The Bay has lost the services of two unsung heroes, both of whom I had come to greatly respect over the years.
Jon Capacasa, who played a pivotal role in developing the Bay “pollution diet,” retired in January after 42 years with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Jim Price, a citizen scientist who spent countless hours studying the Bay’s striped bass and raising warning flags about their health, died in late December after a long fight with cancer.
Neither would be recognizable names to most people, but both had an imprint on the Chesapeake.
I interviewed Capacasa numerous times over the years. He was always a straight shooter, taking time to explain issues and their complexities. He achieved a lot, as my story in this issue describes. But what’s remarkable isn’t just what he accomplished, but the universal respect he gained.
“I think the world of Jon Capacasa,” said Jeff Corbin, who variously worked at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, as an assistant secretary of natural resources in Virginia, and later at the EPA. From those vantages, he recognized that making calls on complex regulatory issues was a tough, often thankless, job.
“You’re an environmental agency, so the environmental advocates expect you to act like an environmental advocate, but you’re not,” Corbin said. “And, of course, the permittees want you to give them everything that they want.
“That’s a tough position to be in. But I don’t think anybody ever got mad at Jon Capacasa. It was just hard to do. He had a great attitude. He was incredibly polite and nice to work with.”
Corbin didn’t always agree with every decision. “But at the end of the day, all you could do is respect the guy for the talent and the knowledge that he had. His decision was his decision, and you’d move on. And you can’t say that about every lifelong bureaucrat that you get to work with.”
Capacasa will be passing some of his skills to a new generation when he begins teaching a class on large watershed restoration at Drexel University this spring.
I got to know Jim Price nearly 20 years ago, often chatting with him on the phone for hours as he described what he was learning from his work on the Bay.
In a eulogy for his longtime friend and fishing partner, Jim Uphoff, a fisheries biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, described Price as “the embodiment of a concerned, engaged and informed conservationist.”
Price was not a trained scientist, but he was a keen observer. When something didn’t look right, he would invest huge amounts of his time — and his own money — trying to understand what was going on. In the late 1990s, he began noticing that the Bay’s striped bass were getting thinner.
“He did not pile onto the bandwagon of popular environmentalism,” Uphoff said. “He arrived at his own positions after a great deal of investigation and thought. This process never ended.”
His desire to get to the bottom of why striped bass were getting skinnier led him to start cutting them open to see what they were eating, often buying fish from others to get more samples. Price likely examined more striped bass guts than anyone; thousands over the years.
“At one point, not too many years ago,” Uphoff said, “he told me that he would have liked to have been a biologist if he had it to do over again. He didn’t need to do it over again — he was a biologist and a good one.”
And he leaves a valuable legacy for other scientists. Uphoff noted. “His persistence created a valuable time-series of striped bass diet information that would not exist otherwise. This is the epitome (of) scientific achievement.”