An important Chesapeake Bay paper was published in March in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Written by Jonathan Lefchek, his mentor Robert Orth and a host of Bay scientists, the paper delivers good news that has actually been peer-reviewed. Bringing together extensive observational data, modeling and statistical analysis, the scientists present compelling evidence that the sustained efforts to reduce nutrient pollution entering this great estuary are resulting in a long-anticipated recovery in the abundance and biodiversity of submerged aquatic vegetation.
To be sure, the scientists do not claim that recovery goals have been met. More pollutant load reductions and time for biological recovery will be required to fully meet the goals of the Chesapeake Bay Agreement. Moreover, the expansion of SAV in the Lower Bay, eelgrass in particular, is more limited and its future is in doubt because Bay waters, like the rest of the planet, are continuing to warm.
But this commentary is not about the remarkable recovery of SAV. It is about veteran scientist Robert “Bob” J. Orth and how he epitomizes the outstanding generation of Bay scientists that is now retiring.
At the end of the summer of 1969, fresh from receiving a bachelor’s degree at Rutgers University, Bob showed up at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at Gloucester Point as a brand new graduate student. We shared a major professor, the kind and gentle naturalist Marvin Wass. We became mates and it was I who gave Bob his “JJ” nickname widely used to this day by his friends — and even his wife, Nancy. (How he got this nickname is another story, but let’s just say it was because of his athletic enthusiasm, sort of like a Labrador puppy.)
Wass suggested that Bob do his master’s thesis research on animals living in eelgrass beds. Bob used to take directions fairly well then, so that’s what he did.
At that time, eelgrass was plentiful in the York River in front of the lab, but Bob’s study site was the lush meadows in the shallow waters around the Mumfort Islands a few miles upriver. We aided each other with our fieldwork and learned about the wondrous biodiversity of the Lower Bay.
Although he initially studied marine animals, during the 1970s Bob really got hooked on grass — of the SAV kind, of course — and has devoted his career to the ecological understanding of underwater flowering plants. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Maryland, and was conducting field research for his dissertation in Virginia when the floods from Tropical Storm Agnes catalyzed the massive loss of SAV from which the Chesapeake ecosystem has never really recovered.
Bob joined the SAV research component of the five-year Chesapeake Bay Study — funded by Congress at the urging of that then-Maryland Sen. Mac Mathias — to identify the causes of the longer-term deterioration of the ecosystem that Agnes had made apparent.
That study launched both the Chesapeake Bay Program in 1983 and Bob’s 43 years as a researcher and faculty member at VIMS. Even after I moved from the Bay area in 1980, our paths have continued to cross. Bob succeed me as president of the Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation, the leading scientific society of our field, serving from 1989 to 1991.
Within the Bay management and advocacy communities Bob is probably best known for his aerial surveys of SAV throughout the Bay and his annual announcement of acreage and trends. He has indefatigably cobbled together the resolve, technology and funding to continue this mapping, improving its accuracy, extending its interpretation and building a truly invaluable, 40-year database.
But Orth’s scientific contributions go much further than SAV surveys. He has made seminal research contributions on the effects of water quality and soil chemistry on SAV growth and survival; the reproductive biology of aquatic plants; and plant-animal interactions. He pioneered techniques for planting eelgrass seeds, which were used to achieve perhaps the world’s most extensive re-established SAV beds in Virginia’s coastal bays.
Beyond the Bay, Bob maintained decades-long, collaborative research in Western Australia. Along with Bill Dennison from the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, he led a global synthesis of underwater grass trends that produced one of the most highly cited papers in SAV science. He has never slowed down, authoring around 20 peer-reviewed papers since 2014 alone.
On March 1, Gov. Ralph Northam recognized Bob’s contributions by naming him one of the four Virginia Outstanding Scientists for 2018, selected for strengthening Virginia’s position as a leader in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Bob is as solid a Bay scientist citizen as they come, contributing tirelessly to various committees and activities of the Chesapeake Bay Program. He must certainly hold the record for miles logged heading to and from Annapolis along U.S. Route 17.
At the same time, he advised and assisted the Virginia Marine Resources Commission on SAV restoration and reducing the scarring of SAV beds from motor boats. In recent years, he has become a solid political leader as well; he has been elected to multiple terms on the Gloucester County Board of Supervisors.
Soon we will retire, part of a huge turnover of leading Bay scientists that began a few years ago. Like us, many of these men and women began their careers in these waters during the 1970s.
Michael Fincham, in a Chesapeake Quarterly article about this wave of retirement of 30–40 percent of the scientists at major Chesapeake research institutions, refers to us as the Threshold Generation and summarizes our many contributions.
The Threshold Generation of Bay doctors documented the Bay’s sickness, diagnosed it causes, prescribed the treatments and monitored the patient’s recovery. Finchman asks: “So what did the work of that departing generation achieve?” The short answer, he writes, is a new estuary, not a restored estuary, but a restorable estuary.
The new Lefchek et al. paper on the expansion of SAV, along with a host of other findings of improved oxygen concentrations, clearer waters and recovered fishery populations, provides strong evidence for the new restorable estuary. In 2017, for the first time in 33 years, widgeon grass returned to both what remains of the Mumford Islands where Bob did his master’s research and the water in front of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory!
Our Threshold Generation is proud of its accomplishments, but — again with a nod to the 1970s — we remind everyone: “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.” Bay scientific institutions are in the process of backfilling for the departing generation, not with replacements, but with scientists who have new skills in molecular and computational sciences, for example. This next generation will have to focus far more on treatment than diagnosis and on helping society address the new reality of global climate change.
While recognizing that science has become a far more global enterprise, institutional leaders will have to ensure that the next generation’s work is not only world-class, but also continues to advance the Chesapeake Bay’s “restorability.”
These leaders will have to struggle to sustain state support for research and public service mission against the trend toward the privatization of public higher education and greater reliance on student tuition. And Bay scientists will have to meet their emerging challenges at a time when there is an unprecedented assault on the federal government’s role in supporting environmental science.
Please help them!
The views expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.