This Week in the Watershed

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A crew of watermen on the Chesapeake work to bring in their catch in the light of early morning. Photo by Joseph Stallings.

Just as oysters, blue crabs, and rockfish are inextricably linked to the Chesapeake Bay, so are the watermen who make their living off the water. Indeed, the culture, history, and economy of the Bay are covered with their fingerprints. Look no further than historic skipjacks sailing across the water, oyster packing houses, and of course, tasting the bounty of the Bay.

This bounty, however, is a finite resource. And regulating this public resource can become contentious. Striking the balance between maintaining a healthy fishery without threatening the watermen's livelihood is a significant challenge. At times, government agencies responsible for the management of fisheries are accused of waging a war on watermen.

Upon further inspection, however, CBF's Director of Fisheries Bill Goldsborough reveals a telling truth, writing, "Watermen need to direct their anger at the real culprits. Attacking public servants only doing their jobs is shooting the messenger. The root cause of the watermen's culture crisis is the degradation of the Bay."

Pollution is harming our beloved Bay critters and the watermen's very livelihood. The Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint is the key to reversing this trend. With the implementation of the Blueprint, we stand to provide a healthy fishery for generations to come—bringing with it clean water, a thriving economy, and a culture intricately woven together with the Chesapeake Bay.

This Week in the Watershed: Watermen's Real Culprit, Restoring Streams, and Preserving Captain Smith

  • No one wants to swim in dirty water. CBF is helping to expose the pollution levels of some Maryland swimming holes, revealing some alarming results. (Bay Journal)
  • As mentioned above, government agencies responsible for the management of fisheries are often accused of waging a war on watermen. As CBF's Director of Fisheries Bill Goldsborough points out however, the real culprit is pollution. (Baltimore Sun—MD)
  • We're big fans of stream restoration projects, helping improve the health of both local waters and all waters downstream, including the Chesapeake Bay. Beaver Creek in Maryland is the latest to see restoration. (Herald Mail—MD)
  • The Chesapeake Bay Captain John Smith first encountered in the 17th century looks much different than the Bay we see today. A recent victory, however, has ensured a portion of Captain Smith's Historic Water Trail will be preserved. (Virginia Gazette—VA)
  • The work to save the Bay has evolved over time and involved multiple players. CBF is glad to do its part in helping implement the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint—the best, and perhaps last chance to save the Bay. (Star Democrat—MD)

What's Happening Around the Watershed?

August 22

  • Richmond folks, come on out for a streamside clean-up. Prizes will go to the neatest finds! Contact Blair Blanchette, Virginia Grassroots Coordinator, at bblanchette@cbf.org or call 804-780-1392 to participate.
  • Get an in-depth education of one of the most energy-efficient and environmentally friendly buildings in the world by getting a tour of CBF's Brock Environmental Center. Reservations are strongly recommended but not required. Call 757-622-1964 or e-mail BrockCenterGreenTours@cbf.org.

August 26

  • You're invited to an exclusive open house for oyster gardeners and oyster restoration volunteers at Horn Point Oyster Hatchery. Tour the facility, learn about opportunities for further volunteering, and chat with the Horn Point oyster experts! Afterward, join us at the nearby Real Ale Revival Brewery in Cambridge for happy hour specials and even more mingling with fellow oyster enthusiasts and CBF staff. Space is limited! RSVP's are required to Hilary Gibson at hgibson@cbf.org or 410-543-1999.

August 28

  • Get an in-depth education of one of the most energy-efficient and environmentally friendly buildings in the world by getting a tour of CBF's Brock Environmental Center. Reservations are strongly recommended but not required. Call 757-622-1964 or e-mail BrockCenterGreenTours@cbf.org.

August 31

  • Break a sweat while saving the Bay! Come on out to the Maryland Oyster Restoration Center in Shady Side, MD for some shell shaking! This fun activity helps 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. RSVP to Pat Beall at pbeall@cbf.org or 443-482-2065. Learn more here.

—Drew Robinson, CBF's Digital Media Associate


The "War on Watermen"

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Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.

The following first appeared in the Baltimore Sun earlier this week.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has been accused of waging a "war on watermen," and watermen are fighting back, seeking changes in the way the bay's fisheries are being managed. They say their livelihoods are being undermined and their culture threatened. They are right about that, but they are directing their anger at the wrong people.

Maryland's oyster restoration program is a focal point for this dispute. In 2010, as part of a comprehensive effort to turn around this important but depleted resource, DNR set aside 24 percent of Maryland's productive oyster grounds as "sanctuaries" where harvest was not allowed. The idea was to build up oyster numbers in these areas so they could provide "ecological" benefits, such as filtering the water and building reefs, and also reproduce prodigiously to boost the population.

Maryland watermen have always had access to all oyster grounds, and they want it to stay that way. However, this history of allowing harvest everywhere is well documented as one of the main reasons the Bay's oysters declined to 1 percent of their previous abundance by the 1980s.

In our view the sanctuaries are actually the best hope for watermen, because they promise to boost reproduction and help turn around the fishery. By leaving 76 percent of the resource open to harvest, DNR is actually deferring to watermen's concerns, considering that a recent University of Maryland study recommended completely closing the fishery.

But the question should not be whether to compromise the resource again to give the watermen a short-term windfall. It should be, why are watermen barely getting by on a body of water like Chesapeake Bay with a storied history of productive fisheries? No doubt overfishing has been a factor historically, but the fundamental reality is that today's degraded Chesapeake Bay cannot produce the fish and shellfish it once did. And DNR officials must, as responsible stewards of those resources, limit catches accordingly.

The bay is choking on an overload of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment from a variety of pollution sources. The results of this over-enrichment are massive population explosions of algae that turn the water to pea soup from spring to fall. This cloudy water blocks sunlight from underwater grasses, reducing this critical habitat for crabs and juvenile fish to only 20 percent of historical coverage.

Furthermore, dead algal cells fall into deeper water where they decompose, burning up precious dissolved oxygen. The resultant "dead zone" can claim up to 40 percent of the Bay's volume where no fish or shellfish can long survive. Low dissolved oxygen has been implicated in a wide range of impacts to fish and shellfish, including diseases of both oysters and rockfish. It also crowds blue crabs into shallow water where there is no grass bed coverage, and predation, competition, and cannibalism take their toll.

This is the real "war on watermen." It's also a war on recreational fishermen and crabbers, as well as charterboat captains and anyone else who derives enjoyment from the fish and shellfish of the Bay. Pollution is not just an abstract concept. There are real human impacts, and watermen and their families are the poster children for those impacts. They are right that their livelihoods are being undermined and their culture threatened. That culture, from workboats on the Bay to seafood restaurants on shore, is the most compelling reason for saving the Bay.

Watermen need to direct their anger at the real culprits. Attacking public servants only doing their jobs is shooting the messenger. The root cause of the watermen's culture crisis is the degradation of the Bay.

The good news is it can be fixed. A formula exists for how to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution: the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. Every state and jurisdiction in the Bay's watershed has a role to play under the Blueprint, because the cause is ultimately human activity throughout the watershed.

Few people realize they are complicit in this war on watermen, but that's the bottom line. Watermen can help them understand that by becoming strong advocates for the Blueprint. If all fisheries stakeholders worked together and helped create a greater sense of urgency for reducing pollution, this war could be won, and the Bay could again support productive fisheries.

—Bill Goldsborough, CBF's Director of Fisheries

Sign our Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint pledge showing your support for a healthy, restored Bay, rivers, and streams that support our watermen, our communities, and our quality of life.

 


Susquehanna Odyssey Is Testament to a Struggling River

The following first appeared in the York Daily Record.

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Andrew Phillips paddles near the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant south of Harrisburg.

Andrew Phillips grew up a block from the Susquehanna River, in Selinsgrove. He watched bald eaglets in a nest that hung over the river and never got tired of exploring the "huge, magnificent vein" of water in his own backyard. In his senior year of high school, he and a friend kayaked the 120 miles from his home to the Chesapeake Bay.

But Andrew wanted to know more about the river he loves. So earlier this summer, he and a buddy, Mauricio Martinez, kayaked the entire 464 miles of the Susquehanna, from Cooperstown, New York, to Havre de Grace, Maryland, where the river meets the Bay. It was the steamiest and stormiest two weeks of the season.

It was not an unusual feat for the adventurous, compassionate young man who says he'd "already drained the worry out of my family." When he's not studying environmental health at West Chester University or disappearing for days with his backpack, Andrew manages a community garden on campus.

The 20-year-old's odyssey down the living laboratory that is the Susquehanna River provides a true perspective of the problems, pleasures, and promises of a river in peril.

They found wildlife to be plentiful along the way, noting river otters, and more eagles than ducks. They were amazed that an American shad had gotten as far upriver as Harrisburg, although it was dead when they found it.

Mauricio caught a 42-inch muskellunge in Towanda Creek.

The kindness of others provided fresh, clean water and portaging help around some of the more difficult dams. Andrew and Mauricio were awed at how the pristine trickle in New York became the mighty Susquehanna and almost a mile wide at Harrisburg. It even flowed northward at the Pennsylvania-New York border. Both remember the joy of reaching the wide expanse of the bay at Havre de Grace.

In the downstream transformation of the initial, crystalline stream they also saw firsthand the problems that plague the river that flows 20 miles per day, 18 million gallons per minute at Havre de Grace, and provides half of the freshwater to the Bay.

Andrew noted that the river seems burdened by pollutants, especially sediment. He noticed the effects of streambank erosion while still in New York waters.

Once into agricultural areas of Pennsylvania, they stopped using small portable filters and switched to bottled drinking water. "We passed through miles and miles of cornfields on both sides of the river, and the water is greener, less transparent, and more difficult to see through," Andrew says. "The agricultural lands were obvious from the river, as the steeply-eroded, muddy banks, and lack of trees create the feeling of being exposed."

Agriculture is the largest source of water pollution in Pennsylvania and the cheapest to fix.

The Commonwealth's nitrogen and sediment pollution reduction commitments from agriculture and urban polluted runoff are considerably off-track.

Andrew and Mauricio also found that kayaking near dams like Safe Harbor, Holtwood, and Conowingo was brutal for the lack of current. They also took note of the water quality at the impoundments. "You take this pristine river and build a wall in front of it," Andrew remembers. "Sediment builds up, and you end up with this shallow, hot, stagnant reservoir that's really not conducive to any life."

Millions of shad historically swam hundreds of miles up the Susquehanna, which once boasted the largest shad spawning area on the East Coast. But because of dams, the shad's ability to reach spawning habitats has dropped 98 percent in the river basin. Fish ladders exist to try to relieve this problem, but fisheries managers admit they haven't been nearly as successful as hoped. Yet there is some good news: For 12 straight years Pennsylvania has led the nation in the number of dams removed from rivers and streams.

Andrew's adventure down the Susquehanna left him with a greater appreciation for that and all rivers. "They are living bodies themselves because of all the life that relies on them, is immersed in them, and revolves around them. This is our sacred space and deserves so much respect."

—Harry Campbell, CBF's Pennsylvania Executive Director

The Susquehanna River is sick. Urge Governor Wolf and DEP to push for the Lower Susquehanna River to be on EPA's Impaired Waters list!


The Incredible Journey

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Andrew Phillips (left) with friend and fellow adventurer Mauricio Martinez.

Andrew Phillips grew up with a love of adventure and the Susquehanna River.

The 20-year-old environmental health major at West Chester University disappears for days with his backpack, wants to join the Peace Corps, and has a mission trip to Guatemala under his belt.

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Andrew Phillips, finds there’s nowhere to go but down river during yet another downpour, at Great Bend, New York.

Phillips' lifelong interest in water was piqued in high school on a paddling trip with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Susquehanna Watershed Education Program, where students tested water quality and surveyed aquatic life in nearby Walker Lake.

His senior year of high school at Selinsgrove High School, Phillips and a friend kayaked 120 miles of the Susquehanna from Selinsgrove to the Chesapeake Bay. It left him wanting more.

So earlier this summer, Phillips and buddy Mauricio Martinez stepped into a crystalline stream at the southern point of Otsego Lake, New York, and began their trip down the entire length of the mighty Susquehanna. The 464 miles would take them from Cooperstown, New York, to where the river meets the Chesapeake Bay at Havre de Grace, Maryland, during the most steamy and stormy two weeks of the season.

Phillips describes his extraordinary experience below in a series of observations . . . 

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There were memorable sunrises during the journey. This one was along Towanda Creek, Pennsylvania.

River runs north: "It was kind of disorienting to be kayaking downstream and yet, due north. [The river enters Susquehanna County then curves back northward toward Binghamton, New York.] When we saw the sun setting, it was on the wrong side of us. The river is so winding, you really only see a quarter mile at a time."

Changes: "The murkier water as we headed downstream was so different from the pristine clear water that was at the headwaters. The river seems burdened by the pollutant load, especially the sedimentation. We passed through miles and miles of cornfields on both sides of the river and it is greener, less transparent, and more difficult to see through. The agricultural lands were obvious from the river, as the steeply-eroded, muddy banks and lack of trees create the feeling of being exposed. We could see so tangibly the problems we know exist."

Wildlife: "Peregrine falcons, snapping turtles, otters, a fox on the shoreline. Many species use the river so you are going to see a lot. I've seldom seen river otters so it was cool to see seven or eight. We saw more eagles than ducks."

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Andrew Phillips paddles the first few, narrow miles of the Susquehanna and past streambank erosion and farm fields.

A night like no other: "With only 100 miles to go, we were south of Selinsgrove in yet another storm--the straw that broke the camel's back. We took shelter in a duck blind and it had bees. We moved to under a tree that turned out to be poison ivy."

Flipped for Harrisburg: "I'd gone through that riffle before. It's kind of dangly and didn't leave much of an impression. It was the lowhead effect; you can't see it until you are on top of it. This drop was so abrupt that the nose of my 10-foot, 10-year-old recreational kayak went straight down. I wasn't embarrassed, 350 miles of brutal water tears that out of you. There were fishermen nearby and they were laughing."

Eats: "Spartan provisions. We anticipated catching fish but didn't due mostly to a lack of time. Mauricio caught a 42-inch muskellunge in Towanda Creek. Uncooked Ramen noodles was our chief staple. Every night [we feasted on] a stew made of beans, Ramen noodles, coconut oil, and some adobo. Paddling for 12-14 hours a day you need a lot of fuel." [They also found their favorite mulberries along the way.]

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The area below the dam at Goodyear Lake, New York, provided one of the journey’s toughest portages.

Shad: "We saw a dead American shad on the shore below the small lowhead dam at Harrisburg. For the shad to have made it upstream through those dams is incredible."

Smallmouth bass: "With strange growths found on fish [recently], especially in my area [Selinsgrove], which was the smallmouth capital of the world, it's a huge tragedy. Mauricio still catches smallmouth occasionally near Danville."

Under cover: "Campsites are hard to plan for. The bridges were a lifesaver with all the storms we had. It was arid until we left, and then it was heavy storm after storm. [We had] maybe four nights when it didn't rain. It was 100 degrees with 100 percent humidity."

Drinking water: "At the river's headwaters, a small portable filter is sufficient. As you move downstream it's recommended that you not use them after passing agricultural land. So we bought gallon jugs of water and refilled them along the way."

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A small cannon and plaque on a boulder near Cooperstown, New York, are the monument marking the official headwaters of the Susquehanna River.

Trip of the dammed: "The dams are a real threat to the [Susquehanna]. You take this pristine river and build a wall in front of it. Sediment builds up and you end up with this shallow, hot, stagnant reservoir that's really not conducive to any life."

Kindness of others: "We met interesting people along the way. When you are out on this trip and lacking human contact, it's easy to ask for help with portaging, water, and food."

Still waters: "Near the Safe Harbor, Holtwood, and Conowingo Dams, the kayaking is brutal. [The river becomes] essentially lakes where there's no help from the current. In the headwaters and open areas we covered 40-50 miles a day, easily. At the dam, 30 miles is a stretch."

Grand finale: "It didn't dawn on me until we unpacked. At Havre de Grace, it's incredible. It was the promised land of sorts. The sky opens up and you see this huge, open Chesapeake Bay after being closed by mountains and cliffs for almost 500 miles. It's a really incredible sight."

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Andrew Phillips paddles near the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant south of Harrisburg.

The Bay: "Everybody is downstream. The Bay acts like the dipstick for the whole region. There are so many different threats from so many different angles. We were kind of like flotsam going down the river and saw how this system impacts the Bay itself."

Lasting impression: "Rivers are conveyor belts that show the health of the entire land. [The Susquehanna] is more than a cause that you reluctantly write a check for. This is our sacred space. There are settlements along the way, and they are fixed, but this river runs through them and refreshes itself. You really get a feel for it, like it's an old friend instead of a body of moving water."

— B.J. Small, CBF's Pennsylvania Media and Communications Coordinator 


L’Hermione Returns to the Chesapeake

New2Annapolis City Dock can be an eerily empty place at dawn. But that was hardly the case last Thursday when a French frigate readied to sail north. A replica of the 18th-century, square-rigged vessel that carried Revolutionary War Hero Marquis de Lafayette to the Americas 235 years ago, L'Hermione is the largest and most authentically built tall ship in the last century. And she is currently (June 6-July 15) touring 12 iconic Revolutionary War ports from Yorktown, Virginia, to Castine, Maine. The voyage, which originated in Rochefort, France, celebrates the extraordinary French-American bond and Lafayette's indomitable spirit of adventure (as exemplified in his motto: "Cur Non" or "Why not").

Roughly 10 months before I found myself on City Dock that morning, my sister, who has the unfortunate burden of living in Paris, City of Light, with her French husband and two young daughters, stood along the shores of Île d'Aix to bear witness to the historic moment when L'Hermione sailed for the first time. The ship that took 17 years to build uses the same materials and techniques (such as oak timbers, linen sails, and hemp lines) that were available in the 18th century. And she's gorgeous—155 feet high, 217 feet long, drawing 16 feet, powered by 17 sails and two electric propulsion engines (connected to diesel generators), and intricately detailed with yellow trim and ornate carvings.

 

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The Marquis de Lafayette's Chesapeake route in 1781.

L'Hermione as Science Lab
Not only does L'Hermione serve as a history lesson, she also serves as science lab and research vessel. Throughout the ship's Atlantic crossing, the Director of Maritime Operations for the Friends of Hermione-Lafayette in America Marc Jensen worked with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its global counterpart, the Joint Technical Commission for Oceanography and Marine Meteorology (JCOMM), to deploy a series of 11 climate buoys (one of which he placed about 100 miles from the mouth of the Chesapeake).

These buoys join a network of hundreds of others that collect and transmit data like water temperature, barometric pressure, position, and salinity back to the Global Drifter Program website. "There's no doubt that we as human beings are having a huge impact," says Jensen. "The trade winds are farther south than they are normally; we had our first tropical storm May 7 instead of June 1." This network of buoys provides the critical information needed to study the long-term trends and possible effects we're having on our oceans and weather patterns. While crossing, Jensen and his team also collected 13 water samples to be tested for levels of microplastics with Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. The results are forthcoming.

In addition to better understanding our environment and the ways that we can protect and restore it, Jensen has other aspirations for what this L'Hermione voyage can teach us: "I certainly hope that when people walk aboard the ship [they realize that] the reason this is all happening is that a young man convinced his king to support a revolution. [He had] the understanding that an individual's freedom is a right that you're born with . . . We can't ever underestimate the power of what young people can do once they set their mind to something."

 

IMG_0735Lafayette and the Chesapeake
What would Lafayette have eaten on his voyages in the Chesapeake? That's what CBF's Senior Naturalist (and all-around Bay/History/Life Expert in my mind) John Page Williams and I find ourselves discussing the day that L'Hermione leaves Annapolis.

"It was a different Bay, for sure, back then," Williams says as he waxes poetic about the spot, croaker, sheepshead, American shad, salt herring, and rockfish (some averaging 60 pounds!) that swam thick and healthy across the Bay and its rivers in Lafayette's time. Not to mention the massive, vertical oyster reefs that grew so abundantly in the Chesapeake that they posed navigational hazards to passing ships.

"Our ability to alter the system was much lower [back then]—we didn't have the tools to do it," says Williams referring to trawl nets, dredging, and clear-cutting machinery. "The worst damage we did came in the last 180 years," Williams continues, "[when we were] beating up the land without realizing it during the Industrial Revolution and the 20th Century." The numbers speak for themselves. Since Lafayette's time, we have lost:

  • more than 40 percent of our forested buffers that once grew deep and undisturbed across 110,000 miles of rivers and streams and that filtered and cleaned our water;
  • roughly 80 percent of our underwater grasses that once flourished across 400,000 acres, sheltering sea horses, juvenile fish, blue crabs, and more;
  • more than 90 percent of our water-filtering oysters.

New"But this is not the way it has to be," Williams insists. Perhaps he, in persistent Lafayette fashion, cannot lose hope that that we can impact powerful, lasting change on the world around us—whether it be the birth of a nation or the rebirth of the Chesapeake.

"We've seen improved sewage treatment bring the Potomac and James Rivers back from the dead," says Williams. "Bald eagles and ospreys rebound; and Atlantic sturgeon begin to spawn again in several of the Chesapeake's rivers. There are still plenty of problems, but improvements like these tell us that the Chesapeake system wants to live, and that with a lot of thought and effort, we can restore more of its riches than any of us has seen in a long time.”

 

"Cur Non"
Back at City Dock on that early morning, as the rain starts to fall and a small crowd of Annapolitans gathers to wish L'Hermione adieu, a strange thing happens. A girl, not so unlike my eldest French-American niece 20 years from now, clambers up the ratlines—why exactly, I can't be sure. She climbs higher and higher, with determination and perseverance, throwing leg over leg, hand over hand, refusing to look down. She climbs high above the heads of her crewmates who serenade us with loud French sea chanties as they leave the dock. And I imagine her still climbing in the distance as the ship passes by the old Naval Academy transmitter towers, where, rumor has it, the D-Day orders were sent across the Atlantic. She keeps climbing as high as she can possibly go because . . . Why Not?

—Text and photos by Emmy Nicklin
CBF's Senior Manager of Digital Media

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This Summer, the Crab Bake You Save May Be Your Own

The following first appeared in the Patriot News.

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Grassy habitats are critical for blue crab survival. Photo by Jay Fleming/iLCP.

Crab cakes. Crab soup. Crab Imperial.

Encrusted with a favorite seasoning or lightly broiled as cakes, by the pound or by the bushel, we love our crab meat.

Blue crabs are one of the tastiest and more resilient species that come from the Chesapeake Bay and their fate is the hands of Pennsylvanians.

The good news is total numbers of blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay are up slightly this year, after the 2012-2013 survey indicated a drastic loss down to 300 million.

The 2015 Chesapeake Bay winter crab dredge survey shows populations of juvenile and adult blue crabs have gone up to 411 million. Most notable is how adult females have clawed their way from 68 million to 100 million.

Blue crab populations fluctuate because of a witch's brew of factors like severe winters, the harvest, and pollution.

Chesapeake Bay watermen supply as much as one-third of the nation's blue crabs each year. About 75 percent of the Bay's adult blue crab stock is harvested. As for Mother Nature, there is little any of us can do to control the weather.

But pollution control is within our grasp. Driven by our commitment at CBF to improve water quality in Pennsylvania as well as the Bay, we cannot think of delicious crab meat without also thinking of crabgrass.

A dense lawn is one of the more effective barriers against what many Americans consider intrusive and offensive crabgrass.

Applying lawn fertilizer can help get the job done. But the runoff of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment is the leading cause of impairment of 19,000 miles of Pennsylvania waterways.

Agriculture is the largest source of that pollution. Urban and suburban runoff are also key sources.

Pennsylvania delivers half of the freshwater that flows into the Bay. It's easy to see how what we do in Pennsylvania, through agriculture and what we put onto our lawns, affects the health of the Bay and its blue crabs.

The presence of nitrogen and phosphorus in the Bay encourages the explosive growth of algae. Algal blooms darken the water and block light, killing underwater grasses that re-oxygenate the water and provide critical shelter for crabs.

"Dead zones" are formed when blooms fed by polluted runoff quickly die and decay, sucking up oxygen. In order to find oxygen, crabs move to shallow waters where they are caught more easily.

These "Dead zones" also destroy or inhibit the growth of clams and worms, an important food source for crabs.

The Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint is a plan that sets pollution limits for Pennsylvania and the Bay.

Pennsylvania has developed an individual plan to achieve those pollution reduction goals and committed to two-year milestones that outline the actions it will take to achieve success.

Achieving pollution reduction goals and improving water quality in Pennsylvania, with a sensitivity toward how we handle pollution, can ensure an ecosystem in the Bay that supports a healthy blue crab population.

—Harry Campbell, CBF's Pennsylvania Executive Director

Are you a resident of Pennsylvania? Make your voice heard, and tell your County Commissioners to pass a resolution saying Clean Water Counts in Pennsylvania!


New Challenges AND New Optimism for the Fuel of the Food Web

OspreyWithMenhaden2Osprey like this one above heavily rely on nutrient-rich menhaden, often called "the most important fish in the sea." Photo by iStock.

Once more those small, silvery, nutrient-rich fish called menhaden have taken center stage in fisheries management and Chesapeake conservation. On May 5, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), which manages the coast-wide catch of menhaden and 23 other migratory fish species, met in Alexandria, Va., to revisit the way menhaden are managed. Specifically they met to discuss raising the harvest quota for menhaden after a recent stock assessment found an increase in biomass (the total weight of the population), but a decrease in abundance (the actual number of fish).

Often dubbed "the most important fish in the sea," menhaden are a fundamental link in the Bay's food web, serving as valuable sustenance for striped bass and many other fish, marine mammal, and seabird species. Their health directly affects the health of the entire ecosystem. 

We sat down with Bill Goldsborough, CBF's Fisheries Director, to get a better understanding of what happened at the meeting, and what it means for the fate of this critical fish.

  1. What happened at the meeting earlier this month?
    The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted to increase the current cap on menhaden harvest by 10 percent for both 2015 and 2016. It was a good management decision, because stakeholders on both sides seemed to be satisfied, but it was not a great conservation decision. CBF had urged ASMFC not to increase harvest quotas until measures were taken to ensure menhaden's ecological role in the Bay and beyond was protected.

    That said, a really good thing for menhaden conservation came out of this meeting. ASMFC initiated the process to amend the management plan for menhaden. With the amended plan, they are once and for all committing to developing ecological reference points (guidelines for optimal population levels and allowable fishing rates). The reference points we have right now are based on single-species management, designed to only account for the health and survival of menhaden alone, not the ecosystem as a whole. They do not fully account for menhaden's ecological value as an important forage fish that other marine creatures depend upon for food. Ecological reference points will effectively be more conservative guidelines for the fishery that will leave more menhaden in the water for the striped bass, osprey, and all the rest of the species in the ecosystem that depend on menhaden. This is huge . . . we've never had this level of commitment to develop and adopt ecological reference points. 

  2. How did ASMFC come to this decision?
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    The most recent menhaden stock assessment found an increase in biomass (the total weight of the menhaden population), but a decrease in abundance (the actual number of fish).

    Five years ago, a menhaden stock assessment found that we had a depleted stock of menhaden, and there had been a history of overfishing. This spurred ASMFC to establish a catch quota (the first time ever in the history of menhaden management) and to set it at a level 20 percent below recent harvests, beginning in 2013.

    Now we have a new assessment that's just come out. It's good science and much more comprehensive, but it includes some different assumptions. One in particular assumes there is a mass of larger, older menhaden in northern waters off the coast of New England that are outside the range of the fishery (large menhaden that are not often caught in the fishery but that have been seen in surveys done by northern states). The menhaden fishery is concentrated in the mid-Atlantic, especially in and around Chesapeake Bay. The net effect of these large, old menhaden is to increase the biomass estimate over what we thought from the last assessment. 

  3. So menhaden that reside outside the area where people actually fish are boosting the biomass number?
    Exactly. To me, the most insidious thing that I don't think we're paying enough attention to is that as a result of this finding of increased biomass, the fishing industry is saying that we can catch more fish, but a lot of the fish are outside the area where fishing occurs. We're increasing the catch in the area where we don't have that higher biomass. And, according to this latest assessment, in an area where there is actually a lower abundance of menhaden—fewer numbers of fish in the population. In fact, it's the lowest abundance in the 60-year history of assessing the menhaden population, according to this new model. So the assessment does show higher biomass, but it also shows low abundance. The way to think of it is there are relatively more big, old fish, but not a lot of fish total. And numbers of prey are what's important to predators like striped bass. So this is a dynamic that we have to come to grips with.

  4. What's next for menhaden?
    We have to stay on top of the process that will play out through 2016. The amended management plan won't take effect until the 2017 fishing season. This is going to be a long, methodical process. We want to get it right this time. 

  5. Why are menhaden so important?
    Menhaden are the fuel of the food web, and we control the flow. Too low and we have problems with striped bass nutrition, diseases, mortality, and so forth. For a predator like striped bass that depends a lot on menhaden, if they're not a lot of menhaden available, they will shift to something else that's probably not as nutritious. They might shift to blue crabs—is that better for the bigger picture? So it's a tradeoff between management objectives. You have to think in an ecosystem-sense rather than a single-species context for ecologically important fish like menhaden. One industry representative calling for a catch increase at a recent ASMFC meeting said, "Don't leave these fish in the water to die!" That short-sighted statement ignores the fact that leaving menhaden in the water to be eaten satisfies an important management objective to keep the ecosystem healthyYou get incredible value from leaving these fish in the water.

For the sake of the striped bass and the osprey, the bluefish and the bald eagle that rely on these small, but all-important fish, we are pleased that ASMFC will be taking the long view and considering the health of the broader ecosystem when amending the menhaden management plan. After all, a healthy menhaden population means a healthier Chesapeake Bay. 

—Emmy Nicklin
CBF's Senior Manager of Digital Media

Stay tuned for updates on this important fish and all the other Chesapeake species it supports by signing up for our e-newsletter.


Susquehanna River: Making the Case for Impairment

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A smallmouth bass was found in the Susquehanna River with a large cancerous tumor. Photo by John Arway.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) image on May 4 of a smallmouth bass with a significant malignant tumor on its lip, left anglers and those who care about water quality speechless.

The fish was caught in November of last year on the Susquehanna River near Duncannon, PA. The PFBC said it is the first time this type of cancer was found on a smallmouth bass in the Commonwealth.

The discovery is another find that illustrates a world-class fishery is suffering.

Anglers first reported diseased and dying smallmouth bass in the river in 2005. Young-of-the-year and adult bass continue to bear sores and lesions, and the population continues to plummet. Researchers have also been finding intersex fish—adult male bass with female eggs in their testes—since the early 2000s.

Now, a fish with cancer.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), the PFBC and others believe that 98 miles of the lower Susquehanna River must be declared impaired, so that the timeline for its recovery can begin. The Susquehanna provides half of the fresh water that flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has resisted recommending an impaired listing of the river, citing a lack of definitive scientific evidence of the source and cause of the smallmouth bass problem.

CBF's report Angling for Healthier Rivers, concluded that Commonwealth smallmouth bass are threatened by a "perfect storm" of high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, pesticides, parasites, and hormones in animal and human waste. They also face endocrine disrupting chemicals found in certain herbicides, cosmetics, detergents and medicines.

According to DEP, sediment and nutrient pollution significantly damage 19,000 miles of Pennsylvania's rivers and streams, including those which drain into the Susquehanna. Agriculture is the largest source.

But, there is a plan.

In 2010, EPA established science-based limits on the pollution fouling the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams. States also developed individual plans to achieve those limits and committed to two-year milestones that outline the actions they will take to achieve success. EPA promised consequences for failure. Together, the limits, plans, and milestones make up the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.

Pennsylvania must accelerate progress if it is to have 60 percent of the pollution reduction practices in place by 2017 and 100 percent by 2025. The Commonwealth's nitrogen and sediment pollution reduction commitments from agriculture and urban polluted runoff are considerably off-track. Pennsylvania appears to be on track to meet its phosphorus reduction goal.

It is imperative that the Commonwealth achieve the pollution reduction goals in the Clean Water Blueprint. A healthy Chesapeake Bay does not exist without a healthy Susquehanna flowing into it.

CBF makes the analogy of smallmouth bass and pollution in the Susquehanna to that of canaries in the coal mines. Caged canaries killed by otherwise undetectable deadly gas, were harbingers of a treacherous environment and miners knew to get out.

CBF and others concerned about the water quality of the Susquehanna and the fishery, would hope that significant scientific data that triggers river impairment and improvement, catches up to the power of images of smallmouth bass with open sores and tumors.

Reducing nitrogen and phosphorus pollution and achieving the goals in the Clean Water Blueprint will not solve the smallmouth bass issue, but doing so will improve water quality and reduce at least one source of stress on the fishery. It will also result in a $6.2 billion return on investment for the Commonwealth.

The smallmouth bass issue is a physical manifestation of the challenges many of Pennsylvania's rivers and streams face. Restoring and protecting our waters will have meaningful impacts to our economy, health, and quality of life.

—B.J. Small, CBF's Pennsylvania Media and Communications Coordinator

Are you a resident of Pennsylvania? Make your voice heard, and tell your County Commissioners to pass a resolution saying Clean Water Counts in Pennsylvania!


Angler Clean Water Story: The Benefits of Habitat Creation

19052267_25244661_redrelease13As a full-time fly and light tackle fishing guide on the Chesapeake Bay, I find environmental and ecological restoration of the bay vital to the future of my profession. With CBF at the lead, many aspects of water quality in the bay have improved. This is a huge accomplishment considering the stress put on the resource by a large increase in human development in the watershed.

I believe habitat loss is the largest issue hampering the biological carrying capacity of the Chesapeake. Possibly more than 90 percent of the Chesapeake's three-dimensional bottom structure has been lost due to declines in natural oyster reefs and seagrass flats. Anglers can see the effects of habitat loss first hand. I have personally witnessed the disappearance of eelgrass flats. These once productive fishing spots have turned into barren deserts that no longer support biological diversity.

On the other hand, I have seen the positive benefit of habitat restoration projects. The restoration of three-dimensional biological communities through man-made habitat creation is exciting from an angler's perspective. Unproductive two-dimensional bottom is turned into thriving biological communities through projects likes CBF's reef ball program. Anglers are one of the greatest beneficiaries of habitat creation since gamefish are attracted to the variety of forage fish, crabs, shrimp, and worms that 3D habitat supports. One of CBF's reef ball sites has become a reliable fishing stop for me while running fishing charters.

Whether through donations or voluntary participation in CBF reef ball projects, anglers can help turn the tide on habitat loss. It is a win-win for the resource and your fishing experience!

—Chris Newsome, Gloucester, Virginia

As an avid angler, what does the Bay and its rivers and streams mean to you? Share your fishing clean water story or read others here!


Don't Raise Menhaden Catch Without Eco Safeguards

Atlantic MenhadenPhoto by Jay Fleming/iLCP.

Atlantic menhaden, those small, silvery fish that travel in large schools up and down the Atlantic Coast and Chesapeake Bay, may be swimming into trouble.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) is meeting in Alexandria, Va., tomorrow and is considering raising the harvest quota for menhaden. That would allow even more of these boney little fish to be caught by commercial fishermen, who now remove approximately 80,000 tons of menhaden from Virginia waters each year.

And that has the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, The Pew Charitable Trusts, and thousands of conservationists and recreational anglers worried. Why?

Menhaden are the meat and potatoes of the marine world. As filter feeders of plankton, menhaden are packed with nutritional value and are food for striped bass (rockfish), bluefish, summer flounder, and other fish, marine mammals, osprey, eagles, and sea birds. In fact, menhaden are so critical in the marine food chain that they've been dubbed "the most important fish in the sea."

People love them, too, although not to eat. American Indians once used menhaden as fertilizer for corn. Early Colonial settlers processed them for lamp oil. In the late 19th century, the harvest peaked as menhaden oil replaced whale oil for lighting. But then the menhaden population began to collapse.

In the past century, all but one state gradually banned the large-scale fishing of this important fish; today, only Virginia allows "reduction" (industrial) menhaden fishing, which takes about 80 percent of the catch coast-wide. The oil and fish meal from the catch goes into paints, cosmetics, diet supplements, and animal feeds. The other 20 percent of the annual menhaden harvest is used as bait for blue crabs, lobster, and for recreational fishing. 

Men
Biomass is a measure of weight, in metric tons. Abundance is a measure of quantity, in billions.

Meantime, menhaden numbers have continued to decline. While the latest scientific assessment of the population shows the "biomass" (the total weight of the fish stock) at a reasonable level, it also found that the total number of menhaden remains at historic lows.

Further, the number of young menhaden produced each year in the Chesapeake Bay, a key nursery for Atlantic menhaden, has been poor for the past 20 years. And Chesapeake striped bass, which normally eat lots of young menhaden, are suffering a chronic disease problem that has been linked to poor nutrition.

Concern about the long-term health of the menhaden population prompted the ASMFC, which manages the coast-wide catch, to reduce the commercial harvest by 20 percent in 2013. The move was widely seen as a prudent first step in restoring menhaden numbers to more sustainable levels.

Now just two years later, ASMFC is considering reversing course and increasing catch quotas, at least partially. Proponents argue the latest stock assessment justifies greater menhaden harvests. But as CBF Virginia Senior Scientist Chris Moore points out, the assessment also showed abundance, or total number of fish, remains low.    

"Although CBF is encouraged by the recent stock assessment, the results are actually mixed. While the total biomass is at an acceptable level, the overall menhaden abundance is at levels lower than when the fishery was declared overfished in the 1960s. And numbers of prey fish are what matters to predators like rockfish and ospreys.”

Moore also points out that the recent stock analysis is a "single-species assessment" and does not fully account for menhaden's ecological value as an important forage fish that other marine creatures depend upon for food.

"There is still important work to be done by ASMFC to ensure menhaden can fulfill their critical role in the coastal and Chesapeake Bay food web. CBF strongly recommends that ASMFC take no action to increase harvest quotas until ecological reference points are adopted or other measures taken that ensure menhaden’s ecological role is safeguarded."

CBF is monitoring the ASMFC meeting this week and will report actions taken, so stay tuned.

Chuck Epes, CBF's Assistant Director of Media Relations

Click here to read CBF's letter detailing our concerns to ASMFC.