management practices” on more than 15 farms.
Officials and guests announced the awards this morning at the Town Hall in Ashland, Virginia, where a grant will support improved stormwater management at the headquarters of the Ashland Police Department.
Sunken fishing traps are having a big impact on wildlife in coastal waters around the United States, including blue crabs and the watermen who depend on them in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.
According to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the problem of derelict fishing gear—which includes lost and discarded nets and traps—is “pervasive, persistent and largely preventable.” Whether accidentally lost or intentionally tossed overboard, derelict gear can continue to “ghost fish,” catching fish, turtles and other species and damaging seafloor habitats. In some cases, dead organisms continue to serve as bait until the traps stop catching fish.
“People may not realize that derelict traps can catch not just the target species of the fishery, but also other animals, including threatened and endangered species where populations are already very low,” said scientist Ariana Sutton-Grier in a media release.
In the Chesapeake Bay, derelict crab traps impact blue crabs, diamondback terrapins and other species. Between 35 and 40 percent of derelict traps are ghost fishing, with the highest catch rates taking place in Maryland waters. Here, about 20 blue crabs per trap per year are caught and killed, which researchers attribute to gear that is not designed to allow species to escape when traps become derelict.
The loss of fishing gear has an economic impact, too. According to the report, derelict traps in Virginia waters have caught as many as 913,000 crabs in a year, with an estimated worth of $304,000, or one percent of the Commonwealth’s annual commercial blue crab landings. In addition to the impact on commercial fisheries, there is a irect cost to watermen to replace lost traps, which range from $60 to $600.
Traps with biodegradable escape panels—which are inexpensive and easy to install—have been successfully tested in the Bay, with no adverse effects on blue crab catch. These, along with boat lanes that keep propellers away from trap lines and improved outreach and education to watermen, could pose solutions to the region’s derelict fishing trap problem.
During summer months, Chesapeake Bay waters become home to a range of bacteria. One of the most talked-about bacteria is Vibrio, which occurs naturally in warm estuarine waters and can infect those who eat contaminated shellfish or swim with open wounds in contaminated waters. But illness can be avoided. Learn about the bacteria—and how to avoid infection—with this list of five Vibrio facts.
Image courtesy CDC/Wikimedia Commons
1. Vibrio is a naturally occurring bacteria. There are more than 80 species of Vibrio, which occur naturally in brackish and saltwater. Not all species can infect humans, but two strains that can have raised concern in the Bay watershed: Vibrio vulnificus and Vibrio parahaemolyticus. The bacteria are carried on the shells and in the bodies of microscopic animals called copepods.
2. The presence of Vibrio in surface waters is affected by water temperature, salinity and chlorophyll. Because Vibrio prefers warm waters, it is not found in the Bay during winter months. Instead, it is common in the summer and early fall. When water temperatures are warm, algae blooms form, fed by nutrients in the water. These blooms feed the copepods that carry the Vibrio bacteria. When the copepods die, Vibrio bacteria are shed into the water. As climate change increases the temperature of the Bay, both algae blooms and Vibrio could persist later in the season.
3. Vibrio infections can occur in people who eat raw or undercooked shellfish or who swim with open wounds or punctures in contaminated waters. While infections are rare, they do take place and can be particularly dangerous for people with compromised immune systems. The ingestion of Vibrio can cause vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain, and in some cases can infect the bloodstream. If an open wound or puncture comes into contact with the bacteria, the area around the wound can experience swelling, redness, pain, blistering and ulceration of the skin.
4. Infection can be avoided. To avoid Vibrio infection, follow these tips:
5. Vibrio symptoms can start 12 to 72 hours after exposure. If you think you’ve been infected with Vibrio, seek medical attention. Make sure to let your doctor know that you have eaten raw or undercooked shellfish or crabs or have come into contact with brackish or saltwater.
Every once in a while, one is struck by the power of a new idea. At a recent event held by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to kick off a public education campaign about invasive catfish in the Chesapeake Bay, I learned about an initiative called the Wide Net Project. The concept of the Wide Net Project is elegant in its simplicity and its brilliance.
Image courtesy Virginia Sea Grant
Neither blue nor flathead catfish are native to the Chesapeake Bay. Unfortunately, the invasive species have become apex predators that feed voraciously on other fish and shellfish. In some areas of the watershed, they represent a significant percentage of a tributary’s total fish biomass. But they are also a good source of lean protein.
In this invasive catfish problem, Wide Net Project co-founders Sharon Feuer Gruber and Wendy Stuart saw a solution: the catfish could be fished out of local tributaries and used to provide low-cost protein to hunger relief organizations.
Wide Net Project staff work with J.J. McDonnell, a large seafood company, to process and distribute the catch from area anglers. Staff sell the fish to restaurants, grocers, hospitals, universities and other institutions at market price. A significant portion of these sales is used to lower the price of the fish staff then sell to hunger relief agencies, which normally can’t afford healthy, local foods. To address the health concern related to the potential accumulation of toxins in older and larger fish, the Wide Net Project markets and sells only younger and smaller blue catfish. J.J. McDonnell also recycles fish waste produced during processing into pet food.
At the DNR event, which was held at Smallwood State Park on the Mattawoman Creek, chefs cooked up samples of blue catfish. While I enjoy eating fish, I don’t think I had ever tasted catfish before that day. I tried some, and found it had a flakey white meat and a light and delicate taste. I thought to myself, one should never underestimate the power of a great idea or the ability of a few dedicated individuals to get things done. Sharon and Wendy connected the dots and inspired us all.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy endorsement or action.
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.
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 have found intersex fish in three Pennsylvania river basins, indicating hormone-disrupting chemicals are more widespread in the Chesapeake Bay watershed than once thought.
Image courtesy RTD Photography/Flickr
Intersex conditions occur when pesticides, pharmaceuticals or other chemicals disrupt the hormonal systems of an animal, leading to the presence of both male and female characteristics. The presence of intersex conditions in fish, frogs and other species is linked to land use, as the chemicals that lead to these conditions often enter rivers and streams through agricultural runoff or wastewater.
Previous samplings of fish in the region have found intersex conditions in the Potomac, Shenandoah and Susquehanna rivers, as well as lakes and ponds on the Delmarva Peninsula. On samplings conducted at 16 sites between 2007 and 2010, researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found intersex fish in the Susquehanna, Delaware and Ohio river basins.
According to the USGS, freshwater fish called white suckers from sample sites in the Delaware and Susquehanna river basins had a yolk precursor in their blood. Male smallmouth bass from all sample sites had immature eggs in their testes. The prevalence of intersex fish was highest in the Susquehanna river basin, which researchers attribute to the higher rate of farms—and related herbicides, pesticides and hormone-containing manure—in the area. While scientists found no relationship between the number of wastewater treatment plants in an area and the prevalence of immature eggs in fish, the severity of intersex conditions did rise at sites downstream from wastewater discharge points.
“The sources of estrogenic chemicals are most likely complex mixtures from both agricultural sources, such as animal wastes, pesticides and herbicides, and human sources from wastewater treatment plant effluent and other sewer discharges,” said fish biologist Vicki Blazer in a media release.
A habitat is the natural environment in which plants, animals and other organisms live, feed and breed. Many habitats are shared by numerous living things, forming what is called an ecosystem. Ecosystems range in size and can be as tiny as a patch of dirt or as large as the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Sometimes, different species within the same ecosystem are forced to compete for resources like food, water and shelter. Dominant species and environmental stressors can take their toll on lesser plants and animals.
Rapidly increasing human development contributes to this environmental stress: as our population rises, so does our demand for the same resources that many plants and animals also depend on to survive. We build dams to control stream flow and capture energy, develop wilderness into urban hubs and use our finite freshwater resources at an alarming rate.
Migratory fish are particularly sensitive to ecosystem changes because they rely on certain migration routes between connected habitats to reach their breeding grounds. Dams, road culverts and other blockages that fragment waterways can act as barriers to fish passage.
In an effort to better understand the effect that dams and other manmade structures have on fish passage, Steve Minkkinen, project leader at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Maryland Fisheries Office, has teamed up with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a 10-year survey of American eel populations in the Susquehanna River.
“We learned quite a bit in 2013. We collected 300,000 juveniles [eels] and transported them above the [Conowingo] Dam. The dam has been blocking the [eels’] migration up the Susquehanna River,” Minkkinen explained. “There has been a lot of work [to open] upstream passage for shad and river herring,” Minkkinen continued. But that work has only focused on adult fish, and as Minkkinen pointed out, the dam’s flow is too fast for younger eels to travel through.
Monitoring American eels is important: at historic levels, they made up 20 percent of the freshwater biomass along the Eastern seaboard. However, the introduction of dams and other structures has blocked eel populations from important migration routes, changing eel populations.
Researchers capture and inject chips known as passive integrated transponders, or PIT tags, into the eels. These tags can be detected in future surveys and help the team track eel populations by letting them know if they are encountering a new eel or one that was caught during a previous survey.
The American eel is the only catadromous fish in the Bay region, which means they spend most of their lives in fresh water but migrate to the ocean to spawn. Spawning takes place in late January when the fish swim out of the Bay and into the Sargasso Sea, a portion of the Atlantic Ocean east of the Bahamas.
Eel larvae drift in ocean currents for nine to 12 months before reaching fresh water and swimming upstream. Monitoring allows scientists to study the migration habits of juvenile eels and learn how to aid their upstream journey.
Minkkinen and his team believe that if fish passage to the upper Susquehanna opens, both American eels and freshwater mussels would thrive. This bivalve relies on fish to store their eggs in their gills until the mussels turn into microscopic juveniles and drop off. Mussel populations in the upper Susquehanna are, for the most part, comprised of older, larger individuals. Because mussels are natural filter feeders, Minkkinen’s team believes that a rise in freshwater mussels will lead to cleaner water and a healthier ecosystem.
“Our hopes are that we can develop passage and restore eel and mussel habitat to that [upper Susquehanna] portion of the watershed,” Minkkinen said.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by Steve Droter. Captions by Jenna Valente.
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.
An economic analysis from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) shows that federal investments in on-the-ground restoration can stimulate local economies, creating jobs and supporting small businesses.
With a focus on two of its habitat restoration programs—the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program and the Coastal Program—the USFWS determined that for every federal dollar spent, $7 to $9 of restoration work happens on the ground and almost $2 of economic activity is gained by the state in which the work takes place.
Both of these nation-wide programs use federal and private funding to implement on-the-ground habitat restoration projects on public and privately owned land. According to the USFWS, the programs' impacts cut across two dimensions: first, their understood expertise and stable funding pulls in additional funding from other partners; second, the programs’ spending creates work, generates tax revenues and stimulates local economies through paid wages and subsequent spending.
Image courtesy Margrit/Flickr
In Maryland, for instance, the Coastal Program has directed $1.4 million toward the eradication of nutria from marshes and wetlands. Introduced to the region in the mid-1940s, the invasive nutria has destructive feeding habits, pulling up plant roots that would otherwise hold valuable marshland in place. The Maryland Nutria Project, which is administered by the USFWS and brings federal, state and private partners together to trap and manage nutria, has created more than 55 jobs and generated $2.5 million in spending on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
“The Partners for Fish and Wildlife and Coastal programs are important drivers for creating employment,” said USFWS Director Dan Ashe in a media release. “The benefits reach far beyond the local communities where these projects take place to provide national economic stimulus. At the same time, this restoration work provides benefits to all Americans by creating healthy natural areas, including shorelines, streams, wetlands and forests on privately owned lands.”
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.
Over the last decade, American shad abundance in the Potomac River has continued its consistent rise, driving the overall upward trend of shad abundance in the Chesapeake Bay.
Image courtesy MTSOfan/Flickr
While shad spend most of their adult lives in the ocean, the anadromous fish migrate into freshwater rivers and streams to spawn. Since 2000, shad abundance in the Bay has increased from 9 percent of the goal to 41 percent of the goal, with the Potomac seeing the most consistent rise in returning shad. Between 2000 and 2013, shad abundance in the Potomac rose from 12.4 percent to 129.4 percent of the target. Scientists attribute this increase to a series of factors, including improvements in water quality; a resurgence in underwater grass beds; the installation of a fish passageway at Little Falls Dam; a moratorium on recreational shad harvest; stocking efforts that reprinted fish to the river and kick-started the population; and the overall suitability of the Potomac as shad habitat.
“While there are several factors behind the shad recovery in the Potomac River, improved water quality is the cornerstone,” said Jim Cummins, director for living resources at the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB) and co-chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s American Shad Indicator Action Team. “Without cleaner waters in the Potomac River, we would never have seen such a boost in returning shad. We’ve reached the sustainable fishery target for the river, but we are still working to achieve a more robust goal: to see the shad population healthy and fit, and to see the river run silver again. That’s not a ‘pristine river’ goal—that’s a goal we can achieve.”
The Bay Program tracks the abundance of shad in the James, Potomac, Rappahannock, Susquehanna and York rivers as an indicator of watershed health. Collectively, these five waterways account for about 90 percent of the Bay’s shad population, and each has its own population target.
While shad abundance is relatively high in the Rappahannock River—reaching 92.7 percent of the target in 2012 but falling to 88.9 percent of the target in 2013—abundance remains negligible in the upper James and Susquehanna and variable in the lower James and York. Some variability is natural, but the continued scarcity of shad in the upper James and Susquehanna can be attributed to large dams that block fish passage and mute some of the natural cues that send migratory fish upstream.
Once one of the most valuable fisheries in the Bay, shad populations have declined in recent decades due to pollution, historic overfishing and the construction of dams that block the fish from reaching their spawning grounds. Commercial shad harvest is now closed across most of the region, and Bay Program partners are working to remove dams, install passageways that allow shad to reach upstream habitats and restock waterways with hatchery-raised fish. In addition, students in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia are raising shad and releasing them into the Potomac River, bringing public attention to the importance of the once-forgotten fish.
Overall, shad abundance in the Bay has increased from 8 percent of the goal in 2000 to 41 percent of the goal in 2013.
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.”
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.
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.
More than $100 million in grant funding is available for work to protect communities affected by Hurricane Sandy from the growing risks of climate change.
Announced by the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) on the one-year anniversary of the “superstorm” that affected the entire East Coast, raising river flow in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and causing significant damage to New Jersey and New York, the Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Competitive Grants Program will direct funding to those states that declared a natural disaster after the storm, including all seven Bay jurisdictions.
In an effort to benefit humans and wildlife alike, funding will be directed to those projects that use natural ecosystems to protect coastal communities from strong storms, sea level rise and erosion. The restoration of marshes, wetlands and oyster reefs, for example, can build coastal resiliency in the face of climate change; so, too, can planting streamside trees, removing dams from rivers and streams, and better managing stormwater runoff.
“By stabilizing marshes and beaches, restoring wetlands and improving the resilience of coastal areas, we not only create opportunities for people to connect with nature…, but we can also provide an effective buffer that protects local communities from powerful storm surges and devastating floods when a storm like Sandy hits,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell in a media release.
From the restoration of tidal wetlands to the greening of a town cemetery, 40 environmental projects across the Chesapeake Bay watershed have received more than $9 million in funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s (NFWF) Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund.
Image courtesy Eric Vance/U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Half of the projects will be funded by the Small Watershed Grants Program, which supports on-the-ground restoration, conservation and community engagement. Twenty more will be funded by the Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Grants Program, which finances the reduction of nutrient and sediment pollution in rivers and streams.
The Anacostia Watershed Society, for instance, will restore more than 10 acres of tidal wetlands along the Anacostia River, improving area flood control and outdoor recreation. The Oyster Recovery Partnership will repopulate at least 40 acres of oyster reefs in Harris Creek, bolstering current restoration work in the Choptank River tributary. And the Town of Bath in West Virginia will bring green infrastructure into a local cemetery, increasing tree canopy and reducing erosion into the Potomac River.
Image courtesy Eric Vance/U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
The awards were announced this morning at the Earth Conservation Corps Pump House, where a wetland restoration project was funded by the Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund in 2012.
Learn more about the grant recipients.
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.
When the start of a new school year drives students into the library, it’s not always a given that they are looking at books. In fact, one marine research center in Virginia is home to a library filled with fish.
The Nunnally Ichthyology Collection at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) contains more than 100,000 freshwater, estuarine and marine fish specimens for use in research and education. The collection is curated by Eric J. Hilton, an associate professor of marine science who has spent a great deal of his life around collections of fish and reptiles. But this one, he says, is unique: after taking on “orphaned” specimens from two other laboratories, VIMS has become the only institution to actively maintain a collection of Chesapeake Bay and mid-Atlantic fish.
The preservation process starts with the euthanization of the fish. Then, the specimen is soaked in a formalin bath to prevent tissue decay and breakdown.
Once the specimen is completely soaked (larger fish take quite a bit more time to preserve than smaller fish), the formalin is flushed from the body and the specimen is placed in a jar that contains a 70 percent ethanol solution.
Oftentimes, multiple specimens of a single species are collected and catalogued. Because there is always variation in nature, researchers prefer to compare and contrast multiple fish of the same species to gain a well-rounded perspective of what the fish and the area they live in are like. “Looking at [only] one individual from a [single] locality will not give you a good view of that locality,” Hilton said.
Each jar is given its own catalogue number that will follow the specimen far into the future. “With that [catalogue] number comes species identification, and all of the attributes of when and where that fish was caught and how it was caught,” Hilton said. “[The number] is entered into a catalogue that is accessible to people throughout the world.”
VIMS also collects a limited amount of skeletal remains in order to conduct skeletal analyses of certain species. “We hope that someday, people can come to the Chesapeake Bay and ask, ‘What was here in 2013?’ and get to see those species and specimens,” Hilton said. If the collection is properly cared for, its fish could be kept for well over 200 years. In fact, some natural resource libraries in Europe are more than 400 years old.
Because its specimens have been collected over decades, the library contains evidence of changes in the Bay. The southern flounder, for instance, is typically found off the coast of North Carolina and other southern waters. Historically, adult southern flounders have made their way to the southernmost portions of the Bay only during hot summer months when the water is warm. But in recent years, researchers have found young southern flounder in the Bay and have added them to the VIMS collection. This new addition indicates a northward shift of southern flounder spawning grounds, likely due to warming waters and climate change.
The fish collection also stores vital information about the introduction and spread of invasive species like the northern snakehead or blue catfish across the state of Virginia and the Bay watershed. Hilton explains: “We have snakeheads from different drainages, so we can track their invasion. We have some of the first juvenile blue cats, and can get a sense of where and when the invasions start.”
VIMS plans to continue their fish collection efforts for the foreseeable future. After all, as science and technology advance, researchers can conduct new tests on older specimens and learn things about the species or its environment that they might not have known before. “If you stop collecting, you limit what you are able to do,” Hilton said.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by Steve Droter.
Captions by Jenna Valente.
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.
A virus that can cause disease and death in largemouth bass has been found in otherwise healthy northern snakeheads taken from two Virginia waterways. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the finding raises the possibility that northern snakeheads could be carriers of the pathogen, capable of transmitting it to other fish in the Chesapeake Bay.
The pathogen, known as the largemouth bass virus, has been found in bass, sunfish and other members of the freshwater sunfish family, but largemouth bass are the only fish known to develop disease from it.
The largemouth bass virus appears to attack the swim bladder, causing fish to lose their balance and float near the surface of the water. According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the virus has been found in waters across the state, but its impacts are often short-lived and largemouth bass can build up resistance to the disease.
While the pathogen doesn’t seem to affect the health of northern snakeheads, the habitat of this invasive fish often overlaps with that of largemouth bass, which may favor transmission of the virus.
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
Dead zones are impacting the distribution and abundance of fish that live and feed near the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay, according to new research from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS).
Dead zones, or areas of little to no dissolved oxygen, form when nutrient-fed algae blooms die and decompose, and are most pronounced in the deep waters of the Bay’s mainstem during warm summer months. During a decade-long study of the bottom-feeding fish that inhabit this portion of the Bay’s water column, scientists noticed drastic declines in species richness, diversity and catch rate as dead zones restricted habitat and displaced the fish toward more hospitable waters.
So-called “demersal” fish—which include Atlantic croaker, white perch, spot, striped bass and summer flounder—avoid dead zones because a lack of oxygen can place stress on their respiratory and metabolic systems. While the fish often return to their former habitat when oxygen levels improve, dead zones can also wreak havoc on their forage grounds, stressing or killing the bottom-dwelling invertebrates the fish need for food.
“Once oxygen levels go up, we do see the average catch rate go up,” said Andre Buchheister, Ph.D. student and author of the VIMS study. “That’s a good sign. It indicates that once those waters are re-oxygenated, it’s possible for fish to move back in. But the availability of food is compromised, and studies have shown that the productivity of benthic biomass—or the critters that live in and on the bottom of the Bay—is stressed.”
The impact that demersal fish displacement could have on Bay fisheries is unclear, Buchheister said. Commercial fishermen who work outside of the mainstem might not be affected. But recreational anglers searching for striped bass could struggle if their forced move out of cool, deep waters is shown to contribute to poor health among the population.
In June, a forecast from researchers at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the University of Michigan predicted a smaller than average dead zone for the coming summer, thanks to lower than average nutrient loads that entered the Bay last spring. But to return the Bay’s mainstem to its former health, “one or two good summers won’t make that much of a difference,” said Buchheister. Instead, benthic habitat must be rebuilt, as long-term improvements boost Bay health from the bottom up.
Images courtesy Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS)
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.
To track the health of the Chesapeake Bay, researchers across the watershed watch so-called “indicator species” for clues about water quality. Bay grasses—sensitive to pollution but quick to respond to water quality improvements—are one such indicator. Bay grasses are monitored each year by a range of experts in the field, from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), the latter of which compiles Bay-wide observations in an annual report on bay grass abundance.
Bay grasses, also known as submerged aquatic vegetation or SAV, provide critical habitat and food for wildlife, add oxygen to the water, absorb nutrients, trap sediment and reduce erosion.
During the months of May, July and September, biologists like Chris Guy, who works with USFWS, visit randomly selected sample sites throughout the Bay. Occasionally accompanied by volunteers, their mission is to track the ebb and flow of underwater grass beds in order to gauge the health of the Bay.
Once a sampling site is reached, researchers use a refractometer to determine the salinity of the water. Different bay grass species prefer different salinity levels, and this measurement gives biologists a hint as to what kind of grasses they should expect to find.
Biologists measure water clarity by submerging a black and white Secchi disk until it is no longer visible, at which point it is pulled up and the waterline is measured. Clear water is important to the health of bay grasses. Because they need sunlight to survive, submerged aquatic vegetation is typically not found in water deeper than five feet.
Once the salinity and turbidity are measured, a rake is tossed into the water and allowed to sink to the bottom.
As the rake grips the bottom and the boat moves forward, the line attaching the rake to the boat becomes taught. The thrower hauls it back on board, records the grass species that are found and rates the abundance level on a scale of one to four. A one indicates an empty rake, while a four means that at least 70 percent of the rake is full of grass.
Hundreds of sampling trips allow scientists to amass a set of data that can be used to measure grass abundance across the Bay. Over the past 30 years, this number has fluctuated with changes in weather and water quality. In 2012, a VIMS analysis indicated bay grasses experienced a 21 percent decline, from just over 63,000 acres in 2011 to just over 48,000 in 2012. The Chesapeake Bay Program and its partners hope to restore 185,000 acres of underwater grasses to the Bay, which would approach historic twentieth century averages and bring a dramatic improvement to the entire Bay ecosystem.
View more photos on the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Photos by Steve Droter
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.
An investment in habitat conservation could be a smart one for fisheries and the economies that depend on them, according to a new report.
In More Habitat Means More Fish, released this week by Restore Americas Estuaries, the American Sportfishing Association and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the link between healthy habitats and strong fisheries is made clear: without feeding or breeding grounds, fish cannot grow or reproduce, which means fewer fish and a decline in fisheries-dependent jobs, income and recreational opportunities.
Most of the nation’s commercial and recreational fish depend on coastal and estuarine habitats for food and shelter. Investments and improvements in these habitats can have immediate and long-lasting effects on fish populations.
The construction of an oyster reef, for instance, can provide food and shelter to a number of aquatic species. The conservation of marshes and underwater grass beds can boost the number and diversity of fish and their prey. And the restoration of fish passage to once-blocked rivers can open up new habitat to those species that must migrate upstream to spawn.
“Investing in coastal and estuarine habitat restoration is essential… for the long-term future of our fisheries,” said Restore Americas Estuaries President and CEO Jeff Benoit in a media release. “In order to have fish, we have to have healthy habitat. If we want more fish, we need more healthy habitat.”
Read more about More Habitat Means More Fish.
Tumor rates among catfish in the Anacostia River are down, according to a new report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
Biologists with the agency’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office have studied the brown bullhead catfish for decades as an indicator of habitat status and the success of cleanup efforts. The bottom-dwelling fish is sensitive to contaminants that accumulate in the mud in which it finds its food, often developing liver and skin tumors after exposure to cancer-causing chemicals.
Image courtesy USDA/Wikimedia Commons
Brown bullheads in the Anacostia River once had the highest rates of liver tumors in North America, but recent USFWS surveys show that tumors in the fish have dropped. While the rate is still higher than the Bay-wide average, this improvement could indicate that exposure to chemical contaminants is on the decline.
Liver tumors in fish are caused by exposure to sediment that is contaminated with polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. PAHs can be found in coal, oil and gasoline, and enter rivers and streams from stormwater runoff, waste sites and the atmosphere.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) have coordinated a number of recent cleanup efforts to lower PAH contamination in the watershed, from improved stormwater management and more frequent street sweeping to the targeted inspection of local automobile repair shops to lower loadings of oil and grease.
Read more about Tumors in Brown Bullhead Catfish in the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers.
Over the past decade, smallmouth bass in five Chesapeake Bay tributaries have suffered from fish kills and perplexing illnesses—and nutrient pollution could be to blame.
According to a new report from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), excess nitrogen and phosphorous in our rivers and streams could be behind two of the leading problems affecting smallmouth bass: first, the rapid growth of fish parasites and their hosts, and second, the expansion of large algae blooms that can lead to low-oxygen conditions and spikes in pH. When paired with rising water temperatures and ever more prevalent chemical contaminants, nutrient pollution seems to have created a “perfect storm” of factors that are making smallmouth bass more susceptible to infections and death.
Image courtesy Mr. OutdoorGuy/Flickr
In a media call, CBF President Will Baker called the smallmouth bass “the canary in the coal mine for the Bay’s rivers.” Because the fish is sensitive to pollution, problems within the population could indicate problems within the Bay.
Smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna, Monocacy, Shenandoah, Cowpasture and South Branch of the Potomac rivers have seen a string of recent health problems, from open sores and wart-like growths to abnormal sexual development. In the Susquehanna, smallmouth bass populations have plummeted so far that Pennsylvania has made it illegal to catch the fish during spawning season.
“Our fish are sick, our anglers are mad and my board and I—protectors of our [smallmouth bass] fishery—are frustrated,” said John Arway, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. “Our bass, and our grandchildren who will fish for them, are depending on us to fix the problem.”
Image courtesy CBF
While specific causes of smallmouth bass fish kills and illnesses remain unclear, CBF has called on state and local governments to accelerate their pollution-reduction efforts in hopes of improving water quality and saving the driving force behind a $630 million recreational fishing industry. The non-profit has also called on the federal government to designate a 98-mile stretch of the Susquehanna as impaired, which would commit Pennsylvania to reversing the river’s decline.
“This is the moment in time to save fishing in our streams and rivers, as well as the jobs and quality of life that are connected to it,” Baker said.
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.
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.
Fencing off a stream from livestock, planting trees along a soon-to-be-shaded river or creating marshland to provide habitat to fish, frogs and birds: restoration projects such as these would not be possible without the hundreds of watershed groups working across the Chesapeake Bay region, or the networking needed to connect restoration partners with their peers.
Each year, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF)—which supports Bay restoration with grants offered through the Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund—gives restoration partners a break from their intensive on-the-ground work with the Chesapeake Bay Agricultural Networking Forum. Last week, this forum brought more than 100 grantees together in Staunton, Va., to discuss restoration successes, challenges and solutions to common problems, networking with each other and forming invaluable partnerships.
“Our grantees really are the front lines of the Bay restoration effort,” said Amanda Bassow, NFWF Director of Chesapeake Programs. “We need to arm them with all the knowledge, resources and experience we can. These are the people who are accelerating progress, engaging new partners and new landowners, and continually figuring out new ways to get the job done.”
The forum began with a rapid-fire update from grantees working on close to a dozen projects, ranging from forest buffer plantings to the engagement of so-called "absentee landowners”—or those landowners who do not work their own farmland—in conservation. Field trips in and around Staunton gave participants a hands-on look at areas in which progress is underway. On the Merrifield and Ford farms, for instance, located in the Poague Run watershed, landowners have restored stream banks, protected streamside forests and excluded livestock from sensitive waterways.
“Grantees tell me they love the forum because they get re-energized about their work,” Bassow said. “It’s a community of doers, not finger pointers, and when you get them all in a room together, it’s a powerful thing to see.”
Chesapeake Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale moderated a session at the forum, and found the event to be a meaningful one.
“For farmers and farm service providers, conservation district staff, government officials, funders and non-governmental organizations, this was a great exchange of ideas and approaches on implementing effective and innovative agricultural best management practices,” DiPasquale said. “This forum should help the community save money, clean up local waterways and keep farmers farming while using creative ways to manage nutrients on their land.”
Read more about the NFWF and the Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund.
Chemical contaminants continue to afflict the Chesapeake Bay watershed, raising concern over water quality and the health of fish, wildlife and watershed residents.
Close to three-quarters of the Bay’s tidal waters are considered impaired by chemical contaminants, from the pesticides applied to farmland and lawns to repel weeds and insects to the household and personal-care products that enter the environment through our landfills and wastewater. But so-called “PCBs” and mercury are particularly problematic in the region, according to a report released last week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
Both PCBs—short for “polychlorinated biphenyls”—and mercury are considered “widespread” in extent and severity, concentrating in sediment and in fish tissue and leading to fish-consumption advisories in a number of rivers and streams.
The District of Columbia, for instance, has issued such advisories for all of its water bodies, asking the public not to consume catfish, carp or eels, which are bottom-feeding fish that can accumulate chemicals in their bodies. While the District’s Anacostia and Potomac rivers raise the greatest concern in the watershed when it comes to fish tissue contamination, a November report confirmed that many Anacostia anglers are sharing and consuming potentially contaminated fish, sparking interest in reshaping public outreach to better address clean water, food security and human health in the area.
While PCBs have not been produced in the United States since a 1977 ban, the chemicals continue to enter the environment through accidental leaks, improper disposal and “legacy deposits”; mercury can find its way into the atmosphere through coal combustion, waste incineration and metal processing.
Exposure to both of these contaminants can affect the survival, growth and reproduction of fish and wildlife.
The Chesapeake Bay Program will use this report to consider whether reducing the input of toxic contaminants to the Bay should be one of its new goals.
The harvest of menhaden along the Atlantic coast will be cut by 20 percent, following a controversial decision made by the fifteen-state board that regulates near-shore fishing.
Thirteen regulators voted in favor of the harvest reduction in a heated meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), held last week in a Baltimore hotel ballroom crowded with hundreds of activists clad in “Fight for Menhaden” buttons and shirts.
Often called “the most important fish in the sea,” menhaden are filter feeders that play an important role in clean water and form a critical link in the Chesapeake Bay food chain. The ASMFC received thousands of comments from individuals and organizations in support of conserving the likely-overfished species whose abundance is at an all-time low.
Three states, including Virginia, voted against the cut. Virginia is home to the coast’s last remaining menhaden processing plant, which turns menhaden into animal feed, fertilizer and fish oil, and which is responsible for 80 percent of the current coast-wide harvest.
Virginia officials argued for a less severe reduction and warned that a large cut could hurt the state’s economy and lead to job losses at its Reedville plant, which is operated by Omega Protein, Inc. A number of Virginia fishermen employed by the Texas-based company attended the management meeting and stood, arms crossed, in silent protest of the reduction.
The first-ever coast-wide limit on menhaden harvest will go into effect in 2013 and remain in place until the next stock assessment, scheduled for 2014.
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.
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.
Three Delaware towns have received grant funding and technical assistance to create habitat and improve water quality in Delaware's tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay.
The towns of Greenwood, Laurel and Bethel, located along the Route 13 corridor in Sussex County, have set their sights on curbing stormwater runoff to reduce the flow of nutrients and sediment into the Nanticoke River and Broad Creek.
When rainfall runs across paved roads, parking lots, lawns and golf courses, it can pick up pollutants before washing down storm drains and into local waterways. By using best management practices—think rain barrels, green roofs or forested buffers along the shores of streams and rivers—to target the fastest growing source of pollution into the Bay, these Delaware towns can help position the state to meet its pollution reduction goals.
The Town of Greenwood, for instance, will restore a buffer of native vegetation along a tax ditch that drains into the Nanticoke River, establishing habitat and reducing stormwater runoff from two industrial buildings in the heart of the community.
The neighboring towns of Laurel and Bethel will develop plans to bring green infrastructure to Broad Creek, stabilizing stream banks, reducing stormwater discharge and eliminating local flooding. Bethel might even implement innovative practices in the oldest part of town, bringing permeable pavement and living shorelines to the town's historic district.
"The projects in Greenwood, Laurel and Bethel will improve the water quality of our local streams and rivers, reduce flooding and enhance the quality of life for local communities," said Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) Secretary Collin O'Mara. "By ... working together, we are securing resources necessary to ensure that our waterways are safe, swimmable and fishable for current and future generations."
Funding for the Greenwood project, totaling $35,000, was awarded through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's (NFWF) Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund.Technical assistance for the initiatives in Laurel and Bethel, valued at $100,000, was awarded through NFWF's Local Government Capacity Building Initiative. To learn more about the projects, visit the DNREC website.
From the restoration of streamside forests to the planting of a green roof on an historic District of Columbia house, 41 environmental projects from across the Chesapeake Bay watershed have received $9.22 million in grant funding.
The restoration and outreach initiatives will restore vital habitats and reduce the amount of runoff entering local waterways, leading to cleaner water across the region.
Funding for the projects was awarded through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's (NFWF) Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund. Half of the projects will be funded by the Small Watersheds Grants Program, which funds on-the-ground restoration, conservation and community engagement. Twenty-one more will be funded by the Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Grants Program, which funds the reduction of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment in local waterways.
Trout Unlimited, for instance, will restore stream banks and wetlands on 11 western Maryland farms, reducing agricultural runoff and benefiting brook trout. The Nature Conservancy will improve water quality and brook trout habitat in central and southern Pennsylvania, planting riparian buffers, restoring wetlands and establishing forest habitat. And the high-profile William Penn House in Washington, D.C., will install a green roof on top of the historic building, which will capture and treat almost all of the stormwater on-site.
In all, this year's projects will engage 9,000 volunteers; restore 176 miles of streamside forests and 158 acres of wetlands; and establish 170,000 square feet of green roofs and rain gardens.
"These innovative projects ... are an illustration of the incredible commitment people have to restoring our rivers and streams. With NFWF's invaluable support, these projects will make a difference, supporting progress toward a Bay that is increasingly healthy and resilient," said Jeff Corbin, Environmental Protection Agency Senior Advisor for the Chesapeake Bay and Anacostia River.
For a full list of grant recipients, visit the Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund website.
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 eel numbers are up in the headwater streams of Shenandoah National Park, following the 2004 removal of a large downstream dam.
Significant increases in upstream American eel populations began two years after the Rappahannock River's Embrey Dam was removed and have continued nearly every year since, according to a report released last week by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and National Park Service (NPS) researchers.
Image courtesy EricksonSmith/Flickr.
Dams can act as travel barriers to American eels, which undertake long-distance migrations from their ocean spawning grounds to freshwater streams along the Atlantic coast. While American eels can surpass substantial natural barriers--like the rapids of the Potomac River's Great Falls, for instance--dams pose a more difficult obstacle and have contributed to the widespread decline in American eel populations. Dam removal, therefore, could have long-term benefits for eel conservation.
"Our study shows that the benefits of dam removal can extend far upstream," said USGS biologist Nathanial Hitt. "American eels have been in decline for decades and so we're delighted to see them begin to return in abundance to their native streams."
Embrey Dam, which once provided hydroelectric power to Fredericksburg, Va., was breached in 2004 following years of work by nonprofit organizations and city, state and federal government agencies. Its removal was intended to benefit more than the American eel, however, as dams can impact a number of fish that must migrate up rivers to spawn.
"Shad, herring and striped bass are also using reopened habitat on the Rappahannock River," said Alan Weaver, fish passage coordinator for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. "It's exciting to see a growing number of species benefiting from dam removal in Virginia."
Learn more about American eel abundance in Shenandoah National Park.
“The smallest ripples are often the largest fish,” Matt Sell tells me as he waves his fishing line back and forth over a dimple in the water. The scene may seem appropriate for a Saturday afternoon, but it’s actually a Wednesday morning, and Matt is at work as a brook trout specialist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) Inland Fisheries Division.
Clad in chest waders and a t-shirt, Matt is armed with a fishing pole and the instincts of someone who’s been angling most of his life. His fishing efforts are rewarded with a 6-inch brook trout – exactly the species he was looking to catch.
In most parts of the state, a brook trout would be a rare catch. More than 55 percent of Maryland’s sub-watersheds have lost their entire brook trout population, and only 2 percent of the state’s sub-watersheds have a healthy population.
Why the sudden and steep population decline? Brook trout have very specific habitat requirements that are threatened by development, urbanization and poor land management.
“Brook trout need cold, very clean water with no sediment,” explains Alan Heft, biologist with Maryland DNR’s Inland Fisheries Division. “They need specific sizes of gravel in certain areas of the stream to reproduce. If they don’t have these conditions, they can’t exist.”
When excess sediment erodes from stream banks and construction sites, dirt gets into the gravel beds where brook trout spawn, hardening the bottom into a concrete-like material. And when water temperatures rise above 68 degrees due to factors such as hot summers and lack of a tree canopy along the edge of a stream, a brook trout’s internal system shuts down.
“Brook trout are kind of like the canary in the coal mine,” Alan says. “When you have a large brook trout population, you know that you have good water, clean water and a protected watershed. When you lose the brook trout, you know that you have problems.”
Because brook trout have such steep habitat requirements, they are used as an indicator species: their presence indicates whether or not a watershed is healthy. By closely monitoring brook trout populations, scientists can learn not just about the fish, but about water quality in a river system.
But monitoring brook trout requires more than just fishing. Although there are many methods used to monitor the fish, Matt and Alan have chosen radio tags, which they insert into each fish’s skin through a quick, painless surgery. The radio tags allow Matt, Alan and other scientists to follow the movements of brook trout for the next year or so.
When I follow Matt and Alan on their Wednesday morning fishing excursion, they bring me to a dense forest of eastern hemlocks. Mountain laurels hug the shallow stream banks, blocking the sun and forming a blanket of shade over the river. With the lush layers of forest, the serenity of fishing and the absence of human influence, it feels as though we’ve traveled back in time. But we’re actually on western Maryland’s Savage River, a 30-mile-long tributary of the Potomac River and the largest remaining native brook trout habitat in the mid-Atlantic.
Although brook trout have been eliminated from the majority of Maryland’s waterways, these fish have remained in the Savage River for a few reasons. With just 1,500 residents, the Savage River watershed has not been subjected to the fast-paced development taking place in other parts of the Chesapeake Bay region. About 80 percent of the watershed is state-owned, meaning that the vast majority of the land around the river is safeguarded from development and managed to enhance water quality and brook trout habitat. (Plus, who wouldn’t want to live in a traffic-free, forested oasis in the Appalachian mountains?)
“Typically with brook trout habitat in the east, outside of Maine and a few places in New York, all of the tributaries are disconnected. There’s damage or dams or pollution, and they can’t go from one spot to another,” Alan explains. “But these fish can go up to 30 miles in one direction. They can go up Poplar Lick six miles; they can go down to the reservoir. It’s incredibly unique and there’s hardly anything like this left. It’s our gem.”
Sure, there’s plenty of room for the fish to travel, but Alan, Matt and others with the Eastern Brook Trout Venture want to know exactly where the Savage River’s brook trout swim throughout the seasons. “In order to answer our questions, we implemented this radio tagging study last year,” Matt tells me. “Last year, we had one fish move about three miles overnight. I had one fish that moved about four miles from where it was tagged.”
These sudden movements tell Matt and Alan that some factor encouraged the fish to move far – and fast. “It seems the impetus for these fish to leave the river in the summer months was an increase in water temperature,” Matt says. “In the winter months, they move back.”
By identifying the fish’s preferred habitats, biologists will be able to manage the land to imitate these favored spots, which will help keep the river’s brook trout population healthy.
The large-scale decline of brook trout is not due to overfishing. However, harvesting these fish certainly won’t help rebuild populations. That’s why Maryland DNR decided to create a special regulation for brook trout harvesting in sections of the Savage River watershed.
“You can fish for brook trout with an artificial lure only, and you can’t keep them,” Alan says. “The result so far has been phenomenal, for both the population and for the quality of the fishing.”
(Image courtesy Jon David Nelson/Flickr)
It may be difficult to understand how Matt and Alan’s brook trout restoration efforts in the Savage River – 200 miles from the shores of the Chesapeake Bay – are connected to the Bay’s health. After all, western Maryland is a far cry from the crabs, oysters and sailboats associated with the nation’s largest estuary.
“Water rolls downhill,” Matt says simply. “It has since the beginning of time and it will continue to do so. If we can protect the water quality here, as it continues to move downstream, it has a better chance as it flows on towards the bay.”
So the restoration efforts Matt, Alan and other brook trout scientists dedicate their careers to aren’t so far removed from the Chesapeake after all. “These streams out here 200 miles from the Bay are vital,” Alan says. “When you add up all the water in these small headwater streams, it’s an amazing amount of water.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) will provide $4 million in grants to local governments to help reduce pollution to the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers.
The Local Government Green Infrastructure Initiative will create grants of up to $750,000 to support local governments as they implement the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, a “pollution diet” that sets limits on the amount of harmful nutrients and sediment that can enter the Bay.
The grants will support the design and implementation of projects that use green infrastructure – such as road maintenance programs and flood plain management – to produce measureable improvements in the health of local waterways. Through the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Local Government Advisory Committee, local government representatives can share best practices and evolving strategies to achieve water quality goals.
The EPA will select localities that represent the diverse characteristics of local governments throughout the Bay’s 64,000-square-mile watershed, including rural counties, predominantly agricultural communities, rapidly growing suburban localities, small cities and major urban municipalities.
NFWF will administer the grants through its Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund. Since 2000, the fund has provided $68.9 million in grants for more than 700 projects throughout the Bay watershed.
For more information about this and other grant opportunities, visit NFWF’s website.
“Everything you film today, everything on camera, everything you walk on, was created. None of it was here in 1998. We’d be in several feet of water right now a little more than a decade ago.” – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist Chris Guy
It’s warm for a January morning. But out of habit, the team from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Field Office (FWS) is armed with coffee thermoses and dressed in construction-orange floatation gear. The hot coffee and “survival suits” gain importance as the winter wind stings our faces on the hour-long boat ride from Annapolis to Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The team embarks on this trip most mornings throughout the year, even in the coldest months.
In fact, today’s task must be completed in the first weeks of the new year. We’re hauling discarded Christmas trees to build waterfowl habitat on Poplar Island, a place where, ten years ago, wildlife habitat had nearly disappeared – because the land had disappeared. In 1997, just 10 acres of the original island remained.
Today, Poplar Island has grown to 1,140 acres, thanks to a partnership between FWS, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Maryland Environmental Service and Maryland Port Administration that uses dredge material from the Port of Baltimore to rebuild the island. Many places (such as parts of Washington D.C. and Philadelphia International Airport) have been “built” using this technique, known as “fast-landing.” But Poplar Island is distinctive: it’s being constructed not for human use, but to provide the Chesapeake Bay’s wildlife with island habitat, a rarity in an era of quick-sinking shorelines and rising sea levels.
“What's unique about this project is the habitat aspect,” says FWS biologist Chris Guy, who’s helped run the project since 2005. “It's a win-win, because you get a dredge disposal site, which is hard to come by in the Chesapeake Bay, and it's long term, and you're getting much-needed habitat restoration.”
According to FWS biologist Peter McGowan, who began working on the project in the mid 1990s, wildlife are now flocking to Poplar Island. “Back in 1996, we had ten documented bird species using the island,” he says. “Now we have over 170 species that have been documented, and over 26 nesting species.”
Every January since 2005, residents of Easton, Maryland, have put their old Christmas trees on the curb for trash pickup, unaware of the fact that their discarded holiday greenery will soon become shelter and nesting habitat for black ducks, snowy egrets, red-winged blackbirds and diamondback terrapins.
Like so many Chesapeake Bay islands before it, Poplar Island fell victim to both rapid sea level rise and post-glacial rebound: the counteraction of glaciers during the last Ice Age that’s making the Bay’s islands sink. The combination of rising water and sinking land caused shorelines to quickly erode, and eventually vanish.
Here’s a summary of Poplar Island’s life, near death and revitalization:
How do scientists and engineers turn open water into land you can confidently step on? With dried and processed dredge material that’s used to build up the land over time.
Dredging is a process of clearing sediment (dredge) out of the bottom of waterways. Dredging is necessary on many rivers leading into major ports because sediment naturally builds up over time. This sediment must be excavated so large ships can pass in and out of ports.
Maintenance dredging of the Port of Baltimore is critical to Maryland’s economy: the port contributes $1.9 billion and 50,200 jobs to the state’s economy. It’s also the number one port in the U.S. for automobile exports.
It also contributes a lot of sediment. The port estimates that maintenance dredging in the next twenty years will generate 100 million cubic yards of sediment – enough material to fill the Louisiana Superdome 25 times. Finding a place to store this massive amount of dredge material has been a problem – that is, until the Poplar Island project came calling, requiring 68 million cubic yards of dredge.
When dredge material arrives at Poplar Island through large pipes, it spends a few years drying. Then bulldozers and heavy equipment move in to dig out channels for wetlands and streams. When the topography is set, the area is planted with grasses, trees and shrubs.
A first time visitor to Poplar Island may be surprised to see bulldozers and pipes gushing black dredge material at a site renowned as a world wonder of habitat restoration. Although it’s necessary to use this heavy equipment to rebuild the island, the staff has found a way to balance these activities and still attract wildlife.
“Let's call it a ‘dance,’” says Guy. “We have to work with the construction, obviously, but we have to be sensitive to the needs of the birds.”
The Christmas trees that Guy and McGowan have been bringing to the island since 2005 give black ducks a place to lay their eggs. Black duck populations have fallen dramatically in the Chesapeake Bay region, causing the bird to be listed as a species of concern.
One reason for the species’ decline is a lack of food, including bay grasses, aquatic plants and invertebrates that have dwindled as pollution increased. Development and other human activities have encroached on its wintering and breeding habitats.
“[When we began the project], we looked at what others around the country used to attract nesting birds,” explains McGowan. “Christmas trees were a good resource. Instead of going into landfills, they could be reused.”
Discarded Christmas trees imitate shrubs that black ducks typically seek out. They’re warm, sheltered spots to raise young. Since the first tree plantings on Poplar Island took place just ten years ago, none are mature enough to provide adequate nesting habitat. So until the real trees grow tall enough, Christmas trees will have to do.
“Black ducks like to nest in thickets in the marshes,” McGowan explains. “Christmas trees help provide the structure they need. It keeps them covered and safe from predators.”
And the trees seem to be working. As we take apart last year’s piles, we find a handful of eggs underneath the dead trees.
“Seeing that we have these leftover eggs demonstrates to us that ducks are using these nest piles successfully,” says Guy. “Just about every one of them we find a few eggs, so we think they’re having multiple clutches.”
The eggs we find in the six or seven piles that we disrupt belong to mallards, but McGowan and Guy claim that black ducks are nesting on Poplar Island as well.
“We've had six or seven black ducks nesting on the island,” says Guy. “You may say six or seven isn't a big deal, but when you're down to the last few hundred black ducks nesting in the Bay, going from 0 to 6, where they're used to be thousands, that's a big success story. That's not the only thing that these trees do, but it's one of the main drivers to get these trees out here.”
Guy and McGowan have long envisioned Poplar Island as prime habitat for black ducks.
“Back [in 2005], we went around the curbs in Anne Arundel County and threw the trees in the back of my pickup,” Guy tells me. It took the pair the entire month of January to collect the trees and transport them to Poplar Island.
Seven years later, the project is finished in just one day with help from Easton Public Works and volunteers and employees from FWS and Maryland Environmental Service.
Black ducks aren’t the only critters on Poplar. The island is home to hundreds of birds, reptiles and other species that now rely on the restored landmass for food and shelter.
For more information about Poplar Island and other wildlife habitat restoration projects around the Chesapeake Bay region, visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office website.
Fisheries scientists with the Chesapeake Bay Program will develop a Chesapeake Bay-wide management plan for blue and flathead catfish, two invasive fish species that pose a significant threat to the health of rivers in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
(Image courtesy USFWS Headquarters/Flickr)
Invasive species are animals and plants that are not native to their current habitat and harm the ecosystem they invade. Invasive species are able to thrive in new areas because they lack predators, diseases and other natural controls that keep them in check in their native environment.
Although they are valuable recreational species, blue and flathead catfish are harmful to the Bay ecosystem for several reasons. They grow to enormous sizes, have massive appetites, reproduce rapidly and live for many years. As top-level predators in the Bay food web, blue and flathead catfish prey upon important native species such as American shad and blueback herring.
Both catfish species have been present in Virginia rivers since the 1960s. In recent years, anglers have caught these fish in the Potomac and Susquehanna rivers, as well as the upper Chesapeake Bay. The spread may be due to people moving fish from one river to another, even though this is illegal in Maryland and Virginia.
Scientists will consider a variety of actions to control and lessen the harmful effects of these invasive catfish. For more information, read the Bay Program fisheries team’s Invasive Catfish Policy Adoption Statement.
The Bay Program fisheries team includes experts from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Virginia Marine Resources Commission, Potomac River Fisheries Commission, D.C. Department of the Environment, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The number of ducks, geese and swans wintering along Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic shorelines was down slightly in 2012 compared to 2011, according to scientists with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
(Image courtesy Dominic Sherony/Flickr)
Survey teams counted 633,700 waterfowl this winter, as compared to 651,800 during the same time in 2011.
An unusually mild winter in the Mid-Atlantic region likely contributed to the lower population. Scientists counted fewer Canada geese, but more diving ducks, particularly scaup. Canvasback totals were the second lowest level ever recorded; however, more birds of this species were observed arriving after the survey was finished.
Maryland survey results are ultimately pooled with results from other states to measure the population and distribution of waterfowl up and down the Atlantic Flyway, according to Larry Hindman, DNR’s waterfowl project leader.
Visit DNR’s website for more information about the waterfowl survey, including a complete list of species and survey population figures.
For most of us, a leap year simply means adding an extra day to the schedule in February. But in other cultures, leap years are symbolic. In the British Isles, folk tradition says that women must propose marriage in leap years, whereas in Greece, it’s bad luck for couples to get married during leap years.
While Chesapeake Bay region folklore does not mention February 29, we decided to take this opportunity to mention a few Bay “oddities”: natural occurrences that only come along every so often – just like leap years.
(Image courtesy Alpaca Farm Girl)
Like other Chesapeake Bay species, blue crabs need oxygen to survive. But when oxygen levels are too low, blue crabs come out of the water and onto land, an event known as a crab jubilee.
Despite the term “jubilee,” the event is not a celebration. Crab jubilees occur only when water quality in the Chesapeake Bay is extremely poor. Typically, a combination of hot weather, offshore winds and algae blooms fueled by nutrient runoff quickly deplete oxygen levels in the water, sending crabs and other critters running toward the shore for air.
In Mobile Bay, Alabama, a similar event known simply as the jubilee occurs regularly and has become a community celebration, renowned for an opportunity to easily catch seafood.
(Image courtesy Nicolle Rager-Fuller/National Science Foundation)
Thirty-five million years ago, a bolide (an asteroid-like object) crashed into what is now the lower tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, creating a 55-mile-wide crater that’s the largest known in the United States. It’s called an impact crater because the deep depression impacted the lay of the land: influencing the course of the region’s rivers and determining the eventual location of the Chesapeake Bay. As sea level rose and fell over the next few million years, the Chesapeake Bay fluctuated between dry land and a shallow coastal sea.
(Image courtesy psyberartist/Flickr)
In 1994, the first Florida manatee ever was spotted in the Chesapeake Bay. This mammal, which can stay underwater for as long as 12 minutes, typically does not travel into waters below 68 degrees Fahrenheit. But this particular manatee, appropriately named Chessie, seems to occasionally prefer the cold. Chessie, which biologists recognize by distinct markings on his body, visited the Bay again in 2001 and 2011. Chessie even swam all the way to New England, the northernmost known point to ever receive a manatee visit.
Manatees are endangered because of habitat loss and harmful human activities, making a Chessie sighting all the more rare. Also, while most wild manatees live for 8 to 11 years, Chessie is at least 20 years old!
(Image courtesy Ken-ichi/Flickr)
North Atlantic humpback whales feed in polar waters in the summer and mate in warm waters in the winter. But each winter, a handful of humpback whales mate in the Chesapeake Bay instead of the tropics. This year, 30 whales were counted off the coast of Virginia Beach – much higher than the average of five or six. An unusually mild winter attracted the whales to these Chesapeake waters.
Luckily, humpback whales are friendly and curious; they’re known to surface beside boats and put on a show for lucky whale watchers. Care for something even more rare? If you’re daring enough to stick your head in the water, you may be able to hear a mating song. Biologists can determine where a whale comes from by listening to its song. For example, Hawaiian humpback whales sing a different song than those from Virginia.
The federal government has officially declared the Chesapeake Bay’s Atlantic sturgeon – a bony, ancient-looking fish that has been around since dinosaurs roamed the earth – an endangered species.
(Image courtesy Virginia Institute of Marine Science)
NOAA Fisheries Service officially listed the Bay’s Atlantic sturgeon population under the federal Endangered Species Act. The endangered listing will prompt action to help reduce bycatch of sturgeon and other species by commercial fisheries. It is already illegal to fish for, catch or keep Atlantic sturgeon.
Atlantic sturgeon is a slow-growing fish that relies on the Chesapeake Bay and other estuaries to spawn. Historic fishing records indicate that sturgeon used to be abundant. However, increased demand for sturgeon caviar in the late 19th century combined with damming and pollution led to a population collapse.
For more information about the endangered species listing, visit NOAA Fisheries Service’s website.
The Chesapeake Bay Program and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation have awarded $10.9 million in grants to 55 environmental projects in Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia. Collectively, the projects will preserve 3,729 acres of land, restore 32 miles of forest buffers and stream banks, and install runoff-reducing practices on 2,878 acres.
The funding was awarded through the Small Watershed Grants Program and the Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Grants Program. Both are part of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund.
The Small Watershed Grants Program provides grants to organizations and municipal governments that are working to improve the condition of their local watershed through on-the-ground restoration, habitat conservation and community engagement. The program, funded by a combination of public agencies and private support, awarded $2.8 million to 37 projects. Grant recipients provided an additional $4.4 million in matching funds.
This year’s Small Watershed Grant projects are expected to involve 8,645 volunteers and engage 2,228 landowners in conservation and restoration practices. Many recipients will reduce polluted runoff through techniques such as rain gardens, as well as through outreach and marketing initiatives that promote sustainable landscaping practices.
Recipients of this year’s Small Watershed Grants include:
The Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Grants Program provides grants to innovative and cost-effective projects that dramatically reduce or eliminate nutrient and sediment pollution into local waterways and the Bay. The program, funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, awarded $8.2 million to 19 projects. Grant recipients provided an additional $11.7 million in matching funds. This year’s projects are expected to prevent 600,000 tons of sediment, two million pounds of nitrogen and 700,000 pounds of phosphorus from entering the Bay.
Recipients of this year’s Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Grants include:
Through these grants, diverse agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Natural Resources Conservation Service are able to pool resources with corporate sponsors like Altria, Wal-Mart and FedEx to increase the impact any one of them could have alone, according to Tom Kelsch, vice president of conservation programs at the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
Since 2000, the Small Watershed Grants Program has provided more than $29 million to support 663 projects in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. These projects have leveraged close to $95 million in local matching funds for a total investment of more than $125 million toward on-the-ground restoration.
Since 2007, the Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Grant Program has provided $26.8 million to 54 projects that reduce the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
For more information, visit www.nfwf.org/chesapeake.
Scientists are examining the possibility that Atlantic sturgeon – a prehistoric fish whose population is so low that it may be listed as an endangered species – may spawn more than once per year in the James River.
In early September, biologists with Virginia Commonwealth University captured a female sturgeon leaking eggs near the confluence of the Appomattox and James rivers. This area may be a place where migrating fish adjust to less salty water before moving upstream to spawn.
If the Atlantic sturgeon is placed on the federal Endangered Species List, the multiple spawning run discovery could increase the amount of time that spawning-age fish are protected each year.
Read this article from the Bay Journal to learn more about Atlantic sturgeon on the James River.
Image courtesy Virginia Institute of Marine Science
The Chesapeake Bay region is home to an amazing diversity of animals. From birds to fish to mammals, all of these creatures are an important, meaningful part of the Bay’s delicate ecosystem.
You probably know something about the Bay’s most popular critters, like blue crabs, ospreys and blue herons. But there are thousands of other important, unique critters that live in the region.
Here are some interesting facts about 10 of the Chesapeake Bay region’s critters.
Found near swamps, forests and farms throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, these reddish, dog-like mammals can run up to 30 miles per hour and jump 6 feet in the air!
Admittedly, aquatic sponges may not seem very exciting, but that’s not why this critter is called “boring.” The boring sponge gets its name from its habit of boring holes into oyster shells, which weakens or damages the shells. If you’ve ever found an oyster shell covered with pock marks, that oyster was once infested by a boring sponge.
Female sea turtles each lay about 100 eggs on beaches from Virginia to the Caribbean during spring and summer. Once the eggs hatch, the young sea turtles have less than a 1 percent chance of surviving to adulthood. But if they make it, they could live to be more than 50 years old!
Contrary to popular belief, horseshoe crabs are not actually crabs. These hard-shelled arthropods are more closely related to terrestrial spiders and scorpions. Their external appearance has not changed in more than 350 million years, either. Talk about prehistoric!
These large, black birds can see both above and under the water. They fly low over the water and dive under to catch their pray.
Sturgeons are prehistoric fish that has been around since dinosaurs roamed the Earth! They can also live to be 60 years old.
This black and white bird nests in depressions in marshes. After the chicks hatch, the female leaves the nest. The male will continue tending them for another two weeks.
When they are born, summer flounders have one eye on each side of their head. However, as they grow older, the right eye gradually moves over the head to join the left eye on the other side of the body!
The only time male and female bobcats interact is when they are mating. After they are finished, they go their separate ways.
This beautiful bird’s scientific name, Aix sponsa, means “waterfowl in a bridal dress.”
The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have launched the Native Plant Center, an online guide to help homeowners identify and choose plants that are native to the Chesapeake Bay region.
Users to the website, www.nativeplantcenter.net, can search for native plants by name, plant type, sun exposure, soil texture and moisture. Users can even find native plants with the same characteristics as some of their favorite non-native plants. The website also includes a geo-locator feature to identify plants suited to a user’s specific location.
Planting native plants is an important part of restoring the Chesapeake Bay. Residents who replace their typical backyard landscaping with native plants use less fertilizer and pesticides, provide critical habitat for pollinators, and reduce polluted runoff to storm drains.
The portal uses the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service’s native plant database, associated with the publication Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping: Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
To learn more about native plants, visit www.nativeplantcenter.net.
Scientists observed more than 640,000 ducks, geese and swans along Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay shoreline this winter as part of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ annual Midwinter Waterfowl Survey. This is a decline from 2010, when approximately 787,000 waterfowl were counted.
The decline is largely due to fewer Canada geese and snow geese being counted for the survey. Large numbers of geese likely went undetected because they were on farms and other inland habitats. Overall, the wintering Canada geese remained high.
More ducks were counted in 2011 (199,300) than in 2010 (173,700) due to snow and cold weather north of Maryland, according to DNR. In particular, there were more mallards and canvasbacks, as well as an exceptional number of gadwalls on the Susquehanna Flats.
The Midwinter Waterfowl Survey has been conducted annually throughout the United States since the early 1950s. Maryland survey results are ultimately pooled with results from other states to measure wintering waterfowl distribution and populations throughout the Atlantic Flyway, according to DNR Waterfowl Project Leader Larry Hindman.
“The survey is conducted in a coordinated manner across the Atlantic Flyway states to provide an annual index of the population size for important waterfowl species like black ducks, Atlantic brant and tundra swans,” Hindman said.
Visit Maryland DNR’s website to view the full survey results.
You may think being a Chesapeake Bay scientist is a fun, easy job, but have you ever wondered what it's like to work on the water in the middle of winter? U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologists Pete McGowan and Chris Guy give you a first-hand account of their experiences on the Bay in the frigid cold. It may be freezing, but as you'll read, they wouldn't want to be anywhere else.
The weatherman is calling for another frigid day with high temperatures just above freezing. Most people have long since winterized their boats and would not dream of boating 20 miles down the South River and across the Chesapeake Bay, putting on waders and plodding through thigh-deep (often ice-topped) water, to see if muskrats are active. But then again most people are not U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists working at the Paul S. Sarbanes Ecosystem Restoration Project at Poplar Island, better known (and easier to say) as Poplar Island. We remain very active outdoors even in the coldest of weather.
Before you pity us, let us tell you that winter is often our favorite time to be out working in the marshes and Chesapeake Bay. In fact, while working in the hot and humid days of July and August, we often talk about those cold winter days without mosquitoes and biting flies, when the vegetation has died back and the marsh has frozen, making it easier to walk and do our work.
Often in the warmer months we are dodging thunderstorms and are rushed in our work because eggs are hatching, the chicks are fledging and everything seems to be coming at once. In the winter things slow down a bit and we can take the opportunity to regroup and prepare for the upcoming nesting season. This is the time of year when we build, repair, and install osprey platforms and bird boxes, and use old Christmas trees to develop snags for egrets to roost and nest upon. The Christmas trees also provide cover and nesting cavities for black ducks.
Boating is a little more relaxed, as you rarely see another boat on the water, and we can move freely without getting in anyone’s way or having them in our way. In this sense, winter is a time to pause and think about what we have accomplished and what we want to accomplish. It is a time of hope and optimism in our efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay.
This is not to say that winter is an easy time to be a wildlife biologist. During the winter we have the real and ever-present threat of cold, icy water. Although we do not often speak of it, it is always on our minds. Unlike cars, most boats (including ours) do not have heating; the only heat we have available is that generated by the crew in our 25’ Boston Whaler. Did we mention there is only room for one or two people in the cabin? This means that on most days the crew rides outside and often has to deal with a formidable wind chill. Even on the calmest of days when the boat is operating at speeds of 25-30 knots, an air temperature of 32 degrees Fahrenheit equates to a wind chill of 17 degrees. Then there are the days where icing on the gunnels and deck (and at times the crew) from boat spray adds an extra layer of slipperiness to our day. And of course, there is always the task of shoveling fresh snow from the boat’s deck. Last year’s record snowfall made for lots of shoveling.
During extreme cold periods when ice forms on the rivers and Bay, trying to get our boat out of the marina can be frustrating. On many occasions while departing the South River this winter, we have had to break skim ice for miles. We are always checking to make sure it is not so thick that we will get stuck, or worse, put a hole through the boat’s fiberglass hull. Our boat is supposed to be one that can be cut in half and won’t sink, but who really wants to put that theory to the test in the middle of winter?
We prepare for the cold mostly by layering on the clothes, with as many as four layers to separate our flesh from the cold elements. Then there is the bulky survival suit with built-in flotation, plus hats, scarves, gloves and heavy boots. All these layers reduce our flexibility, not to mention causing us a bit of discomfort (try carrying around an extra 50 pounds of clothes when you work). Believe us, you need a lot of extra time if you need to use the bathroom! We often joke that the hardest part of our day is getting dressed and undressed.
Winter weather conditions wreak havoc on field gear. Batteries in electronics such as cameras, GPS units and field computers drain faster in cold temperatures. And trying to write field notes can be a bear when your fingers are numb.
Not to be forgotten is that pinhole leak in waders or gauntlet gloves that you can never seem to find and repair, and always seems to get bigger when standing or working in cold water. This makes for extended uncomfortable conditions, particularly when temperatures are near or below freezing. Drying these and other wet field items always takes longer in winter, too.
On a crisp winter day when the air is still, sometimes we just stop and wait to see the world around us. We see the marsh hawks that have come to the Chesapeake Bay for the winter zigzagging around the marsh looking for field mice and voles; what a thrill when they find one! There are always a few bald eagles around, either perching on an osprey nest or majestically soaring through the air. The great blue herons are always present and never seem to mind the cold. Short-eared owls and the occasional snowy owl will show up in the winter, and it is alwaysa real treat to get a glimpse. Then there are the wintering waterfowl – puddle ducks, diving ducks, bay ducks and sea ducks – as they fly into the Bay and marshes in the thousands.
Winter is an active and lively time on the Chesapeake Bay. It is amazing to think that we have an opportunity to experience something that few others get to, especially considering we are doing it within 40 miles of the Washington/Baltimore metropolitan area. We wouldn’t trade our jobs in any season.
All images courtesy Pete McGowan and Chris Guy, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Welcome to the latest installment of the BayBlog Question of the Week. Each week, we take a question submitted on the Chesapeake Bay Program website or a frequently asked question and answer it here for all to read.
This week's question came from Mike, who asked, "Where can I find fish consumption advisories for the state of Maryland and other areas in the Bay watershed?"
We all love the fish and shellfish the Chesapeake Bay provides us with. But it's important to be mindful of the contaminants these species might be exposed to. If we eat fish and shellfish that have been exposed to toxic chemicals, it could harm our health.
Each of the Bay states and the District of Columbia post fish consumption advisories for specific species in certain bodies of water. Some are general advisories for everyone to abide by, while others are limited to sensitive populations, like children or pregnant and nursing women. These advisories are not necessarily meant to discourage you from eating fish and shellfish altogether, but rather to help you limit your consumption of contaminants that could be harmful to your health.
Check out your state's website for more information about fish consumption advisories in water bodies near you. Be sure to keep up with fish consumption advisories for your area if you fish the Bay or its rivers!
Do you have a question about the Chesapeake Bay? Ask us and we might choose your question for the next Question of the Week! You can also ask us a question via Twitter by sending a reply to @chesbayprogram! Be sure to follow us there for all the latest in Bay news and events.
“Intersex” fish – male fish with female traits – are showing up in more Chesapeake Bay region waterways. Government and university scientists have recently collected intersex smallmouth and largemouth bass from several waterways in Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland.
More than 90 percent of adult male smallmouth bass collected during studies on the Susquehanna River this year contained immature egg cells, according to a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
The Susquehanna is the second major Chesapeake Bay river where scientists have found intersex fish. The Potomac River, as well as the Shenandoah and Monocacy rivers, have documented cases of intersex fish.
Intersex fish have recently been discovered in lakes and ponds on the Delmarva Peninsula as well. Researchers with the University of Maryland sampled six lakes and ponds in Maryland and Delaware and found intersex fish in all of the tested water bodies.
Scientists believe that male fish may develop these female trails through exposure to hormone-mimicking chemicals in the water. More research is needed, but these chemicals may come from agricultural pesticides, poultry waste, human personal care products or pharmaceuticals.
For more details about intersex fish in the Susquehanna River, read this Nov. 2 Baltimore Sun article. For more information about intersex fish found on Delmarva, read this Nov. 11 Baltimore Sun article.
The Atlantic sturgeon – a rare, ancient-looking fish that supported an important 19th century fishery in the Chesapeake Bay region – has been proposed by NOAA Fisheries Service to be protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Atlantic sturgeon have existed since the Cretaceous period, when dinosaurs roamed the earth. They are large fish with brownish bodies covered in bony plates. They visit the Chesapeake Bay in spring to spawn in fresh water. Sturgeon likely used to spawn in all of the Bay’s tributaries, but today only the James and York rivers in Virginia have small spawning populations.
Records indicate that Atlantic sturgeon were once abundant. The fish supported an important 19th century fishery when their eggs became popular as caviar. The commercial fishery peaked in 1870 but collapsed by 1901, when landings were just 10 percent of the peak.
All Atlantic coast states completely banned Atlantic sturgeon fishing in 1998, but sturgeon are still extremely rare. According to a federal review in 2007, Atlantic sturgeon are usually harmed by unintentional catch, vessel strikes and dredging, as well as by polluted water and damming of rivers.
The purpose of listing species as “endangered” is to offer special protections designed to prevent the species from becoming extinct.
Another Chesapeake Bay sturgeon, the shortnose sturgeon, is already on the endangered species list.
The Gulf of Maine, New York Bight, Carolina and South Atlantic populations of Atlantic sturgeon are also included in this proposal.
Citizens can comment on NOAA’s proposed listing by Jan. 4, 2011.
Eleven innovative environmental projects throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed will reduce an estimated 1.5 million pounds of nitrogen, 51,000 pounds of phosphorus and 20,000 pounds of sediment from entering the Bay and its local waterways with $5.8 million in grants through the Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Program.
The Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Program, part of the Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund, provides up to $1 million to innovative and cost-effective projects that dramatically reduce or eliminate nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution into local streams, creeks, rivers and the Bay.
Collectively, the 11 projects exemplify creative and effective ways to build partnerships, bridge communities, advance technology and implement innovative practices such as green infrastructure and agricultural conservation — all of which are necessary to reducing polluted runoff from cities, suburbs and farmland.
The 11 projects are:
The grants are funded by the U.S. EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program and administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Grant awardees provided an additional $10 million in matching funds.
“These projects demonstrate innovative strategies for how we can continue to live, work and play in one of the most densely populated regions of the country, while at the same time minimizing the impact on our downstream neighbors and the thousands of fish and wildlife species that call the Chesapeake Bay their home,” said Tom Kelsch, Director of Conservation Programs of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
For more information about the Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund, visit www.nfwf.org/chesapeake.
Each February, we celebrate Black History Month, but we often don’t take the time to reflect on the important people and events in black history that occurred right in our backyards. In the Chesapeake Bay region, the African-Americans who lived and worked here helped define our history.
Keep reading to learn more about six key events, people and occupations that influenced the history of the Chesapeake and the entire nation.
Slavery in the Chesapeake Bay region began in 1619, when a Dutch ship carrying 20 African men arrived at Jamestown, Virginia. These men were indentured servants, rather than slaves. Many eventually earned their freedom and went on to own land, trade, raise crops and livestock, defend their rights, and eventually hire their own servants.
(Image courtesy CORBIS/History.com)
Slaves were part of many great milestones in the Chesapeake region, such as rowing the Bay’s first ferry between the future sites of Norfolk and Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1636. By 1780, it is estimated that slaves made up approximately 40 percent of the population in the Chesapeake region.
In the 1800s, the Chesapeake region was on the brink of controversy over slavery. The northern Bay watershed states were considered “free states” that did not support slavery, while the southern states were “slave states.” This division foreshadowed the battles to be fought in the region during the Civil War.
As the Civil War progressed, the Union Army was suffering from increasing numbers of casualties and needed reinforcements. Blacks were granted the right to serve in the Union Army and fought in battles throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
In Maryland, 8,700 men served in six black regiments that played major roles in Union battle plans. The 36th U.S. Colored Infantry guarded the Confederate prison at Point Lookout and disabled Confederate torpedoes in the lower Chesapeake Bay.
More than 180,000 black men served in the Union Army and 18,000 black men in the Union Navy. Twenty-one of these men were awarded the highest military honor in the United States, the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Harriet Tubman was born into slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where she lived until she escaped in 1849. After escaping from slavery, she returned to the South 19 times to help other slaves along the Underground Railroad.
As part of the Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses was formed and slaves were transported with the help of ship captains in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, as well as other slaves working on boats. For many slaves, the Potomac River, the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay were vital links in the route to freedom along the Underground Railroad.
Like Tubman, Frederick Douglass was born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. In his first two attempts to escape slavery, Douglass and five other men planned to canoe up the Chesapeake Bay into Pennsylvania, but another slave turned them in. Eventually, Douglass was brought to freedom on a steamboat traveling from Delaware to Pennsylvania.
In colonial times, tobacco was the mainstay of the economies of Maryland and Virginia. Many of the workers at tobacco plantations were slaves or indentured servants from Africa. Plantations were often located along the Chesapeake’s rivers, where soil quality was better and tobacco could be transported via local waterways.
(Image courtesy The Great South/Documenting the American South)
Once the Chesapeake’s tobacco and agricultural industries began to decline at the end of the 18th century, blacks turned to the water to make a living, ultimately helping the region’s economy and cultural history flourish.
By the 1860s, the Chesapeake Bay was the United States’ primary source of oysters, which created plenty of opportunities for black watermen to make a living shucking oysters, processing seafood and even building boats for the industry. New African-American communities formed along the Bay’s shores, creating cultural and economic centers for blacks in the area. Their traditions became part of the local fishing industry, and many of them still exist today.
A new report issued by the U.S. Geological Survey points to contaminated riverbank and floodplain soils as the main source of mercury found in fish in several Shenandoah Valley rivers.
The study found that 96 percent of the mercury loads to the South River – a tributary of the Shenandoah River’s South Fork – are from soil that was contaminated more than 50 years ago by a textile manufacturing plant in Waynesboro, Va.
Between 1929 and 1950, the textile plant discharged mercury waste that washed into the South River, eventually contaminating the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, the Shenandoah River and the floodplains along all three rivers.
“Currently, about 416 pounds of mercury get into the South River per year,” said Jack Eggleston, a USGS hydrologist and author of the report. “To meet safety standards in fish for human consumption, mercury loads to the South River cannot exceed 4 pounds per year. That’s a reduction of 99 percent.”
A health advisory on the consumption of fish from 128 miles of river downstream of the plant has been in place since 1977. The U.S. EPA sets mercury limits for fish at 0.3 parts per million, but fish and other wildlife can exceed this amount because they accumulate mercury in their bodies throughout their lifetime.
USGS scientists worked with partners from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the U.S. EPA to collect and analyze hundreds of water and sediment samples. Computer models were used to simulate the movement of water, sediment and mercury in the South River watershed.
Based on the results of this study, Virginia DEQ will develop a plan for cleaning up the contaminated rivers.
Visit the USGS website for more information about the report.
A crew of about a dozen biologists from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Frostburg University and Marshall University spent an October afternoon searching for the Maryland darter, a fish that was last seen in 1988 and is feared to be extinct. Though their search proved unsuccessful, biologists are not giving up hope.
The Maryland darter, a 2- to 3-inch long fish, was last seen by Dr. Richard Raesly of Frostburg University in 1988. The fish has historically been found in just three Maryland streams near the mouth of the Susquehanna River. Using new technology, Dr. Raesly worked with Tom Jones of Marshall University to sample the river bottom at Susquehanna State Park.
The crew of biologists divided into two teams that worked with two large seine nets to try to catch the darter. One person on each team wore a backpack with an electric shocker that could send a current into the water in a 3-foot radius. The electric current does not harm fish; it only stuns them so biologists can easily gather them in the seine net for an accurate sample of the stream.
Pulling up the net, the team members sifted through leaves, sediment and other creatures in search of the Maryland darter. But no luck. Once an area had been sampled, the team moved downstream to continue the search.
Scientists involved with the project all gave the same answer as to why it is important to find the darter, particularly now: biodiversity.
DNR biologist Scott Stranko explained that just as the entire world is becoming more socially homogenized, the environment is undergoing the same kind of transformation, with just a few species that are found everywhere.
“All the streams are looking very much the same and we’re losing that specialness,” Stranko said. “While Maryland has been losing native stream species, we’ve gained widespread non-native species like carp and snakeheads that can be found all over the world. If this trend continues, no streams will be special like the Maryland darter streams once were.”
The livelihood of small species such as the darter also speaks volumes about the health of the tributaries that lead to the Chesapeake Bay. Since the Maryland darter was last seen in 1988, development has boomed in the areas surrounding Susquehanna State Park. In this landscape of overdevelopment, just a small amount of concrete or asphalt near the river’s freshwater streams is all it takes to create enough polluted runoff to harm underwater life. Biologists believe this is the main cause of the disappearance of the darter.
The fear that the Maryland darter is extinct still looms in the biologists’ minds. But they are hopeful that new technology and the largest search effort in decades will help them rediscover this rare fish.
The team will trawl the Susquehanna River once again on November 6-8 to continue the search. For more information about the Maryland darter, visit DNR’s website.
U.S. Geological Survey researchers have found a possible connection between the occurrence of intersex fish and fish kills and lesions on bass in the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.
In a recently published study, USGS researchers showed that largemouth bass that were injected with estrogen produced lower levels of a hormone called hepcidin. In addition to regulating iron in mammals, hepcidin is suspected to act as an antimicrobial peptide in fish, frogs and mammals. Antimicrobial peptides are the first line of defense against disease-causing bacteria, fungi and viruses.
“Our research suggests that estrogen-mimicking compounds may make fish more susceptible to disease by blocking production of hepcidin and other immune-related proteins that help protect fish against disease-causing bacteria,” said Dr. Laura Robertson, a USGS genomics researcher who led the study.
The study showed that the estrogen blocked the production of hepcidin in fish that were exposed to bacteria, giving more weight to the theory that estrogen or estrogen-mimicking chemicals could be making fish more susceptible to diseases, according to Robertson.
USGS researchers found intersex fish -- or fish with both male and female reproductive traits -- in the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers several years ago. Studies have shown that estrogen and estrogen-mimicking compounds can cause intersex traits to appear in fish.
Because fish lesions, fish kills and intersex traits have been found to co-occur in the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, USGS scientists have theorized that estrogen-mimicking compounds could also be involved in lesions and fish kills.
Birth control pills, hormone replacements and hormones from livestock operations are a few possible sources of estrogen and estrogen-mimicking chemicals. These chemicals are found in treated wastewater, as they are not removed during normal sewage treatment processes.
Learn more about this USGS study.
Twenty-four innovative projects in Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia have received a total of $12.9 million in grants from the Bay Program and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution to the local streams, creeks and rivers that flow to the Chesapeake Bay.
The grants for these projects were awarded through the Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund, which provides up to $1 million to innovative and cost-effective projects that dramatically reduce or eliminate the flow of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution into local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay.
“These innovative projects will have lasting benefits for the Chesapeake Bay and its network of rivers and streams, especially when you consider that they can be duplicated in communities throughout the entire watershed,” said William C. Early, acting regional administrator in EPA’s mid-Atlantic region.
The Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund is administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and funded by the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program. This year's grant recipients provided an additional $19.4 million in matching funds.
“These projects continue to stretch how we think about agricultural strategies that are good both for the Chesapeake and for the farmer’s bottom line, and stormwater strategies that ensure that those of us who live in cities and suburbs do our part as well,” said Tom Kelsch, director of conservation programs for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
The 24 grant recipients are:
A partnership between the James River Association, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Corporate Wetlands Restoration Partnership and several other organizations has protected from erosion more than 500 acres of tidal freshwater marsh on Herring Creek in Charles City County, Virginia.
The newly protected marsh, known as Ducking Stool Point, is a spit of land located at the confluence of Herring Creek and the James River. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ducking Stool Point provides important habitat for waterfowl, bald eagles, largemouth bass and a number of other birds and fish.
To protect the marsh from further erosion, the partnership installed an 1,825-foot-long structure of sloping stone between the marsh and the James River. Stabilizing Ducking Stool Point will help protect stream habitat for migratory and residential fish species, many of which are recreationally valuable to area residents. The project also protects bald eagles and other wildlife that nest and roost in the area.
The project was completed in November and unveiled at a ceremony this month.
Visit the James River Association’s website for more information about the Ducking Stool Point project.
On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, pollution from development and agriculture are much-debated issues affecting the Chesapeake Bay's health. But one of the region's most destructive forces is unseen by many: a large, beaver-like rodent that digs out and feeds on the roots of marsh grasses.
Nutria are an invasive species that live in the Delmarva Peninsula's marshes and wetlands. Since their introduction in the 1940s, nutria have eaten through thousands of acres of marshland on the Eastern Shore. Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County has been especially hard-hit: nutria have destroyed more than half of the marshes there -- nearly 7,000 acres.
Marshes and wetlands are important because they protect clean water by filtering out pollutants and reducing shoreline erosion. They also provide opportunities for outdoor nature activities such as paddling, hiking, hunting and bird-watching.
Additionally, wetland destruction by nutria costs Maryland’s economy $4 million per year in lost environmental services from the degradation of farmland, property, water quality, commercial fisheries and outdoor activities. Recent reports estimate that figure will increase to $30 million per year by 2050 if nutria are left unchecked.
To combat nutria’s destruction of valuable marshland, a group of federal, state and local organizations has come together to eradicate the invasive rodent from the Eastern Shore.
The Maryland Nutria Project began in the late 1990s as the Maryland Nutria Project Partnership, a group of 22 organizations that joined together to investigate the potential to eliminate nutria from Eastern Shore marshes. In 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received federal funding to develop a strategy to eradicate nutria in Maryland.
Today, the Maryland Nutria Project is one of a small handful of highly successful invasive species programs in the United States. Since its work began in 2002, the Project has removed nutria from almost 150,000 acres of wetlands in Caroline, Dorchester, Somerset, Talbot and Wicomico counties.
The Maryland Nutria Project’s trapping efforts were originally concentrated in a 95,000-acre “nutria eradication zone,” which included Blackwater, the state-owned Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area, the privately owned Tudor Farms, and other nearby private lands.
“Except for monitoring activities, the Project is finished in the nutria eradication zone,” said Dan Murphy, program supervisor with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Field Office. “We are continuing to expand out of Dorchester County into nutria-infested marshes in Caroline, Somerset, Talbot and Wicomico counties.
Marshes have shown a remarkable ability to recover once nutria are removed from an area. But without a continued effort to eradicate them, nutria will re-infest and once again destroy wetlands. The Project must expand its efforts into the remaining five southern Maryland Eastern Shore counties and the Delaware and Virginia portions of Delmarva -- a total of more than 400,000 acres of wetlands.
“The challenge ahead is for the Project to continue to expand into surrounding marshlands while preventing re-infestation of previously trapped habitats on state, federal and private lands,” Murphy said. “This will require the trapping team to work in much larger areas and expand the trapping zone on a much broader front.”
Based on current staffing, progress and field efforts, the Maryland Nutria Project estimates that it will eradicate nutria from the Eastern Shore by 2013. After that time, Project members will continue to monitor marshes and remove any nutria they find.
The Nutria Management Team, led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Field Office, oversees the nutria eradication project. Other members of the Maryland Nutria Project include:
Learn more about nutria and the Maryland Nutria Partnership from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
While they are relatively unknown to the public, PAHs—a class of chemical contaminants - have been shown to cause high rates of lesions and tumors on bottom-dwelling fish in at least two Bay tributaries: the Anacostia and Elizabeth rivers.
PAHs, or polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, are formed when coal, gasoline and fuel oil are burned. They are also a major component of tar and coal-tar based products. Specific sources of PAHs include:
In particular, coal-tar based driveway and parking lot sealants are a significant source of PAHs to the environment.
According to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Austin, Texas, the average yield of PAHs from sealed parking lots was 50 times greater than that from unsealed lots. Estimates from this study indicate that total loads of PAHs coming from parking lots in the watersheds studied would be reduced to about one-tenth of their current loads if all of the parking lots were unsealed.
PAHs enter water bodies through run off from roads, driveways and parking lots into the closest storm water drain. Like PCBs, PAHs attach to sediment in water, where they are known to be toxic to plankton and bottom-dwelling organisms such as oysters and some fish.
Population growth and development are recognized as specific causes of PAH contamination of sediments. The USGS National Water Quality Assessment Program found that the most rapid increases of PAH collection in sediments were found in areas undergoing urban sprawl and increases in motor vehicle traffic.
Tumors and lesions found on fish in two Bay tributaries have been linked to high PAH concentrations.
In a study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), between 50 and 60 percent of fish collected from the Anacostia River had liver tumors. These rates are alarming, as scientists consider an area with a liver tumor rate of more than 5 percent to be highly contaminated. Tests on fish tissues and bottom sediments suggest that exposure to PAHs is likely responsible for the tumors.
A related study examined the effects of PAH-contaminated sediments on mummichogs in Virginia's Elizabeth River. The study showed a strong correlation between tumors and liver lesions in mummichogs and PAH concentrations in the river.
Scientists are also taking a close look at the South River, located in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. In a 2005 study by the USFWS, 53 percent of brown bullheads had visible skin tumors and 20 percent had liver tumors. However, monitoring data for the South River do not show high PAH concentrations in bottom sediments.
Since the USGS study that found coal-tar sealants are a major source of PAHs, the city of Austin, Texas, has banned these sealants from use on parking lots. While there are no federal regulations against coal tar use in products, consumers can instead choose for their own driveways asphalt-based sealants, which contain significantly less PAHs.
Angling is one of America's greatest pastimes, and on the Chesapeake Bay it is a borderline religion. Fishing the Bay's waters has existed since man first inhabited the shores of the Chesapeake. Centuries ago, Native Americans in the region used massive weirs to corral fish for easier harvesting. Captain John Smith, the first European to explore the Bay, described his fishing excursions when he wrote, “that abundance of fish, lying so thick with their heads above water, as for want of nets we attempted to catch them with a frying pan.”
Thankfully, technology has allowed us to move away from trying to snag a fish with Captain Smith's old standby skillet, and today the Bay's recreational fishing industry is booming. Last year, in Virginia alone, anglers took an estimated 3.6 million trips, supporting over 9,000 fishing-related jobs and contributing over $823 million to local economies.
While some of these anglers will catch only what they intend to keep and then head back to the dock to tell fish stories, others practice the art of “catch and release.” When done properly, catch and release fishing does no harm to the fisherman's quarry. However, if done improperly, mortality rates of fish can exceed eight percent.
Physical injury and stress are the two main factors influencing the survival of fish that are caught and then released. Hook wounds, mishandling during release and physiological exhaustion from the fight are primarily responsible for mortality rates.
Most mortality from hook wounds occurs when anglers use natural baits. Natural baits tend to be swallowed more frequently (deep hooking) than artificial lures, and the hooks used often puncture vital organs. The use of non-offset circle hooks can drastically reduce deep hooking. According to a Maryland Department of Natural Resources study, deep hooking rates for conventional hooks was 17.2 percent while rates using the non-offset circle hooks was 3.4 percent.
Anglers should handle fish that are to be released with care. Fish are covered in a mucosal film that protects them from parasites and bacteria. When too much of this film is removed, the fish can contract skin infections that can lead to death. Once caught and brought aboard, handling the fish with a wet glove or towel will minimize the amount of protective film that is lost. Fish should not be allowed to flop around or make contact with any surfaces inside the boat. If possible, keep all fish that are to be released in the water while removing the hook and avoid at all costs handling the gills and soft underbelly.
By its very nature, the lure of catch and release fishing is the thrill of fighting a fish to the surface. While this practice is exhilarating to the angler, it can be devastating to the fish. Fighting a fish to the point of its exhaustion contributes dramatically to mortality rates. High water temperatures and low salinity levels also contribute to higher mortality rates among fish that are caught and released. “Playing” the fish should be avoided at all costs and fish should be retrieved using steady, deliberate retrieval techniques. During periods of extreme environmental conditions, catch and release fishing should be minimized.
All responsible anglers should practice proper catch and release techniques. Not only do these techniques help protect fish stocks, but they also present a great opportunity to teach younger anglers stewardship of their natural resources. Employing the practices mentioned above is easy and allows both the fish and the fisherman to come away no more worse for wear.
Nutrients are generally considered to be a good thing for humans because they are necessary for our health and strength. But just like anything else, too many nutrients can be too much of a good thing. In fact, excess nutrients are the main cause of the Bay's degraded water quality and aquatic habitat loss.
Nutrients occur naturally in air, water and soil. However, in addition to these natural sources, vehicle exhaust, treated sewage and runoff from urban, residential and agricultural areas all contribute nutrients to the Bay and its tributaries.
Together, these sources send too many nutrients to the water, causing serious problems:
This summer, high nutrient levels were responsible for harmful algal blooms and low DO levels that led to fish kills in several Bay tributaries, including:
Bay scientists have found that reducing nutrient loads to the Bay in spring is critical to improving water quality conditions. The majority of nutrients are washed into the Bay in spring as snow melts and larger amounts of rain fall on the watershed. Planting cover crops in the fall and skipping spring fertilizer are two important ways people can reduce the amount of nutrients that enter the Bay.