It is 1862 and the nation is in the midst of the Civil War. You are standing at the southernmost tip of the western shore of Maryland. To your left, the rising sun dances over the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. To your right, a ship chugs up the Potomac River, making its way to Washington, D.C. The wind whips and there is a nip in the air; winter is coming and all you have to keep warm is one wool blanket and a small tent.
For many Civil War soldiers at what is now Point Lookout State Park, this scene was a reality. Once a popular summer resort, this tract of land became home to a hospital and prison camp in the 1860s. One hundred years later, the site became a state park. Today, it is a place where history and the environment meet.
Although the park’s picturesque surroundings make it an ideal spot for visitors, it faces a number of environmental challenges. During strong storms, the site can experience coastal flooding. At times, rising tides create a temporary island, cutting off the point from the rest of the park. To protect the land from the rising seas of climate change and to combat erosion, staff have placed riprap barriers along much of the park’s shoreline.
“It has been very interesting to see how the weather affects the park throughout the year,” said Melissa Boyle, assistant park manager at Point Lookout. “When it’s stormy or during a hurricane, I can see how rough the water is and I think about what kind of place this could have been one or 200 years ago, when we didn’t have all of the luxuries that we have today.”
But the park’s history began before the Civil War, with the construction of the Point Lookout Lighthouse.
Built in the 1830’s, the Point Lookout Lighthouse was a much-needed navigational beacon to ships travelling up the Potomac River and the Bay. While advances in technology mean the lighthouse is no longer in use, the Point Lookout Lighthouse Preservation Society continues to care for the structure. Once a month, the volunteer group even opens the building for guided tours to show visitors what it might have been like to be the lighthouse keeper that lived here.
Some visitors have reportedly experienced paranormal activity in the lighthouse and around the park. Although park staff cannot confirm these allegations, these experiences could be linked to the old age of the lighthouse and the rich war-related history of the park. Because of its haunted reputation, the site sees an increase in break-ins and vandalism around Halloween, forcing park police to step up their patrol.
After the Civil War began, Hammond Hospital was built at Point Lookout. At the time, the hospital was considered to be a state of the art facility: its wagon wheel shape kept different wards separate and created an advanced ventilation system to suppress fire.
In addition to the hospital, three forts were built. But, due to sea level rise and erosion, only one—a reconstructed Fort Lincoln—remains.
Point Lookout was also home to a Civil War prison camp that held Confederate soldiers. The camp was designed to hold 10,000 people, but it regularly held 20,000; over its lifetime, it held 52,000 prisoners. The prisoners would often eat off of the land and were known to scavenge for blue crabs, oysters and rats. At the end of the war, the prison was largely deconstructed. Most of its materials were recycled, but some remain underwater near the park’s fishing pier.
Aside from a handful of park staff and public citizens, the people who once lived at Point Lookout have been replaced with wildlife. Pelicans, eagles and osprey abound, and the park is even home to a great blue heron rookery. Point Lookout is also a popular resting spot for migratory birds and monarch butterflies.
Today, recreation is the primary use of the park. Point Lookout offers more than 100 campsites, a life-guarded beach, canoe and kayak rentals, fishing sites and more than 1,000 acres for visitors to explore. “People should visit Point Lookout State Park because it is where history and the environment meet,” Boyle said. “There is a lot to learn from the park, and fall is a good time to visit. It is a period of transition. Come learn about the Civil War history while taking in the marvelous views and imagining what it would be like to be a soldier that was issued only one wool blanket to sleep under through the winter.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by Steve Droter. Captions by Jenna Valente.
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.
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
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
For close to a decade, scientists and volunteers have spent their springs at the Nanticoke Shad Hatchery, working to rebuild populations of American shad.
In this small building near Bethel, Del., hundreds of thousands of American shad are raised each year before they are returned to their native spawning grounds in the Nanticoke River. This spring, the hatchery stocked about 558,000 fish to the waterway.
In the early 1900s, excessive commercial harvests took a heavy toll on American shad. Over the past century, poor water quality and the construction of dams that restrict the anadromous fish’s access to upstream spawning grounds have caused shad populations to decline.
Image courtesy Library of Congress
Today, restoration efforts are giving American shad a much-needed population boost. Restocking programs across the Chesapeake Bay watershed—combined with harvest restrictions, improved water quality and the removal of dams—are critical to the re-establishment of the species.
American shad spend most of their lives in brackish and saltwater before returning to their birth waters to spawn. The Nanticoke Shad Hatchery collects its brood stock directly from the Nanticoke River and its Deep Creek tributary to ensure adult fish will return to the waterway and to preserve the genetic integrity of the local shad population.
Throughout the spring spawning season, which runs from mid-March through April, mature shad that are held in the hatchery’s closely monitored, 3,500-gallon spawning tanks periodically release eggs and sperm.
On the morning after an overnight spawning event, pea-sized eggs are filtered into an egg collection tank.
“Bad eggs” are removed from the tank before fertilized eggs are measured by volume and placed in incubation jars to grow.
Eggs that survive to the “eyed” stage are moved to one of four culture tanks, where they will hatch into larval fish within a week.
After a few more days spent in the safety of the culture tanks, the larval fish absorb their nutritive yolk sac and transform into fry that are ready to feed on their own in their natural habitat.
Before the hatchery-produced fish are released into the Nanticoke River, scientists mark them with oxytetracycline. Tracking the fish will allow scientists to gauge their survival and stocking success over time.
Six years of sampling surveys on the Nanticoke River show that adult American shad abundance has increased, while the number of hatchery-produced juveniles has decreased. According to hatchery manager Mike Stengl, this suggests the hatchery is succeeding in its long-term goal: to reduce the percentage of hatchery-grown fish in the river and encourage the wild population to spawn on its own.
Success at the Nanticoke Shad Hatchery and at other hatcheries across the region are giving American shad a second chance at survival in the watershed.
View more photos on the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
For the past decade, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay has led Project Clean Stream--a vast network of organized annual trash cleanups along the Bay's many tributaries--to help clean up the Bay and connect residents to their local waterways.
During this year's unified day of service on Saturday, April 6, a group of 13 volunteers gathered near the small town of Marydel on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where resident Carol Sparks (not pictured) had reported an illegal dump site along a drainage ditch running adjacent to her property.
According to Sparks, residents from two nearby trailer parks often travel along the foot path adjacent to the ditch, and some have been dumping trash here for years. "I've called everybody and it seemed like nobody wanted to do anything about it. I finally contacted Debbie Rowe, the mayor of Marydel, and she's the one who organized this group, bless her heart."
"I got a call from the property owner that the ditch was in disrepair," said Rowe (below left, with volunteer Wilbur Levengood, Jr.), who had recently learned about Project Clean Stream through the Choptank Tributary Team, a volunteer watershed group from Easton, Md. "To be honest, I didn't know this was back here."
Jennifer Dindinger chairs the Choptank Trib Team, which was searching for neglected sites in neighboring Caroline County where they could make a bigger impact during this year's Project Clean Stream effort. "You don't see trash floating down the Choptank River, but there are places like this that, although it might not end up in the main stem of the Bay, negatively impact life along the tributaries to the river."
Despite the strong odor and armed with garden rakes and stainless steel dip nets, Project Clean Stream volunteers spent their Saturday morning combing through layers of algae in the stagnant drainage ditch. "It's just a nice thing to do on a sunny day," said William Ryall, a fellow Choptank Trib Team volunteer and wetland restoration engineer from Easton, Md. "All of these ditches are connected to the Bay, so it's really important to get this stuff out of here."
"We need everyone to understand how important the drainage is to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and what it will do health-wise and for the environment if we do it correctly," said Wilbur Levengood, Jr., president of the Caroline County Commissioners. "We don't need to bring huge machines in here and disturb a lot of earth to achieve the drainage, we just need to keep it clean."
According to Levengood, the many drainage ditches in Caroline County are an environmental compromise critical to this landscape. "Without these ditches, ponds and wetlands like the one next door to here would otherwise require chemical pesticides to control the mosquito population. Cleaning up the trash will lower the water level in this ditch by a few inches and get the water moving again."
While most of the trash collected from the Marydel site was of the household variety--36 bags total, including diapers, beverage containers and rotting food--a tell-tale oil slick is evidence of even more hazardous materials lying beneath the surface.
According to Levengood, non-salvageable appliances like television sets and mattresses, as well as toxic materials like motor oil and other automotive fluids that cost money to discard, are often thrown into the drainage ditches along Caroline County roads.
"It's not just necessarily that it looks bad. It's an all-around health hazard, and if we don't keep the water going it's just going to get stagnant and cause mosquitoes and more problems," said Mayor Rowe, who recruited local youth to help with the cleanup. "Now that we know it's here, we can all help as a community to help keep it clean and it'll be safe for everybody."
"My mom is friends with Ms. Debbie [Rowe], so she asked if I could come help with cleaning up trash from the ditch," said Gary Colby of Marydel (top), who in turn recruited his friend Daniel Santangelo. "I just wanted to help out Marydel," Santangelo said.
According to Rowe, part of the dumping problem stems from the challenge of cross-cultural communication. More than half of Marydel's population are Hispanic or Latino immigrants, but today's effort to reach the town's young people seems to be paying off.
"I just offered to help my buddies out," said Carlos Martinez (left), who moved to Marydel last year from Mexico City and volunteered with friends Omar Fuentes (center) and Jordy Cordova (right). "I know it's not young people littering because I know my friends."
"I think we just need to recycle more," said Cordova. Fuentes agrees. Like Mayor Rowe, he says "I never even noticed the trash in the ditch, and I've lived here for 10 years."
During a well-deserved break from the cleanup, Mayor Rowe and the other volunteers discussed the idea of posting bilingual signs to explain the ditch's importance in controlling the mosquito population, and to warn of health risks associated with litter and water pollution. Omar Fuentes and Jordy Cordova agree that signs in Spanish might help curb the littering problem, and promised to talk to their neighbors about the ditch. For first-time cleanup volunteer Wilbur Levengood, Jr., this point made the purpose of the day's effort overwhelmingly clear: "This project puts all aspects of people together working for the better, and we just need more of that."
Owning and maintaining waterfront property can be an expensive commitment. Residents across the Chesapeake Bay watershed must contend with shoreline erosion and rising sea level, while adapting to environmental regulations that protect water quality. One strategy for tackling all of these issues has gained increasing popularity: living shorelines that not only protect human property, but also utilize and even enhance the Bay’s unique natural habitat.
Scott Hardaway and Karen Duhring are marine scientists and living shoreline experts at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), which sits at the mouth of the York River in Gloucester Point, Va.
Scott Hardaway began working for VIMS in 1979, and is now the director of the Shoreline Studies Program. He is a leading authority on the design and implementation of “headland breakwaters,” a living shoreline technique that creates protected “pocket beaches” like those constructed at VIMS in 2010.
Headland breakwater systems are built using large stone structures called “headlands,” which sit offshore and disrupt the incoming waves that can cause shoreline erosion. Mathematical formulas determine the necessary angle, shape and placement of each headland. Wider gaps between breakwaters create long, narrow pocket beaches, while narrow gaps create wide, circular beaches.
Their wave-blocking action creates a calm, shallow lagoon between the breakwaters, which are connected to shore by a sandbar called a “tombolo.”
Additional sand must be brought in to form the tombolo and stabilize the beach. This raises the cost of these projects, but is critical to the final phase of construction: planting native beach and dune vegetation.
Karen Duhring is an educator and researcher at the VIMS Center for Coastal Resources Management (CCRM), where she helps manage and monitor living shoreline projects.
According to Duhring, on-shore plantings serve key ecological functions that enhance the effectiveness of living shorelines. On sandy beaches, plant roots stabilize loose material and improve water quality, as they filter pollutants from upland runoff.
Living shorelines use native plants—smooth and saltmeadow cordgrass here in the Bay—that have adapted to thrive and reproduce in a specific environment. Once established, cordgrass recruits naturally along the beach, dispersing seeds and rhizomes that spread horizontally beneath the sand to establish new plants in empty areas.
Beach plantings are susceptible to damage from foot traffic, so precautions should be taken to prevent the trampling of plants. Access restrictions allowed for more expensive plantings on the VIMS western shore, while heavy use from research activities limited plantings on the other.
During high tides, organic material washes onto the beach and provides nutrients for the growing plants, which in turn provide habitat and food for native wildlife.
Headland breakwaters themselves also provide habitat for crabs, mollusks and other aquatic species that thrive on underwater reefs. Along the VIMS shoreline, oysters have settled on the granite rocks to form the beginnings of a complex reef community.
According to Hardaway, headland breakwaters are not always the perfect solution for every sandy shoreline. Whenever possible, existing habitat for submerged aquatic vegetation and shellfish should remain undisturbed. While the costly structures do come with some tradeoffs, they also offer invaluable protection for human infrastructure. The once-vulnerable VIMS shoreline, for instance, has withstood Hurricanes Irene and Sandy—thanks to its headland breakwaters.
As the living shorelines at VIMS demonstrate, projects such as these—which successfully address the needs of both humans and nature—are critical to Bay restoration. Through the work of experts like Hardaway and Duhring, these living shorelines continue to serve both practical and educational purposes, teaching the public how we can responsibly manage our natural resources today in order to preserve them long into the future.
View full-resolution photos on the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Part construction site, part mud pit and part wildlife refuge, the Paul S. Sarbanes Ecosystem Restoration Project at Poplar Island, Md., tackles two unique challenges in the Chesapeake Bay.
First, sand and sediment accumulate in the Bay’s vital shipping channels—particularly during heavy rain events like Tropical Storm Lee in 2011—and threaten to block cargo ships that allow the Port of Baltimore to contribute $2 billion each year to the region’s economy.
On the other hand, sea level rise, sinking land and increasingly frequent strong storms are quickly eroding away the Bay’s few remaining islands, threatening the survival of iconic wildlife species and critical habitat.
Poplar Island, for example, spanned more than 1,100 acres in the mid-1800s and supported a small community of families, farmers and fishermen until it was abandoned in the 1930s. When restoration began in the 1990s, four scattered acres were all that remained—less than half a percent of the island’s historical size.
But the island that was nearly destroyed is now destined to be rebuilt using 65 million cubic yards of sedimentary silt—imagine a giant cube of mud a quarter mile long in each direction—dredged up from the bottom of the Bay.
In 1998, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to construct stone “containment dykes.” The walls are 10 feet tall and surround Poplar Island’s former footprint, and the island has been divided into six massive containment cells for building island habitat.
The western half of the island, surrounded by an inner ring of 27-foot dykes, is being transformed into 570 acres of forested upland island habitat similar to that of neighboring Coaches Island.
Coaches Island, once vulnerable to the same forces that washed away its neighbor, supports upland species like bald eagles and provides a shallow inlet utilized by nesting diamondback terrapins in the summer and migratory waterfowl during winter.
The eastern half of Poplar Island is further divided into 14 “sub-cells” undergoing various stages of wetland construction and management.
Low-lying wetlands are created through a four-step process. First, dredged sediment is brought in on barges by the Maryland Port Administration, mixed into a watery slurry, and pumped into each cell at precise levels.
As the slurry dries, it forms a massive crust—a vast, other-worldly landscape—that is the base for building habitat.
Next, heavy machines carefully grade the crust and excavate ditches that will function as tidal creeks in the completed marsh.
Then a spillway is opened to expose the new landscape to tidal flow, and water is allowed to move between the Bay and the newly built marshland.
Finally, individual plugs of smooth and saltmeadow cordgrass are planted row upon row into the nutrient-rich soil.
These native plants are capable of withstanding strong storms while offering food and shelter to the 175 species of shorebirds, songbirds, waterfowl and raptors that now visit Poplar Island.
Poplar Island's marshes offer protection and isolation from human and mammalian predators, and the open waters along its perimeter provide feeding opportunities for diving ducks like buffleheads, scaups and long-tailed ducks.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) manages the island’s vegetation and wildlife—including less welcome species like the Canada goose. Fences and fluttering pink flags help deter geese and prevent them from overfeeding on expensive marsh grass.
On our visit in January 2013, USFWS wildlife technician Robbie Callahan led a monitoring team to assess the density of muskrat huts in the marsh. The semiaquatic rodents, though a critical part of the wetland ecosystem, are controlled to prevent damage from overpopulation.
The USFWS also monitors avian predators—like the northern harriers that feed on small rodents—and migratory waterfowl, attracted to Poplar Island during their spring and fall trips along the Atlantic Flyway.
With the help of USFWS experts, Poplar Island is able to provide a range of Bay species with the safe nesting habitat that only a protected, well-managed island can.
Even sunken barges—placed here in the mid-1990s as “breakwaters” in an attempt to retain the island’s remnants—have become host to nesting ospreys and black-crowned night herons.
According to the USFWS, Poplar Island is well on its way to becoming a keystone wildlife refuge. “Poplar Island is an important refuge,” said USFWS biologist Pete McGowan, who specializes in waterfowl and island restoration. “There are species that are highly dependent on these remote island habitats. And this is a habitat type that is rapidly disappearing from the Chesapeake Bay. We need to do what we can to maximize the remaining island habitat that we have, and create new island habitat whenever possible.”
The Paul S. Sarbanes Ecosystem Restoration Project is scheduled for completion in 2041, with a final price tag estimated at $1.4 billion over 45 years. Rebuilding Poplar Island is an enormous, expensive and painstaking process—but its virtues of “beneficial use” have been extolled throughout the conservation and business communities alike, and it has become a "win-win" for the Bay and all the watershed provides.
View more photos on the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
On one of the last remaining islands of the Chesapeake Bay, generations of working watermen have found a home.
Settled in the late seventeenth century, Tangier Island spans a five-mile stretch of water and has never supported more than 1,500 people. Its small size and relative isolation have allowed its residents to maintain a close connection to the past, keeping old customs and a distinct Tidewater dialect alive.
Modern families—with surnames like Crockett, Pruitt, Parks and Dise—can trace their lineage back hundreds of years, and the island’s economy remains tied to the harvest of crabs, fish and oysters. But these tenuous traditions are threatened by worsening water quality and sea-level rise.
In December, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team called together decision-makers and watermen for a shared meal and stakeholders’ discussion at one of Tangier Island’s four sit-down restaurants.
Watermen from Tangier and neighboring Smith Island spoke of the problems they see in and on the Bay and how they might be more involved in the management decisions that directly impact their livelihoods.
Held in the community in which these watermen live and work, the meeting allowed many of them to speak and be heard in a new and significant way.
One of the most pressing problems for the watermen is the flow of sediment into the Bay. As sediment runs off of land and into the water, sand and silt block sunlight from reaching the grass beds that offer shedding blue crabs refuge when their soft shells make them most vulnerable.
Soft-shell crabs are critical to the Tangier Island economy. And a loss of grass beds—which one waterman called “the life blood of the Chesapeake Bay”—could mean a loss of soft-shell crabs. “The habitat,” a second waterman said. “It just ain’t there.”
Seawalls have been put in place to slow the erosion of the island. But as sea levels rise, the land sinks and storms like Sandy, Irene and Isabel grow stronger and more frequent, Tangier continues to wash away.
The northernmost portion of Tangier Island is called Uppards. Once home to a store, a school, a church and a collection of homes, the life of Uppards has disappeared, leaving behind one tumbledown trailer and stretches of marsh, sand and beach.
In October, a small cemetery was uncovered on Uppards by the winds and waves of Superstorm Sandy. Headstones in the graveyard bear the common surname Pruitt. The once-buried bones of those who died in the 1880s are now visible aboveground.
This fall, Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell and officials from the Army Corps of Engineers pledged to build a $4.2 million jetty that will protect the island’s harbor. Some see the long-awaited initiative as a beacon of hope, while others believe it serves only to slow inevitable erosion.
As Tangier Island shrinks, the costs of fuel and gear and living rise, placing further pressure on the island’s aging watermen.
But what career alternatives does a waterman have? Some take jobs aboard tug boats. Other host tours for visitors from the mainland. And still others have found work as captains and educators at island study centers operated by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
But most Tangier residents would find it difficult to obtain work off the island, where a 45-minute ride on a ferry or mail boat is needed to make it to the nearest town. One waterman lamented this lack of options: “We don’t have the opportunity to get a land job.”
A dependence on the fish and shellfish of the Bay has created a conservation ethic in many Tangier watermen, including Tangier Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge. Eskridge spoke of the importance of restoration efforts in a time of environmental change, and of preserving natural resources in order to preserve Tangier careers and culture: “A sustainable resource is more important to a waterman than anyone else.”
Access high-resolution images of Tangier Island on the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.