Mallows Bay "was an eerie place (with) a strange blue-green algae bloom that gave the cove a pea-soup color..." biological technician Carolyn Watson, later an assistant secretary of natural resources for Maryland, wrote on the field data sheet for one of the first monitoring cruises after the federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program was established in 1984.
It had been a hot morning with no wind, recounted Marcia Olson, a biologist on the crew, as they drove into Southern Maryland and looked for a place, roughly midway in the Potomac to launch their outboard skiff. They had found Mallows Bay on the charts, a site particularly poignant for a program designed to monitor the recovery from past human abuses of the embayment.
After World War I, a fleet of about 169 wooden ships were driven ashore in this shallow Potomac backwater and abandoned. This "ghost fleet" is the largest concentration of shipwrecks in the Western Hemisphere.
In the 1920s, they were burned, to recover scrap metal. In the mid-1980s, their hulks were a navigational labyrinth of half-submerged timbers, protruding metal bars and sharp iron spikes. Many of the emergent wrecks had been colonized like islands by shrubs, trees and marsh grasses. Amid all of this, there was-and still is-a launching ramp for small boats.
As the vehicle approached that ramp, Watson's notes state that there was "an old, scruffy man living on a sunken boat on the bank of the cove." He was either defending the place or out to collect a fee for launching their boat. Emerging from a nearby house was another man, John Wilson, an upper Potomac waterman displaced from his trade on the river by pollution.
Olson said that he questioned who they were and what they were doing. When he learned they were there to monitor the river, Wilson launched into a rant about scientists: "They all lie and hide the facts so they won't get fired." He gave them a photocopied yellow poster that had been tacked up nearby. It warned people about the terrible state of the river, which was on the receiving end of effluent from nine sewage plants-a total of 450 million gallons of discharges daily-and insulted by what he viewed as intolerable toxic loads. The poster also warned about the danger of consuming Potomac fish.
"Government cannot monitor Government," he-and the poster-said.
Phytoplanktologist Richard Lacouture (currently with Morgan State University's Estuarine Research Lab) recalls that day clearly: "Out on the river, it was unbelievable. Tens of square miles, no...maybe 50 square miles were an unbroken blue-green algal bloom of Microcystis."
The chlorophyll levels in those blooms that day were later measured at 300 ugl (micrograms / liter). Scientists believe that the pre-development Potomac estuary did not see more than 15 ugl.
These blooms were not unique. Biologist Dick Mulford of the Benedict Laboratory had seen them in the 1960s-years before I and my crew from the Benedict Laboratory began sampling in 1971.
Microcystis aeruginosa (known as Anacystis cyanea in the 1950s) is a freshwater cyanobacterium. These blooms were a regular feature of this troubled river below the Washington, DC, metropolitan area. Mulford noticed their almost annual occurrence was accompanied by large numbers of dead adult gizzard shad. We had also observed the same decomposing fish carcasses dotting the river's surface in our time.
Mulford also asked if we'd observed any "clumping" by masses of cells in what, to him, was clearly a dying algae bloom. This was the result of upstream blooms being translocated downstream by river flow into more salty waters. We saw this phenomenon just a few miles above the Harry Nice Bridge, which carries U.S. Highway 301 over the Potomac.
Kevin Sellner, today director of the Chesapeake Research Consortium, together with Lacouture and microbiologist C.R. Parrish from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, published a scientific paper on this phenomenon in 1988. Using a microscope to examine the water of one of these blooms, they quantified the incredible density of 193 million cells in a liter.
The cells, stressed by encountering even low-salinity levels, lost their ability to photosynthesize, died, and sank toward the bottom. There, this massive organic load decomposed, in a process that consumed oxygen, contributing to plummeting dissolved oxygen levels in deep waters of the lower Potomac. The same phenomenon was occurring with other phytoplankton-especially bloom species-elsewhere in the Bay, leaving the deep Chesapeake devoid of oxygen each summer. That massive ecological malfunction still continues.
The sun blazed down through a yellow haze that hot day in early August 1984, virtually cooking the Potomac River. Most of the top 2 meters of the water column was hotter than 31 degrees Celsius (87.5 degrees F). The surface was supersaturated with oxygen at 10 parts per million, but only half of that remained at the bottom, where that oxygen demand was driving it lower. It was so hot that when the crew finished their measurements, Watson wrote: "We went swimming to cool off-in spite of the algae."
The filter-feeding creatures in the Chesapeake Bay, be they minute crustacean animal plankton, our treasured oysters or the once-abundant menhaden, do not eat chlorophyll. They eat phytoplankton species, often selecting algal groups that are the most nutritious or accessible, and declining to eat those which are not.
The hundreds of plankton species living in the Chesapeake Bay are a complex working engine; living, reproducing organisms that link incoming nutrient pollution, chemical stressors, sunlight and water clarity with the wider ecosystem food web
There is no way to census these organisms without using a microscope. Except in the grossest sense-there are pigment measures that can suggest the abundance of major algal groups-microscopic identification the only way to identify the subtle shifts in populations, or document the appearance and timing of seasonally reoccurring bellwether species. These organisms announce to the practiced eye when it is spring or fall, as well as the state of health of the waters where they are found.
Some diatom species, for example, are more valuable as food for fish larvae during the spring runoff period, when the diatoms are at first abundant and are heavily grazed upon by zooplankton. Then, these diatoms wither and decline when the supply of silica dissolved from our landscape, and available in the water column, runs low. The zooplankton that complemented these insights was lost during cost-cutting measures in 2002.
This laborious work of describing the periodicity and abundance of species is how phytoplankton taxonomy began in the 1840s. While today's microscopes, measuring devices and resolution are proverbial "light years" beyond what were available in the early days, this is still the only way to assemble this detailed data. Nobody gets rich doing this work; it is a discipline and skill developed only through experience, and cannot be replaced.
Much of Maryland's phytoplankton taxonomy came to an end this November, when large parts of Maryland's plankton program was canceled, a victim of state budget cuts resulting from the downturn in the economy.
Bruce Michael, director of Maryland's Resource Assessment Service, said that he's fortunate to still have veteran staff biologist Walter Butler, who is known as a fine taxonomist with more than 35 years' experience.
But he's just one guy and is called in only when someone in the field perceives that something warrants taking a sample. That's not the same as simply being there, sensing the changes in water color, transparency or the subtle shift in texture that only comes from being in the field. Also, it's not wise for any plankton taxonomist to work in a vacuum, because the literature and techniques for preservation, analysis and identification are always subject to improvement. Samples like these are subject to the same quality assurance as any other monitoring measures-comparing and documenting techniques, and splitting samples to assure identifications are consistent.
On the last sampling cruise-ending a stream of data stretching back a quarter century-two of the original crew were aboard, to indulge in nostalgia over the termination of collections at about 18 stations, something that they, as Bay biologists, believed in fervently.
The investigators hoped, at least, they would not encounter the noxious Microcysiis blooms that characterized the Potomac in decades past, and that proved to be the case. Massive investments at Potomac River sewage treatment plants and better control of storm sewer overflows have enabled the District to make about an 80 percent reduction in nutrient inputs.
Lacouture from Morgan State University said: "There are [encouraging] plankton species changes in some of the Bay's upper tributaries (the upper Potomac, Patuxent and Choptank)." Still, Baywide monitoring of chlorophyll alone is not enough." To understand changes, he suggested, it's the species "packages" into which nature puts the chlorophyll that indicate what direction the system is moving.
Professor Walter Boynton, at the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, pointed out that these cruises also made estimates of plankton photosynthesis, the carbon fixation rates resulting from sunlight phytoplankton and nutrients. "This is the only real link we have between eutrophication and nutrient reduction. Without these measures, it's...like a farmer looking at his fields and having absolutely no idea what's going to grow there."
He added, "Baywide, (in the multistate monitoring program) we've never measured biological oxygen demand, that part of the equation that breaks down organic matter and takes oxygen out (of the water)....When systems (like the Bay) become eutrophic, they switch from their normal benthic community respiration to water column or 'pelagic' processes." That signals changes in the plankton-as abundantly demonstrated through the Bay's long history-and creates blooms.
Lacouture recalled attending the first U.S. symposium on Harmful Algal Blooms at Woods Hole, MA, a decade ago. One of the speakers was Theodore Smayda, who, during his long career at the University of Rhode Island, had developed a virtually unbroken series of phytoplankton counts and species taxonomy-38 years in 2000. This monitoring work has, I believe, the longest continuity of any on the entire Atlantic Seaboard. In discussing a troubling brown tide algal bloom in Narragansett Bay, Smayda thus had a remarkably long perspective.
Lacouture said the room noticeably hushed when Smayda spoke. His analysis suggested-taking into account all of the cycles of drought and flood, and the runs of cold and warm years-that such an event might be expected only twice in 100 years. Only a long data record can support such estimates.
Making deep program cuts in valuable programs involves hard decisions during hard economic times. What does a beleaguered governor do when faced with declining revenues: cut aid for troubled youths? Defer bridge inspections or road repairs? Close parks?
Despite the recession, the region has committed itself to protecting and restoring the Chesapeake. A federal mandate is upon all of the Bay states to turn around the Chesapeake's decline, and milestones are to be met and reviewed on an accelerated schedule.
Boynton noted that these program cuts "couldn't have come at a worse time. Right now these reports (on turning the Bay around) are coming out with two-year interim deadlines, and the monitoring programs are going to be asked to detect very subtle changes just when...the measures to detect them are being cut."
"They have taken our information (gathering) back to infancy...when (we) were starting out with almost no species and community measures or information on processes in the Bay ...In those days chaos reigned, people did what they wanted in the Bay.... We had no clear measures of what was happening."
I might not go quite as far as Boynton, because we do still have a wide network of data collections across the Chesapeake that was not in place two and a half decades ago. Still, cuts are often made in programs when they appear to not be showing "results."
I experienced this several times during my tenure at the Chesapeake Bay Program Office, when one director or another would question why we doing costly monitoring "Why not go out," one said, "every three years just to see how the Bay is doing? We can figure the rest out using the models." Then a couple years later, he came back and said, "I think the monitoring data is all we have to hang our hat on after all," because model projections had somehow failed-often for lack of calibrating data.
In a few years the cycle would repeat itself. Models as predictors and explainers would be in the ascendency; then some fatal flaw would put them out of favor again and the monitoring data would again show its value.
Monitoring will show changes in the Bay-changes exceeding the natural variability thrown to us by nature-only when we have made behavior changes of sufficient magnitude that can overcome the constant, irreversible tide of more development and more demands made by the increasing human population.
Boynton and his colleague, Michael Kemp, recently received the distinguished Odum Lifetime Achievement Award, which has been described as "the Nobel Prize of estuarine science." Boynton should be listened to. Commenting on the plankton program cuts, he said that he was "very disturbed about this; very concerned. We ignore such long, unbroken, data sets at our considerable peril."