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Mahogany Tides Are Back in the Bay

I first noticed it last weekend while paddling a kayak in the Chesapeake Bay off Ocean View in Norfolk, Va.  The water looked distinctly brown, as if someone had poured coffee or tea into it.

Standing on the beach a bit later, I could see large patches of the dark water just offshore. Sure enough, as Chesapeake Bay Foundation colleagues, area scientists, and news reports soon confirmed, algal blooms had returned this summer to Hampton Roads waterways.  

These are not welcome summertime visitors. The large, intense outbreaks of algae are the result of warm weather and too much Chesapeake Bay pollution – excess nitrogen and phosphorus. The combination fuels the growth of microscopic floating algae – in this case a species called Cochlodinium polykrikoides, a dinoflagellate that in large enough numbers can create what are called “mahogany tides,” the dark brown patches I was seeing from my kayak.

These explosions of algae are not only yucky to look at; they also can be harmful to the Bay. Some algal blooms are toxic and can kill fish, crabs, and oysters; some can cause skin rashes, gastric disorders, and other health problems for people who come in contact with them.

Other blooms aren’t poisonous but can be so dense they cloud the water, blocking the sunlight that is vital to the health of the Bay’s underwater grasses. Bay grasses have declined dramatically because the Bay’s water clarity has declined dramatically. Murky water is caused in part by excess algae spawned by excess pollution.

So what if the Bay is murky and has fewer underwater grasses? If you are a Chesapeake Bay blue crab – or someone who enjoys eating them -- underwater grasses are a big deal. Underwater grasses are where little crabs go to hide and grow into the big crabs people like to catch and eat. So here’s a simple equation to remember: fewer grasses = fewer crabs.

AlgalBloom8_11_10%20065 Another issue: when the algae die off after blooms like the ones in Hampton Roads, their decomposition robs the water of dissolved oxygen, creating the Bay’s infamous “dead zones” where water has so little oxygen oysters, crabs, and fish cannot survive.

As disconcerting as this week’s algal blooms appear from my kayak, they look downright ominous seen from the cockpit of an airplane. That’s the vantage point that CBF Hampton Roads Director Christy Everett had Wednesday while flying over Hampton Roads with Daily Press reporter Cory Nealon and veteran pilot and CBF friend Fred Bashara of Norfolk.

“Although I’ve witnessed algal blooms from Fred’s plane before, I was shocked to see how pervasive they are this summer,” Christy said after their flight. “These ugly massive swirls of reddish brown algae are stark reminders of why we need to reduce pollution from all sources.”

Reducing Bay pollution is precisely the goal of the Chesapeake Clean Water Act now in Congress.  If AlgalBloom8_11_10%20121 passed, the act would give states flexibility to reduce pollution from all sources and provide funding incentives and penalties to do so. And for the first time, the bill would set real deadlines for Virginia and the other Bay states to develop detailed pollution reduction plans, implement them, and restore the Bay by 2025.

As you might guess, those who feel threatened by a law that holds everyone accountable for reducing pollution are opposed to the bill. These principally are the national and state Farm Bureau federations, which have undertaken a campaign of misinformation and distortion to convince members of Congress to oppose it.

CBF and Senator Ben Cardin, the Senate's chief patron of the Chesapeake Clean Water Act, are working hard to share the facts about the legislation, including independent studies that have found the legislation would help, not hurt, the economy and provide desperately needed jobs for the Bay region.

If you want to help the Bay today, write a note or make a phone call to Virginia’s two U.S. Senators, Mark Warner and Jim Webb, and tell them to support the Chesapeake Clean Water Act.

As CBF’s Christy Everett concluded, “If the Chesapeake Clean Water Act passes, I trust that one day when I fly over Hampton Roads on a hot August day, those ugly algal blooms will be a faded memory, not a predictable reality.”

By Chuck Epes

(Top and bottom photos by Morgan Heim, iLCP; others by Christy Everett/CBF.)



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If we could only take every elected offical, farmer, howm oner grass freak, and developer out on the bay and have them take a swim in one of the mahogany Tides then something might just happen to stop the run-off.'re right. You can't possibly experience one of these massive algal blooms without concluding something is seriously wrong with the Bay. I hope enough elected officials, homeowners, and developers are paying attention. Thank you for speaking up! Speaking of speaking up, I recommend everyone take a look at an excellent column last week in the Baltimore Sun. Great piece.,0,2005253.story
Chuck Epes

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