The R/V Rachel Carson is docked on Solomons Island. At 81 feet long, the red and blue research vessel stands out against the deadrise workboats that share the Patuxent River marina. Her mission today is to lead researchers from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) to the Chesapeake Bay’s dead zone.
Every summer, this so-called “dead zone” forms in the main stem of the Bay. The area of low-oxygen water is created by bacteria as they feed on algae blooms growing in nutrient-rich water. The dead zone persists through the warm summer months because the Bay is stratified into two layers: a surface layer of lighter, fresher water that mixes with the atmosphere, and a bottom layer of denser, saltier water, where oxygen depletion persists. These layers won’t mix until the cooler temperatures of autumn allow the surface waters to sink.
To find the dead zone, Director of Marine Operations and Rachel Carson Captain Michael H. Hulme takes us to one of the deep troughs that run down the center of the Bay. Geologic remnants of the ancient Susquehanna River, these troughs can reach up to 174 feet deep in an estuary whose average depth is just 21 feet. Hulme anchors offshore of Calvert Cliffs State Park.
The boat is equipped with a dynamic positioning system, which holds it in place regardless of wind or waves. This allows the captain to step away from the helm and offer his hands on deck. “Being able to hover over that [specific] latitude and longitude is what makes the Rachel Carson so unique,” said Hulme. It’s also one of the reasons the vessel is so useful to scientists, who often return to the same sampling site again and again over time.
UMCES Senior Faculty Research Assistant David Loewensteiner drops a CTD overboard. The oceanography instrument takes eight measurements per second, tracking conductivity, temperature and depth as it is lowered through the water. Connected to the ship with a cable, the CTD sends data to a laptop in the boat’s dry lab. We measure 2.04 mg/L of dissolved oxygen in surface water, and just 0.33 mg/L at 98 feet deep. Critters need concentrations of 5 mg/L or more to thrive; these are “classic dead zone” conditions.
Dead zones are bad for the Bay. Like animals on land, underwater critters need oxygen to survive. In a dead zone, immobile shellfish suffocate and those fish that can swim are displaced into more hospitable waters. “If you were a self-respecting fish and oxygen was [low], what would you do?” asked Bill Dennison, Vice President for Science Applications and Professor at UMCES. “Swim away.”
First reported in the 1930s, the appearance of the dead zone in the Bay is linked to our actions on land: as we replace forests with cities, suburbs and farms, we increase the amount of nutrients entering rivers and streams. This fuels the growth of algae blooms that lead to dead zones. “Hypoxia [or low-oxygen conditions] is driven by what we do on the watershed,” said UMCES Assistant Professor Jeremy Testa. “The Bay is naturally set up to generate hypoxia because of that [stratification] feature. That said… when there were no people here, there was not much hypoxia.”
While it is our actions on land that created the dead zone, it is our actions on land that can make the dead zone go away. Research has shown that certain pollution-reducing practices—like upgrading wastewater treatment plants, lowering vehicle and power plant emissions and reducing runoff from farmland—can improve the health of local rivers and streams. Scientists have also traced a decline in the duration of the dead zone from five months to four, which suggests that conservation practices gaining traction across the watershed could have very real benefits for the entire Bay.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by E. Guy Stephens/Southern Maryland Photography. Captions by Catherine Krikstan.
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.
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.
For close to 50 years, Nick Carter has owned 33 acres on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Aside from a house, a few sheds and a trail or two, much of this land has returned to its natural state: former farm fields have become bogs, wetlands and forests, pushed along by natural growth and Carter’s deep-seated desire to create healthy habitat and clean water.
Carter’s property runs next to the Choptank River, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay. Close to one-third of the Choptank watershed is forested, covered with the tree-and-shrub-filled habitat considered the most beneficial land use for the Bay. Forests absorb airborne pollutants, keep nutrients and sediment from entering our rivers and streams, and provide food, shelter and safe migration paths for wildlife. It is for these reasons that Carter has allowed forests to dominate his land.
“I’d like to see this little bit of property go back to old growth,” Carter said, referring to a type of forest that has evaded unnatural changes for a century or two. Carter and his wife purchased their property when he finished graduate school in 1966. For 35 years, Carter worked as a fish biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Now, he offers informal tours to naturalists, native plant societies and school groups, carrying along a walking stick that effectively points out the things visitors might not notice.
Take the plants, for example. There are 250 species on Carter’s property, and in one two-hour walk it seems he can point out most of them. There are spring ephemera like jack-in-the-pulpit and pink lady’s slipper, the latter of which has a relationship with underground fungi that make them almost impossible to transplant. There are cinnamon ferns and sphagnum moss in a bog that Carter is particularly proud of because he created it with the simple act of laying down a few logs to form a makeshift dam. And there are the pine and oak trees that dominate the upland woods, including the willow oak whose acorns are so small that blue jays can pick them up and carry them in their beaks.
Then there are the reptiles and amphibians. Carter has counted 30 species of these, from the tree and wood frogs that favor damp habitat to the broad-headed skink and Eastern fence lizard that like forests with abundant leaf litter. Leaves that litter the ground conserve water, recycle nutrients and offer shelter to small critters. Its presence on Carter’s land can be felt as soon as you step from the hard pavement of Draper’s Mill Road to the soft, spongy forest floor.
Carter’s woods are home to charismatic fauna, too, including 30 species of mammals and 85 species of birds. Because so much of the property is forested, it serves as suitable habitat for “forest interior dwelling” birds, or those birds that need the moderate temperatures and light levels found deep within the woods. Carter has spotted pine warblers, prothonotary warblers and ovenbirds, but on our walk we spotted a bird that was much bigger and a little less particular about its habitat: a female wild turkey on her nest in a grove of skunk cabbage.
These critters flourish here because Carter has done so little to disrupt the natural processes of the world around him, aside from building the dam that led to the bog and managing some invasive species. While Maryland’s white-tailed deer often chew up low-growing plants, changing the structure of area forests, Carter’s dogs have warded them off with their loud howls. And when invasive plants like autumn olive, oriental bittersweet, English ivy and bush honeysuckle start to grow, Carter steps in to exert control. “Some I spray, some I cut, some I pull,” he said.
The changes that have taken place on Carter’s land present a classic case of succession: disturbed ground is replaced by shrubs, shrubs are replaced by pines and pines are replaced by hardwoods. In other words, this land works “the way it ought to work,” Carter said. And it reminds us of the habitats the Maintain Healthy Watersheds Goal Implementation Team is working to preserve in order to demonstrate the challenge of protecting streams.
Carter’s work to bring people onto his property could help further this goal, as he shares knowledge that can inform and inspire his visitors. “Here’s a little piece of land on which I can make all the rules,” Carter said. “Here, I can make this land good for the Bay and its rivers. And I can show people what’s good for the Bay and its rivers.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by Steve Droter and Jenna Valente. Captions by Catherine Krikstan.
Winter can be a wonderful season for bird watchers and wildlife seekers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Parks, wildlife refuges and backyards around the region provide a range of habitats for animals that have adapted to spend the cold winter months in the mid-Atlantic.
Game species like the white-tailed deer and wild turkey are often seen in wildlife refuges and agricultural fields adjacent to wooded areas, where they can find protective cover and food. Both deer and turkeys can be found throughout the watershed year-round and are valued by the region’s many hunters.
While cold-blooded species—insects, worms, reptiles and amphibians—and some mammals—the black bear, woodchuck and chipmunk—hibernate in the winter, mammals like the muskrat, gray squirrel and fox remain active and visible year-round.
The Delmarva fox squirrel is another such mammal. The endangered species can be found in small, isolated populations on the Delmarva Peninsula, and forages for nuts, seeds and acorns in quiet wooded areas throughout the year.
The Bay is renowned for its waterfowl habitat and is visited each year by an estimated 75 percent of the waterfowl that migrate along the Atlantic flyway. According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), approximately 1 million ducks, geese and swans overwinter in the watershed.
The most prolific species of migratory waterfowl in the watershed is the Canada goose. Frequently seen in farm fields and near lakes, rivers and streams, they are an important game species that, because of their foraging habits, can damage farms and vital habitats when gathered in excessive numbers. A lack of natural predators and an increase in available food during winter months means that some Canada geese now reside in the area year-round.
Snow geese and tundra swans breed in the Arctic, travel down the Atlantic flyway and overwinter along the Bay. Although the white birds may look alike at first glance, snow geese are smaller and stouter and travel in large flocks. Tundra swans, on the other hand, are larger birds with long necks and black bills. Both species can be seen near open water or blanketing agricultural fields while foraging for food
Even the Bay’s shoreline remains an active habitat during the winter. From the coast, surf scoters and other sea ducks can be seen diving for buried crustaceans.
Iconic wading birds like the great blue heron and great egret make for memorable viewing experiences. Found at wildlife refuges and along rivers and streams, the long-legged birds move slowly while hunting for food, but strike quickly at fish, frogs and other prey.
Forests make up 55 percent of the watershed and in winter support several species of woodpeckers, including the red-bellied woodpecker and the yellow-bellied sapsucker.
Downy woodpeckers are the smallest of all North American woodpeckers. They can be found clinging to trees and visiting backyard feeders near wooded areas.
Several species of warblers live in the brushy areas of the watershed’s woods, but only the yellow-rumped warbler remains in the region through the winter. Warblers feed mainly on insects, but have adapted to eat fruit—particularly bayberries—during cold months.
Passerines or perching birds like the Northern cardinal, black-capped chickadee and tufted titmouse are common throughout the watershed and, thanks to their tendency to visit backyard bird feeders, can provide an accessible and rewarding wildlife viewing experience.
Each with its own unique song and behavior, birds like the Carolina wren, white-throated sparrow and white-breasted nuthatch also frequent backyard bird feeders during winter months when their natural food sources of seeds, fruit, nectar and insects are scarce.
To learn more about wildlife in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, visit our online Field Guide.
To view more photos in this set, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by Steve Droter. Captions by Jenna Valente.
At sunrise, the Roughwater heads out of its Solomons Island harbor and onto the Patuxent River. Driven by a captain who has worked the Chesapeake Bay for two decades, the boat stops over an unseen reef. Simon Dean and his crew—Brian Elder and Jason Williams—are wearing waterproof bibs and white rubber boots, and are ready to bring in oysters.
Known as patent tonging, the work that takes place on the Roughwater moves in one fluid motion: hydraulic tongs enter the water, grab a mess of oysters and dump them with a crash onto a metal culling table. Three-inch grooves built into the table’s edge help the crew cull, or sort the oysters by size. Good oysters are tossed into a plastic basket, while too-small bivalves and empty shells go back overboard.
The patent tongs are controlled by foot pedals: one pushes the tongs up and down, while the other swings them open and closed. “At the end of the day, your feet are more tired than your hands,” Dean said.
As a waterman, Dean’s work is dependent on the seasons. During the winter, he oysters. During the summer, he crabs and takes fishing parties out on the Bay. He bought the Roughwater in 2009, and was “running everybody else’s boat before that.”
Wooden-handled culling hammers help Dean and his crew knock undersized oysters off of bigger bivalves. Young oysters attach themselves to adults in order to grow, forming dense reefs that offer habitat to fish, crabs and other critters. While concrete is often used to construct artificial reefs, shell makes the best substrate for spat.
Watermen must work to “get as much shell off as you can,” Dean said. In part, this is because buyers prefer the look of a clean oyster. And in part, it is because shell must go back into the Bay, where it will provide a new place for young oysters to settle.
In an effort to restore natural oyster populations to the Bay, shell recycling programs have popped up across the region and lawmakers have established oyster sanctuaries and strengthened harvesting restrictions. But this seems to have fueled tension between states and the industry and fed the belief that watermen often work in conflict with the law.
Dean and his wife, Rachel, are working to change this oft-held perception, using heritage tourism to teach both children and adults about estuarine life and the role that watermen play in the region’s history and economy. “We’re not poachers. We’re not outlaws. We’re not thieves,” Dean said. And he hopes that Solomons Island Heritage Tours will “break down that stigma that watermen have [against them].”
Dean and his crew don’t have time for conversation while the tongs are running. Dean thinks about how he will sell his oysters, and how he will compete with other watermen. By the end of the day, they have reached their patent tonging limit: 15 bushels per license, with two licenses per boat. Dean will sell some of these to restaurants and some to individuals. But will he ever keep any for himself? “I like them,” Dean said. But when it comes to eating them, “I just don’t have time.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by E. Guy Stephens/Southern Maryland Photography.
Captions by Catherine Krikstan.
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.
Gulls call to each other, belted kingfishers swoop down into the seagrass, monarchs chase the wind, and Alicia and I snap photographs of as much of it as we can. Fisherman Island is only open to the public during this time of year, and it is very likely that this trip will be our only opportunity to visit the tiny island at the southernmost tip of the Delmarva Peninsula.
Although thousands of motorists pass over the 1,850-acre land mass each day as they drive across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, few of them know that this area is one of only 17 sites classified as a “wetland of international importance.” Thousands of migratory birds stop here each fall and spring, and monarchs feed on native plants as they make their winter trip to Latin America.
The refuge is closed to the public because many of these species, such as brown pelicans and royal terns, are sensitive to threats from humans.
The Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge, part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, manages Fisherman Island. Refuge law enforcement makes sure that the public – and yes, even fishermen – stay away.
Alicia and I were afforded access to Fisherman Island through Chesapeake Experience, a non-profit organization that offers summer camps, eco paddles, corporate retreats and experience-based environmental education for educators and students. Chesapeake Experience Director Jill Bieri and two refuge staff members led a morning walk on the island’s nearly unspoiled beach and an afternoon kayak tour from the Chesapeake to the Atlantic.
But this trip is a different kind of Chesapeake experience for us, coming from Annapolis, where the Bay’s brackish water forms a distinctive landscape.
Most of the tour participants are avid birders and have come prepared with binoculars. We see many yellow-rumped warblers, or “butter rumps,” (Dendroica coronate) squeaking back and forth across the path.
There are plenty of other interesting features to observe at Fisherman Island, including:
Although we find treasures that we’re not likely to see in Annapolis, we also saw something disappointing: plastic bags that have washed up on shore and are now buried deeply in the sand.
To me, this illustrates why efforts to restore the Bay need to collaborative, involving agencies like the Fish and Wildlife Service, non-profits like Chesapeake Experience, and regular people like you and me. Although this tract of land is hardly touched by the public, and managed meticulously by the government, it is still vulnerable to the pollution that is happening throughout the Bay.
That afternoon, we paddle to where the Chesapeake Bay pours into the Atlantic Ocean, following the meandering path of the water through the marsh. Sitting on my kayak in this water, I feel it drift in and out of the Bay, and realize that the boundary lines between ocean and bay are fuzzy, or even, invisible.
A great blue heron watches us kayak into the waves. Our group slowly paddles to him, waiting for his five-foot wing span to cast a shadow over us. His flight makes our cameras snap and mouths hang open.
Jill instructs us to turn back before the waves get too rough. After all, we’re only novice kayakers!
Our homeward bound drive along Route 13 reveals abandoned homes alongside tents selling Virginia pecans, fireworks and cigarettes, all of them advertising their products with home-made, home-painted signs dotting the side of the road.
Mobile homes, their porches decorated with pots and pans and people in rocking chairs, sit on large tracts of land that I imagine to once have been profitable tobacco or cotton farms.
As the sun sets, these surroundings disappear, and we have only the stars to look at until we reach Annapolis.
“Video guy” Matt and I hop in his truck one Monday morning. It is 85 degrees outside (and it’s only 9 a.m.), and although an air conditioned office can offer some relief, Matt’s idea sounds much better. Today’s adventure? Chasing waterfalls. (That’s right, just like that TLC song, circa 1995).
Annapolis has plenty of water, but most of it is too still and too calm (although, as a newcomer to the area, I am constantly surprised by the number of bridges I cross on my daily errands). We are headed to Cunningham Falls State Park in the Catoctin Mountains, an area just where the farmland surrounding Route 15 meets the Appalachians.
Before I know it, we have left the bustle of the DC-Baltimore-Annapolis area behind and we are climbing up a hill so steep that other hikers are using some sort of ski-pole-like device to help them grab the terrain. Gigantic rocks surround us on both sides. They were probably formed during some Ice Age, Matt and I decide – a dramatic environmental event that has left its remnants for us to climb! It’s not long before I am covered in sweat.
Eventually, the terrain levels out and we hear the sound of water…running water!
I rush towards it, following Matt down the path. He stops me short, making a SHHH! signal. He is taking photos of two pileated woodpeckers. The birds are larger than I had expected, and there are two them, pecking away at a log. It is a rare opportunity for me to run into a creature in its natural state like this, and we shoot away (with the camera, that is).
We are joined by others at the falls, most of them children. I feel like one as I crawl up the gigantic rocks, which have been smoothed out by years of water running over them. The water is trickling down from somewhere I cannot see, but it is clearer than any water I’ve seen in a long time. I take off my shoes and soak it up. This beats air conditioning.
On our way home, we pass farm stand after farm stand, and with a little bit of memory from my college days (Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md.) and a little luck, we find our way to a few local orchards. One displays a “calendar” of pears and apples that are scheduled to appear; I make note of “pink lady” and promise the lady selling us peaches that I will be back.
To be honest, I was kicking myself a little bit after our latest photo trip. I realized how dumb I have been for not visiting Patapsco Valley State Park in the one and a half years I've lived here.
When living in an urban environment, you sometimes forget what clean, fresh air feels like. I definitely felt healthier the day of the trip, being surrounded by so many trees and other living things.
I wasn't the only one trying to get out and enjoy the nice weather. We saw a number of hikers, bikers, fisherman and families taking to the trails. The park has multiple waterfalls, picnic areas, and plenty of walkways to check out.
I would strongly recommend visiting Patapsco Valley State Park if you live nearby. They are actually having a volunteer fair this Saturday (May 7th) from 10-1. According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources website, you will be able to “Explore all the volunteer opportunities available including volunteer rangers, photographers, camp hosts, trail workers, naturalists and much more!”
We want to hear from you! What are your favorite Chesapeake Bay-region parks to visit when the weather is nice?
I have come across quite a few hobbies and crafts in my day that I never knew existed. When we visited the Decoy Museum in Havre de Grace recently, I was introduced to yet another.
If you haven’t had a chance to check out the museum and you are in the area, I would suggest taking a few minutes out of your day to do so. The decoys really are works of art.
The museum displays hundreds of these creations, but also gives a detailed history of the art form itself. You can see a few examples in the photo slideshow below.
While we were there, we took some time to get out and take some pictures of the shoreline and wildlife. As the weather continues to warm, we look for more and more of these opportunities.
Do you have any memories associated with decoys or waterfowl? We’d love to hear from you, leave a response below.
Don't shoot the messenger if I'm wrong, but I think spring is just around the corner. Recently we’ve been teased with a few days that may be a sign that this miserable cold weather really won’t last forever. One of those days happened a few Mondays ago.
There is nothing better than kicking your week off with a photo trip, especially when the weather cooperates. This time, we headed out to the Chesapeake Exploration Center on Kent Island at sunrise and followed the paths down to the water.
The plan was to capture some photos of wintering birds. However, it was a windy day so the birds must have been hanging out somewhere secluded.
Birds or no birds, I think we still managed to get a few high-quality shots to add to our online image library. You can see photos we captured in the slideshow below.
Some of the other photos featured were taken at the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center, about 10 minutes away in Grasonville.
As you can see in some of our photos, there is quite a bit of trash in these beautiful places. This leads me to a perfect opportunity to plug the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay’s Project Clean Stream. On April 2, dozens of organized cleanups will take place throughout the Bay region to rid our local waterways of some of this pollution. Visit the Project Clean Stream website to see a map of all the cleanup locations and find the one that is closest to you.
Since we are sharing our photos with you, we would love to see links to some of your photos as well. Do you have any pictures of birds that winter the Chesapeake region? Or photos of you and a team participating in a stream cleanup? Leave links to them in the comments!
At this point in winter, we're all looking forward to spring. But until warmer weather arrives, why not enjoy the beauty of winter before it's gone for another nine months?
We've collected seven fantastic photographs from Flickr that showcase the best of the Chesapeake Bay watershed in winter. Those who venture out on winter's coldest days are often rewarded with beautiful and unique photographs. Take a look at the photos we chose, and leave us a link to your own winter Bay photos in the comments.
Taken along the banks of the Chesapeake Bay, the photographer captures an interesting winter phenomenon. Not only have the waves that usually lap against the shore frozen solid, the ripples that they normally create look like they have been frozen in time. Having the picture in black and white just makes the image all the more interesting.
This photograph of the Potomac River in January is a great example of finding beauty during the darkest season. The sun’s orange rays on the tree line bring color to a cold winter day, when the Potomac has almost completely frozen over.
Located on the site of the old Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company, Great Falls is where the Potomac River picks up speed and runs over steep and jagged rocks into Mather Gorge. The park has amazing views from three different trails around Great Falls, one of which is where this stunning photo was snapped.
M.V. Jantzen took this picture from Georgetown Waterfront Park, a former shipping port condemned for a new interstate highway that was never built. The land was reclaimed in 1968 and converted into a park for people to bike, walk, row and enjoy the Potomac waterfront. Looking out at Rosslyn, Virginia, and the Key Bridge, the bright blue sky above the frozen Potomac River makes this a perfect winter picture.
The canvasback is one of many waterfowl that maketheir winter home on the Chesapeake Bay. A diving duck, canvasbacks use their strong webbed feet to dive down and grab bay grasses, which make up the majority of their diet. In the 1950s, more than 500,000 canvasbacks wintered in the Bay, but due to the gradual decline in bay grass acreage, their population has dwindled. This canvasback, photographed on the Choptank River, looks like he must have just come up from a dive! Someone get that duck a tissue!
Who doesn’t love a good sunset picture? This picture was taken in Crisfield, Maryland, looking out at the setting sun over Tangier Sound. The colors, clouds and shadows create a relaxing scene that makes you want to curl up with some hot chocolate and watch the sun go down.
Taken along the Turkey Hill trail, which winds along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, this picture shows everything about winter in the Bay’s watershed. The bare tree branches, frozen river and snow cover highlighted in the light pink and purple sky look majestic. I would say this is a view worth putting layers on for!
Looking for more beautiful winter pictures of the Chesapeake Bay? Check out this post by local blogger Molly for some icy, snowy Bay pictures from the early 1930s through the 1970s.
The second annual Choose Clean Water Conference was my destination last Tuesday. The conference had some interesting trips planned around the D.C. area to showcase urban development. Being a baseball fan, I naturally went on a tour of the Washington Nationals stadium.
The first thing to note about the ballpark is that it is located right on the Anacostia River. Because of this, the tour guide informed us, the stadium engineers focused greatly on limiting stormwater runoff. The stadium has a filtration system “that separates water used for cleaning the ballpark from rainwater falling on the ballpark.” Both sources of water are treated before they are released to local sewer and stormwater systems.
The ballpark also uses many water-conserving features, such as dual-flush toilets. According to our tour guide, these features save an estimated 3.6 million gallons of water per year and reduce overall water consumption by 30 percent.
In addition to saving water and reducing pollution, the ballpark conserves energy by using special light fixtures. The ballpark uses a projected 21 percent less energy than typical baseball field lighting.
The ballpark also has a small but impressive green roof just over the fence in left field.
As we toured the facility, it was obvious that our tour guide was just as proud of the stadium’s greening techniques as I am to be a Yankees fan. Nationals Stadium became the first LEED Certified Silver ballpark upon completion in 2008.
One last thing that I thought was pretty cool is that they actually offer a bicycle valet. You can cruise in on your bike, drop it off at the valet, then pick it back up after the game.
After we finished the tour, we walked over to Yards Park, a new waterfront park just a couple of blocks from the stadium. On the way to the park, we passed a few swales in the sidewalk. These grassy areas were intentionally lowered to allow stormwater to be absorbed more easily.
Yards Park is definitely one of the coolest places I have been in D.C. It has a modern design and offers open air in an urban environment. You can see some of the vegetation by the riverbank in the slideshow.
If you would like more information about Nationals Park’s sustainable approaches, visit the team’s official website to view a diagram.
I gotta say… December 3 was not the nicest day ever to go out and shoot some pics, but it was well worth it anyway. Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary, located in Upper Marlboro, Md., was our first destination.
What’s great about Merkle is that it is huge and has plenty of trails to explore. It is perfect for hikers, bikers, and photographers. Many of the trails lead right out to the Patuxent River (which I unfortunately got too close to and stepped in within our first hour of walking).
Unfortunately, we missed the fall foliage by just a couple weeks, but we did have a chance to see some awesome sights. The clouds were abundant at sunrise and it made for some very interesting light. My coworker Alicia and I were overwhelmed by the amount of Canada geese. We captured some photos to illustrate exactly how many we saw (you can see them in the slide show above).
It was kind of crazy when we saw two white-tailed deer appear from the woods and run through a huge flock of these geese. All of a sudden, hundreds and hundreds of geese burst into flight going every which way. This made for some cool shots when mixed with the emerging sun.
After a few hours of exploration, the cold won out and we decided to work our way back to the heated car. Unfortunately, the Visitors’ Center was closed but some nice lady working there let me at least come in and run my shoes and socks under the hand dryer for a few minutes. Then it was on to the next destination, Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary, just northeast of Merkle.
I’m gonna guess that Jug Bay is pretty awesome in late fall or early spring, unfortunately we missed both those time periods. This is one place that I will definitely put on my list to check out when the leaves come back. Jug Bay, like many of the Chesapeake Bay Gateway sites, is a perfect way to escape the crazy, hectic, complex lifestyle and get back to appreciating things for their simplicity and natural beauty.
I would highly recommend visiting either of these locations for a number of reasons. Visits to places like Merkle and Jug Bay get you outdoors and experiencing all that the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries have to offer. After all, how are we going to start protecting and restoring the Bay the way we should until we start understanding and appreciating all that it offers?
If you have been to Tangier Island, feel free to skip this post. However, if you were like me and planned on visiting forever but never got around to it, read on, my friend.
I had the opportunity to join the Chesapeake Bay Foundation a few weekends ago on their venture out to Port Isobel, just east of Tangier Island. The foundation was conducting a weekend workshop for students who graduated from their VOICES program; I just tagged along to shoot some pics.
Let me start by saying that the sunrises and sunsets are ridiculous! As a photographer, I wouldn’t say my favorite genre is shooting these types of landscapes. But honestly, you can’t help it at Tangier.
The first thing that came to mind when I walked onto the island itself was, “Wow, no way does a mix of Pleasantville and the 1950s still exist like this in the world.” Contrary to my assumptions, it does.
Now, granted I am only 23 and thus my previous statement is void (being as that I never saw the 1950s), I still concluded that this is one of the most unique places I have ever been. The island is home to about 500 residents and almost as many golf carts. Throw in the population of cats, and you have yourself a pretty populated little town.
The main street is a continuous line of crab shacks. It’s incredible. Many commercial watermen still call Tangier home. The question is, for how long?
I had the pleasure of meeting a local from Tangier, Captain Charles, who walked me around the island and talked to me about Tangier’s past, present, and future. He said he could trace his family roots on Tangier back to the 1700s.
With the erosion that is slowly eating away at the island, and the number of residents moving to the mainland, it makes you question how much longer this unique and special culture can continue to exist. When you add on regulations for watermen and increasing costs involved with the industry, it begs the question… does Tangier Island have the ability to sustain itself?
You’ve probably seen the ESPN commercials that feature Tangier Island. The locals seem extremely appreciative of tourism and the support that comes from it. However, tourists come to see why the island is unique, and with the loss of the watermen and crabbing culture, that uniqueness may continue to slip.
Despite all that, you would think the folks on the island don’t have a care in the world. They are an extremely friendly group of people that are proud of their heritage and the land they grew up on.
I strongly suggest making a trip out to Tangier Island if you have a weekend, or even a night, to spare. There are several bed and breakfasts on the island where you can stay. The heritage museum is a must-see as well; the works from a few “artists in residence” are more than worth checking out.