Three scientists recently uncovered tantalizing hints that the Chesapeake, decades after tipping over the edge toward a more degraded state, could be on the threshold of a comeback.
Scientists are waiting to see if recent progress will help the Chesapeake more easily bounce back from July storms.
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.
Every year since 1939, Maryland has surveyed its portion of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries to see how the oysters were doing. Though no longer the mainstay they once were, oysters are still a pillar of the region’s fishing industry and a vital cog in the Bay ecosystem.
Typically, shells of other oysters are the natural landing pads for recently hatched bivalve larvae, which need to attach to something hard as they begin sedentary lives of filtering algae from the water. But the Chesapeake is running short on shells; there aren’t enough to go around to sustain the traditional wild fishery. Scientists have turned to old highway concrete and granite, and found they work just as well.
Pastor Rick Edmund made Smith Island his home for 17 years. It was the longest he had lived anywhere, and islanders believe he is the longest serving preacher in the centuries-long history of this three-village archipelago across Tangier Sound from Crisfield, Md. June was his last month here — his last island communion, his last crab cake supper. His last commute by car, skiff and golf cart to the three churches he served on Ewell, Rhodes Point and Tylerton.
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 village for other lines of work.
Today, three watermen are back, pulling up oyster cages from leased bottom about one-half mile from the dock at the Honga Oyster Co.
There was more good news for the Bay this spring. There is clear consensus in the scientific community that the health of the Bay is improving. But the recovery is fragile and still could be undone with a loss of federal aid and the programs it supports.
Once a month, Matt Parker and Suzanne Bricker drive along Penny Lane through a Southern Maryland forest until it dead-ends at the Chesapeake Bay. Then, they pull on their waders and hop into a skiff to maneuver out to aquaculture cages, where they grab samples of water and the oysters taking it in. Their results may eventually let oyster growers earn money not only for the bivalves they grow, but also for the water the shellfish clean under the state’s nascent nutrient trading program. But partnerships like Parker’s and Bricker’s won’t be happening in the Chesapeake, or anywhere else, if the Trump administration’s proposed budget is approved later this year. The work is funded by Maryland Sea Grant — one of 33 Sea Grant programs around the nation that help translate science into sustainable coastal economies.
It is getting embarrassing. As Maryland’s General Assembly drew to a close last month, the state’s Department of Natural Resources was once again bowing to pressure from watermen whom it is charged by law with regulating. It was the third time in less than a year.