Bay Journal

October 2014 - Volume 1 - Number 6
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As islands slowly submerge, residents rise up, refusing to desert their homes, heritage

The Chesapeake Bay was once home to more than a dozen offshore island communities — tight-knit villages with enough land for baseball diamonds and with marshes thick with crabs and fish.

James, Barren, Punch, Holland. One by one, they faded away. Erosion battered their shorelines. Rising waters submerged the marshes. Islanders with means packed up their bags and tore down their homes, barged them to the mainland, and reconstructed them on higher ground in Crisfield and around Cambridge. The structures too battered to make the trip stayed, along with the gravestones, and eventually slipped into the sea.

VA island town seeks a lifeline to save its road

A few miles across the Maryland border on Route 13 is a two-lane road. It meanders through deep forests and over isolated guts until it becomes a causeway over vast tufts of marsh.

At the end is Saxis, one of three inhabited islands in Accomack County, VA — the others being Tangier and Chincoteague. But unlike those towns, Saxis has no quaint shops, picturesque ponies, bike rentals, bed and breakfasts or charming Elizabethan accents. Instead, a serpentine road curves around neat white houses and blooming crepe myrtles until it reaches a quiet harbor dotted with crab pots and fishing gear.

Bay land conservation gets boost from end-of-year bills

A pair of sizable spending bills passed by Congress in December contain great news for land conservation and public access in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The $1.1 trillion Omnibus Spending Bill for fiscal year 2015 contains $6 million for land conservation along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail in Virginia, funds that advocates say were a long time coming and are key to preserving cultural, historical and natural resources along the trail.

New practices mulled to thwart bird die-offs at Poplar Island

After botulism and a virus killed at least 700 ducks and cormorants at Poplar Island this summer, wildlife managers and scientists are assessing practices to prevent similar deaths in the future.

More than half of the deaths were mallards, which died from avian botulism, a nerve toxin created by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum and New Duck Disease, Riemerella anatipestifer.

As waters continue to rise, Navy seeks comprehensive plan

Barely a month after Rear Admiral Dixon Smith took command of Navy Region Mid-Atlantic in Norfolk, a nor’easter blew through, showering the naval station here with what he thought was a fairly moderate amount of rain. “I was stunned at the localized flooding on the streets,” he said, “and it wasn’t even a hurricane.”

Since then, heavy rains have repeatedly forced Smith to use his front door because his backyard is flooded. While he is stationed in Norfolk, Smith lives in a historic house on Admirals Row. Like much of Naval Station Norfolk, the homes in this part of the station are built on former wetlands filled to make space for the 1907 Jamestown Exposition.

Bay region lags in preparing for rise in coastal flooding

When Superstorm Sandy devastated the New Jersey shore and flooded lower Manhattan two years ago, it illustrated some tough and surprising truths about how we prepare for — or ignore — the risks posed by coastal flooding in the Chesapeake Bay region.

People in New Jersey and New York never expected the scale of damages from Sandy, and here in the Chesapeake Bay, a big storm could give us a similar nasty shock. Rising sea level is projected to increase flooding and worsen the effect of storm surges in this region — not only in small waterfront communities but also in larger cities like Annapolis, Baltimore and Norfolk.

Highland Beach rainwater measures have other communities seeing green

Before Maryland lawmakers even discussed a stormwater fee, the leaders of Highland Beach were on the case.

They had turned the town hall of their 100-home hamlet south of Annapolis into an energy-efficient showcase, only the second building in the state to attain LEED Platinum Status from the U.S. Green Building Council. A green roof holds stormwater, and rain barrels and lush gardens on either side of the building collect much of what it can’t catch.

Conservation districts increasingly serving urban areas

Martin Johnson works for the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District, but his days are not spent talking to cattle farmers about alternative watering practices or promoting buffer planting between fields and streams.

Johnson is one of an increasing number of “urban conservation specialists” employed by soil and water conservation districts in Virginia. Johnson’s work ranges from reviewing site plans for proper erosion and sediment controls to coordinating educational programs for a partnership of multiple stormwater permit holders in the region.

Atlantic sturgeon back in Bay, or did they ever leave?

A couple of decades ago, a handful of scientists met to discuss the dismal state of the Atlantic sturgeon in the Chesapeake Bay. No researcher had seen a spawning sturgeon in years. Some doubted whether a remnant population of the Bay’s largest fish even remained.

Finally, the scientists began to debate what to do if someone actually caught a spawning female.

Some thought they should send her to a hatchery to preserve her unique Bay genetic makeup. Others thought they should tag and track her to see if she led to another sturgeon.

New owner all fired up to raise Sparrows Point from the ashes

Michael Pedone’s to-do list looks something like this: Wake up. Watch dismantling of what was once the world’s largest steel mill. Figure out how to clean up a 3,100-acre site where dangerous contaminants have filled the air and water for more than 100 years. Find companies that might want to relocate to such a place. Oh, and get the phones working.

Such is the job description when your company buys Sparrows Point, the eastern Baltimore County peninsula that was once home to Bethlehem Steel’s largest plant. Pedone is the chief operating officer of Sparrows Point Terminal LLC, which in September plunked down a reported $110 million for the sprawling waterfront property that once employed close to 30,000 workers.

The ‘green ceiling’: Environmental organizations lack diversity

A new report out this fall confirms what many have noted anecdotally: Environmental organizations and causes often do not reflect the country’s racial diversity.

The report, “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations,” surveyed nearly 300 environmental nonprofits, government agencies and grant-making foundations to find a “green ceiling” that leaves people of color underrepresented at these organizations, especially in the higher echelons of leadership.

Appeals Court hears arguments on Chesapeake Bay TMDL

The question of whether the EPA exceeded its authority, or merely did what the law required, in developing the Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan reached the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia in November.

The three-judge panel often sounded skeptical of the appellants’ argument that the EPA intruded on state responsibilities when it issued the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load in December 2010.

Within weeks of the EPA’s action, the American Farm Bureau Federation and a coalition of mostly agricultural trade groups sued to stop the TMDL. Federal District Judge Sylvia Rambo heard the case, and in a September 2013 ruling rejected their arguments.

Studying fracking to death may give Maryland’s environment valuable protections

Two years ago, a real estate listing for a choice parcel of property in the Allegheny Mountains pointed out a dichotomy that’s almost as old as the hills themselves.

“...(T)he property is home to several black bear, bobcats, squirrels, turkeys, and whitetail deer. It is also located within Marcellus and Utica Shale areas...providing a great investment opportunity,” the ad read.

Port Deposit goes all out to protect its endangered map turtles

When Towson University biology professor Richard Seigel began looking for the northern map turtle six years ago along the banks of the Susquehanna, the research project was a decidedly down-home affair.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources provided Seigel with so little money for the project that he often went on his own time, taking along his wife and son with the hope of spotting the shy, endangered reptiles. The work was only supposed to last a year, and the expectations were not high. The population hadn’t been surveyed in 17 years, and there hadn’t been many reports of the turtles in the area.

Pamunkey’s history of giving back to the river goes back to 1900s

Grover Miles and Henry Langston spent the better part of an early spring afternoon on the Pamunkey River, upstream from the fish hatchery on the Pamunkey Indian Reservation near Lanesville, VA.

Blossoming maple flowers tinged the woods pink, with a smattering of white from a shadbush here and there. The marshes hadn’t greened yet, but the female fish had started their run, ascending the tributaries with the warm water of the day, followed by the males.

Legal ruling challenges VA tribes’ traditional fishing rights

The Pamunkey along with its neighbor tribe, the Mattaponi, have stocked Virginia’s rivers with American shad for almost 100 years, releasing hatchery-grown fry into their namesake rivers on reservations they’ve lived on since the time of English colonial expansion in the late 1600s.

In April, the Pamunkey released more than 2 million American shad fry into the Pamunkey River. To rear the fry, tribal fishermen first caught mature male and female shad on their way upstream to spawn, then stripped them of their eggs and sperm. After contributing to future fish generations, the fish that were caught became dinner for the fishermen’s family and friends.

Want clean rivers? Plant trees

Streams with tree-lined banks are two to eight times more capable of processing nutrients and organic matter than streams without a healthy fringe of trees. That’s what scientists at the Stroud Water Research Center in Pennsylvania tell us. It doesn’t matter if that organic matter comes from a sewage treatment plant or the back end of a cow.

Chesapeake oysters being shipped to Louisiana shucking houses

For more than two decades, trucks pulled into the seafood-processing houses of the Eastern Shore and the Northern Neck each winter, packed with oysters from Louisiana. Maryland and Virginia shuckers needed product to feed their hungry markets, and the Chesapeake Bay’s famed oyster beds had nothing more to give.

Now, the trucks are going the other way.

Chesapeake Bay oysters have bounced back to such a degree that oyster-processing houses now send their bivalves south for shucking.

Hop aboard history on the Whitehaven Ferry

This summer, I decided to detour from the straight line of U.S. 13 on the way from Baltimore to Crisfield, MD. Instead of staying on the interstate, I remained on business Route 50 through Salisbury and made a right onto Nanticoke Road, then a left onto Whitehaven Road.

I meandered through stands of loblolly pines and past horses and pastures until the road ended at a river. Then, I waited two minutes for a boxy-looking boat to come across the river and pick me up.

UPDATED: Pennsylvania lawmakers may weaken protection for high quality streams

A Pennsylvania Senate Committee on Monday approved a bill that would roll back a requirement that streamside buffers be used to protect “the best of the best” state waterways.

The bill previously cleared the House of Representatives Sept. 22 on a 119–79 vote, but has been sharply criticized by environmental groups and the state Fish and Boat Commission.

Harry Campbell, Pennsylvania director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, expressed disappointment and urged the full Senate to reject the bill. 

185,000 eels trucked beyond Conowingo Dam

About 185,000 migrating eels on the Susquehanna River hit the road this summer with the aid of biologists who trucked them around the Conowingo Dam so they could complete their journey up the East Coast’s largest river.

That was fewer than the 275,479 collected and moved last year, but still the second-best haul since biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began trucking eels upstream in 2008.

Bays’ blue crab harvest picks up momentum after late start

The blue crab harvest, which was dismal in April and May when the season began, appears to be improving.

Restaurants in the Chesapeake Bay region are reporting they have crabs to serve in September, and expect the run will continue until the season ends in early December.

Steve Vilnit, seafood marketing manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said chefs began reporting that crabbing picked up in late May and got strong in July — a much later start than usual.

States commit to specific Chesapeake restoration goals

Bay cleanup leaders in June agreed to sweeping goals to improve habitat, reduce pollution, protect land and better engage citizens throughout the region.

Now, they are figuring out how to make that happen.

The first step came in September, as each state and federal agency decided which of the 31 outcomes in the new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement it would actively work to achieve.

The next step takes place in the coming months, as they write strategies to achieve each outcome.

Delmarva fox squirrel removed from endangered list

The Delmarva fox squirrel, which has been endangered since 1967, is coming off the list.

The squirrel, which has slowly been reappearing in the forests and farmland along the Eastern Shore after an aggressive transfer program, has recovered enough for wildlife officials to declare it no longer endangered.

Officials gathered to make the announcement in September at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge outside of Cambridge, MD, where the squirrels still have a population and where many of their brethren were relocated from private lands.

Sport, commercial fishermen differ over striped bass options

For years, striped bass were a textbook example of successful fishery management.

After a dramatic population crash in the early 1980s, a painful harvest moratorium was put in place. As hoped, the population rebounded. By 1995, it was declared “recovered” — and even then the population continued to climb.

By the early 2000s, commercial fishermen and recreational anglers were seeing more large striped bass than at any time in recent memory.

Fast forward another decade, to 2014, and the picture is starkly different.

Verna Harrison, longtime Bay champion, is retiring but not quitting

Verna Harrison, the first director of the Campbell Foundation, a major supporter of Chesapeake region environmental work, and formerly a longtime Maryland environmental official, is retiring at the end of this year.

Harrison, who has directed the environmentally focused foundation since 2003, said she expected she would still be engaged in Chesapeake Bay issues, but at a less-intense pace than she had been running for the last few decades so that she could spend more time with her family.

Botulism, virus, down birds on Poplar Island

Nearly 700 birds died or became very ill this summer at Poplar Island, a dredge-spoil island being built in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay that has become key habitat for shorebirds and waterfowl.

More than half the birds were waterfowl that died of botulism, a nerve toxin created by the bacteria clostridium botulinum. . The bacteria are present in the wetland sediments and found in shallow lakes and waterways. It is anaerobic, meaning it can live without air. The first birds die from ingesting the toxin as they feed. Their carcasses attract maggots. The next wave of birds eat the maggots, become infected, and die.

Biologists net ‘ripe’ sturgeon on Nanticoke tributary

When a crew of biologists from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources hauled a gill net out of the Marshyhope Creek in late August, what they hauled in was more than the catch of the day: It may have been the catch of their careers.

One of the nets contained two “ripe” — ready to spawn — Atlantic sturgeon. One was a 7-foot 3-inch, 154-pound female. The other was a 5-foot 2-inch, 70-pound male. The female was filled with black eggs, and the male was leaking sperm.

“That was probably the most exciting and rewarding day in my career,” said Chuck Stence, head of the anadromous fish restoration unit of the DNR Fisheries Service, who was leading the survey crew. “We’re out there fishing — you’re not expecting to catch anything — and then all of sudden two fish like that get dropped into your lap.”

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