Running out of responsibility

The picture on page 6 of the December Bay Journal shows a huge barge laden with tons of oyster shells, dredged "from deposits of packed shell 20 or more feet deep." The last line of the caption says it all, "and there's no sign of them running out." As those acquainted with the natural history of this continent over the past three centuries know only too well, "there's no sign of them running out" captures the folly of our benighted view of the workings of the natural world. Things do run out, a simple enough observation from daily life that seems to get lost whenever people's senses encounter something larger than themselves.

Yes, things do run out. The immense flocks of passenger pigeons ran out, many while adorning the temporarily fashionable hats of women in this country. The thundering hordes of buffalo ran out, slaughtered by the millions to help "pacify" the Plains Nations, or simply to boost the egos of white hunters riding the rails across the Great Plains. Others were shot so their tongues could temporarily quench the jaded palates of big-city urbanites thirsting for the exotic. Even the gargantuan flightless birds of New Zealand ran out. According to researchers studying the immense bonepiles found on the islands, those luckless creatures most likely vanished over the dinner tables of thousands of hungry, prehistoric New Zealanders.

So can someone tell me why we  are still eating oysters? Whether the pre-colonial oyster population actually filtered the entire Bay inside a week or not, oysters do filter water. So why don't we let them do that? Where did the pitiful 15,701 bushels of oysters that Virginia "harvested" last year do the most good, filtering the water on the Bay bottom somewhere, or slowly digesting in a hundred thousand, home sapien stomachs? Whether dermo or MSX kills them at 3-inch size or not, whether our eyes can see a difference in water quality or not, aren't they better left alone to filter as much Bay water as they can? Will we die if we don't eat oysters? Will our lives remain forever stunted and unfulfilled unless we're chowing down on those hapless bivalves? The Bay's algal blooms and general turbidity, the ravages of dermo and MSX, the 90 percent decline from pre-colonial times - isn't that enough? Can't we learn from history, or are we just willfully stupid?

Mark McTague
Cockeysville, MD

Marine mystery solution

Editor's Note: The following is in response to a query letter about sea squirts that ran in the December Bay Journal.

Dear Mr. Holton: You're perfectly correct in your assessment of the sea-squirt problem in your boat's heat pump circulator. These critters, Mogula manhattensis, are very common in East Coast estuaries. They begin life as a free-swimming larva with a rudimentary backbone but they adopt a sedentary lifestyle as they grow to adulthood and actually "evolve backward" by losing any trace of a spinal chord. Sea squirts make their living as filterers, drawing water in one opening, expelling it from a second, and in the process taking microscopic plankton as food. Squeeze one gently between the fingers and water squirts out from both openings, hence the name.

They grow to about the size of a small grape, and are just delighted to be anywhere a continuous current brings them a free fuel supply. In this, they're just like barnacles, which could as easily have grown behind your intake screen.

Unfortunately during a mild year like this, they're likely to continue prospering all winter. Sometimes, in very cold years, there's a Mogula die-off and thousands wash up on shorelines of the Middle Chesapeake.

Solutions are few. You can try to carefully and thoroughly apply bottom paint to the inside of through-hull fittings and the adjacent hoses. Next time you haul out, consider designing in a "sea chest" for this continually used line, which has a seacock on the outside and a watertight lidded chamber inside which can be opened and periodically "bailed" dry for cleanout - without haulout! I've often wondered why most boats don't have one of these, into which multiple hoses lead for seawater supply. The risk of thruhull failure and sinking is much less with fewer holes!

Look at sea squirts and the Bay in a larger context. Some scientists think "nuisance" organisms like sea squirts are filling the gap in filtering the Bay's water that has been left by the vast reduction in oysters. Both diseases and heavy harvesting over the last one and a quarter centuries have largely removed once-vast oyster reefs that used to be all around the lower Chesapeake.

Kent Mountford, Ph.D.
Senior Scientist
USEPA Chesapeake Bay Program

Upper Susquehanna Coalition cares about the Chesapeake

In the December Bay Journal, an article on the front page indicated that "Review warns 40% will not be enough." It referred to the fact that current nutrient control efforts of the Bay Program may be inadequate to meet the 40% nutrient reduction target by the year 2000 unless control efforts are accelerated. The Bay Program's "neighbor to the north," The Upper Susquehanna Coalition (USC), is also concerned with ensuring a healthy Bay.

The Upper Susquehanna Coalition is an organization of 13 counties, 10 in New York and three in Pennsylvania, which cover the headwaters of the Susquehanna River. These headwaters include the Eastern Susquehanna and Chemung River watersheds. The Coalition is a grass-roots, multicounty, multistate, approach to water quality issues.

In a related article that appeared in the June Bay Journal, "Some suggest adding all watershed states to the Program," it was mentioned that fisheries management and habitat restoration in the Bay watershed might be of little importance or interest to New York.

"For New York, obviously the Bay is very, very far away," commented Ann Pesiri Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. 

While it is true, the Bay is far away from New York, the concerns of theBay are taken very seriously by the Upper Susquehanna Coalition. We have been working diligently and with measurable success over the past few years to "Bring the Bay home" as well as improve the quality of water in our own backyard.

The major goal of the organization is to improve water quality by reducing sediments and nutrients entering the river system.

To that end, the Coalition has developed many programs addressing water quality, including nutrient management planning within the watershed; providing farmers with valuable information on the implementation of best management practices that benefit water quality and their operations (more than 800 farms have been visited to date); training volunteers to do water quality monitoring; and developing an extensive catalog of water quality educational materials that are available to county members within the watershed. The Coalition is currently exploring other ways to increase its involvement in Bay protection strategies.

In addition, Coalition members contribute to a USC homepage on the world wide web and, in a joint project with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, have written a fact sheet for the Chemung River Basin. The fact sheet provides information on the history, physiography and water quality issues in the basin.

The Coalition took a great step forward in 1996 by securing sufficient funding to hire a full-time coordinator and part-time educator. The coordinator's role is to develop the USC into an efficient organization that helps to protect the Basin's water quality resources, develop networks for efficient communication and secure funding to further the Coalition's goals. The educator's role is to collect and catalog appropriate educational materials for use by Coalition members.

The Coalition is in an excellent position today, through educational programs and further development of planning and implementation projects, to greatly assist the Bay Program's goal of cleaner water in the Bay.

We encourage your readers to contact us. Comments or inquiries can be directed to James Curatolo, USC Coordinator, 4729 State Route 414, Burdett, NY 14818; (607) 546-2528; ( )

Chip McElwee
Chair, Upper Susquehanna Coalition