Bay Journal

May 2004 - Volume 14 - Number 3

Eel fortunes: Much of fish’s life is a mystery - including why it’s suddenly disappearing

When it comes to adaptability, few species can top the American eel. They turn up in more habitats than any other fish. After spawning in the open ocean, they can be found in coastal estuaries, rivers, trout streams, farm ponds—even wet caves.

Eels are found in so many places that in the 4th century B.C., Aristotle once concluded that they must arise spontaneously from the mud. Other ancients thought they originated from small worms or even horsehair dropped into water.

To this day, no one has ever seen one spawn. The drifting patterns of their eggs and larvae leads scientists to believe it takes place about 1,000 feet underwater in the Sargasso Sea. But someplace between there and the headwaters of East Coast streams, scientists say something has gone terribly wrong for the eels. ...

Supreme Court rejects wetlands disputes

The Supreme Court in April rejected three cases that sought to restrict the government’s authority to regulate wetlands by turning back appeals involving disputes over lands in Maryland and Virginia that are part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and refusing to hear the case of a Michigan man facing prison for destroying wetlands.

Developers, farm groups and other argued that federal regulators have gone too far by blocking the development of property that is miles away from any river or waterway. ...

Notch in Embrey Dam a lucky break for hickory shad

In less than two months from the time a 120-foot notch was blasted in Embrey Dam, Virginia wildlife officials saw the first sign of success—a hickory shad caught upstream on April 9.

The fish, caught during electrofishing sampling about a half mile upstream of the dam, was the first documentation of an anadromous species using the breach to move up the Rappahannock River to spawn.

“These first sightings are an exciting and strong testament to the benefits of breaching the dam,” said Bill Woodfin, director of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, one several agencies that cooperated in the dam breaching that took place Feb. 23. ...

‘Dead zones’ top list of threats at UN environmental forum

So-called “dead zones,” oxygen-starved areas of the world’s oceans that are devoid of fish, top the list of emerging environmental challenges, the United Nations Environment Program recently warned in its global overview.

The spreading zones have doubled over the last decade and pose as big a threat to fish stocks as overfishing, UNEP said in its Global Environment Outlook Year Book 2003, released at the opening of the agency’s eighth summit for the world’s environment ministers. ...

Science panel urges changes in agricultural policies, practices

New agricultural cost-share policies and nutrient control practices are needed if the region is to achieve and maintain the nitrogen and phosphorus reductions required to clean up the Bay, says a new paper from a scientific panel.

The paper, noting that past agricultural nutrient reduction efforts were less effective than originally anticipated, called for stepped-up research and sharp policy shifts to help curb farm runoff, which is the largest single source of phosphorus and nitrogen to the Chesapeake. ...

Study warns of pitfalls to poultry waste as fertilizer substitute

The solution to poultry waste pollution on Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore may not be dilution.

Water quality in the region has deteriorated in the past two decades as millions of chickens annually produced hundreds of thousands of tons of manure. Excessive amounts of chicken litter applied on fields in the past is blamed for worsening water quality conditions in some of the region’s rivers.

The presumed solution has been to ship the excess manure to other parts of the Eastern Shore where it could reduce the use of commercial fertilizers on cropland. ...

Students net catch of the day: proof of sturgeon spawning

Students on a school field trip who cast a net into the James River caught more than than they had bargained for—the most concrete evidence to date that sturgeon may still spawn in a Bay tributary.

The students, on a Chesapeake Bay Foundation field trip, netted the fish about 20 miles downstream of Richmond on March 24. They knew they had something unusual when they pulled the leathery fish out of the trawl net, so they turned it over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We didn’t see the fish out there spawning, but it strongly suggests that spawning took place last spring,” said Albert Spells, Virginia fisheries coordinator for the USF&WS. ...

Hudson sturgeon release may glean information for Bay effort

New York officials in May plan to release several dozen large Atlantic sturgeon into the Hudson River, a move that some biologists hope is a prelude to an eventual release in the Bay within the next few years.

The release was proposed by New York and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who hope the tagged, hatchery-reared sturgeon will provide new information about the habitat use, movement and post-release behavior of the fish.

The release was approved in March by Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a panel of fishery officials from East Coast states and federal agencies that is responsible for managing migratory fish stocks. ...

Overharvesting, pollution taking toll on sturgeon worldwide

Once, sturgeon were so abundant in the rivers of the Midwest that bartenders in turn-of-the century taverns used to give away the sturgeon’s salty caviar to boost beer sales.

Today, a few thousand sturgeon swim in the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Most are aging adults with one or two more chances to spawn.

In less than a century, Americans have driven a fish that swam among the dinosaurs to the brink of extinction.

The same factors that have decimated U.S. fish stocks and the jobs it supported—overharvesting, dam building and pollution—have nearly wiped out European, Black Sea, Caspian and Chinese sturgeon as well. ...

Paddle Up!

The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay is looking for ambassadors eager to embark on a voyage of discovery while spreading the message of stewardship along the Susquehanna, Potomac and James rivers, as well as a one-day trip on the Patuxent.

Participants on this year’s sojourns will help to strengthen public awareness, understanding and appreciation of these rivers while taking part in restoration projects, meeting with local dignitaries, enjoying campfire programs and, of course, enjoying some of the finest paddles in the watershed. ...

EPA expects to complete tributary strategies analysis by May’s end

Tributary strategies—the road maps that describe how each major Bay river will meet its nutrient reduction goals—were expected to be completed by the end of April or early May, after more than a year of development.

Each strategy describes the mix of actions needed to achieve the nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment limits for each river—and state—that were agreed upon by the watershed jurisdictions last spring.

The goal of those nutrient and sediment reductions is to achieve the clean water criteria established for the Bay last year. ...

‘Flush tax’ to fund MD nutrient reduction programs

In what environmentalists called Maryland’s biggest step toward cleaning the Chesapeake Bay in decades, the General Assembly approved new levies on sewer users and septic owners to fund nutrient reduction programs in the state.

The $2.50-a-month “flush tax” that will be added to sewer bills and an equivalent $30 a year fee on septic system owners will finance sewage treatment plant upgrades, replace failing septic systems and pay farmers to plant cover crops and take other nutrient control actions. ...

Ocean panel recommends ecosystem-based management

Stating that current programs fail to protect coastal and ocean resources, a new report calls for sweeping changes in federal policies, stepped-up science programs and the initiation of “ecosystem-based management.”

Among the recommended changes, contained in the preliminary report from the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, are the creation of a network of Bay Program-like regional councils to address watershed issues affecting coastal resources, and the establishment of a White House-level office to coordinate actions at the federal level. ...

New fisheries plans would put emphasis on ecosystems

"We are set down eighty miles within a river…so stored with sturgeon and other sweet fish as no man’s fortune has ever possessed the like. And, as we think, if more may be wished in a river it will be found." -  George Percy, Jamestown, 1607

To George Percy and other early settlers, the Chesapeake and its tributaries seemed an inexhaustible resource. One contemporary of Percy’s commented on how a single net had pulled in so many “sturgeon, bass and other great fish” that—had they possessed enough salt—“we might have taken as much fish as would have served us that whole year.” ...

American eels get a passage of their own on the Shenandoah

Small American eels trying to make their way up the Potomac River drainage last year found something unique in the Bay watershed—a fish passage of their very own.

While dozens of fish passages have been constructed on Bay tributaries, the movable aluminum structure over the Millville Dam on the Shenandoah watershed is the first “eelway” constructed in the Chesapeake watershed.

Biologists say it may be the first eelway built in North American outside Canada.

The $75,000 structure was built and installed after officials with Allegheny Energy Supply, which owns the dam, learned of the success of similar devices in Canada. “We decided, let’s give it a try,” said Charles Simons, a biologist with the utility. ...

Journeys of a Lifetime

Eels are thought to have originated in a small sea hundreds of millions of years ago, before the continents drifted apart.

At that time, it’s speculated the eels could not find enough food in their spawning areas, and began making their journeys to freshwater streams.

Today, it just takes them longer to make the trip, which starts in the Sargasso Sea, an area of relatively still water covered by seaweed that floats over its surface. ...

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