This Week in the Watershed: A Threatened Pennsylvania Hallmark

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Brook trout, a hallmark of Pennsylvania waterways and a great indicator of clean water, is threatened by both invasive species and warming waters as the result of climate change. Photo by Neil Ever Osborne/iLCP.

One of my most vivid collegiate memories occurred on the banks of a central Pennsylvania lake. While out in the field for an environmental science class, the Professor pointed out a handful of geese pecking away at underwater grasses and asked the class, "What should we do with these geese?" Upon the reply of several students saying we should protect them, he bellowed out, "WRONG! We should shoot them all!"

Despite the crassness of his response, his point resonates—invasive species can have major consequences on the ecological health of our rivers, streams, and the native species that call them home.

This week, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) released a study revealing that Pennsylvania's native brook trout is threatened by the invasive brown trout. Brook trout are commonly regarded as a "canary in the coal mine" for pollution, as they require cold and clean water for survival. As such, brook trout are particularly susceptible to warming waters as the result of climate change.

The USGS study found that the presence of the invasive brown trout is another significant challenge for the brook trout, as the brown trout has higher tolerance to warmer waters and competes with the brook trout for food sources.

Brook trout are a hallmark of Pennsylvania's rivers and streams. As a great indicator for healthy water, their dwindling population is telling. In addition to the need for strong fisheries management to address harmful invasive species, we need to fully implement the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. Our children and grandchildren deserve clean water, and the proliferation of the brook trout will indicate we are headed in the right direction.

This Week in the Watershed: Oyster Balance, Eel Abundance, and A Pennsylvania Hallmark

  • Oysters present quite a challenge in striking a balance between the short-term needs of watermen and long-term needs of a sustainable fishery. (WRC—VA)
  • Invasive species combined with the effects of climate change are a brutal combination for Pennsylvania's native brook trout. (USGS Press Release)
  • Local residents in Maryland's Howard County are pushing for financial incentives to push commercial property owners to implement practices to reduce polluted runoff. (Howard County Times—MD)
  • Eels are returning in abundance to the Susquehanna River, leaving environmentalists hopeful other species such as mussels will follow suit. (Bay Journal)
  • Bravo to CBF's Bill Portlock, who received the Garden Club of Virginia's Elizabeth Cabell Dugdale Award for Conservation. Portlock has been with CBF since 1981 as an environmental educator, restoration leader, and accomplished photographer. (Free Lance Star—VA)
  • Amidst debates over oyster harvesting, Maryland is looking at Virginia for lessons learned. (Bay Journal)
  • CBF is working to clean Virginia's Hampton River through planting oysters. (Daily Press—VA)

What's Happening around the Watershed?

November 20

  • Portsmouth, VA: Come on out to a fun-filled, family-friendly annual event that combines educational engagement and ecological stewardship. RIVER-Fest '16 will emphasize practices and activities that will sustain and improve the health of the Elizabeth River. CBF is looking for 6-8 volunteers to assist with a variety of activities. Please contact Tanner Council to register or for more information at tcouncil@cbf.org or 757-622-1964.

December 3

  • Broadway, VA: Come on out and help us plant hundreds of native trees and shrubs on a picturesque farm in the Shenandoah Valley. Volunteers should bring a sun hat, sun screen, and work gloves. Volunteers are also asked to bring a packed lunch. Light refreshments will be provided. This planting event is suitable for children closely supervised by adults. Please RSVP by November 30 to Robert Jennings at 484-888-2966 or RJennings@cbf.org.

December 6

  • Norfolk, VA: Join us for a presentation on what is often called,"the most important fish in the sea"—menhaden. An expert panel will discuss why menhaden matter and the future prospects for the fishery. This event is part of the Blue Planet Forum — a free environmental lecture series with a mission to educate and engage the public on important environmental issues affecting Hampton Roads and the nation. The event is free, but registration is requested — Register here!

—Drew Robinson, CBF's Digital Media Associate


Little Fish, Big Impact

 

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Menhaden are the fuel of the Bay's food web, providing critical sustenance to other Bay species like rockfish. Graphic courtesy of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Small, silvery, and packed with nutritional might, menhaden have long been thought of as "the most important fish in the sea." And the other week, they once again came to the forefront of fisheries management and Chesapeake conservation.

On October 26, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), which manages the coast-wide catch of menhaden and 23 other migratory fish species, met in Bar Harbor, Maine, to revisit menhaden's harvest cap for next year

Menhaden are a fundamental link in the Bay's food web, serving as valuable sustenance for striped bass and many other important fish, marine mammal, and seabird species. Their health directly affects the health of the entire ecosystem. Yet the menhaden population has faced a long history of large-scale industrial fishing and historic low abundance in recent years.

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

 

What happened in October?
ASMFC took up the issue of what the menhaden quota should be for 2017 after delaying the decision at its August meeting. A compromise was reached to increase the current harvest cap by 6.5 percent, bringing the menhaden catch limit up to 200,000 tons. That number was judged to be the middle ground among nine different options considered in August, ranging from keeping the status quo all the way up to increasing the catch limit by 20 percent. This quota is only for one year before the new management plan (or Amendment Three) comes into place in 2018.

 

What does this mean?

It's disappointing. With menhaden still not abundant throughout their geographic range and continued concerns about recruitment in the Bay, staying the course would have helped ensure a healthier menhaden population for all stakeholders—the reduction industry, bait fishermen, anglers, conservationists, etc.

What's more, we're not being consistent with the objective that the ASMFC has had for 15 years to account for menhaden's ecological role, something the commission is planning to do in 2018 by adopting "Ecological Reference Points" (ERPs) under Amendment Three. (ERPs are guardrails for managing the harvest while leaving enough menhaden in the water for the ecosystem.) The bottom line is there was too much political pressure to have an increase right now.

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A hungry osprey with his menhaden lunch. Photo by iStock.

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 there are not enough 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? 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. It's important to remember that leaving menhaden in the water to be eaten satisfies an important management objective to keep the ecosystem healthy. You get incredible value from leaving these fish in the water.

What's next?
ASMFC will develop a new menhaden management plan (Amendment Three) for 2018 based on public comment from all stakeholders as well as scientific data and expertise.

This new plan will give us ecological reference points, and it will give us a new framework for allocating the menhaden catch quota among the states, among the industries, and so on. Right now it's done by state—each state gets a certain percentage of menhaden catch, and Virginia gets 85 percent out of the entire coast, while some states get less than one percent

One type of ecological reference point that CBF and many other groups support would maintain at least 75 percent of the virgin biomass [how many fish would be in a natural system before any harvesting] in the water for the health of the ecosystem.

The first public comment phase on the new menhaden management plan ends January 4, 2017. Stay tuned for how you can take action for the Bay and "the most important fish in the sea"!

This year is a big year for you. You're retiring as CBF's Director of Fisheries next month after 38 years and leaving ASMFC after more than 18 years on the commission. What has been the biggest milestone for you, particularly in your time with ASMFC?
Actually getting a quota on menhaden with Amendment Two was the biggest milestone that I was part of at ASMFC. And if Amendment Three proceeds the way it's supposed to, that will probably supersede Amendment Two as a milestone.

Before Amendment Two, there was no limit on the catch of this ecologically critical fish. No limit! And it was the biggest fishery on the East Coast, and annually in the top five nationwide—West Coast, Gulf Coast, Alaska. That's high volume! Getting a quota set at a conservative level—20 percent below what it had been—was probably the biggest milestone for me.

There's been a whole lot more focus on the importance of forage fish in general in recent years, and I think a lot of that derives from the two decades that we've been working on menhaden.

Over the next few weeks, ASMFC is holding public hearings about its revised menhaden management plan. Stand up for this important fish at one of the public hearings in Maryland, Virginia, and other coastal states. Click here for the full list of hearings.

—Emmy Nicklin
CBF's Senior Manager of Digital Media

Learn more about menhaden and why they are so important at our next Blue Planet Forum.

 


This Week in the Watershed: A Forgotten Fish

Menhaden photo from EPR
Despite their critical link in the food web, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission raised the menhaden catch quota this week. Photo by CBF Staff.

They might not be a common feature on dinner plates, but menhaden are often called "the most important fish in the sea." A small, oily fish packed with nutritional value, menhaden are a critical link in the marine food web. Valuable fish like rockfish rely heavily on menhaden as do whales, osprey, and other marine mammals and seabirds. Despite their critical role in the Bay's ecology, menhaden face an uncertain future.

In 2012, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission cut the menhaden catch quota by 20 percent. Just last year the quota was raised 10 percent, and this week, another 6.5 percent.

As with all fisheries management, science should be at the foundation in all decision making. And with a fishery as critical as menhaden, managing the long-term sustainability of the species should include considerations for their ecological role in addition to the economic value. With the Atlantic menhaden population at eight percent of historic levels and the science still out on taking their ecological value fully into account, now is not the time to increase the quota even further.

Saving the bay involves not only cleaning the water but ensuring the wildlife that depends on it are thriving. With the full implementation of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, and responsible, science-based fisheries management, we can leave a healthy Chesapeake Bay to future generations.

This Week in the Watershed: An Important Fish, Kicking Cans, and Spooky Forests

  • Advocates for menhaden, often dubbed "the most important fish in the sea," received unwelcome news, when it's quota was increased 6.5 percent. (Bay Journal) Bonus: CBF Statement
  • The push to address stormwater runoff in the Keystone state faces several major roadblocks. (Bay Journal)
  • The controversial Four Seasons development on Maryland's Kent Island is still facing legal resistance. (Star Democrat—MD)
  • We couldn't agree more with this editorial lampooning the decision to kick the can down the road on stormwater pollution reduction efforts in Maryland's Anne Arundel County. (Capital Gazette—MD)
  • Wetland scientists are studying the increasing prevalence of what they call "ghost forests"—forests that have been overtaken by sea level rise. (Daily Press—VA)
  • Pennsylvania has plans for cleaning its rivers and streams, but some are questioning whether they are providing the necessary funding to bring their plans to life. (Lancaster Farming—PA)
  • With millions of dollars spent on stream restoration projects throughout the watershed, some are questioning the efficacy of the investment. (Bay Journal)

What's Happening around the Watershed?

October 29

  • Woodsboro, MD: Help CBF plant over 1,000 trees and shrubs along Israel Creek on a beef cattle farm in Frederick County. Approximately 5,000 feet of stream banks will be planted resulting in six acres of riparian buffer. Israel Creek is in the Monocacy River watershed which flows to the Potomac River then to the Chesapeake Bay. Click here to register!

November 3

  • Easton, MD: Oyster season is here, and whether or not you're a fan of eating the Bay's beloved bivalve, you've probably noticed a growing number of farmed oyster varieties available in local seafood markets and restaurants on the Eastern Shore. There's no denying that oyster farming, also known as "aquaculture," is on the rise in Maryland. Join us for a forum on this rising trend to learn more about oyster aquaculture from experts in the field. The event is free, but click here to register!

November 5

  • Smithsburg, MD: Join CBF at this recently completed stream restoration project on Little Antietam Creek and help us with the final stages of restoring the stream banks and floodplain. Volunteers will install live stakes consisting of willow cuttings as well as native trees and shrubs.  Learn about stream restoration techniques used throughout the region by touring this recently completed project and lend your hand for the final touches. Click here to register!

November 6

  • Annapolis, MD: Join approximately 25,000 runners and walkers crossing the 4.35-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge as part of the third annual Across the Bay 10k. The dual-span bridge doesn’t allow pedestrian traffic at any other time of the year, so this is a unique opportunity—and the view is amazing! CBF is an official charity partner of the Across the Bay 10K, and we are excited to offer Charity Bibs as part of that partnership. It's a win-win...you get a guaranteed entry into the race and help save the Bay with a donation to CBF! Get your charity bib now!

November 12

  • Virginia Beach, VA: Volunteer with CBF at Calypso Bar & Grill! We will be celebrating our favorite bivalve, the oyster, with an oyster roast. Volunteers are needed to help recycle the oyster shells, pour beverages, and take tickets. A portion of the proceeds will help CBF in its work to save the Bay! To volunteer, please email or call Tanner Council at tcouncil@cbf.org or 757-622-1964.

—Drew Robinson, CBF's Digital Media Associate


Atlantic Sturgeon: A Perfect Poster Fish for the Blueprint

Juvenile Atlantic Sturgeon © Jay Fleming
Photo by Jay Fleming.

The following first appeared in the fall 2016 issue of Save the Bay magazine.

"They need our help," explains Doug Myers, CBF Senior Scientist and in-house sturgeon expert. "Sturgeon have had a lot happen to their habitat over the years. Today, the Chesapeake's only confirmed breeding population is in Virginia's James River. We need to expand their reach so if something disastrous were to happen on the James, the fish wouldn't be wiped out."

A lot has happened, too, since we featured sturgeon in the Summer 2011 issue of Save the Bay magazine. The year after our article ran, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries listed Atlantic sturgeon as endangered.

In our story, "Last Refuge of the Dinosaur Fish," Matt Balazik—at the time a Virginia Commonwealth University graduate student and sturgeon census taker—was pictured tossing a 70-pound sturgeon back into the James River. Today Matt, now Dr. Balazik, an integrative life sciences Ph.D., is a faculty researcher at VCU's Rice Rivers Center. The next step for the fish, he says, is habitat designation. "We've learned a lot in the James. As of a couple months ago," Balazik says, "we've identified two spawning groups in the James." According to Dr. Balazik, each group has different staging and spawning grounds. One group spawns in the spring, the other in fall. "I think it's massive to protect the spawning grounds that we are zeroing in on using telemetry data." Although protecting the area "where the magic happens," is important, he says, "the whole river plays an important role in the health of the fish, from the headwaters to the mouth of the Bay where they spend their first years of life."

On the case at CBF is Doug Myers. While the endangered species listing goes a long way toward protecting the fish, Myers says NOAA also needs to designate critical habitat for sturgeon. Under the Endangered Species Act, critical habitat is defined as "the geographical area occupied by the species at the time it is listed on which are found . . . features essential to the conservation of the species." It can also include areas not currently occupied by the species but that are imperative to its restoration. In the Chesapeake Bay, 453 miles of river are proposed for critical habitat and include feeding and spawning grounds.

Rivers with areas under consideration for critical habitat include the Susquehanna, the Potomac, the Rappahannock, the York, and the James. But the question arises: How are sturgeon to get to these rivers, especially the Potomac and Susquehanna, for the fall spawning season when the main body of the Chesapeake Bay suffers from annual low-oxygen dead zones in the summer?

Myers argues there is a direct link between the fish and the goals of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint"Once the critical habitat is designated, we'll have the Endangered Species Act . . . adding emphasis to the Blueprint."

"Because of their oxygen requirements, Atlantic sturgeon are the perfect poster fish for the Blueprint," says Myers. The Blueprint is a federal-state plan designed to improve water quality across the watershed by reducing pollution from agriculture, runoff, air, and wastewater. In February, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear the American Farm Bureau Federation's appeal attempting to throw out the Blueprint. The court's decision let stand two lower courts' rulings that the Blueprint stands on firm legal ground. Moreover, as a federal and state program, the Blueprint and its regulatory and funding provisions have a "federal nexus" to the sturgeon listing. So we expect that the critical habitat designation will force a more intimate coordination between federal agencies. 

Atlantic sturgeon require rough, gravely bottoms for spawning and clean, oxygenated waters. Polluted runoff, which carries toxins, bacteria, garbage, and sediment, flushes into our waterways after a rainstorm. This debris and sediment make its way to river bottom and threaten spawning grounds. By reducing the amount of pollution-laden sediment reaching these rivers, water quality improves for all species that reside and come to spawn. 

As bottom feeders, Atlantic sturgeon are dependent on benthic organisms like mussels, worms, and small crustaceans. And sturgeon depend on a minimum of 6 mg/L of oxygen in the water to survive. A NOAA Fisheries' critical habitat designation, however extensive and inclusive it ends up, is vital to sturgeon survival and will be another tool to combat the ills the Chesapeake Bay faces. 

Atlantic sturgeon doesn't reach maturity until age 10 to 15 and only spawns every two to three years, making recovery slow. Sturgeon are anadromous fish that enter the Chesapeake Bay in the spring and fall to spawn in the upper reaches of its rivers. At least that's what they use to do. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, driven by a demand for their eggs, otherwise known as caviar, Atlantic sturgeon were nearly depleted. The fish faced additional obstacles like dams blocking their way up river and reduced spawning grounds. Boat and ship strikes also threatened the large fish. The issues sturgeon have faced have brought the species near extinction.

Readers who want to witness a sturgeon, can contact Captain Mike Ostrander (mike[at sign]discoverthejames.com) and sign up for one of his sturgeon tours. The two-and-a-half hour, Thursday-night excursions are scheduled to leave Hopewell, Virginia, at 5 p.m. on September 1, 8, 15, and 22. Captain Mike has been a river guide on the James for 16 years. He "found it natural to want to share the opportunity to see a breaching sturgeon. When you see one," he says "it's like the end of a fireworks show."

This dinosaur-era fish has endured millennia. In spite of overharvesting and habitat destruction, we may be witnessing a comeback, but we need to protect and restore the historic spawning and feeding grounds and the sturgeon's pathways to and from those grounds so this species has a fighting chance.

—Jen Wallace, CBF's Managing Editor

UPDATE: On August 31, CBF submitted its official comments to the NOAA Fisheries office, urging them to make water quality a top priority as they designate critical habitat for the Atlantic sturgeon and manage it into the future. More than 8,000 advocates joined with us in standing up for this ancient and important fish—the Chesapeake's largest and oldest. Click here to see our letter and the signatures of those supporters. We expect to hear a final decision on the Atlantic sturgeon habitat designation by June 3, 2017. Stay tuned for updates!

 


This Week in the Watershed

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The Atlantic sturgeon, the Bay's oldest and largest native fish, needs your help! Photo courtesy iStock.

George Washington once wrote in his diary that he "went a dragging for Sturgeon," fishing for a culinary staple in the 18th century. But it's more than being mentioned in George Washington's diary that makes the Atlantic sturgeon an American legend. The sturgeon, the Bay's largest native fish, was here long before the days of the American Revolution. Dating back 120 million years, the Atlantic sturgeon once thrived in the waters in and around the Chesapeake Bay. But these dinosaurs of the Chesapeake are now threatened with extinction after their populations plummeted from poor water quality, habitat destruction, and overfishing.

All is not lost, however. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries is now proposing to designate "critical habitat" for this important fish. Designating areas as "critical habitat" can make a world of difference for the sturgeon. But water quality must be a priority in designating this habitat. If it isn't, sturgeon populations could remain under threat as poor water quality creates barriers between important sturgeon habitat and interrupts the species' life cycle.

Sign our petition by September 1st to tell NOAA Fisheries to make water quality a top priority as it designates sturgeon critical habitat and manages it in the future.

What's even better—the sturgeon won't be the only beneficiary from improving water quality. By implementing the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, we all will experience the benefits of clean water, from expanded recreational opportunities, to improved public health, to massive economic benefits. Our children deserve to see a Bay full of clean water with a thriving population of this historic fish. Sign our petition now!

This Week in the Watershed: Dinosaur Fish, Planting Oysters, and an Average Dead Zone

  • Revised procedures have made it easier for Maryland oyster farmers to lease places on the Bay. (Bay Journal)
  • CBF added to its already large total of oysters planted in Virginia's Lafayette River, adding 200,000 more on Tuesday. (ABC 13—VA)
  • The size of the dead zone in the Bay spiked in late July and is now at its average size, covering about 14 percent of the Bay's mainstem. (Bay Journal)
  • Researchers are studying how extreme weather is impacting the striped bass population and other fisheries. (Science Daily)
  • Biologists are concerned that despite finding large Atlantic sturgeon, the Chesapeake Bay's oldest and largest fish, young sturgeon are few and far between. (Washington Post—D.C.)
  • A controversial subdivision on Kent Island has received approval to move forward. (Bay Times)
  • On a visit to a Lancaster County farm, Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey Jr. learned about agricultural conservation practices and how they improve local water quality. (Lancaster Farming—PA)

What's Happening around the Watershed?

August 19, 26, September 2, and 9

  • 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'll be shaking off the dirt and debris on shells so baby oysters can successfully grow on them. This "shell shaking" event is a bit of a workout but a fun, hands-on experience. With lifting involved, it is not recommended for individuals with bad backs or other health concerns. A tour of our restoration center will follow the shell shaking. Click here to register!

August 27

  • Wrightsville, PA: Join CBF, Heroes on the Water, and local Trout Unlimited chapters for a day of fishing, paddling, and fly-fishing lessons on the Susquehanna River as we celebrate our veterans and the value of clean waterways. Veterans, community members, paddlers, fishermen, friends, and family are welcome at Shank’s Mare Outfitters from 1 to 5 p.m., to discover and appreciate the Susquehanna. From 5 to 7 p.m., CBF will host a dinner and open bar with live music for all participants. There is a $5 entrance fee for dinner and drinks. Click here to register!

September 1

  • Raphine, VA: The Virginia Forage and Grassland Council is sponsoring a summer forage tour exploring the topic of planning for drought. Click here to learn more!

—Drew Robinson, CBF's Digital Media Associate


Good News about Oysters

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3.2 million spat on shell were planted in the South River this July. Photo by Erika Nortemann.

Persuading microscopic oyster larvae to "set" on old shells is as simple as placing plenty of both into a large round tank of circulating Bay water and leaving them together for several days. Right?

Not hardly. This Chesapeake miracle is absolutely dependent on good water quality. Some years, successive sets die off, handcuffing restoration programs.

But not this year, at least so far. CBF's MD Oyster Restoration Center at Shady Side has been able to produce a record number of spat (i.e. baby oysters) on shell, the universal currency of restoration. "The spring and summer have been extremely kind to us," said Capt. Karl Willey as he deftly maneuvered Patricia Campbell, CBF's 60' oyster planter, around Thunder & Lightning, an oyster reef in the South River that is open to harvest by watermen wielding hand tongs. "The hatchery at the University of Maryland Horn Point Laboratory started producing larvae early—in April—and has continued. We've seen strong spat sets in our tanks since then. We've actually gotten ahead of schedule, with 31 million spat set on shell and placed on restoration reefs in the Little Choptank...Now we have July to work small projects with some of our partners. That's why you found Kate [South River Federation Executive Director Kate Fritz] and me counting spat on the dock this morning." 

Indeed, as Dan Johannes, Pat Beall, and intern Patrick McCabe loaded spat on shell into the large bins on either side of Patricia Campbell's long foredeck, Karl and Kate carefully examined a random sample of several dozen shells, counting the pinhead-sized spat on each. Eight-to-twenty spat on each shell allowed him and Kate to estimate how many spat the big boat would be planting on this day: 3.2 million. 

Loading and counting completed, the crew and several volunteers, including Kate's Board Chair, Kevin Green, climbed aboard for the one-hour run up to South River. We slowed briefly to watch a large pod of dolphins fishing in the river's mouth, then got down to work on a sanctuary reef 11-14' deep off Larrimore Point. As Kate and Kevin watched on the foredeck, Dan started up the hydraulic system that tilts the bins full of spat on shell inward to the conveyor belt that runs down the center of the foredeck. Pat and Patrick began to regulate the flow of 1.4 million spat on their shells into a steady stream on the belt, all moving forward to drop onto a rotating "planter wheel" at the bow that throws them out in a circle 10-12' in diameter. Meanwhile, a GPS antenna mounted beside the wheel sent a continuous signal of our track to the electronic display in front of Karl at the helm, recording the data on a memory card. This technology arms Karl with the data to know everywhere this program has planted since 2003.

We dropped another 0.5 million spat on shell on an 8' sanctuary reef tended by John Flood, an South River Federation Board member emeritus, and 0.3 million on another sanctuary off the mouth of Little Aberdeen Creek. Finally, we moved to Thunder & Lightning, to drop the last 1 million in 10-12' where local watermen partners would be able to harvest them once they grow out in two-to-three years.

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CBF's oyster planting boat, the Patricia Campbell. Photo by Erika Nortemann.

Tiny predators like mud crabs that live on the reefs eat spat, but survival from spawn to adult for these guys set in concentration in our tanks is higher than natural sets in the wild," Karl said. "The density at which we plant [5 million spat on shell per acre] produces dense clusters." 

At the end of the month, Patricia Campbell and her crew will partner with the Coastal Conservation Association/Maryland to set 72 concrete reef balls with spat and place them onto the MD DNR's Tilghman Island Artificial Reef, in 18-20' of water due west of the island. The reef balls themselves have a special story: they have all been built by high school students in masonry classes, expressly for this purpose.

After three decades of bad news about oysters, imagine being able to get ahead of schedule with good news. Here's hoping we can make it last...

—John Page Williams, CBF's Senior Naturalist


The Chesapeake's Oldest and Largest

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A fish with unparalleled historical significance, the Atlantic sturgeon is threatened with extinction on our watch. Photo courtesy of iStock.

There's an ancient fish in our Chesapeake Bay, and it's threatened with extinction on our watch.

That's right: A local fish—the Atlantic sturgeon—survived Ice Ages, just to become endangered millions of years later by poor water quality, destruction of its habitat, and overfishing.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries is proposing to designate "critical habitat" for Atlantic sturgeon. CBF will be weighing in on this critical designation—and we hope you will, too.

The Atlantic sturgeon has a long history in the Chesapeake Bay, earning the title of its oldest and largest fish species. These prehistoric fish have been around for 120 million years, and each one can live 60 years, grow to 14 feet in length, and weigh up to 800 pounds.

But their numbers have dwindled, and, in 2012, the Atlantic sturgeon was added to the Endangered Species List. Now, NOAA Fisheries must identify those areas that are most important for the survival of the species—the "critical habitat" needed for spawning, rearing, feeding, and migration to other important habitat.

The link between the health of sturgeon and the health of the Bay and its major rivers is an important one. The Bay's degraded water quality has created barriers between important habitats, interrupting the species' life cycle. By restoring water quality through the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, we will be helping to recover one of the region's oldest, most extraordinary fish species.

From Virginia's James, Pamunkey, and Mattaponi Rivers to Maryland's Potomac River to Pennsylvania's Lower Susquehanna to the Delmarva Peninsula's Marshyhope Creek and Nanticoke River, sturgeon have spawned and survived across the Chesapeake Bay region. They'll need these areas—along with the healthy water quality that will allow them to get to these areas safely—in order to survive.

What can you do to help? Public comment on the critical habitat designation will be taken until September 1. Stay tuned for updates on how you can weigh in to support our recommendations for designation. In the meantime, more information on the proposal and comments can be found here.

Wow. Modern-day dinosaurs right here in the Chesapeake Bay. Don't your kids and grandkids deserve that same sense of wonder?

Let's work together to ensure that a fish that has been here for millions of years will still be here, spawning and someday thriving, for generations to come. 

—Bill Goldsborough, CBF's Director of Fisheries


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

Blue-crab-1200
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