Though Walter Zadan recently celebrated his 90th birthday, the Williamsburg resident keeps up a schedule that is unusual for a nonagenarian. Every week he stops by several Williamsburg restaurants to pick up heavy buckets laden with empty oyster shells. He then drives these shells a few miles away to dump into outdoor collection bins.
Zadan is part of a network of volunteers across Virginia that collects these shells for oyster restoration efforts by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. For Zadan, his routine at the restaurants incorporates the three things needed for a long and happy life.
"The first thing is to eat good food. The second thing is to exercise. The third thing is to stay connected to society, and feel like you are doing something good," Zadan said.
The volunteer job is a great match for someone who has spent decades both working with restaurants and as an environmental advocate. Zadan has lived in Williamsburg since 1998, but he was born in New Jersey and has moved around the East Coast. While in Pittsburgh in the 1960s, he became involved in fighting smog and pollution.
That interest carried over after he arrived in Norfolk in 1987 to work as a culinary teacher. Back then, when contacting seafood suppliers he was surprised at the lack of local fresh fish, crabs, and oysters in a city on the water. "I was shocked by what I was hearing compared to what I had been used to," Zadan said.
Zadan learned about sources of pollution to the Bay and resolved to do something about it.
"I got very concerned about it," he said. "Why should I, as a citizen, be abused by people who dump stuff into the Chesapeake Bay. I support the fishermen. People who work the Bay have a right to earn their living."
Since the early 1990s Zadan has been a member of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and volunteered with various projects, including public speaking on reducing pollution in waterways. He has worked on oyster shell recycling for about nine years.
The foundation has about 15 oyster shell recycling volunteers in Williamsburg and estimates there are more than 50 shell recycling volunteers in the state, spread out from the Charlottesville area all the way down to the city of Chesapeake.
The shell recycling process is a full cycle. Restaurants save shells after meals to become building blocks for new oyster reefs. Volunteers pick up these shells to deposit in designated oyster shell recycling bins around the state. Zadan normally recovers shells from Berret's Seafood Restaurant and Waypoint Seafood & Grill to drop off at a bin on the campus of William and Mary.
When the bins are full, Zadan and other volunteers help shovel the shells into a truck to be driven to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's oyster restoration center in Gloucester Point. There the empty shells are cleaned and placed into large tanks with free-swimming baby oyster larvae, called spat. The empty shells make great homes for spat, which must attach to a hard surface in order to grow into oysters. Just one empty shell can become the home for a dozen or more full-grown oysters.
The spat-laden shells are loaded onto a boat, where they are dropped onto protected oyster reefs to boost the wild oyster population. Just last year, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation planted 5 million oysters in the Lafayette River in Norfolk.
Volunteers like Zadan are crucial to every step of the process, from gathering shells from restaurants to planting the baby oysters in rivers and the Bay, said Chesapeake Bay Foundation Oyster Restoration Specialist Heather North. "There is no way we could do this without our volunteers," North said.
"Walter is a real inspiration. At 90, he is showing us all just what is possible." North added that Zadan's long career in the food industry has helped the program work better with restaurants.
For his part, Zadan said that being part of the process gives him hope. "I feel like I'm making a contribution," he said. "It's a good thing both from a moral point of view and because it encourages business activity." He hopes that he can continue to inspire younger generations to work toward a healthier Chesapeake Bay. "Someone who's only 65 may look at me and say 'if a guy who is that age can do it, I can do it too,'" he said.
—Kenny Fletcher, CBF Virginia Communications Coordinator
The following first appeared in the Daily Times.
In the current hostile political climate, we can't seem to agree on any government policy.
The bipartisan poll was conducted by two polling companies, one Republican, one Democratic.
"This is about as overwhelming as you can get on any public policy issue," said Lori Weigel, a pollster with the Republican firm, Public Opinion Strategies.
There's just one problem. The future of Maryland oyster sanctuaries is at risk. A proposal presented by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to the Maryland Oyster Advisory Commission (OAC) would open up a net of nearly 1,000 acres of oyster sanctuaries to be harvested.
Maryland established the sanctuaries years ago as an insurance policy for the future of the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay.
Fifty-one of these areas are scattered throughout the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay. They represent a quarter of all oyster reefs.
In these underwater nurseries oysters can grow large, and reproduce. At least until now.
Opening the sanctuaries for harvest would be a major policy change for Maryland. DNR Secretary Mark Belton emphasized to a legislative committee recently that the proposal is preliminary.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation adamantly opposes any reduction in the oyster sanctuaries. So do 29 other conservation groups that signed a letter in opposition, which was submitted to DNR and the OAC, whose members are appointed by DNR.
The oyster harvest industry favors harvesting in sanctuaries. The number of licensed harvesters has doubled in recent years, and the industry wants more places to work. About three-quarters of the oyster reefs in Maryland already are open to harvest.
Nevertheless, the industry has proposed harvesting once every four years in some nurseries, the idea being that oysters would be allowed to grow in the years in between.
The current oyster population in the Chesapeake is estimated to be less than 1 percent of its historic size. The population has been devastated by overharvesting, water pollution, and disease.
Scientists say the sanctuaries are critical to safeguard against the unthinkable – losing the last remaining oysters in the Chesapeake – and to reverse the fate of the iconic bivalve.
Following those warnings, the state increased the area of sanctuary reefs in 2010 from 9 percent to 24 percent. At the same time, the state loosened regulations on oyster farming to help watermen increase their livelihoods.
The current policy is working.
A DNR report this past July concluded oysters are thriving in many of the sanctuary reefs. And oyster farming has surged, bringing added income to many watermen.
We must leave well enough alone.
The oysters on sanctuaries develop resistance to the periodic bouts of disease that flare up when water salinity increases, and spread that resistance to other reefs.
Given time, these reefs will grow vertically by many feet. Oyster reefs around the bay used to be so tall, colonial ships would go aground.
But centuries of harvesting and other assaults have collapsed the reefs into oyster "beds" – structures easily covered up by silt. Leaving sanctuary reefs alone will allow them to rise above this perpetual problem.
Permitting even occasional harvesting in these protected areas destroys the vertical growth, removes the large disease resistant oysters, and kills the nursery function.
Oysters can play a vital role in restoring the bay to health. Undisturbed oyster reefs are habitat for fish and other sea life. They also can filter millions of gallons of water – for no charge.
These structures literally can provide the building blocks of a restored Chesapeake Bay.
Marylanders are saying in no uncertain terms: Protect oyster sanctuaries.
—Alison Prost, CBF Maryland Executive Director
With more than six million residents, Maryland is a melting pot of diverse citizens, with different political leanings, religious beliefs, and racial backgrounds. Differences aside, all Marylanders are affected by the health of the state's rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay.
Integral to the health of the Bay is the mighty oyster. A keystone species of the Bay, a single adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. In addition to their filtering prowess, oysters settle on one another and grow, forming reefs that provide shelter for other critters.
Despite their hallmark status in the Bay's ecosystem, the native oyster population is just a fraction of what it once was as a result of disease, pollution, and overharvesting. In 2010, Maryland and other Bay states joined together to increase the native oyster population, establishing sanctuary reefs to allow oysters to proliferate unencumbered by harvesting. These reefs grew and expanded, with the estimated number of oysters in the Bay more than doubling between 2010 and 2014.
A recent poll conducted by a bipartisan research team found Marylanders understand and appreciate this success, with overwhelming support to maintain existing Chesapeake Bay oyster sanctuaries.
The numbers speak for themselves:
This strong support exists across party lines, as approximately 91 percent of registered Democrats, 89 percent of Independents, and 82 percent of Republicans support sanctuaries. Moreover, public support for the sanctuaries actually increased after the survey summarized the oyster industry's reasons for wanting to expand harvesting, rising from 88 percent to 91 percent.
This consensus is quite a contrast to the recently submitted proposal by the Maryland Oyster Advisory Commission to let the oyster industry harvest nearly 1,000 acres of oyster reefs which currently are off-limits to harvesting.
Currently, the Maryland General Assembly is considering a bill (HB 924) which would require the state to hold off on any alterations of the oyster sanctuaries until a scientific assessment of the oyster stock is completed in 2018.
The success of Maryland and the Bay, North America's largest estuary and a true national treasure, are mutually interdependent. Shaping more than just the state's coastline, Maryland's economy, culture, and history are covered with the Bay's fingerprints. No critter is more important to this success than the oyster. And while the recent State of the Bay report finds the health of the Bay is rebounding, it remains a system dangerously out of balance.
Those who call the Old Line State home might have their differences, but Marylanders across the board agree on this: Our oyster sanctuaries are worth protecting.
—Drew Robinson, CBF's Digital Media Associate
The following first appeared in the Chestertown Spy.
The fate of Maryland's oyster population is being worked out in a church basement in Annapolis.
That's where the state Oyster Advisory Commission (OAC) meets the second Monday of each month. This is the group appointed by Governor Hogan to review the state's oyster management system, and to recommend changes, if necessary.
This past Monday night was perhaps the most important OAC meet so far. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) presented a proposal to open up about 970 acres of 'sanctuary' oyster reefs to harvest.
As I have on several occasions, I sat in on the OAC meeting. But it was difficult to sit still.
The makeup of the OAC is controversial, filled mostly with watermen and those who sympathize with their views. The direction the OAC is taking also is controversial.
The controversy brings out the crowds. The OAC meetings used to take place in a meeting room at the DNR headquarters right next door. So many people began showing up, DNR had to move the meeting to the fellowship hall of the Calvary United Methodist Church on Rowe Blvd. Now even that room is often jammed.
Watermen feel the state has cheated them. Under prior governor Martin O'Malley the state increased the acres of productive oyster reefs set aside as sanctuaries—those areas that can't be harvested. O'Malley himself was guided by scientists' warnings that so few oysters remained in the Chesapeake that the status quo was no longer viable.
With input from everyone involved with oysters, the harvest industry included, O'Malley increased from nine percent to 24 percent the portion of oyster bars protected as sanctuaries. Three-quarters of reefs were to remain open to harvest. He also relaxed decades-old regulations to give watermen more opportunities to farm oysters rather than harvest them in the wild. In Virginia, oyster aquaculture is a booming business, but at the time of O'Malley's new plan it was negligible in Maryland. The idea was to boost watermen's earnings, and simultaneously to take out an insurance plan for the future of oysters in the Bay.
There's no doubt short term watermen took a hit. They had fewer places to harvest, although fortunately for them Mother Nature provided strong oyster reproduction for several years, resulting in strong harvests.
Scientists and groups such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) where I work sympathized with the watermen. But we believed someone had to take the long view before oysters were wiped out completely.
CBF, along with a host of western and Eastern Shore groups such as the Midshore River Conservancy, St. Mary's River Watershed Association, and others, believe the OAC proposal to shrink the sanctuaries is ill-advised. At a minimum, the state must wait till DNR finishes a stock assessment of the oyster population. You wouldn't start spending more money without knowing what's in your bank account. That's exactly what the proposal would do.
It would open up 1,277 acres of sanctuaries for harvest in the following rivers and Bay segments: Upper Chester, Miles, Wye, Upper Choptank, Hooper Strait, Upper Patuxent, and Tangier Sound. It would expand sanctuaries by 300 acres in: Mill Hill/Prospect Bay, Eastern Bay, Lower Choptank, and Nanticoke River. The net result would be 977 fewer acres in sanctuaries, an 11 percent reduction in those sanctuary acres.
It's only 11 percent, you might say. But it's 11 percent of the most productive, healthy sanctuary bars in the Bay. And it is giving away these protected areas before we have any idea the true size of the oyster population. That's not scientific. That's not sound judgment. Harvesting oysters on those 977 previously protected acres could do irreversible damage to the fragile population.
A bill in the Maryland General Assembly, HB 924, would freeze any alterations in the sanctuaries till after the stock assessment. Oyster harvesting is the only major fishery in Maryland that isn't managed with a science-based plan. It pays us to wait till we have the science before we implement a major change such as OAC is considering.
The bill will be heard this Friday, Feb. 24, at 1 p.m. in the House Environment and Transportation Committee. We urge people concerned about the proposal to shrink sanctuaries to make their voice heard.
—Tom Zolper, CBF's Assistant Director of Media Relations
Our favorite "beautiful swimmers" (AKA blue crabs) were quite popular in 2016! Photo by Nick Fornaro.
From shark sightings (yes, really!) to Supreme Court wins to increasing blue crab numbers, 2016 has been quite the year for the Bay and its rivers and streams. To get an idea of all the stuff—both good and bad—that this year brought, we thought we'd take a look at our Top 5 Facebook posts of 2016. And here they are:
1. Life is sweet! Or so it appears to be in our Smith Island Cake video. Smith Islander and baker extraordinaire Mary Ada Marshall invited us into her kitchen and showed us (and the more than 282,000 other people who watched the video) just how to make the quintessential Chesapeake dessert. This video was our most popular Facebook post of the year, reaching more than 1.3 million people!
2. We love our "beautiful swimmers," and apparently so do you! News of the 35 percent increase in the Bay's blue crab population came in at our second most popular Facebook post this year, reaching more than 629,000 people.
3. In a huge win for the Bay (and for Facebook, reaching more than 420,000 readers), the Supreme Court decided in February to deny the request of the American Farm Bureau Federation and its allies to take up their case challenging the legality of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. As CBF Vice President for Litigation Jon Mueller said: "For five years we have fought in the courts to defend a commonsense solution to reducing pollution, a solution borne of a cooperative relationship between the states, the federal government, and the citizens of the Bay Region. Today, that fight has ended."
4. Giant Blue Crabs?! That's right! In October, we caught and released one of these beauties on the Susquehanna Flats. It got the attention of more than 388,000 blue crab lovers on Facebook.
5. In June, we took a trip beneath the surface of the Severn River where we saw abundant grasses, scampering blue crabs, and thick, healthy oyster reefs — incredible signs of the Bay's recovery! Our River Reborn Video was an instant hit on Facebook, reaching more than 370,000 people and earning more than 213,000 views. I smell an Oscar!
For those of you who made it all the way through our Top 5 list, congratulations! And make sure to follow us on Facebook (if you aren't already) for the latest and greatest in 2017 . . .
CBF's Senior Manager of Digital Media
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?
- 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 email@example.com or 757-622-1964.
- 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.
- 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
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.
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.
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. Click here to take action now for the Bay and "the most important fish in the sea" before the January 4 deadline!
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.
CBF's Senior Manager of Digital Media
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?
- 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!
- 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!
- 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!
- 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!
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 757-622-1964.
—Drew Robinson, CBF's Digital Media Associate
"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!