Almost anyone who observes the Chesapeake Bay knows that it is in trouble and is not getting much better.
It has been labeled a “National Treasure.” But if we truly think it is, then why haven’t we been able to accomplish much?
Still, there are quite a few organizations that have been working to restore the Bay to something that some of us remember, and I have to think how bad would things be if these organizations hadn’t been doing all the things they do.
My first years were spent in Washington, DC, where it was mostly all concrete and asphalt. The area where I lived was made up of postage-stamp-size yards with grass.
My first trip to Southern Maryland opened a new world to me. I had never seen a crab, let alone eaten one. I caught fish during the day that were prepared for dinner that night. That was fresh fish. I was used to eating the frozen, one-pound blocks of either haddock or cod. No matter how many were there for dinner there was always enough because if there were five people there were five pieces of fish. If there were eight people there were eight pieces of fish. In Southern Maryland, I could eat as many fish as I could catch.
Some of my fondest memories are sitting around eating crabs with family and friends. Nobody was immune from getting messy. It seemed like all the little kids got the claws so they could beat them with the wooden mallet. If nobody was around and you had some crabs, you picked them out and made crab cakes or some other dish for later.
It brought a smile to my face to learn that the bottom of the female crab looked like the Capitol in DC and that the male looked like the Washington Monument. How very convenient. Back then we didn’t eat the females.
One day, I caught my very first sight of a crab scooting through the grass while peering down into the water. I was told to catch some and we would eat them.
There was an aluminum rowboat with one end of the rope tied to the bow and the other around my waist. I had a bushel basket sitting on the bow seat. I could catch crabs with a crab net and flip them into the basket. It took a while and a lot of misses before I got the hang of it.
The most significant thing that happened that day was not even recognized at the time. It was many years later that it occurred to me that I was crabbing in water that was almost up to my shoulders and I could see the bottom. I also remember how some old timers would tell me they could see 12 feet down.
Over the years, the water got cloudier and cloudier.
As I became more acquainted with the Potomac, I found I could walk the shallow edges with a bucket and a crab net and catch crabs. I would walk until I met someone coming the other way. We would check what each other had, then turn around and head back from where we came. Today when I walk the beach, I rarely see a crab. There are plenty of young boys today who will never experience the pleasure and excitement of catching crabs. If you tell me your crab stories from when you were young, I will tell you how old you are.
I remember when a neighbor moved in and asked, “Why do all the crabbers put all of their crab pots right here on this part of the river?” I told him that the number of crab pots that he saw on this one part of the river was the same number he would see for several miles up the river and all the way down to the mouth of the river (18 miles) and it was the same on the other side of the river, too.
It looks like the crab population is in trouble again. There were a lot of complaints this year that crabbers could not catch many crabs. The commercial crabbers say that the striped bass are eating the crabs. And to prove it, they open up the stomachs of the fish and count the crabs in their bellies.
The commercial fishermen in Maryland filed for “injunctive relief of menhaden regulations passed down by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.” The main food for striped bass is menhaden. If we had more menhaden they wouldn’t be eating as many crabs.
I have been to many places on the Bay and many places on the rivers that flow into it. But I am only really familiar with one little stretch of the Potomac River. As a young man with a family, it provided us with all of the seafood we wanted. I wish I could still say that.
When we think about the Chesapeake Bay, we mostly think about the bounty it provides. But there are other things to think about besides the fish, crabs and oysters — grasses and the water. There are no grasses in the Potomac where I am now.
The grasses removed many nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous, from the water. This helped to prevent algae from growing out of control. Now, huge blooms of the algae grow, die and sink to the bottom where they decay in a process that consumes oxygen. This creates dead zones where animals can’t survive because there is no oxygen.
The grasses also provided hiding places for small fish and crabs, giving them a chance to mature and become part of the bounty that we so much enjoy.
When grasses were thick, boat owners complained because the grasses were becoming entangled in their props. A decision was made to put chemicals in the water to kill the grass. The grasses have never recovered.
Grasses are important to the Bay. They are a carbon sink, provide protection for little fish and crabs, soak up nutrients and provide food for some ducks. Yes, we need to bring the grasses back.
Many years ago, people just ran a pipe out into the Bay or river to get rid of their waste. It is more evident in some of our lighthouses, where a little outhouse was built out over the water. When you peered down through the hole, there was the water. Most of that has been corrected, but there are so many people today that the flow from our sewage treatment plants releases too many nutrients.
The Indians never understood why we dug holes in the ground to get drinking water and used the streams and rivers to get rid of our waste. They did the opposite. Everything we flush down the toilet could end up in the Bay: drugs, germs and viruses.
There was a new tax called a “flush tax” that was supposed to upgrade our sewage treatment plants. I hope that money is going where it is supposed to go and that we will see reduced nutrients.
We have a lot of different species of fish in the Bay. But there is only one that stands out among all the rest: striped bass, better known around here as rockfish. We pay particular attention to this fish and maybe rightfully so. It is a beautiful fish, fun to catch and good to eat.
We do a young-of-year survey to see how the spawning went for a particular year. Last year was not as good as many previous years.
We monitor this fish like we monitor honeybees. It is pretty well-known that honeybees are disappearing and we don’t know why. It is easy to keep track of the honeybees because we keep them in boxes that we can look at anytime we want. But there are thousands of other insects pollinators that are disappearing that nobody is keeping track of.
It is the same for some of the Bay’s fish: eels, pufferfish and toadfish. We know something about the eels but I don’t know if anybody is paying attention to the pufferfish and the toadfish. I can’t remember the last time I caught an eel, pufferfish or toadfish.
Then there is menhaden, “The Most Important Fish In The Sea,” according to the title of a book by H. Bruce Franklin. One might wonder why this fish has that title. It is not a pretty fish. We don’t eat it directly. And you can’t catch it on a hook and line. So why is it important? Menhaden is the preferred food for many of the fish we like to catch and eat. One company, Omega Protein, is decimating this fish. They can catch up to 240 million pounds every year. How could anyone think that removing that many fish from an area would not affect its ecology? And yet the slaughter goes on.
These fish and others like them — blueback herring, alewives, American shad, hickory shad and silversides — are a critical link in the Bay. They are the fish in the middle of the equation. They eat the algae that the fish we like to catch and eat can’t. Then, they are eaten by the fish that we do consume. Many birds and mammals also eat these forage fish.
When thinking about the menhaden removed by Omega Protein, should think about the fact that they had to have eaten at least double that in algae. Now, those fish are used mostly for feeding farmed-raised fish. It is more important to leave them in the water.
This is not just a Chesapeake Bay problem, the same thing is happening around the world as people remove the algae-eating fish to feed farmed fish.
Modern methods for catching fish are so much bigger and better than hook and line that they should be outlawed, especially trawl nets, which are as big as a football field and catch everything. Whatever fish that are caught but not wanted are thrown back dead.
Next is long lining. With the discovery of monofilament line, commercial fishermen are now able put out 30–40 miles of line with thousands of hooks. The fish, birds and turtles that are not wanted are released; many are dead.
Then there is the purse seine: It surrounds a large school of fish such as menhaden, then a line is pulled that closes the bottom, and the fish are pumped up onto the boat by a vacuum hose. Purse seiners use airplanes to spot the schools and direct the boats to the fish. This is too efficient. It makes it too easy to overfish the menhaden, which is what they are doing.
Then there are the pound nets. They are an ingenious configuration of nets and poles in shallow water. The fish bump into the hedging, which leads them to deeper water through a little maze of nets and into the pound where they are removed with nets. These nets are efficient in their own right, they fish 24 hours a day and require no examination until it is time to remove the fish. They should not be allowed in the Chesapeake Bay or the feeder rivers, period.
Crab pots, too, are efficient little devices that also fish 24 hours a day. I think they would be all right except for the fact that there are just too many of them. We have limited the number of devices used for oystering we could do the same for crab pots.
There should be no fishing allowed when fish are spawning. That would mean no fyke nets, no gill nets or pound nets when anadromous fish are returning to freshwater to spawn. The same should apply to recreational fishermen. Leave the fish alone when they are going to spawn.
There has been a lot of interest in the use of fish oil or omega 3 oil. It is interesting to note that omega 3 oil is not made by the fish, but is a product of what they eat. Only plants, not animals, make omega 3 oil. The fish get this oil from eating phytoplankton. Other fish get their omega 3 oil from eating these forage fish.
Many of us enjoy eating oysters. Around 90 percent of the world’s oysters are farm-raised. This is increasing in the Bay but we have a way to go to catch up to the rest of the world.
Many years ago, I made a trip to St. Mary’s County to check on our summer place. The wife and I decided to walk down to the river. We stopped to watch a friend shuck some oysters he had just caught. He asked if I would like a raw one, which I accepted, plus a few more. My wife said she would like to try one and asked how to eat it. I told her to just tilt her head back and let the oyster slide off the shell and into her mouth, which she did. On the way home, she clutched at her throat and said the oyster had never gone down. You would have to know that my wife is from Pennsylvania and she had never seen an oyster before.
Seafood used to be the poor man’s food. Not any more. On a recent trip to Baltimore, I saw a sign that said “Crabs $35 a dozen.” Another sign said “Oysters $25 a quart.” The scarcer the bounty from the Bay, the more expensive it becomes. This is like a vicious cycle because people keep harvesting the crabs, fish and oysters without letting them recover.
Many years ago, during summer weekends, you could look across the river toward the Ragged Point Lighthouse and count 40–50 boats, all fishing. Today you might see one. If the fish were there, I am sure the boats would be back.
I know that the various living things in the Bay are not thriving as they have in the past. Some things are even gone; like periwinkles (a small snail about a half an inch long). We used to hunt for their shells along the beach.
I can see that the job to patch up the Chesapeake Bay is going to take more time than I have left. It has been one the greatest pleasures of my life to have been able to spend so much time in this wonderful place; on the water, in the water and catching and eating the things from the water. What a wonderful legacy we could leave if we could really make our “National Treasure” whole again for those who come after us.