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

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: Where Have All the Stripers Gone

Photo by Blair M. Seltz.

The impact of pollution on the Chesapeake [and its] fish is very significant. Pollution in the form of too many nutrients causes low oxygen levels during the warmer months and this causes the stripers to move around quite a bit. The areas where they can find tolerable oxygen levels seem to be shrinking each year which makes the Bay less habitable. Traditional locations where stripers have been caught for years are no longer productive.

You can have wonderful structure with loads of baitfish on it but no stripers because there is not enough oxygen in the water to support them. Finding fish consistently in the warm months has become much more challenging because they are moving all the time and one cannot see nor determine oxygen levels without expensive test equipment. An area may look good and have lots of bait but there is no way to tell if the oxygen levels will support the [top] predators.

Capt. Richie Gaines, Queenstown, MD
Capt. Richie Gaines has been guiding anglers in the region for more than 20 years and has earned a reputation as one of the top light tackle guides on the Bay. Richie is a "guerilla" guide and fishes the entire Bay, moving with the fish to follow the best bite. Fishing the Bay year-round from the Susquehanna Flats to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel has provided a great deal of experience and taught Richie how to be versatile in applying techniques and locating the fish.

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!

New Pollution Regulations Aren't Enough for the Chesapeake Bay

The following op-ed appeared in The Baltimore Sun earlier this week.  

DSC_0010Students on a CBF education experience last fall witness first-hand excessive stormwater pollution. Photo by Tiffany Granberg/CBF Staff.

Action is needed to improve on the General Assembly's pollution-fighting initiatives

Good news about the Chesapeake Bay used to be as scant as oyster harvests. But in the past few years, headlines have brightened. The six bay states andWashington, D.C., all agreed to implement a blueprint for cleaning up the bay and its tributaries. The blue crab population surged. This spring, the Maryland legislature acted boldly to accelerate pollution reduction from sewage and stormwater systems, and from sprawl development.

This summer, Gov.Martin O'Malley, environmental and agricultural regulators, and a legislative oversight committee will make decisions that could sustain this momentum—or could slow our progress. They will determine the final shape of three critical new regulations governing pollution from farm fields, septic systems and Baltimore City.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation applauds the state for many parts of its new regulatory push. But we must strengthen these rules in several areas if we hope finally to put bad news about fish kills, dead zones, and beach closings behind us.

Resistance to these regulations from farmers, homebuilders and real estate interests is formidable. We all resist when we're asked to do more. But too much is at stake to relax our efforts. Try telling an unemployed waterman these changes are too burdensome. Tell him clean water and better harvests must wait several more decades. Also, many people already are doing more to reduce pollution. These new rules merely spread the burden fairly.

Here is how we view the three important pieces of regulation in the pipeline:

The septic rule is strong. It would require new homes with septic systems to use the best available technology. That makes sense since conventional septics aren't designed to control nutrient pollution at all. A top-line septic also is a bargain, relatively speaking. Building near a sewer system would be the best alternative for the environment as well as a community's budget. Homeowners on sewer pay up to $35,000 for their service. Best available technology for septics costs about $8,000 more than a conventional septic.

While septics currently contribute only about 6 percent of total nitrogen pollution around the bay, in some areas, such as Anne Arundel County, septics cause one-third of the pollution. Also, as we continue to sprawl into rural areas, septic pollution continues to grow and threatens to erase progress we've made reducing pollution elsewhere.

In contrast to the septic regulation, the rules for farms and for Baltimore City need improvement.

The farm regulations would better control pollution from fields where manure and sewage sludge are spread. Many farmers have made significant efforts to pollute less. But 39 percent of nitrogen pollution to the bay still comes from agriculture, about half of that from farm fields. Just as we're increasing our efforts to slow pollution from sewage plants, stormwater systems and sprawl, we must do more on our farms.

Some parts of the farm regulations are laudable. The rules would prohibit farmers from spreading manure and sewage sludge on the fields in winter when vegetation is not available to take up the nutrients.

But other aspects of the farm regulations need improvement. The state should strengthen rules for spreading manure and sludge in the autumn, and eliminate a loophole in a provision governing how close to a stream farmers can spread manure and sludge, among other changes.

Maryland also has proposed new rules on how Baltimore City discharges polluted runoff. Those rules, included in a new permit, need to be strengthened. Among amendments needed: Create performance standards that ensure specific pollution reductions; require more monitoring and accountability; and make sure that the discharges of runoff from city streets into waterways meet state water quality standards.

Strengthening these two regulations will ensure cleaner water, and all the economic and social benefits that flow from that. Clean water will benefit us and all future generations. If we don't keep making progress, we will jeopardize human health; populations of oysters, rockfish and crabs; and economies that depend on the bay—meaning thousands of jobs.

New, stronger regulations also will mean a more equitable sharing of the responsibility of cleaning up the bay and local creeks and rivers. Many Maryland homeowners already are paying higher fees to upgrade sewage and stormwater systems. Polls say the majority support this effort because it will pay off in the long term.

If we are going to finish the job of restoring our national treasure, all Marylanders—farmers, suburbanites and city dwellers alike—must increase their efforts. The watermen will thank us. Our grandchildren will thank us.

—Alison Prost
Maryland Executive Director
Chesapeake Bay Foundation


Learn more about the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint—our best hope for a save Bay!

Cheapeake Born: The skinny on the Bay's decline? Our unhealthy appetite for fertilizer, fuel

  PC 0594A pond and its wildlife suffocated with algae. Photo by Thomas McDowell.

For insight as to why we’re having trouble restoring Chesapeake Bay, I’m reading “The Evolution of Obesity” by medical researchers Michael L. Power and Jay Schulkin (Johns Hopkins Press, 2009).

It’s an illuminating look at how we got so fat. It’s epidemic—more than a fifth of the world’s population is overweight or obese.

In the United States, obesity-related health problems are soaring. The standard revolving door has gone from six to eight feet, and hauling our ampler butts costs airlines a quarter billion more in fuel than it used to. The proportion of normal weight Americans is at an all-time low.

But what’s a fat book got to do with the state of Chesapeake Bay? Around the world, coastal waters have gotten fat. “Eutrophic,” or overfertilized is the technical term, from the Greek for well-fed. Dead zones like the bay’s occur in more than 40 regions of the world.

It’s intriguing to compare graphs tracking these declines to graphs in Power’s and Schulkin’s book that track the U.S. upsurge in fatness.

Roughly, human obesity and estuarine dead zones both began to proliferate around the 1970s. Mindful that the body is not an estuary, I won’t put too fine a point on this coincidence.

But today’s “obesogenic” environment, as the book calls it, seems to be a useful lens for connecting human ways and the ways of bays.

‘Obesity’s’ authors marshal medical science and evolutionary biology to show how impressively adapted is the human organism to avoid underweight and starvation.

Our bodies can suppress appetite when food is scarce; also become more efficient at maintaining body mass in lean times; and we’re geared big time to glom onto and make the most of “calorie dense” foods full of fat or sugar.

And why not? For all but the last ticks of the evolutionary clock, calories were hard to come by, and calorie burning—physical exertion—was hard to avoid.

Fat was good for other reasons. Human babies are naturally among the fattest of mammalian species, close behind seal pups. The reason appears to be that fat, with 10 times the energy storage of muscle, fuels development of our big brains, themselves about one-third fat.

And fat, up to a point, helps the body fight off pathogens, which became a problem once humans began living in settled communities, close to one another and to animals.

The authors show that we literally like the feel of fat in our mouths. Sugar, too, has always been our friend, so much that a bird in Africa, the honeyguide, has evolved to follow honey-seeking humans to the beeswax it eats.

The bay also evolved elegantly to do more with less. The watershed for thousands of years was thick with forest, bemucked with beaver ponds and other wetlands, resulting in riverflows that were not just clean, but lean in the nutrients that fuel aquatic food webs.

The Chesapeake thrived fabulously on this diet. Its shallowness, its two-layered flows of freshwater riding atop salt, its structures of filtering shellfish and burrowing worms and clams, its vast grass beds that could absorb and rerelease nutrients—all of this and more enabled the bay to retain and recycle, and recycle again whatever food it could get. Think of it like swishing a tasty drink around in your mouth for a long time, extracting all of the goodness.

Both humans and estuaries in recent decades have entered a world that is nutritionally abundant beyond anything they knew. And though well-adapted to cope with less, neither man nor bay ever needed mechanisms to cope with too much—one reason the authors of “Obesity” are skeptical that drug companies will isolate a magic molecule or gene to limit getting fat.

The appetites that have larded today’s humans have sped up the bay’s eutrophication. A diet rich in meat means extensive, intensive, heavily fertilized and fertilizer-leaky agriculture, a major cause of deadzones worldwide.

Even heartier appetites for fossil fuels have fed the bay far too much fertilizing nitrogen via air pollution.

With so much energy available to work for us now, we humans must make an effort to get the exercise that used to automatically burn fat.

While the bay never literally exercised, its wet and forested watershed used to process nutrients far more vigorously, ‘denitrifying’ them back into the atmosphere, or burying them in sediments. Now they just mainline off pavement into the bay.

Nowadays ‘thin’ is in for humans, as ‘green’ is for the environment. Yet the trends still don’t match the images, and may never unless we comprehend where we came from.

—Tom Horton


The above "Chesapeake Born" column appears monthly in the Bay Journal News Service. Tom Horton covered the Bay for 33 years for The Sun in Baltimore, and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.


Chesapeake Born: The Grand Experiment

IMG_0409Photo by Emmy Nicklin/CBF Staff.

I have enjoyed the Chesapeake Bay for more than 60 years and written about it for nearly 40. Early in my reporting career, I realized I was covering more than pollution or the vicissitudes of fish and crabs.

I had a front row seat to a grand experiment. We had taken a world-class ecosystem and screwed it up big time, then begun an unprecedented effort to restore it, even as millions more people moved into the watershed.

For better or for worse, we were going to learn some lessons; important for the whole planet. Could an affluent, technologically sophisticated society forge a healthy and sustainable relationship with the rest of nature?

No one thought it would be easy or quick. Yet few thought we’d get this far with restoration still so far away, with so little certainty of meeting already postponed goals.

Much has gone in the right direction, offsetting somewhat the increased environmental pressures from a watershed-wide population that has doubled since I was a kid.

And looking at what’s worked suggests common threads.

Air pollution, a big source of Bay pollution, has decreased. Sewage treatment technology has improved to remove dramatically more nitrogen and phosphorus from waste.

Striped bass rebounded handsomely from dangerously low levels, and it seems within our grasp to operate blue crab harvests sustainably.

Lessons learned? The federal Clean Air Act has real teeth and good science behind it, and pretty good enforcement by the Environmental Protection Agency across state boundaries. The federal Clean Water Act has enough authority over sewage treatment to prod polluting municipalities, with the water and sewer bills users pay providing reliable funding.

With striped bass, strong federal oversight was critical to a species that mostly spawned in the Chesapeake but was overfished throughout its multistate migratory range.

With bass and blue crabs, funding good science that included excellent long-term monitoring provided politicians with the backing they needed to make controversial decisions to curtail harvests.

So fund the science, collect the data, strengthen regulatory agencies and federal oversight, then set real deadlines with real penalties. Next election, ask your candidates where they stand on those issues.

More regulation isn’t the sole key to Bay progress. Across the watershed, 20 percent of all land has been protected as open space using tools ranging from voluntary easements that give up development rights to outright purchase.

There’s also room for using market forces to protect the environment. Removing subsidies that encourage polluting behavior would work—and save money. Assigning economic value to nature’s services that purify air and water would send the correct (higher) price signals to pavers and deforesters.

When Bay restoration began, we heard a lot about “win-win”—what was good for the Bay would also prove good for the bottom line.

But the pushback from two of the biggest Bay problem areas—agriculture and sprawl development—has blown away such easy assumptions. The development industry and its allies continue to own local decision-making bodies where most land-use decisions are made—and made badly for the public interest.

Farmers, who contribute the most pollution to the Bay—and the most cost-effective pollution to curtail—enjoy a good-guy image with the voting public. Most really are good guys who have done many good things for the environment, although too often these are not well-targeted at Bay restoration.

To both sprawl and farm runoff we have workable and affordable solutions but not the politics or laws that are up to the task.

More straight talk to the public and farmers is in order. There’s a disconnect between the great deal the science says needs remedying and the “mission accomplished” one often hears from agricultural bureaucracies.

But, in the fourth decade of Bay-saving, we are at least working on almost all of the pieces of the puzzle, from pollution to overfishing to protecting habitat.

The bad news is that governments and environmental groups in the watershed continue treating growth—indefinitely expanding both the human economy and population—as an “uncontrollable” environmental impact, which can only be accommodated, never rethought.

Is the grand experiment then doomed? I’m not wise enough to say.

I have grown wise enough to spend every moment I can outside exploring this still marvelous region from Cooperstown, N.Y., to the Virginia capes. If readers get one thing from these columns, I would hope for this: Get outdoors, explore and learn what it would mean to live sustainably in this place.

—Tom Horton

The above "Chesapeake Born" column appears monthly in the Bay Journal News Service. Tom Horton covered the Bay for 33 years for The Sun in Baltimore, and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

Chesapeake News and Dos

Filling you in on the top stories of the week and letting you know how to make a difference!

IMG_2591 Photo by Emmy Nicklin/CBF Staff.

This week in the Watershed:  Hypoxia returns, some much-needed funds, and good crab news 


Upcoming Volunteer Opportunities for the Bay

October 8

  • Help clean up the Anacostia, our nation’s “forgotten river!” Join the United by Blue crew to help rehabilitate this Potomac tributary. 

October 9

October 11

  • Voice your opinion on the future of menhaden, “the most important fish in the sea,” in Annapolis, Maryland. This meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is open to public comment so please attend. We need your help to let these officials know just how important this fish is to the Bay!
  • Join CBF and REI for a viewing of “Gasland” in Richmond, Virginia. Clips from this documentary about hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” will be shown followed by a conversation about possible fracking in George Washington National Forest.  

October 12

  • Help fortify stream buffers in Lancaster, Pennsylvania along Witmer Run by planting trees with CBF. Help stop sediment and nutrients before they get to our waterways.

October 15



Adam Wickline


If you have an upcoming Bay-related restoration event and you need volunteers, please let us know by contacting CBF’s Community Building Manager, Adam Wickline: Do you enjoy working with fellow Bay Lovers to help save the Chesapeake? Become a CBF Volunteer to receive notifications about upcoming volunteer opportunities. 


How to Fish "Bad Water" - Part II

By John Page Williams, CBF Senior Naturalist and avid boater and fisherman. In Part I of this two-part series, John Page gives anglers some insight into the images on your sonar fish finders. In Part II he looks at how you can use that information to catch more fish.

So what’s an angler to do when bad water shows up on the fish finder? 
First, think about what the fish are telling you: they won’t—or can’t—go any deeper than the levels where you see them. This kind of situation calls for precise depth control. Can you cast out a jig, count it down to just above the level where you see them, and swim it back through them? Can you troll a plug or a spoon through them? If you’re live-lining, can you use a bobber to hang your bait at their level? Think through your options. You may just find that the way bad water concentrates fish actually makes it easier to catch them.

In the short run, that is. 
In the long run, though, bad water costs our Bay a huge loss in summertime fish habitat. For one thing, it concentrates fish in thin layers of warm water where diseases like Mycobacteriosis can spread. On a broader level, over the past 10 summers, more than 80 percent of the Bay has qualified as "bad water" that does not meet the EPA’s water quality standards for dissolved oxygen. Between 10 percent and 20 percent of that bad water qualifies as dead zones that are completely off limits to fish and crabs each summer. Think of having to give up 20 percent of the space in your boat, or in your house, and being uncomfortably stressed in most of the rest of it! Think how that loss affects the “carrying capacity” of the Chesapeake, its ability to serve as home to the fish species we love! Bad water is costing us the resource we love most in our Bay. 

What causes the bad water problem is pollution, nitrogen pollution to be specific. Too much nitrogen (about 600 percent too much, in fact) fertilizes the growth of trillions of algae cells. (See yesterday's post "Hampton Roads Algal Blooms Send Distress Signals") 

Over the past twenty-five years, many sewage treatment plants have made good progress reducing nitrogen pollution, and so have some farmers. To really make a difference, though, the Bay needs more farmers to participate fully in reducing nitrogen pollution, more sewer authorities to continue their upgrade progress, and most of all, many states, cities, towns, and private citizens to reduce polluting runoff from roadways, parking lots, and rooftops.  

Now there are solutions, and Bay anglers can help, big-time.
Over the next two months, contact your U.S. Senators and ask them to support Senate Bill 1816, the Chesapeake Clean Water Act. It offers the most important legislative opportunity to reduce runoff pollution to come along in the past thirty-five years. For more information, visit

In addition, the Bay states are putting together Watershed Implementation Plans (“WIPs”) that lay out specific actions they must follow to improve the Chesapeake’s water quality. We anglers can help there by following the WIP development process, participating in the public hearings about them, and urging our state agencies to submit strong plans that really will make a difference in the Bay’s health. CBF’s Anglers for Clean Water Web Site ( will keep you informed of those opportunities to help.

How to Fish "Bad Water" - Part I

By John Page Williams, CBF Senior Naturalist and avid boater and fisherman. In this two-part series, John Page gives anglers some insight into the images on your sonar fish finders—what they mean and how you can use that information to catch more fish.

Ever see an image like this on your fish finder?


Here is what is going on:

This image shows dense schools of bait fish (mostly menhaden) and some larger fish (probably rockfish) suspended high in the water column over 40 feet of water in the Severn River, about a mile above the Route 50 bridge in Annapolis, Maryland, on August 1, 2010. The fish are swimming at depths between 10 feet and 18 feet, where they have water as cool as possible (around 81 degrees instead of 83 degrees at the surface) and enough dissolved oxygen to “breathe.” The dissolved oxygen level in the zone where the fish are holding is 2 to 5 mg/l (milligrams per liter), low enough to cause stress to the menhaden and rockfish but not enough to kill them. Below 18 feet, the dissolved oxygen tails off to lethal levels of just 1.7 mg/l at 20 feet and 0.9 at 35 feet.

In the Chesapeake at this time of year, the water at the surface is generally warmer than the bottom, because it is closer to the sun, and fresher, because it has flowed into the Bay or a river from rainfall. The bottom water, on the other hand, is denser because it is cooler, and saltier because some of it has flowed up the Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. If the weather is stable, without heavy rainfall and strong winds, the lighter surface water sits like a lid on the bottom water.

Meanwhile, trillions of algae cells at the surface die every day and sink into that sealed-off bottom water, where aerobic (oxygen-consuming) bacteria decay them. This process literally sucks the life out of the deep water, causing what we now call “Bad Water” where fish and crabs get stressed (2-5 mg/l) or “dead zones” where they can’t live at all (less than 2 mg/l). The result of this process is a situation like the one you see in the image above.

Sometimes, the boundary line between warmer, fresher, well-oxygenated water and cooler, saltier, poorer water is very sharp:


See the lines going across the screen at 16 feet and 24 feet? Most sonar manufacturers call them thermoclines, a term that refers to sharp temperature changes, but in an estuary like the Chesapeake, those breaks can also be caused by abrupt changes in salinity, or a combination of both factors. In this image, taken in the open Bay off the mouth of the Chester River in May, each of the two breaks is caused by changes in both salinity and temperature. Those density changes are sharp enough to bounce sonar echoes! Notice how fish tend to suspend on or just above them.

Part 2On Thursday, John Page will be back with a look at how you can use this information to catch more fish—in both the short run and long run.

Dead Fish Like Leaves on the Water

While others were enjoying the appetizing smell of burgers and dogs on the grill this past Labor Day weekend, residents around Aberdeen Creek, MD, suffered through a nauseating reek caused by a fish kill. About 100,000 fish died from a lack of oxygen when low tide locked them in a small cove. It was the largest fish kill in Maryland this year. Investigators found two types of algae among the fish and said it's possible that the decay of the algae contributed to the low oxygen levels. The fish were so numerous, local residents thought they were leaves coating the surface of the water.
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