The Resilient Blue Crab

The following op-ed appeared on Friday in the Washington Post.

Blue crab blog
Photo by Damon Fodge

It's clearly been a poor year for Chesapeake Bay blue crab harvests. Average catches just three years ago were as much as twice as what they are now.

That is where Angus Phillips ["It's now or never for blue crabs," Sunday Opinion, July 27] and I agree. Where we disagree is what to do about it. Phillips called for a moratorium on crabbing. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) does not. Like many, we believe in managing fisheries through science, not quick-fix schemes. As my eighth-grade history teacher used to say, "Beware of simple answers to complex problems."

While a moratorium may be tempting in its simplicity, the CBF and most scientists believe that limits on the harvesting of female crabs are biologically appropriate for such a resilient species (which is far different from the striped bass, for which the CBF was a moratorium advocate). This approach will also have the added benefit of maintaining jobs and avoiding the economic devastation to communities like Smith and Tangier islands.

Blue crab reproductive success from year to year depends on many factors. Weather is one. Last winter's cold weather killed an estimated 28 percent of the bay's crabs. Pollution also can cause habitat loss. Bay grasses — great places for young crabs to hide from predators — are currently at only 20 percent of historic levels. The bay's dead zones kill the creatures that crabs rely on for food.

We believe that only a comprehensive crab management plan that addresses pollution, habitat and harvest will provide for a long-term sustainable fishery.

While there is plenty of reason for concern, there is also a bright note this crabbing season: Early results from Maryland and Virginia show an encouraging number of young crabs.

Phillips rhetorically asked whether the CBF is aware of the situation. Of course we are. The CBF's scientists have been in communication with the Maryland, Potomac and Virginia regulatory agencies responsible for blue crab management. Our senior fisheries scientist also is a member of the Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team, which oversees blue crab management baywide.

Phillips said he could not find one word about the issue on our Web site. I invite him to look again. A search of our Web site turned up more than 1,400 mentions of crabs — their importance, value and plight. In May, we published "Blue News," a blog posted soon after the annual crab survey results raised concerns about the population. It can be found at www.cbf.org/bluenews.

Finally, Phillips stated that the CBF was raising money for a new wing at our Annapolis Environmental Center, the world's first LEED platinum building. We are not. He also called it a palace. That is an odd description for a building that dramatically cuts energy and water use, reduces human pollution through zero-discharge composting toilets and is built inside and out with sustainable materials.

—Will Baker, CBF President


Angler Clean Water Story: Simply Put

BrandonWhite_LatearlLine_StripedBass_flyrod
Simply put, the single most important variable in my mind to having a healthy fishery not only in my home waters of the Choptank River, but the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed, is having clean water. I have been fishing and living on the Chesapeake since I was a little boy. Over the years I have seen how grasses have decreased as a result of polluted water and other various pollutants.

It wasn't too long ago I was able to fish the shallows of the Choptank River and consistently catch white perch, striped bass, and other finned animals. While I am still able to catch some fish, the Choptank is now the second most polluted river in Maryland and as a result, the fishing does not even compare to when I was a kid. While making sure we have sustainable fishing regulations for both commercial and recreational anglers is important, in my mind the single most important variable neccesary for a healthy ecosystem is clean, unpolluted water.

Brandon White, Easton, MD

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!


Bay's Health Showing Real Progress

The following op-ed appeared in Gazette.net Maryland Community News Online late last week.

SOTB_2012CoverThis is a historic moment in time for the Chesapeake Bay and all the rivers and streams throughout its entire six-state, 64,000-square-mile watershed. In fact, this is the moment in time for the Chesapeake. Never before have the stars aligned so well for the Bay's future. While there has been some squabbling, and even lawsuits, by extremists on both sides, cooperation between individuals, businesses and government has led to real progress. The state of the Bay is improving.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's State of the Bay health index, the first such Bay report card and the longest running, shows a 14 percent improvement since 2008. Cooperation and sound science have overcome the narrow interests of opposition. We can clearly see a saved Bay in our generation.

But make no mistake, the Bay is not yet saved. A D+ is not a grade my parents, at least, would ever accept ("Report: Slight uptick in Bay’s health," Jan. 4). The Bay is still dangerously out of balance.

Overall, our State of the Bay Report shows that five of the 13 indicators are up, seven are unchanged, and only Bay grasses are down. In the last two-year reporting period, the levels of phosphorous pollution have declined, the amount of land permanently protected in conservation has increased, blue crabs have increased, and dissolved oxygen levels have increased. All of this shows a Bay fighting for survival, and the fact that the dissolved oxygen levels have actually improved during a period of high storm events may be a strong indication that the Bay's legendary resilience is returning.

Ironically, we worry that the good news, albeit modest, may breed a certain level of complacency among the public and even our elected officials. This would be a huge mistake, as the gains have been modest, incremental, and the system is still fragile. If we have learned anything over the years at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, it is the fact that the Bay is a study in contrasts, even contradictions.

Consider the one down indicator of the 13 in our report card—underwater grasses. Upper Bay grasses on the Susquehanna Flats tripled over the past 20 years, but declined in the last two-year reporting period. Grass beds in the Severn River are abundant, but in much of Virginia, grasses decreased, a victim of high water temperatures.

Going forward, here is what we all want for the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers: clean and safe water, abundant seafood and healthy habitat. Over the centuries, all three have been thrown out of balance. Now, thanks to good science informing good policy, supported and implemented by a broad base of cooperation, each is starting to show signs of improvement.

That some are lobbying Congress and suing in federal court to stop the progress is not only tragic, it is mind-boggling. All of us who value the Chesapeake and are determined to see a better future for our children and grandchildren must let our voices be heard. It is time to finish the job.

—William C. Baker
President of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Learn more about our Save the Bay efforts through the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.


Grasses for the Masses: We're Looking for Volunteers!

4601757205_0016fb1591_bThis spring hundreds of volunteers will be wading out into the James and Potomac Rivers, planting underwater grasses, and helping to restore the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams!

These Grasses for the Masses volunteers first will have participated in a CBF workshop this winter before growing wild celery grass from seeds planted in water-filled plastic tubs in their homes, schools, or offices. Wild celery is not only fun and easy to grow, but it is also a vital part of the Bay's ecosystem, improving water quality, reducing erosion, and offering safe haven for native critters.

And it's not too late to join in the fun! Registration for our Grasses for the Masses program is now open. But hurry, spots are filling up quick for this hands-on and rewarding activity, and we'd love to have you join us!

—Emmy Nicklin 

Check out this Facebook photo album from underwater grass plantings of years past.

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Top five things you always wondered about Chesapeake Bay winters (but were too embarrassed to ask!)

IMG_0331Photo by Emmy Nicklin/CBF Staff.

Though the weather of late may feel more like spring, let’s not forget we’re still in the heart of winter—an unusual time on the Chesapeake of darker, shorter days, low tides, and blistery cold weather (normally!). But just how exactly do things change on the Bay during the winter season, and more importantly, why? Here are answers to some of those burning questions you’ve always had but never asked about wintertime on the Chesapeake.  

  1.  Where do blue crabs go during the cold, weary months of winter?
    Like many of us, blue crabs are not big fans of cold weather. Instead of suffering through it, they will retreat to deeper waters during the winter months and burrow into muddy and sandy bottoms where they will remain in a dormant state until warmer weather returns. 
  2. Why is there so much waterfowl along the Chesapeake in winter?
    Unlike blue crabs, there is certainly no shortage of waterfowl along the Chesapeake in winter. In fact, most of the 28 species of ducks, geese, and swans that spend some time on the Chesapeake throughout the year do so in winter. Summering in colder climates like Alaska’s North Slope or Nova Scotia’s lake marshes, waterfowl come to the Chesapeake in search of food as their summering grounds have long-since frozen over. The Chesapeake Bay marshes and surrounding farmland provide the perfect place for waterfowl to winter and nibble on submerged aquatic vegetation, small shellfish, and left-over grain in farm fields.
  3. Why are the Chesapeake’s tides so low in winter?
    As CBF’s Director of Fisheries Bill Goldsborough says, “Tide levels in Chesapeake Bay are determined largely by two factors—the moon and the wind. The lunar effect on tides is from the gravitational pull of the moon on the water and thus changes as the moon revolves around the Earth…So, the lunar effect is predictable and is the basis for tide tables. In the Chesapeake, the wind is the second major control on tide level, but in some conditions of wind strength, direction, and duration, it can overpower the lunar effect. This is basically what happens with the blow-out low tides we sometimes see in winter. The prevailing winter wind direction here is northwest, and when it blows hard from that direction and for multiple days, it literally pushes water out of the Bay.” 
  4. Can the Chesapeake Bay ever freeze over?
    It can and it has. In fact, the Chesapeake Bay has been documented as freezing over in winter months a good seven times since 1780 says Chesapeake Bay Magazine. The last time the surface of the Bay froze over was in the brutal winter of 1976-77, when roughly 85 percent of the Bay and its rivers and streams formed ice.
  5.  Why is the water so clear in winter?
    The cold temperatures of winter slow the metabolisms and thus the rates of growth and reproduction for many organisms, including phytoplankton and zooplankton. In fact, their populations are at their lowest in the wintertime, therefore resulting in the clearest Bay water of the year.

—Emmy Nicklin

To learn more about the Bay and our work, click here.



Notes from the Field: October is National Kill Tall Fescue Month

The following appeared on field conservationist Bobby Whitescarver's blog, blog.gettingmoreontheground.com. For more information, please visit his website

Progression of fescue to native prairieThe 12-month progression from invasive Tall Fescue to native prairie (starting from top left and moving clockwise). Photos by Bobby Whitescarver.

October is a good time to kill Tall Fescue. I like killing Tall Fescue because it is perhaps the most invasive non-native plant in North America. In my opinion it is more invasive than Purple loosestrife and Phragmites, yet why don’t we hear more about it? Not only is Tall Fescue invasive, but it is also toxic! 

We used a glyphosate product last week to start killing a pasture that is predominately Tall Fescue. We are doing this in preparation to replace the Tall Fescue with native warm season grasses next spring. When the new grasses get established, we will use them for pasture during the hot summer months of July and August when the rest of our cool season grass pastures on the farm usually go dormant. 

Research shows that killing Fescue in the fall results in only 20 percent of it coming back; whereas if you kill it in the spring, 60 percent of it will come back. We plan to spray again next spring just prior to planting the native grasses.

I also spray around the trees we planted several years ago because the Fescue is allelopathic to newly planted trees. That means the Fescue gives off a toxin that inhibits the growth of new seedlings. If you want to plant trees into a Fescue sod, you should kill the Fescue first.

Because of Fescue’s growth habit, it harbors mice and voles. Mice and voles eat tree seedlings. Mice and voles also attract hawks. Hawks kill quail. Introducing Fescue into our natural system here didn't work out very well.

—Bobby Whitescarver  

Whitescarver is a recently retired USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) conservationist who spent more than 30 years working with farmers on conservation practices. He now has his own private consulting business where he helps landowners create an overall vision and plan for their land. He also works with CBF to help famers install more Best Managment Practices (BMPs) in the Shenandoah Valley. He is the recipient of a CBF Conservationist of the Year award. For more information, visit his website

 

FinalProductThe resulting native prairie. Photo by Bobby Whitescarver.

Notes from the Education Field, Part 1: Students Learn First-Hand About Stormwater Devastation

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Photo by Tiffany Granberg/CBF Staff.

September is a month of beginnings and endings. The long warm days of summer wind down; migratory birds prepare for departure. Of course, most notably is the beginning of the school year. Students all across the nation enter new grades, start new classes, and sport their new clothes for the year. 

Here at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), September means the start of the fall field season for our 15 education programs, some administering one-day trips, while others conduct three-day overnight excursions. Students from Pennsylvania to Virginia will load up CBF boats, canoes, and even tractors to go out and experience the Chesapeake and its watershed. They will learn about its natural treasures as well as its troubles, and what they can do to make change. 

DSC_0031 But this week, as the Merrill Center Education Program began its season with a group from Annapolis Area Christian School, things were different. The water from last week’s torrential downpour had finally made its way down from the Susquehanna and into the Bay, creating a brown milky mess strewn with tires, plastic bottles, trees, etc. Students saw first-hand a system dangerously out-of-balance as they loaded onto CBF’s 40-foot workboat Marguerite to investigate the waters. Without even pulling away from the dock, they could already see the impacts of last week’s flood. The water resembled chocolate milk. Logs, presumably from Pennsylvania, drifted by on this blue-sky day. As the Marguerite went further out into the Bay, the story did not change. Mats of debris, trash, and even what appeared to be a bowling ball floated all around. Tiffany Granberg, one of CBF’s educators, described the scene as a “cesspool.”

DSC_0015 After lunch, the students shifted gears and boarded canoes to explore Black Walnut Creek, the small tributary bordering the Merrill Center property. As they paddled past tree-lined shores, Belted Kingfishers flew overhead chattering away at each other. Small coves on either side protected pockets of lush marshes, just starting to turn from summer green to a golden fall hue. Jason Spires, another CBF educator, asked the students to compare the water quality of the creek to that of the Bay they had seen in the morning. After a few thoughtful moments, they conceded that even though the water here was still murky, it certainly was not as bad as the Bay. “Why do you think the water quality is better here?” Spires asked. “Look around. What do you see all along the shores?” This is what our educators call the “aha! moment.” In a mere instant, these students got the connection. In a creek surrounded by trees and marsh, the water is protected against pollution. Furthermore, with poor stormwater controls and reduced natural flood buffers and filters such as forests and wetlands, the Bay is taking a big water quality hit.   

This is the beauty of CBF’s environmental education. Within the walls of a classroom, it is hard to make real-world connections such as the one just described. For more than 40 years, our education programs have provided teachers in the watershed the opportunity to do exactly that and turn information in a book into a memory of sight, sound, smell, touch, and sometimes even taste.

—Adam Wickline 

 

To learn more about stormwater issues and what you can do to help, please visit CBF’s Clean Water, Healthy Families Initiative website: http://www.cleanwaterhealthyfamilies.org/. To learn more about CBF’s award-winning education program, visit: http://www.cbf.org/page.aspx?pid=260. Help us fight for clean water now! Click  here for more information. Visit our Facebook album for more pictures of the stormwater's devastation: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10150366028460943&set=a.10150366027945943.398340.8914040942&type=1&theater

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It Will Take Efforts on Many Fronts to Save the Bay

205923by Ann Jennings, Virginia Executive Director, CBF
following is an excerpt from Jennings' recent OpEd article. Read the full article on dailypress.com.

The Chesapeake's treasured blue crabs, having declined by 70 percent over the past two decades, are poised dangerously below a level of abundance beyond which the population is seriously threatened. These are scary times for the blue crab.

The governors of Maryland and Virginia recently called for a one-third reduction in harvests of female crabs. Science indicates that reducing crab harvests will result in a greater abundance of blue crabs, and that the population will respond very quickly to such actions. Unfortunately, the men and women who make their living by bringing those delicious blue crabs to our dinner tables will see their incomes drop. It's a gross oversimplification, but consider what you would do if you were told by your boss that your annual income would drop by 34 percent effective immediately. These are scary times for the crabber.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation applauds the governors for taking this bold action and committing to partner, as perhaps never before, on the regulations necessary to reduce crab harvests. However, we are concerned about the impact of these regulations on watermen communities, particularly those on Tangier and Smith Islands, where crabbing has been part of the culture for centuries and whose watermen have limited options for alternative incomes.

CBF therefore has offered both states alternative approaches to harvest reductions that attempt to spread the burden equally among various sectors of the crab industry. Furthermore, we share the frustrations expressed by the Virginia Waterman's Association in numerous newspaper articles. While Virginia takes bold action to reduce crab harvests, the underlying problem facing crabs remains unsolved with no complete solutions even in sight. Ultimately, we must restore the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay if we are to sustain a robust crab population and robust crab fishery.  Read the full article on dailypress.com.