Bay Journal

July-August 2016 - Volume 26 - Number 5
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MD leaders pledge support for environmental protections amid Trump rollback

Maryland’s legislative leaders delighted environmental advocates Thursday by vowing to strengthen the state’s forest conservation law, increase renewable energy and pass other green initiatives, while resisting environmental rollbacks by the Trump administration. It remains to be seen whether election-year politics will help those prospects.  

The 23rd annual environmental legislative summit in Annapolis drew a standing room only crowd to hear pitches — and pledges of support — for green groups’ top priorities during the 90-day General Assembly session that began Jan. 10.

“We’re going to make us the most environmentally friendly state in America,” House Speaker Michael Busch declared, to enthusiastic applause. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller voiced similar sentiment, predicting that amid upcoming debates over taxes, spending and other tough issues, “the one thing we’re going to agree on is the environment.”

Save the date(s) for 2018!

Celebrate the Chesapeake year-round! Get out your 2018 calendar and save these dates that mark activities and resources to help you get the most out of living near the Bay.

EPA lifts ban on pesticide known to cause brain damage in children

Science tells us that nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment are the systemic pollutants of the Bay and its tributaries. The Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint seeks to reduce those pollutants to sustainable levels.

It is working. Water quality is improving, dead zones are diminishing and underwater grasses are at levels not seen in 30 years.

But these are not the only pollutants of concern. A recent decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will reverse a prior agency decision to ban the use of a chemical pesticide, chlorpyrifos, which is acutely toxic to Bay life and has been found to cause brain damage in children.

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Is organic farming good for the Chesapeake?

Organic agriculture is the fastest growing sector of the food industry in the United States, and its footprint in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is growing in kind.

The brand of agriculture that eschews the use of pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and genetically engineered ingredients now makes up 20 percent of Perdue Farms’ poultry production on the Delmarva Peninsula, where the company is headquartered.

Smaller poultry producers in the region also are growing their organic operations at a steady clip: Bell & Evans, which is based in Fredericksburg, PA, and sells its chicken meat to high-end retailers such as Whole Foods Market, launched its line of organic products in 2009 and opened a certified organic hatchery this year. Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley Organic opened its first processing facility in Harrisonburg in 2014, providing contract growers interested in making the switch with an alternative buyer in that region.

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How big was last year’s dead zone? It depends on when you ask

It was quite a surprise: Two reports on Chesapeake Bay dissolved oxygen levels in 2017 came to starkly different conclusions. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources reported improvements and a vastly reduced dead zone. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science found oxygen conditions at their worst since 2014.

Scientists at both organizations were caught off guard last fall when the seemingly contradictory findings were released within a few weeks of each other and sent them scrambling to analyze the cause. 

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Trauma center provides creature comforts for injured, ailing animals

Tucked away on the outskirts of sleepy Waynesboro, VA, there’s a bustling trauma center for sick and injured wildlife. Think “M*A*S*H” with feathers and fur, featuring the tough triage decisions doctors have to make upon admitting new patients. But here, the patient list is wildly diverse: On any given day, the Wildlife Center of Virginia might see a listless bear cub brought in sick from eating rat poison, a bald eagle dying from ingesting lead bullet fragments in a deer carcass, and a king snake run over by a lawnmower. And that’s just before noon.

Resolve to do the best you can to advance clean water in 2018

As we start to turn the page on 2017, I wanted to brainstorm some ideas for resolutions we can share as a community for 2018.

The new year is a time to reflect on where we’ve been and what we’ve accomplished in the past year and to commit to new habits and practices moving forward. The start of a new year is a time of transition and an opportunity for intentionality. In this list of resolutions, I offer some thoughts on opportunities that we, as the community focused on improving the Chesapeake region, have together in 2018.

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Hogan announces MD will join state coalition to fight climate change

Declaring that the need for states to work together to fight climate change “grows stronger every day,” Gov. Larry Hogan announced Wednesday that Maryland would join the U.S. Climate Alliance, a mostly Democratic coalition of states committed to reducing greenhouse gases.

The move, disclosed in a letter released by Hogan’s office, represents a shift for the Republican governor, who had remained noncommittal to pleas last year for Maryland to join the alliance, saying he wasn’t sure what the group’s intentions were.

In the letter to the alliance, Hogan recalled that he had publicly disagreed with President Donald Trump’s decision last year to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate accord reached by nearly 200 nations, including the United States.

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PA fishing fee politics could close shad hatchery on the Juniata

Since it began rearing shad 41 years ago, Pennsylvania’s Van Dyke Research Station has released more than 227 million tiny fish into the Susquehanna River basin.

But this might be the last year that the hatchery — located along the Juniata River, one of the Susquehanna’s main tributaries — rears and releases the migratory fish. The operation may fall victim to a budget dispute between lawmakers and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

Scientists digging up the dirt for clues to disappearing nitrogen

Call it the case of the missing nitrogen.

For decades, scientists have wondered what happens to the nitrogen that farmers apply to fields. On the farm, levels of the nutrient are high. But downstream, they’re lower — sometimes only half as much. In an attempt to figure out where it went, scientists have undertaken “mass balance studies” to solve the mystery.

Booming wood pellet production inching toward watershed forests

A growing industry that’s harvesting “woody biomass” from forests for energy generation could gain a toehold soon in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Like virtually every other form of energy, it’s also generating intense debate about its environmental impact.

Biomass from trees is already used to generate a small amount of power in the United States; wood chips generate electricity at several small plants owned by Dominion, the Virginia-based energy company. (The term “biomass” generally refers to any plant material used for fuel. Woody biomass is made from trees.)

The big demand for pellets made from woody biomass, though, comes from utilities in Europe and the United Kingdom that are trying to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. This is driving the harvesting of low-value trees and “slash,” or debris left by logging, in the Southeastern United States, from just south of the Bay watershed to the state of Mississippi.

Biologists alarmed over lack of young Atlantic sturgeon in surveys

Biologists have been surprised in recent years about how many big Atlantic sturgeon they are finding around the Chesapeake Bay. But rather than celebrating, they have become increasingly alarmed about what they are not seeing: a new generation of young sturgeon.

While finding more adults is certainly good news, biologists say they have seen little evidence those sturgeon have successfully produced significant numbers of offspring in recent years that would be critical if the endangered species is to make a comeback in the Chesapeake.

Farm sites along upper Choptank to help measure BMPs’ efficiency

Thomas Fisher hiked carefully down a slope and into the water at South Forge, a small, barely there waterway that includes a culvert running under a busy Caroline County road.

Fisher, an ecologist with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, took a sample of the murky water and pondered its contents. He noted the depth, the flow conditions and the location in the stream. Then, he capped the clear plastic jar and stored it with more than a dozen other samples in a gray bin about the size of a municipal garbage can, for later analysis in a laboratory.

This routine, repeated multiple times a month over five years in four different spots in the Choptank River watershed, will help to answer a vexing question in Chesapeake Bay restoration work: Which farm runoff control measures work the best, and how can it be ensured that farmers are doing them correctly?

PA’s ‘reboot’ strategy to improve water quality off to slow start

The Wolf administration’s plan to “reboot” Pennsylvania’s badly lagging Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts could be in need of its own kick-start.

Since unveiling the strategy in January, state environmental leaders have grappled with resistance to their plan for increasing oversight of farms in the watershed. And they have yet to line up major new sources of funding to make good on their pledge to plant more stream buffers and take a host of other actions to improve local and Bay water quality.

Vive l’huitre! Chesapeake oyster aquaculture has roots in France

J. Carter Fox had heard the stories of the once-robust Chesapeake Bay oyster grounds. But in four decades of summers at his family place in Reedville, VA, the longtime paper executive rarely saw anyone working the bottom. Local fishermen told him there hadn’t been oysters in those Northern Neck waters for ages. All they could do, they said, was hope the diseases killing the bivalves went away and the species came back.

Fox might have bought that explanation — except in 1998, he and his wife, Carol, bought a summer home in Ile de Re, an island off the west coast of France. The view there was similar to the one from the window in Reedville — except it was filled with oyster growers.

Trawlers suspected in disappearance of shad, herring offshore

Mid-Atlantic fisheries regulators are weighing whether to take additional steps to protect American shad and river herring as they migrate along the East Coast, as some new research suggests significant numbers of herring may be accidentally netted by offshore trawlers.

The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council is scheduled to receive a staff-written white paper in August reviewing whether to move toward imposing tighter limits on the amount of shad and river herring that could be caught by offshore fleets pursuing another species, Atlantic mackerel.

Can what’s good for the Chesapeake reap benefits for farms?

If Trey Hill ever gets bored managing more than 10,000 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and a range of cover crops, he can cue up footage of the farm’s resident ospreys on his MacBook Pro.

Hill did just that as he entered his sparsely decorated office during a recent visit, more proud of the birds’ presence than of the million-dollar machinery just outside. The webcam provides real-time views of the nest’s newest hatchling against a familiar backdrop: the Chester River and Chesapeake Bay, which frame the farm Hill’s family has been running on Maryland’s Eastern Neck since the early 1900s.

Dolphins more common in Potomac than previously thought

A waterfront house on Virginia’s Northern Neck promised to be a getaway for Janet Mann from three decades of studying dolphins, primarily in Australia’s Shark Bay.

But the day after Mann and her husband closed on the place in Ophelia, VA, four years ago, she spied an all-too-familiar sight from the shore where the Potomac River joins the Chesapeake Bay.

“I said, ‘Oh, look, dolphins!’ And then I thought, ‘Oh, no,’” Mann recalled. “I think we’ve given up on getting me away from my work.”

MD Natural Resources Police face increasing duties without budget to match

Brandon Davis doesn’t like something about the boat cruising through Kent Narrows.

The Maryland Natural Resources Police Officer First Class has noticed the small craft has no fishing gear on board. It’s a cloudy, on-and-off rain day. The only other boats out are fishing charter parties, commercial crabbers and tankers. The three men on board, all young, are not wearing life jackets, and he can’t see any on board from his vantage point at the dock’s parking lot.

“Any time I have the opportunity to make contact with a boater, there’s always the chance it might lead to something more,” Davis said, “And that something, that enforcement, might save a person’s life.”

More sturgeon turn up in Bay, raising new questions – and worry

For years, scientists thought there might not be any native Atlantic sturgeon in the Chesapeake Bay. That idea changed in recent years, as biologists began netting hundreds of adults in the James River, and others began turning up in other tributaries.

Now, genetic analyses show the Chesapeake is home to at least two — and possibly more — distinct populations of the endangered fish. DNA analysis shows that James River sturgeon and those recently found spawning next door in the Pamunkey River — a tributary of the York River — are not even particularly closely related, despite their geographic proximity.

Bay grasses make a comeback but annual survey is in jeopardy

It is still early, but scientists’ hopes are high that this year will produce a bumper crop of underwater meadows in the Chesapeake Bay.

After last year’s aerial survey documented a record 91,631 acres of submerged grasses spread over the Bay bottom, many think a new record for one of the estuary’s most critical habitats is likely, given early reports this spring of surprisingly clear water in parts of the Bay.

But Bob Orth is not so sure.

Crabbers, scientists seeing more, larger blue crabs this spring

C. J. Canby nosed his dead-rise, the Miss Paula, from its berth in Bodkin Creek toward the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Even though it had rained for almost three weeks, the water was like glass. In a few hours, he would touch seahorses. In a couple of days, he would see a baby crab — fairly unusual for such a northern stretch of water.

“It’s definitely looking like it’s going to be a pretty good year,” said Canby, who fishes 525 pots in the area around Annapolis with his crew of three mates. “It’s been a real good start.”

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