I spent my childhood in and around the Bay wading in our creek to catch soft crabs, trying to dip net yellow perch on their spring run, catching a mess of perch on peelers and papershells, and lazing around summer afternoons while swimming or floating down the river. I thought there was nothing in the Chesapeake Bay that I had not seen, sought, munched or been scraped by — until this year.
In late August, the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy purchased a large tract (1,172-acres) in Queen Anne’s County, MD, with more than 700 acres of prime farmland and beautiful rambling forests.
Protecting this farm had been a priority for the conservancy for more than two decades, mostly because it was one of the largest remaining unprotected farms on the Eastern Shore. It is also a large part of the headwaters of Southeast Creek and precisely in a band of habitat uniquely suited for federally endangered dwarf wedge mussels. Over the last 10 years, the conservancy has been protecting land and encouraging buffers and soil conservation on the farms along these headwater streams to protect the mussels.
While in the stream looking for the mussels during a tour of the property last spring, I noticed some small ribbonlike creatures displaying obvious spawning behavior: raking the gravel, making egg deposits and milking. At first, I had thought they were eels but then recalled that the eel native to this area spawns in the Sargasso Sea in the South Atlantic Ocean.
These shoelace-like creatures were brook lampreys — a native of the Bay that has a mildly parasitic relationship with rockfish and other semi-anadromous fish, as well as a potentially symbiotic relationship with dwarf wedge mussels.
My experience highlights the enormity of what we don’t know about the Bay or the lands and waters right here in our backyards on the Delmarva Peninsula.
E. O. Wilson, the planet’s preeminent ecologist, in his most urgent book to date, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, calls for everyone to work together to save 50% of the planet’s lands and waters as the necessary infrastructure for life. Wilson figures that protecting 50% of the planet is equal to protecting 85% of its species — including ourselves.
Much of the concern lies not with the species we see going extinct, but with the immensity of species that are yet undiscovered. In 2015, the number of known species surpassed 2 million, yet some scientists estimate that more than 100 million species exist today.
After more than 30 years of progress cleaning up the Bay and saving our lands and waters on the Eastern Shore, the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy has made incredible strides forward.
But with a new Bay Bridge and other road-building on the horizon, combined with an expected retreat in federal support for conservation while our climate changes at an accelerating pace, we must do more and we must act quickly.
The conservancy’s new Delmarva Oasis initiative, with its goal to protect 50% of the entire Delmarva Peninsula, is a critical next step for conservation. Saving 50% of this portion of the Delmarva means saving not only 85% of its species — known and unknown — but also its food-producing fertile soils, beautiful landscapes, small towns and our high quality of life.
Saving land for the future is the most enduring gift we can give to our children. As Joni Mitchell reminds us in Big Yellow Taxi: “…don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
Rob Etgen is president of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy.
The views expressed by opinion columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.