The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Summertime Fishing

Locklear Story 0416 II Sam Loustanua"How will I know when a fish bites?" "Young Sam" asked his grandfather, Sam Locklear. Both Sams and younger brother, Nate, were fishing the Severn River with me last summer. It's always a treat to have enthusiastic ten- and seven-year-old anglers aboard, especially when a trip starts like this one. The words were hardly out in the air before two chunky white perch climbed onto the teasers on Young Sam's line, nearly taking the rod out of his hands. 

We were fishing a 12-14-foot-deep restoration oyster reef near the U.S. Naval Academy. This particular reef, an underwater point jutting out into the channel, is an example of where oysters thrive. The reef is elevated in the water column where currents bring the oysters food, carry away waste, and attract other critters—like worms, barnacles, grass shrimp, and mud crabs—that in turn attract predators like white perch and rockfish. We could see the perch on my skiff's fishfinder. The Severn has more successful restoration reefs like this one—they form the happy side of this story. 

The other side isn't as pretty. With supper on ice, the Sams, Nate, and I went upriver to a 25-foot-deep reef that showed hard bottom but no fish. It's a survey site for an upcoming restoration project, so we got out an electronic temperature/salinity/oxygen meter and lowered its sensor's ten-meter cable to get a profile of the water column. As usual for summer here—and in too many other parts of the Chesapeake system—the dissolved oxygen measured below two milligrams per liter from the bottom up to about 15 feet. That's a lethal level for perch and rockfish and stressful even for crabs. In fact, on the bottom that day, the level was below 0.5 mg/l—low enough to kill worms. No wonder the fishfinder screen was blank below 15 feet. That's what a "dead zone" looks like. This is the ugly side of the story. It illustrates why we concentrate oyster restoration in shallower water. 

As Memorial Day approaches, we've got dead zones on our minds. But why do dead zones form each summer? From human-caused nitrogen pollution. Take a look at this excellent graphic from YSI, Inc. (the maker of my oxygen meter). It concentrates on the Gulf of Mexico, but the global map shows hypoxia ("the environmental phenomenon where the concentration of dissolved oxygen in the water column decreases to a level that can no longer support living aquatic organisms") all over the Earth, including the Chesapeake.

What can we do about it? We have a plan called the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, and it's slowly turning the bad stuff around while we celebrate successes like these new oyster reefs. Want to make sure that Young Sam, Nate, and thousands of other youngsters have a healthy Bay to grow up around? Click here to find out how you can help.

John Page Williams, CBF's Senior Naturalist

 


What's Bill Seeing in the Field: Opportunistic Eagles

For more than 30 years, CBF Educator and photographer Bill Portlock has been exploring, documenting, and teaching the wonders of the Chesapeake and its rivers and streams. With his vast, intimate knowledge and experience with the watershed, we thought who better to check in with about what he's seeing in the field right now . . .

Bill
On a recent spring morning, I was fortunate to be in my skiff on Cat Point Creek, a tidal tributary of the Rappahannock River in Richmond County, Virginia.

Eagle-rich Fones Cliffs, just four miles upstream from Cat Point Creek, is a unique Bald Eagle concentration zone, with thousands of eagles from Labrador to Florida as well as native Virginia birds using the area for nocturnal roosts, foraging, and (for residents) nesting. Many eagles spill over into Cat Point to forage on its abundant fish, primarily blue catfish and gizzard shad, but at this time of year there are migratory river herring and shad in the river. That the herring spring run to spawn is tied to bald eagle reproduction is yet another interwoven cycle of nature. It is a cornucopia of protein for a couple of months.

Bill1One eagle caught my attention that day by successfully capturing an alewife, a river herring just in from the ocean to spawn, in an oxbow of the creek. After the successful catch, he flew to a low branch over the water to eat his catch. Males are about 20 percent smaller than females, and when females are incubating eggs, males do most of the fishing. I allowed the ebbing tide to quietly drift me toward the scene. Today, this eagle was more focused on consuming his meal than paying attention to me.

Alewives and blueback herring are related to hickory and american shad and are members of the herring family (Clupeidae). These are anadromous fish, meaning they spend the majority of their adult lives at sea and migrate up coastal rivers in the spring to spawn in freshwater.

Bald eagles reproduce earlier than most birds in the Bay region, starting nest construction or repair in December and January. Egg laying and incubation takes place as early as December (and can run until March) in the Chesapeake Bay region. The hatching and rearing of young eagles takes place from March to June. Thus, the spawning run of herring and shad feed young eagles and the parents.

There were dozens of Wilson's snipe feeding on insect larvae, worms, and other invertebrates in the arrow arum marshes. These medium-sized shorebirds frequent the creek during winter before migrating north in April. Two pairs of blue-winged teal and a handsome pair of common mergansers were the only ducks present. But the main show on Cat Point that morning was this adult Bald Eagle capturing and eating this 12-inch river herring right in front of me.

4At one time in the not-too-distant past, coastal rivers supported thriving herring and shad industries, with millions of fish harvested each year. However, populations of these fishes declined dramatically in the last century due to dam obstructions, overharvesting, and pollution. The river herring fishery (which includes the alewife and the blueback herring) has been one of the most valuable in the Bay, with annual catches once exceeding 8 million pounds in Maryland and 30 million pounds in Virginia.

Opportunistic feeders, bald eagles also catch ducks, turtles, and small mammals (muskrat size). But fish make up the bulk of their diet, especially in warmer months. Availability of non-migratory gizzard shad and the introduced blue catfish make up the majority of prey captured now.

But on this day, a migratory alewife was the prey of this hungry eagle. Drifting slowly in my skiff to within 30 feet of the perched eagle, I was able to quietly watch and photograph the eagle. I  felt privileged to be there.   

—Photographs and Text by Bill Portlock, CBF Senior Educator

What else is Bill seeing in the field these days? Click here to see.

 


This Week in the Watershed

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Lovers of blue crab raised their hands (or claws) in triumph this week, after receiving the good news that a survey found Maryland's blue crab population has increased 35 percent. Photo by Brian Brown.

If the fight to save the Bay were a baseball season, there would be both victories and losses, with swings of momentum in every direction. These swings were witnessed in Maryland's General Assembly, presenting both successes and disappointments for clean water advocates over the 90-day session. Bad news first: the Poultry Litter Management Act (PLMA), a measure to hold large poultry integrators responsible for excess poultry manure, didn't get beyond committee hearings this year. Silver lining: the hearings for the PLMA started the conversation, and our fight to reduce phosphorus pollution in the Bay and Eastern Shore waterways is far from over.

Time for some good news: the Sustainable Oyster Harvest Act passed, which will provide critical pieces of scientific data still needed to help inform management of Maryland's public oyster fishery. Other good news: the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act has been signed into law, making Maryland one of the nation's leaders in greenhouse gas reduction; a budget passed favorable to many environmental agencies and programs that play key roles in Chesapeake Bay restoration, and several bad bills that would have endangered water quality were defeated. Learn more about the 2016 Maryland General Assembly.

In addition to the Annapolis happenings, there was more good and bad news from the watershed this week. Again, bad news first: we have known for some time the Susquehanna River is sick. The environmental group American Rivers agrees, declaring this week that the Susquehanna is the third most endangered river in the United States. A critical step to help the Susquehanna is officially listing it as an impaired waterway. An official impairment status will designate the river for additional study and new levels of investment in restoration. Stand with CBF and its partners in urging Governor Wolf and Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection to list the Lower Susquehanna River as impaired.

The good news: a survey by Maryland's Department of Natural Resources found that the blue crab population has grown 35 percent. While science tells us the current crab population is still below recommended levels, the increase in population is a positive sign of improving water quality by implementing the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.

As all baseball fans know, the season is quite long, and no team ever has, or ever will, go undefeated. But we will continue to fight for the Bay, and work to ensure along the way there are plenty more victories than defeats.

This Week in the Watershed: MDGA Closing Time, Threatened Susquehanna, and Growing Crabs

  • Students got their hands dirty learning how to build reef balls, critical structures in oyster restoration efforts. (Capital Gazette—MD)
  • Maryland's General Assembly wrapped up this week, with both victories and disappointments for clean water advocates. (Bay Journal)
  • Oysters are a keystone species of the Chesapeake Bay, but scientists don't have any data on just how many oysters are in the Bay. That is going to change with the passage of a bill in the Maryland General Assembly which commissions a study to provide such data. (Baltimore Sun—MD)
  • How we produce and consume food in the Chesapeake Bay watershed has a major impact on the health of the Chesapeake Bay, this editorial effectively argues. (Baltimore Sun—MD)
  • The Susquehanna River, the largest source of fresh water to the Bay, was named the third most endangered river in the United States by the group, American Rivers. (Lancaster Intelligencer Journal—PA)
  • Lovers of Maryland blue crab received good news this week, as a survey by Maryland's Department of Natural Resources found that the blue crab population has grown 35 percent. We're not in the clear, however, as science tells us the current crab population is still below recommended levels. (Baltimore Sun—MD) Bonus: CBF Statement
  • The seemingly never-ending struggle between increased development and preserving open space has visited Howard County, MD. (Baltimore Sun—MD)

What's Happening Around the Watershed?

April 16

  • Cambridge, MD: Help CBF make the Choptank River cleaner and safer for the whole community during this river cleanup event. All supplies will be provided. Families and groups are welcome to attend. Click here to register!

April 21

  • Shady Side, MD: Break a sweat and help save the Bay— join CBF in cleaning the "homes" of the next generation of Chesapeake Bay oysters! Help restore the Chesapeake's native oyster population by cleaning oyster shells (we call it "shell shaking") by shaking off the dirt and debris so baby oysters can successfully grow on them. This event is a bit of a workout, but a fun hands-on experience. With lifting involved, it is not recommended for individuals with a bad back or other health concerns. A tour of our restoration center will follow the shell shaking. RSVP to Pat Beall at PBeall@cbf.org or 443-482-2065. Click here for more information!

April 23

  • Monkton, MD: Come help CBF plant 1,200 trees to restore six acres of forest on this new farm. The Little Gunpowder is a natural reproducing trout stream, and the restoration of this farm will help protect this cold water fishery. No tree planting experience is necessary, and all materials and supplies are provided. Families and children are welcome. Click here to register!
  • Church Hill, MD: Come paddle with us on the Blackwater River in Dorchester County, Maryland. Blackwater River is a prime example of a healthy tidal Eastern Shore river, replete with large expanses of tidal marsh and pine forests. The wildlife is dominated by various species of bird life, including nesting bald eagles, ospreys, herons, and ducks. The paddle is comfortable and peaceful, offering up-close views of herons fishing in the shallows and ducks nesting in the many trees along the banks. All canoes and paddling equipment will be provided. Children ages 10 and up are welcome to register, but must be accompanied by an adult. This is a paddle for people of all skill levels. Click here to register!

April 24

  • Annapolis, MD: Check out the 2016 Earth-Water-Faith Festival—a fun, family-friendly, interactive, interfaith celebration of Earth Day. Enjoy live music from Third Sunday Band, The Harmonic Fifth, and The All Children's Chorus of Annapolis, as well as activities including a "Scales and Tales" animal program, an oyster water-filtering display, kids' T-shirt printing, and celebratory readings. Free and open to the public! Click here for more information!

April 28

  • Baltimore, MD: Join CBF at its 3rd Annual Baltimore Members Meeting! With trash ubiquitous in the streets and waters of Baltimore, the focus of this year's meeting is the trash epidemic, its connection to clean water, and some potential solutions. Special guest Julie Lawson, Executive Director of Trash Free Maryland, will talk about current efforts to reduce trash and waste through social marketing, good policy, and more. Food, beverages, and music included. Space is limited, register now!

May 1

  • Richmond, VA: Come on out for a Speakers Bureau training with CBF! With far more requests for speakers than we have staff or time, CBF relies on its Speakers Bureau volunteers to handle a variety of speaking opportunities. Whether you are current on the issues and ready to share our message, or just enjoy public speaking and would like to get trained, we welcome your commitment to this important and high-profile program. Join us to learn the facts and skills to share our mission to Save the Bay with local groups and organizations. We simply cannot do it alone! Click here to learn more and register!

 —Drew Robinson, CBF's Digital Media Associate


This Week in the Watershed

Oyster reef-1200
Oysters, a keystone species in the Chesapeake Bay, are the only public fishery not managed using scientific information. A new bill in the Maryland legislature seeks to change that. Photo by Dave Harp.

Oysters just might be the most important critter in the Chesapeake Bay. A keystone species, not only do they help clean the water (an adult oyster can filter 50 gallons of water every day!), oyster reefs also provide critical habitat for other fisheries. Despite the unique and critical role oysters play in water quality, they are the only major public fishery in the Bay that isn’t managed using scientific information. 

To add science to oyster management, several Maryland legislators have introduced a bill called the Sustainable Oyster Harvest Act of 2016. The bill would put the public oyster fishery on the path towards more sustainable, science-based management by requiring a new study to determine the current oyster population and recommend appropriate scientific indicators for management.

Currently, scientists can only roughly estimate how many oysters are in the Bay. Compared with other fisheries, our lack of knowledge of the oyster population is startling. To ensure there is a sustainable oyster fishery in the Bay for generations to come, we need to incorporate sound science in our policy decision making. Take action by telling your legislator right now that you think science should play a role in how Maryland manages its oyster harvest.

This Week in the Watershed: Oyster Science, Pennsylvania Headaches, and Osprey Eggs

  • Laws are only as good as their enforcement, as evidenced by the lack of oversight of "mud pollution" leaching from construction sites in Baltimore County. (Bay Journal)
  • Live-streaming webcams are bringing the world of ospreys to life, including a recently installed webcam at CBF's Merrill Center in Annapolis. (Daily Press—MD)
  • A bill in the Maryland legislature to commission a scientific study to determine sustainable harvest rates for Maryland oysters is not without controversy. (Bay Journal)
  • Without a doubt, Pennsylvania has a long way to go in monitoring and regulating pollution from its farms. (WYPR)
  • Fort Detrick in Maryland is attempting to be a model for effective stormwater management. (Frederick News-Post—MD)
  • A controversial proposed development in Maryland has received preliminary approval to move forward despite environmental concerns. (Capital Gazette—MD)
  • A survey of Pennsylvania farmers is attempting to identify how many farmers are implementing best management practices on their farms. (Reading Eagle—PA)
  • We couldn't agree more with this editorial advocating for using science in the management of Maryland's oyster fishery. (Capital Gazette—MD)
  • A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey revealed that ospreys are faring well despite traces of DDT and other chemicals being found in their eggs. Ospreys have made significant strides since an onslaught of DDT devastated their populations in the 1970s. (Baltimore Sun—MD)
  • Good news out of Maryland, as Governor Hogan signed bills reducing greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030 and restoring funding for a program to preserve open spaces. (Capital Gazette—MD)
  • The rise of raising chickens on an industrial scale on the Eastern Shore of Maryland has made small family farms raising chickens a thing of the past. As residents are finding out, this is not without consequences to clean water and public health. (Baltimore Sun—MD)

What's Happening Around the Watershed?

April 9

  • Frederick, MD: Come plant trees with CBF in Frederick! This project consists of the restoration of approximately 1,500 linear feet of the Little Tuscarora Creek. The stream system has been impacted by cattle in the stream, adjacent row-crop fields input of sediment, and the lack of a riparian buffer. No tree planting experience is necessary, and all materials and supplies are provided. Families and children welcome. Click here to register!

April 14

  • Wrightsville, PA: Join neighbors, businesses, and elected officials for a lively discussion about local clean water issues. This event is open to all residents of the Commonwealth looking to make a difference in their local community and to take action for clean water. This town hall reception will be a forum where local elected officials will address constituents' concerns about water quality in York County. Click here to register!

April 15

  • Spring Mills, PA: CBF's Pennsylvania Restoration Program is partnering with the Clearwater Conservancy to plant trees in a streamside area near Spring Mills, PA. We are looking for volunteers eager to get their hands dirty helping us to plant trees to repair a forested riparian buffer. Click here for more information!

April 16

  • Cambridge, MD: Help CBF make the Choptank River cleaner and safer for the whole community during this river cleanup event. All supplies will be provided. Families and groups are welcome to attend. Click here to register!

April 23

  • Monkton, MD: Come help CBF plant 1,200 trees to restore six acres of forest on this new farm. The Little Gunpowder is a natural reproducing trout stream, and the restoration of this farm will help protect this cold water fishery. No tree planting experience is necessary, and all materials and supplies are provided. Families and children are welcome. Click here to register!
  • Church Hill, MD: Come paddle with us on the Blackwater River in Dorchester County, Maryland. Blackwater River is a prime example of a healthy tidal Eastern Shore river, replete with large expanses of tidal marsh and pine forests. The wildlife is dominated by various species of bird life, including nesting bald eagles, ospreys, herons, and ducks. The paddle is comfortable and peaceful, offering up-close views of herons fishing in the shallows and ducks nesting in the many trees along the banks. All canoes and paddling equipment will be provided. Children ages 10 and up are welcome to register, but must be accompanied by an adult. This is a paddle for people of all skill levels. Click here to register!

April 24

  • Annapolis, MD: Check out the 2016 Earth-Water-Faith Festival—a fun, family-friendly, interactive, interfaith celebration of Earth Day. Enjoy live music from Third Sunday Band, The Harmonic Fifth, and The All Children's Chorus of Annapolis, as well as activities including a "Scales and Tales" animal program, an oyster water-filtering display, kids' T-shirt printing, and celebratory readings. Free and open to the public! Click here for more information!

 —Drew Robinson, CBF's Digital Media Associate


Susquehanna River: By the Numbers

Susquehanna By the Numbers-1200

The Susquehanna River is unquestionably the most important river in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. To grasp the Susquehanna's sheer size and significance, take a glance at the numbers in the infographic above. Not only is this vital waterway a critical economic resource and a bastion of cultural heritage in Pennsylvania, it also has a tremendous impact on the health of the Chesapeake Bay, with the Susquehanna providing half of the Bay's freshwater flows.

In light of the importance of the Susquehanna, the current health of the river is concerning. Agricultural runoff, acid mine drainage, and polluted urban runoff are threatening this powerful economic engine. A glaring example of this is the health of the smallmouth bass found in its waters. One of the most prized freshwater sport-fish species, the Susquehanna's smallmouth bass fishery once attracted anglers from all over the world. Pollution has taken a toll however, as various diseases have wreaked havoc on the smallmouth bass, with bass being found with lesions, sores, and abnormal sexual development in which males grow eggs in their testes. When smallmouth bass are diseased, weakened, or otherwise stressed, we know things aren’t right.

It's long past time for the Lower Susquehanna to be listed as impaired. This listing would designate the Susquehanna for additional study and new levels of investment in restoration. Stand with CBF and its partners in urging Governor Wolf and Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection to save this vital waterway by listing the Lower Susquehanna River as impaired.

—Drew Robinson, CBF's Digital Media Associate


Water Quality Plays Key Role in Return, Survival of Bald Eagles

The following first appeared in the York Dispatch.

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A bald eagle snatching it's prey. Photo by Barbara Houston.

A new season of the Commonwealth's most popular, high-flying reality show is back online.

Millions are expected to log on to the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) website and watch as live-streaming cameras show the drama of nature at several bald eagle nests in the Keystone State. The experiences open windows onto nature like never before.

People went online more than one and a-half million times last year to see a pair of bald eagles raise two eaglets in a nest near Codorus State Park. They saw the entire process, from "nestorations" in January, laying of the eggs in February, hatching in March, and the eaglets leaving the nest in June, as it happened. This is the tenth year for the nest and the second that cameras and microphones are there.

Another popular nest is in a Hackberry tree in the town of Hays, along the Monongahela River, near Pittsburgh. The camera and sound are sponsored by the Western PA Audubon Society. This is the third season a camera has watched the nest that eagles first used in 2013. Sadly, neither of the two eggs in the Hays nest were viable last year. But the year before, three eaglets thrived and successfully left the nest.

Those who lognon to the live cameras realize quickly that waterways play a key role in the lives of bald eagles and nesting sites are never far from water. Streams, lakes, and rivers are key habitat for bald eagles. In the winter, they congregate in tall trees near open water, to spot prey and shelter at night.

Fish make up almost 90 percent of a bald eagle's diet. Is there a more majestic sight than an eagle soaring and scanning open water, swooping gracefully downward, and then with their talons, plucking prey through the water's surface?

The Codorus eagles feed fish from Lake Marburg, Codorus Creek, and other York County waterways to their young ones. Bass from the Monongahela is often on the menu at the Hays nest.

So it's no secret that the survival and recovery of bald eagles in Pennsylvania are dependent on clean water, and the availability of healthy fish and other aquatic life. It is yet another reason we must make progress in restoring the 19,000 miles of waterways in Pennsylvania that are polluted. About 350 miles of waterways in York County are impaired.

The runoff of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment is damaging our rivers and streams, and the Commonwealth is significantly behind in meeting its commitment to reduce polluted runoff.

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A screenshot of two bald eagles in their nest at Codorus State Park.

Also, consider findings of the latest multi-year study of the causes behind the deaths of young smallmouth bass, and lesions and spots on older smallmouths in the Susquehanna River. Some of those fish are served up in bald eagle nests throughout central Pennsylvania.

Endocrine-disrupting compounds and herbicides, and pathogens and parasites, are the two most-likely causes of diseased and dying fish in the Susquehanna. They are part of a perfect storm of compounds such as cosmetics, detergents, pharmaceuticals, and hormones in animal and human waste, that find their way into the diets of bald eagles and other wildlife.

On the bright side, the resurgence of bald eagles nationally and in Pennsylvania is an endangered species success story.

Habitat destruction, contaminated food sources, and illegal shooting took bald eagles to the brink of extinction. The road to recovery took major turns when the pesticide DDT was banned in 1972, and in 1978 when bald eagles were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

In 1980, there were only three known pairs of bald eagles nesting in Pennsylvania. Re-introduction began in the 1980's when the Game Commission brought 88 eaglets to the Commonwealth from Canada, raised them on specially constructed towers, and released them into the wild. Bald eagles were removed from the federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in the lower 48 states in 2007.

By 2008 the number of nesting pairs in Pennsylvania had grown to 150. In 2013 there were nests in all but a handful of Keystone State counties and more than 270 nesting pairs.

Clean water counts in Pennsylvania. It is a legacy worth leaving future generations of humans and bald eagles.

Click here to access the Codorus cameras.

Click here to access the Hays camera.

—Harry Campbell, CBF Pennsylvania Executive Director

Bald eagles, other critters, and humans alike, depend on the health of the Susquehanna River. Take action now by asking Governor Wolf and the Department of Environmental Protection to add the Lower Susquehanna to the Impaired Waters List.


This Week in the Watershed

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This week herbicides, pathogens, and parasites were revealed as major causes of the downfall of the smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna River. Photo by John Pavoncello/York Dispatch.

As we have said many times before, as goes the Susquehanna, so goes the Chesapeake Bay. With over 50% of the Bay's freshwater coming from the Susquehanna, no body of water has a greater influence on the health of the Bay. More than that, the Susquehanna is a vital economic resource and a bastion of cultural heritage, most notably in Pennsylvania. One example of this is the Susquehanna's smallmouth bass fishery, which once attracted anglers from all over the world. Pollution has taken a toll on this fishery however, as the Susquehanna is now yielding bass with lesions, sores, and in one well-documented case, cancer.

This week, a report released by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection found that herbicides, pathogens, and parasites are the two most-likely causes of diseased and dying fish in the Lower Susquehanna. Faced with evidence of this extent and magnitude, the only reasonable conclusion is that this river, the lifeblood of Pennsylvania and the heart of the Chesapeake Bay, is sick.

In recognition of this reality, we believe the Lower Susquehanna should be listed as impaired. This will designate the Susquehanna for additional study and new levels of investment in restoration. Stand with CBF and its partners in urging Governor Wolf and Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection to save our river by listing the Lower Susquehanna River as impaired.

 This Week in the Watershed: A Dirty River, Raw Sewage, and A Backyard Brawl

  • Talbot County on the Eastern Shore of Maryland is in a catch 22, desiring growth while not losing their rural identity. (Star Democrat—MD)
  • A report revealed that Baltimore has released 330 million gallons of raw sewage into Jones Falls, which flows into the Inner Harbor. (Baltimore Sun—MD)
  • The smallmouth bass population in the Susquehanna River is declining, and we now have a few clues as to why. (Patriot News—PA)
  • CBF is urging for Pennsylvania to declare the lower Susquehanna River as impaired. (CBF Statement)
  • What furry Chesapeake Bay critter has surprising ways to clean the water? (Bay Journal)
  • Virginia Beach is experiencing a brawl over a backyard. The conflict: where oyster harvesting should be allowed.  (Virginian-Pilot—VA)

What's Happening Around the Watershed?

January 6

  • Virginia Beach, VA: Small, silvery, and packed with nutritional value, menhaden are a critical link in the marine food web. But the Chesapeake Bay's menhaden population are facing some serious issues. Learn about why menhaden are vital to the ecosystem, their management history, and the next steps to restore the population at our event "Little Fish, Big Issues - An Evening Discussion on Menhaden." Click here to register!
  • VA Eastern Shore: Join CBF's monthly Citizen Advocacy Training to get a crash course on timely Bay legislative priorities and learn how they affect Virginia's Eastern Shore. This conference call will also allow time for you to ask questions and discuss opportunities to lend a hand or lift your voice for clean water. Contact Tatum Ford at tford@cbf.org or 757-971-0366 for more information.

January 16-February 6

  • Virginia: Help restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay and Virginia's rivers by participating in CBF's Grasses for the Masses program. Participants grow wild celery, a type of underwater grass, in their homes for 10-12 weeks. After 10-12 weeks of grow-out, participants will gather to plant their grasses in select local rivers to bolster grass populations and help restore the Bay. Workshops are being held throughout Virginia. Click to find one near you!

—Drew Robinson, CBF's Digital Media Associate


This Week in the Watershed

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Mercury pollution is harming the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams. Photo courtesy iStock.

In the climate change "debate," a common refrain from deniers is that the warming we are witnessing is the result of natural variances in the climate cycle, rather than the result of record-level greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Indeed, in many cases of environmental degradation, polluters and maintainers of the status quo refuse to recognize human's contribution to the problems in the natural world. This despite that in many cases (such as climate change), direct, clear, and incontrovertible evidence proves beyond a reasonable degree of certainty a link between man's actions and harm to the environment. 

One example of this that is impacting the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams, is the proliferation of mercury in our air and waters. While mercury occurs naturally in the environment, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, sediments deposited in North American sediment cores since industrialization have mercury concentrations about 3-5 times higher than those found in older sediments. Today, human's primary exposure to mercury is though the consumption of fish. Calls to reduce mercury in our air and water have led the EPA to develop new regulations, particularly on power plants.

A recent study found that these emission controls on out-of-state power plants have greatly improved air quality in Maryland by reducing mercury pollution. While the air quality improved, fish found in Maryland rivers and streams are still contaminated with toxic levels of mercury. It appears that it will take time for the mercury already present in the environment to dissipate.

Despite the clear link between industrialization and mercury levels in our air and water, industry spokesmen still openly question the connection. The spreading of doubt and misinformation might continue, but it's clear that reasonable environmental regulations, such as those found in the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, can make a dramatic difference in the environment—if nature is given enough time to respond.

 This Week in the Watershed: Mercury, Grazing, and Important Fish

  • CBF President Will Baker reflects on the water clarity throughout the Chesapeake Bay. (Huffington Post)
  • A report says islanders in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay could be the first "climate change refugees" in the continental United States. (Associated Press)
  • Emission controls required on out-of-state power plants have greatly improved air quality in Maryland. Unfortunately, Maryland's fish remain contaminated with mercury, as it will take years for the mercury already in the water to dissipate. (Baltimore Sun—MD)
  • A program was started for farmers to teach each other best practices surrounding rotational grazing. With benefits including healthier animals, increased profits, and cleaner waterways, there's a lot to gain. (WSLS—VA)
  • A record-breaking chicken farm proposed in Wicomico is raising eyebrows among environmentalists. (Daily Times—MD)
  • What really is the most important fish in the Chesapeake Bay? One study's answer might surprise you. (Bay Journal)
  • Pennsylvania is facing another obstacle in their fight for clean water—pharmaceuticals. Prescription drugs are finding their way into the rivers and streams with alarming results.  (The Sentinel—PA)

Lend Your Voice for Clean Water!

What's Happening Around the Watershed?

December 12

  • Virginia Beach, VA: With far more requests for speaker's than we have staff or time, CBF relies on its Speaker's Bureau volunteers to handle a variety of speaking opportunities. Whether you are current on the issues and ready to share our message, or just enjoy public speaking and would like to get trained, we welcome your commitment to this important and high-profile program. Join us to learn the facts and skills to share our mission to Save the Bay with local groups and organizations. Click here to register!

January 16-February 6

  • Virginia: Help restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay and Virginia's rivers by participating in CBF's Grasses for the Masses program. Participants grow wild celery, a type of underwater grass, in their homes for 10-12 weeks. After 10-12 weeks of grow-out, participants will gather to plant their grasses in select local rivers to bolster grass populations and help restore the Bay. Workshops are being held throughout Virginia. Click to find one near you!

—Drew Robinson, CBF's Digital Media Associate


Pharmaceuticals in Pennsylvania Waters

The following first appeared in The Gettysburg Times.

Victoria Switzer
Victoria Switzer of Susquehanna County is concerned about her drinking water. With reports of high levels of pharmaceuticals in Pennsylvania waterways, her concerns are warranted. Photo by Tom Pelton.

In 2001, 14 percent of Pennsylvania youths surveyed admitted to taking someone else's prescription drugs. The state Coroner's Association reported that there were 2,500 drug overdoses in the Commonwealth last year.

As Pennsylvania works to remedy the scourge of prescription drug misuse and abuse, the presence of pharmaceuticals in our rivers and streams is a double dose of reality for those concerned about water quality in the Keystone State.

An investigation by the Associated Press in 2008, found a total of 56 pharmaceuticals or byproducts—antibiotics, pain relievers, and heart, mind, and veterinary drugs—in the City of Philadelphia's drinking water. Small quantities of drugs, including antibiotics, sex hormones, and anti-seizure compounds, were detected in public drinking water supplied to over 40 million Americans across the country.

While 70 percent of all antibiotics are used are for agriculture and animal husbandry, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found in Pennsylvania that the greatest source of pharmaceuticals in the rivers and streams is sewage treatment plants.

Pharmaceuticals find their way into the environment through treated effluent from sewage treatment plants, farmland irrigation with reclaimed wastewater, septic systems, manure from treated livestock, raw sewage discharges, and leaching from municipal landfills.

Our bodies excrete portions of pharmaceuticals that we take and have not been metabolized. This includes metabolites that may have biological activity of their own. For many pharmaceuticals, about 90 percent of the drug is metabolized. In some cases, a significant amount of the parent pharmaceutical is released as human waste or sweat.

Scientists believe the main way a great majority of pharmaceuticals are getting into the wastewater, is through disposal. It was reported at the Susquehanna Water Science Forum in 2013 that 54 percent of medications went into the trash and 35 percent went down the toilet or sink.

Many people still believe that keeping drugs out of the wrong hands means flushing unused medications down the toilet. In fact, they are introducing portions of those compounds into rivers and streams and eventually even drinking water.

While treatment plants may remove 95 to 98 percent of pharmaceuticals from sewage, low concentrations are still active biologically. No one treatment method can currently remove all pharmaceuticals.

In Pennsylvania, the USGS found low concentrations of pharmaceuticals that are used for other than agricultural purposes, upstream of drinking water intakes. This suggests that most pharmaceuticals near those intake sites entered the stream environment via municipal wastewater-treatment effluent or on-lot septic systems.

Private wells, which may also harbor pharmaceuticals, often receive limited to no treatment before consumption.

So far, there is little evidence that human health is negatively impacted by pharmaceuticals in the water. But health experts are concerned that small amounts of so many pharmaceuticals could have a synergistic and negative effect in humans. On the other hand, the effects on aquatic life from these "contaminants of emerging concern" in the water are well-documented, shocking, and sad.

Intersex fish have been found in the Susquehanna River. According to USGS researcher Dr. Vicki Blazer, about 90 percent of male smallmouths sampled had sexual abnormalities that include eggs growing in their testes. This intersex condition is believed to be linked to the presence of pharmaceuticals in the water.

Smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna continue to bear lesions and sores from a "perfect storm" of factors such as abundant, harmful runoff of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment, herbicides, cosmetics, detergents, and hormones in animal and human waste. These can weaken the smallmouths' immune systems and make them vulnerable to disease.

A drug take-back program operated by the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP) manages 410 drop-boxes across the Commonwealth where unused pharmaceuticals can be turned in for proper disposal. Since the program began two years ago, 32,000 pounds of prescription drugs have been collected. For more information, visit the DDAP website at www.ddap.pa.gov.

Geisinger Health Systems and others also have turn-in programs. Each year for the past 10 years, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency has hosted a National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day.

Clean water counts. We can all help protect our precious water supplies and rivers and streams, by limiting the amount of unused pharmaceuticals that get into the trash, sewers, septic tanks, and wastewater treatment plants.

—Harry Campbell, CBF's Pennsylvania Executive Director


Invasion of Body Snatchers Turns Mud Crabs into Zombies

The following first appeared in the Bay Journal.

Zombie-crab
"Zombie Crabs" might sound like a fabricated sci-fi tale, but they are actually a consequence of a parasite inflicted on mud crabs in the Chesapeake Bay. Photo by Lara Lutz.

One creature invades the body of another. It snakes through the tissue and takes root, changing the behavior and appearance of its host. And then, a reproductive victory: The host must raise the invader's young in place of its own.

This sounds like science fiction, but it's not. It's a real world biological process taking place largely unnoticed in portions of the Chesapeake Bay.

The players in this drama are the small, white-clawed mud crab and an even smaller parasite called the Loxothylacus panopaei or Loxo for short.

Mud crabs infected by Loxo have been dubbed "zombie crabs" by scientists and volunteers who are working to understand the process and its impact on the crab's population. The work is led by biologist Monaca Noble and biodiversity genomics fellow Carolyn Tepolt of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, MD.

"It's kind of an amazing story," Tepolt said.

The Loxo parasite is native to the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, and parts of Florida. Its presence as an invasive species in the Chesapeake region was first recorded in Virginia's York River in the 1960s, and researchers suspect it arrived on the shells of Gulf oysters that were imported to seed commercial oyster reefs.

The Loxo infects at least nine species of mud crabs throughout its range. In the Chesapeake, its target is the Rhithropanopeus harrisii, a brown crab with white claws that typically grows no larger than a human thumbnail.

In its larvae stage, the Loxo resembles a microscopic barnacle that floats freely through the water. Within days, it transforms to a more shield-like shape and seeks a host. Timing is critical. The Loxo can only infect a mud crab for about 24 hours after the crab molts, when its exoskeleton is soft and unprotected. Only females invade a host.

"They travel through the crab tissue and form rootlets, little tendrils throughout the tissue of the crab," Tepolt said.

When the process is complete, the union is disturbingly thorough. "You can't find a distinct individual parasite inside the crab, so you can't dissect it out," Tepolt said. "It's a body-snatcher."

When the crab molts again, the Loxo prepares to reproduce. A sac forms under the abdomen or apron of the crab, and a male Loxo attaches itself long enough to provide sperm. The next generation begins to form inside. The sac enlarges, pushes out the crab's abdomen, and becomes visible — the only sign of infection that can be observed without a microscope.

Thousands of larval parasites emerge from a pore in the sac about every five to 10 days. The process repeats several times before the sac is exhausted and a fresh one takes its place.

During this process, the Loxo shuts down the crab's ability to produce its own young.

"The body snatcher aspect of this is that it essentially castrates the crab, and all of its energy goes to support the parasite's reproduction," Tepolt said. "It changes the crab's behavior so that it takes care of the larvae as if they were its own eggs. They put their legs and claws around the sac in a defensive posture and attempt to protect it. Even the males do it."

Males transform physically, too. "Male crabs are feminized," Tepolt said. "The shape of their abdomen changes and gets rounder, like the females." This makes it easier for male crabs to hold, aerate, and protect the Loxo's eggs.

Tepolt and Noble are in the midst of both short-term and long-term studies that are investigating the impact on mud crab populations and the ecological conditions that might help them resist the parasite.

Smithsonian biologists began investigating the parasite 12 years ago, but the work was not always well-funded. Preserved crabs, infected and not, often sat in the lab awaiting time-intensive analysis.

In recent years, a robust volunteer program has boosted the research effort. This summer, 87 volunteers helped to collect mud crabs from the research center's dock and other sites across southern Maryland. A smaller team of regular volunteers helps in the lab year-round.

"We have information on crab size, distribution, sex ratio and whether they have the parasite or not," Noble said. "But now, going forward, the project has a second goal. How can we engage volunteers, teach them about the biology of these parasites, and teach them invasion ecology? It's a great opportunity."

As a result of volunteer support, the effort now includes 12 long-term sites and 10 sites that were added this year to support a more comprehensive analysis of the Rhode River, a small tributary south of Annapolis where the Smithsonian lab is located.

The number of mud crabs found at the sites has varied greatly from one year to the next, making it difficult to assess the larger population. In general, fewer mud crabs are found in places with more parasites, and this could be related to the shutdown of the mud crab reproductive system. Still, researchers say this particular type of mud crab is likely abundant in the Chesapeake Bay and, according to Noble, that's good.

"There are lots of animals that we don't eat that are still important to the Bay," Noble said. "Mud crabs are one of them. They are important predators. They eat a lot of things that live on oyster shells. They are also important prey for other crabs, fish and birds — a tasty treat for many things."

The presence of Loxo at study sites has varied too. "Some places don't have parasites at all and others have high abundance. Trying to tease apart the reasons is more problematic," Noble said.

Researchers speculate that low salinity and cool temperatures help to reduce infections, and preliminary data suggest mud crabs in the parasite's native range are much more resistant to attack.

But more research is needed. It could yield important information for mud crabs, as well as any potential situation in which related parasites invade the Bay and affect other species. The Loxo has not attacked blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, but a related species of parasite does impact blue crabs in the Gulf of Mexico.

"If it's not a problem now, could it be, if conditions change?" Noble asked.

—Lara Lutz

In honor of Halloween and creepy creatures like the zombie crab, check out our Top Five Scariest Chesapeake Critters!