Bay Journal

September 2019 - Volume 29 - Number 6

Open-water sites producing oysters with Bay’s briny sweetness

When Tom Perry set out to start an oyster farm at the age of 26, he wasn’t interested in doing it the easy way.

He might have opted to raise oysters in a cage on a patch of leased bottom near the shore of Virginia’s Northern Neck. Instead, the crew from his White Stone Oyster Co. pilots a workboat each morning out of the safety of Antipoison Creek and into the wide, sometimes blustery waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

There, the Crassostrea virginica oysters grow in mesh bags inside cages hovering just below the surface of the water. The plastic floaties that support them bob like decoys in the distance. If that sounds peaceful, wait until the wind kicks up and the boat — which the captain is trying to guide between unwieldy rows of cages and lines — starts rocking, too.

Shad restoration efforts around the Bay a mixed bag in 2019

A year ago, Pennsylvania’s shad hatchery — the largest in the Chesapeake Bay watershed — was spared the budget-cutting ax. But it still took a toll on American shad stocking efforts on the Susquehanna River.

The state’s Van Dyke Research Station released just 830,000 shad larvae into the Bay’s largest tributary this year, the smallest number in the hatchery’s 43-year history. Uncertainty over funding kept contracts from being completed for egg collections on the Potomac River, the largest source for the hatchery.

Instead, the hatchery had to rely on eggs collected at Conowingo Dam near the mouth of the Susquehanna, where production is always less than the Potomac.

Virginia researcher wants to turn nest-building fish into rock stars

“Nest builder, nest builder, build me a nest,” Eugene Maurakis hummed unselfconsciously, replacing the lyrics of a familiar Fiddler on the Roof tune with his own while arranging river-smoothed rocks into a neat mound on a dry path.

A stone’s throw away, just under the surface of the Rapidan River in Virginia, a male bluehead chub had painstakingly constructed a heap just like this, called a nest, by moving dozens of rocks into place, one at a time, with his jaws. The mouth-made nests serve as spawning grounds and temporary homes to fertilized eggs and tiny larvae — and they are the inspiration for the name of a captivating category of fish species: nest builders.

Options to rebuild oyster population in MD draw criticism

Maryland watermen face potential cutbacks in their wild Chesapeake Bay oyster harvest starting this fall, as the state eyes new regulations aimed at eventually making the troubled fishery sustainable. But critics question whether the state is serious about ending overharvesting, and lawmakers could order a do-over.

Officials with the Department of Natural Resources told their Oyster Advisory Commission in August that they were considering reductions of up to 20% in the daily harvest limits and setting a shorter season, which has traditionally run from Oct. 1 through March 31.

They also suggested they might close some areas of the Bay to wild harvest for the coming season if available data indicates oysters are unusually scarce there or the areas were being heavily overharvested.

Neighborly approach to stream buffers has ripple effect among Amish

Each spring after the fertile fields have been planted in Lancaster County, PA, more than 400 Plain Sect children and their families gather on a restored section of Mill Creek, a stream that flows through an area with the highest concentration of dairy cows in Pennsylvania.

It’s a wonderful display of community as the delighted youths pluck more than 400 recently stocked trout out of the water. The fishing derby and the togetherness it brings for neighbors linked by a stream also is the face of the Mill Creek Preservation Association, the only Plain Sect watershed group in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Scientists seek to elevate rare frosted elfin butterfly’s numbers

Frosted elfin butterflies aren’t much to look at. Their 1-inch wingspan and brownish-gray wings give them the appearance more of a moth than a majestic monarch butterfly.

Jennifer Selfridge doesn’t see them that way, though. Thirteen years after her first glimpse of the species on the site of a recently cleared Maryland forest, her voice still crackles with excitement.

“It was fantastic,” said Selfridge, an invertebrate ecologist with the state’s Department of Natural Resources. “A lot of times when you go out to find a species that is rare, you’re lucky to see one or two — and on this day, I saw dozens of them. I lost track of time and got a really bad sunburn.”

Shoreline industry poses hazards as sea level, floods increase

With the Earth warming and sea level rising, many riverside clusters of industry are ground zero for rising waters — posing a new risk for the environment and those living nearby.

In a report issued this spring, the Center for Progressive Reform finds that almost 1,100 industrial facilities in Virginia’s James River watershed that use state or federally regulated chemicals are exposed to both potential flooding and projected sea level rise. Worse, they are located in socially vulnerable communities where residents have the fewest resources to escape a disaster’s effects.

Cruel world awaits neglected streamside buffers

The “green” plan for the new shopping center carved from a historic farm in Lancaster County, PA, looked impressive on paper and in the newspaper: hundreds of native trees and shrubs would be planted along a stream to benefit water quality and wildlife.

But on a hot summer day only a few months after the vegetation had been embedded into the ground, Ryan Davis walked among the plantings and shook his head in disgust.

No mowing had taken place on the site, an essential practice to combat problems with invasive plants. No herbicide had been sprayed around the plastic tubes that shelter the trees, equally important to allow sunlight to reach under the tubes and prevent the growth of low greenery that attracts tree-girdling rodents.

Lower milk prices, demand taking toll on region’s dairy farmers

For many dairy farmers in Chesapeake Bay states, the financial screws keep tightening.

While grain farmers can be hurt by disastrous years such as 2018 when water-soaked fields resulted in zero yields for some, they are backed by crop insurance programs that help get them through year-to-year market fluctuations.

But for dairy farmers, a decade of low milk prices brought on by oversupply and falling demand is taking a toll. Some ag lenders and those in the farm real estate business foresee a wave of banks shutting down credit for struggling dairy farmers this fall or winter, expediting a steady several-year stream of farmers leaving the business.

Scientists fear steep loss of Bay grasses lies ahead

Portions of the Chesapeake Bay’s underwater grass meadows appear to be headed for steep declines this year, a delayed response to the torrential rains that poured vast amounts of water-fouling sediments and nutrients into the estuary during 2018.

Initial reviews of this year’s aerial survey show significant losses of underwater grass beds in parts of the Mid Bay, where the bulk of the Chesapeake’s underwater grass beds are located.

At the same time, preliminary reviews of the aerial images show that portions of the Upper Bay survived last year’s deluge of muddy water surprisingly well, with grass beds even expanding in some areas.

Low salinity suspected for poor crab harvest in Upper Chesapeake

At the beginning of July, media across Maryland delivered good news for those planning a traditional feast of Chesapeake Bay blue crabs on Independence Day.

Baltimore TV station WJZ, for instance, touted a new report that the Bay’s crab population had increased 60% percent since 2018 — “meaning you can dig into 60% more crabs over Fourth of July weekend!” the station enthused.

“The survey is in,” echoed WMAR, another Baltimore station, “and it comes with great news for Maryland crab lovers!”

Someone apparently forgot to tell the crabs, at least in the Upper Bay. 

High flows to Chesapeake Bay continued in July

The Chesapeake Bay continued to be on the receiving end of high river flows in July. The flows have been higher than normal for 13 out of the last 15 months, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

The pollution carried into the Bay during that span has led to worse than normal water quality and last month triggered a large oxygen-starved “dead zone” in the Bay.

In July, the USGS reported that the estimated cumulative flow into the Bay from its nine largest rivers — which account for more than 95% of the freshwater entering the Bay — averaged 54,000 cubic feet per second. 

Pennsylvania power plant to stop coal ash pollution, pay $1 million fine

In a consent decree with four environmental groups, a large central Pennsylvania power plant has agreed to stop tainted water in its coal ash disposal sites from leaking into the Susquehanna River.

The Brunner Island Generating Station, located on the Susquehanna just south of Harrisburg, has agreed to close and excavate one of its active but leaking coal ash landfills and address leaks at seven other sites.

The plant also will be fined $1 million by the state Department of Environmental Protection, according to the consent decree to be filed today in U.S. District Court in Harrisburg. The fine is the largest ever involving coal ash disposal in Pennsylvania.

Report: ‘Sunny day’ floods a rising threat in Chesapeake region

A new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report shows that rising seas are inducing high-tide or “sunny day” flooding, striking a median of five days last year at nearly 100 coastal locations, tying the record set in 2015.

The problem was worse in the Northeast, which includes the Chesapeake watershed. The report, released on July 10, showed this region with a median of 10 days of high-tide flooding.

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