As the sun was setting over the Patuxent River, Eileen Setzler-Hamilton stood on a 750-foot pier stretching off the end of Solomons Island with two high school students, eying their catch.
In their buckets were jellyfish freshly dipped out of the river. “This is the winter, or lion’s mane jellyfish, Cyanea capillata,” said Setzler-Hamilton, a research associate professor at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory.
While scientists at the lab have previously monitored the summertime sea nettle abundance for decades, no one has seriously looked at populations of winter jellyfish — and because no one is swimming in the water to get stung, few people care.
But because they have voracious appetites, Setzler-Hamilton thinks they may be significant, and overlooked, players in the food chain. “There is little known about the winter jellyfish, but they are a major predator on copepods and other zooplankton, as well as fish eggs and larvae when they are available,” she said.
It may seem odd that she has enlisted high school students to help. But at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, research and outreach with the local community has been closely mixed since the CBL became the first state-supported marine laboratory on the East Coast more than seven decades ago.
The lab’s first director, Reginald Truitt, built close ties with the Solomons community when he arrived in 1919 to study oysters, working out of a small shack until he was invited to move into the Episcopal Parish House in 1924. “He was very keen on the idea that this was not only a place to gain knowledge, but to get it out to the public,” said Ken Tenore, the current director of the lab, which now is part of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
The community responded to Truitt: It donated land at the very tip of Solomons Island to build the first permanent building for the Lab in 1931.
Now, the CBL is moving even further to invite the public inside by joining the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, which links historical, cultural and natural sites around the region. It is the first research facility to join the Gateways Network.
Truitt mixed easily in the world of the local watermen, as well as that of researchers and resource managers. But he pulled no punches when it came to releasing conclusions from his research: Truitt once reportedly had to slip out a back door of the Capital Building in Annapolis after attacking Maryland’s lack of oyster management.
Ultimately, his work led to the state setting its first minimum size limit on oysters. “Winning that battle was the beginning of my success,” Truitt later said. “It showed some practicality in the use of science.”
Truitt’s successors, which also included Eugene Cronin, known for his groundbreaking studies on the blue crab, have kept that in mind. “Over the years, we have applied our research,” Tenore said.
For example, CBL scientists were in the forefront of the research that showed nitrogen was a major pollutant to the Chesapeake Bay. Those findings, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, were controversial. But the science prevailed, and nitrogen reductions are now considered key to cleaning up not only the Bay, but other coastal areas as well.
Research by CBL scientists helped to lead to the closure of the striped bass fishery in the 1980s to help the depleted stock rebound. Today, CBL scientists are among the leaders in assessing the health of the Bay’s blue crab stock.
Scientists are also examining the impact of low levels of toxic chemicals on fish and other aquatic life: There is growing concern that low levels of pollutants add stresses that impact fish health. Other researchers are studying the impact of various chemicals in atmospheric deposition on the Bay and its watershed — an issue that was largely overlooked until recent years. “We’re looking out at what are going to be the problems 10 years from now,” Tenore said.
To get a sense of the lab and its work, people can tour its small — but soon to be expanded — visitor center, which has exhibits depicting marine life in the Bay, including an oyster reef community. An internet link allows visitors to observe real-time C¹esapeake water quality information from Chesapeake Bay Observing System buoys anchored in the Bay. Other exhibits explain the basic ecological functions of the Bay, and highlight aspects of the lab’s research aimed at better understanding those functions — and how they may be impacted by human activities.
A short video gives a history of the lab and its work, and a variety of other videos are available for viewing upon request. “We have people home schooling their kids on sailboats who will stop in for hours and hours, watching every video that we have,” said Erin Woodrow, the CBL’s outreach coordinator.
But for a fuller sense of the lab’s role, visits should be timed to coincide with lab tours, which are offered Wednesday and Friday afternoons. The 90-minute tours do not follow a set course: They vary according to the research going on at the time.
Visitors may also stroll through the campus, which includes several historic buildings and is located in a spectacular setting nearly surrounded by the tidal Patuxent River.
Throughout the year, visitors can attend a variety of workshops, seminars and other presentations at the lab. It’s all part of an effort by the 170 faculty, students and support staff stationed at the CBL to explain the science that underlies efforts to help clean up the Bay.
“We want what goes on behind these walls to get out to the public,” Woodrow said. “We have to work with them and explain things.”
For example, the CBL recently incorporated environmentally friendly landscaping practices, known as BayScapes, on part of its property. Beginning this spring, it will offer self-guiding tours of the BayScapes gardens, as well as a series of BayScapes workshops. But in keeping with its research theme, the workshops will not only tell people how to BayScape, they will feature CBL faculty members talking about the impacts of nutrient runoff on the Bay — and why alternative gardening techniques such as BayScapes can help.
Similarly, starting Jan. 28, the lab is sponsoring a series of “Savor the Bay” events at local restaurants. They will combine scientists giving seminars on a particular Bay species, followed by a chef preparing a meal of the subject.
This type of connection helps to explain why, on a December evening, Setzler-Hamilton would find herself, dip net in hand, working with high school students collecting jellyfish. At the CBL, the faculty members don’t just tell people what is going on, they help them see it for themselves.
The goal, Setzler-Hamilton explained, is to help people gain a sense of ownership for the resource — something that ultimately will help them work toward achieving the restored Bay envisioned when the Executive Council signed a 10-year cleanup plan. “That is what we have to do if we are ever going to achieve the goals of the Chesapeake 2000 agreement,” she said.
The CBL has grown but, in a sense, its mission is not so far removed from that of Truitt, when he set up shop in an 8-by-10 foot shack only a matter of yards from where Setzler-Hamilton was studying her jellyfish.
To get to the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, follow Maryland Route 2 to the end of Solomons Island. After passing the Solomons Pier Restaurant on the right, continue around a bend to the left and then around another bend to the right. The Visitor Center will be on the left when approaching the end of the island.
The CBL Visitor Center is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, from mid-April through mid-December. There is no admission charge. Laboratory tours are offered at 2 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays. Space is limited, and reservations are recommended by registering in person at the Visitor Center, or by contacting Erin Woodrow at 410-326-7491.
The public is also invited to attend periodic seminars, workshops, conferences, demonstrations and other events. Check the CBL web site for schedules at www.cbl.umces.edu
For information, visit the lab’s web site at www.cbl.umces.edu, or the Gateways Network web site at www.baygateways.net