Bay Journal

June 2017 - Volume 27 - Number 4
Lead story image

Shad program hatching next generation of environmentalists

The science lab at Key Elementary School in Northwest Washington, DC, buzzed with energy as the fourth graders hunched over tables. They peered into Petri dishes at the tiny, pearl-shaped blobs floating in them. Carefully, they wielded eyedroppers to separate the clear ones from those that appeared cloudy.

Then, someone gasped.

“Something popped out!” one youngster exclaimed. “It’s alive!”

Study to measure reef balls’ ability to agitate water, lessen dead zones

Could an oyster reef do even more for water quality than hosting a bunch of water-filtering shellfish?

That’s the question the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is trying to answer this summer in Maryland’s Severn River.

In collaboration with a pair of scientists, the Annapolis-based environmental group has placed 240 concrete “reef balls” in the Western Shore tributary of the Bay. They’ve been seeded with about 400,000 baby oysters, called spat, so tiny that they’re almost invisible to the naked eye.

The research team wants to see if the squat, bullet-shaped reef balls can alter water currents enough to keep fish and shellfish from being stressed or even suffocated by dead zones — places where dissolved oxygen drops to dangerously low levels in warmer weather.

Oysters making themselves at home on reefs with alternative substrate

An unremarkable thing happened in a remarkable way during the recently ended oyster season in the Chesapeake Bay.

Some Virginia watermen harvested bivalves from public oyster grounds in the Rappahannock River. There’s nothing unusual about that, of course, but these shellfish had settled as baby “spat” and grown to harvestable size on a thick bed of gravel-sized stones that had been put on the river bottom to provide an unconventional home for them.

New battle looming over permitting hog farm in PA

Last year, the Bivouac Swine Farm owners thought that by now, they would be wrapping up construction on their barns by a wooded stream in southcentral Pennsylvania, and preparing to house 8,700 pigs in a new breeding facility.

Instead, the 224-acre operation near McConnellsburg is on hold, after neighboring residents and environmental activists concerned it would harm local water quality won a rare legal victory blocking it. An appeals board judge ruled last year that state regulators had failed to properly vet the farm’s plans for preventing pig waste from entering Big Cove Creek, a state-designated coldwater fishing stream that ultimately drains into the Potomac River.

The dispute may be about to resume.

VA city most affected by mercury pollution feels slighted in settlement

Last December, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced a $50 million settlement between the state, federal officials and DuPont to fix decades of mercury contamination in two rivers caused by the giant chemical corporation’s former factory in Waynesboro.

But six months later, some city officials and residents say they feel Waynesboro is in danger of getting short shrift in the landmark settlement because most of the funds are earmarked for environmental remediation work up and down the river from the community, even though it was “ground zero” for the toxic pollution.

The settlement — the largest natural resource damage reimbursement in Virginia’s history — is awaiting final approval by the U.S. District Court of Western Virginia. As it now stands, $42 million would go to federal and state environmental agencies, which will undertake projects aimed at compensating for “losses in ecological and recreational services, such as fishing access” along the South River. The remainder of the settlement is planned to upgrade a state-run smallmouth bass hatchery downstream in Front Royal.

Critics say pipeline would excavate 38 miles of ridgetops

Environmental groups opposed to the construction of a natural gas pipeline across Virginia and West Virginia have raised a new concern, charging that the project will require the excavation of 38 miles of ridgetops through the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains, leading to severe erosion, runoff pollution and habitat loss.

Drawing on information gleaned from the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a Takoma Park, MD-based environmental group, contends that 38 miles of mountain ridges would need to be dynamited and excavated along the project’s 600-mile path through West Virginia and Virginia

Aquaculture reviving oyster industry – as well as watermen

Decades ago, Wingate Harbor was full of working oystermen in the late fall and winter, plying the Honga River’s thick oyster bars and bringing their catch to the dock. But when diseases took hold and the harvest plummeted, the oystermen hung up their dredges and tongs and left this lower Dorchester County, MD, village for other lines of work. Gradually, as regulations tightened on crabs and striped bass, other watermen left, too

Island trip immerses students in effects of climate change

As field trips go, it would be hard to imagine one more out there than the visit Northampton High School’s 10th graders took this spring to Parramore Island.

Instead of a typical school tour of the Air and Space Museum or the National Archives in Washington, DC, the students sloshed around the mudflats of a coastal barrier island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore that, on a typical day, has more coyotes than people.

NASA scientists deem Fowler’s wade-in data out of this world

For nearly 30 years, on the second Sunday in June, Bernie Fowler has led an ad hoc group of scientists, politicians, friends and concerned citizens into the murky Patuxent River in Calvert County to see if it’s getting any cleaner. Wearing overalls, a hat with an American flag pin, and a pair of white sneakers, the former Maryland state senator wades in until he can no longer see his feet. The depth at which the bottom fades from view is recorded.

The annual measurements give a sense of how the river is faring. And the folksy event has helped to rally the public to push for the cleanup of the Patuxent and the larger Chesapeake Bay. But many, Fowler included, considered it an unscientific measure of water quality.

Organisms in ballast water increasing despite discharge measures

Ships arriving in Chesapeake Bay ports bring more than just cargo — in 2013 they also inadvertently released an estimated 10 billion live zooplankton from other parts of the world, a finding that surprised the researchers who recently reported the results.

Regulations aimed at reducing the risk of aquatic invasions went into effect more than a decade ago, and a team from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center had expected to see a decrease in live organisms being released from ballast holds of ships.

PA legislators look for ways to fund environmental programs

Pennsylvania advocates for the Bay and clean water are hoping for new dedicated funding to clean up the Susquehanna River in the midst of another tough budget year in Harrisburg, where environmental programs are being cut again.

Legislation has been introduced to renew Pennsylvania’s popular Growing Greener program, which over nearly two decades has poured roughly $1.3 billion into protecting water resources and preserving open space and farmland.

But the Growing Greener program is running short of money, and lawmakers have yet to figure out how to pay for a new round of projects. Nor are they any closer to finding the increased funds needed to deal with Pennsylvania’s polluted streams and rivers, its lax oversight of drinking water safety or its federally mandated obligation to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

EPA letter tells PA to increase progress in cleanup effort or it will take action

Pennsylvania needs a realistic plan showing how it will provide enough funding and staff to dramatically ramp up its Bay-related pollution control efforts, or it could face a variety of potentially costly federal actions within the next two years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned state officials in a recent letter.

Pennsylvania was the only state to get such a warning, and it illustrates mounting concern that if the Keystone state cannot get its nutrient control program on track, it will prevent much of the Chesapeake Bay from attaining its clean water goals. Pennsylvania delivers more nitrogen to the Bay than any other state.

Low juvenile numbers may lead to crab harvest restrictions

Chesapeake Bay crabbers are likely to face some harvest restriction this season to protect future generations of the crustacean, a move managers say is necessary because of the low population of juveniles.

Fishery managers for Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission all said they are considering shortening the season and imposing stricter bushel limits on female crabs. They are not proposing changes in male crab catches.

Bay’s health taking slight turn for better, says UMCES report card

The Chesapeake Bay’s ecological health improved slightly last year, according to a new assessment, with three of the estuary’s key fish populations in their best shape in decades.

For the fifth straight year, the Bay’s condition in 2016 earned a C grade on the annual report card produced by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. The overall score — combining measures of water quality, habitat and fish abundance — ticked upward to 54 percent, a 1 percent gain over 2015.

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