33 posts tagged Chesapeake Bay
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And for an oyster lover, a dozen on the half-shell, plump, cupped in their own vitality, are a lovely sight only to be topped by their taste. However, our appreciation is a fleeting thing. We toss them back at oyster bars until the empty shells clatter without a thought about where they came from or where they’re going. Other than mostly regional names we call oysters by to order them, we don’t wonder much about the mollusks we just consumed.
For the longest time in the Chesapeake, those regional names were a pretty short list, indeed- either ‘Chesapeake’ or ‘Chincoteague’ (the distinction between the two was the milder taste of the former and the saltier tang of the latter). Other places might have ‘Bluepoints’ or ‘Appalachicolas’ or ‘Wellfleets’, each oyster connoting a different point of supply and therefore a different flavor (or ‘merroir’ as aficionados refer to it), but the Bay’s oysters were never really distinguished the way oyster varieties further North or South might be.
Some of the collection of oyster cans at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.
That wasn’t from lack of trying- in the 19th century, during the height of the oyster boom in the Chesapeake, hundreds of packing houses established individual brand names and emblazoned them across thousands of metal cans, hoping to coax the public into purchasing their “Sailor Brand” or “Bevans” or “Honga” oysters. But none of these titles really stuck- and throughout the 20th century, when you ordered “Chesapeake,” you got “Chesapeake”- from any old spot in the Bay proper.
Choptank Sweets, grown just a little west of Cambridge, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
But that’s all starting to change, as the Chesapeake’s oyster industry grows to include aquaculture, a method of raising oysters by hand from spat to market-size. Much like agriculture on land, an oyster farm is a year-round process involving seed, crop management, eradication of pests, and a lot of manual labor.
It’s an approach that in most of the Bay is a new idea, but one that yields a predictable harvest (hurricanes notwithstanding) and a stable income. A handful of fledgling companies in Virginia and Maryland are having a go at the process, growing their crop in floating cages at the water’s surface in prime oyster territory where the oxygen is rich and the algae abounds. They grow their oysters, rather than wild-harvesting them, for a few reasons: aquaculture ventures aren’t subject to seasonal or catch restrictions the way watermen are, the oysters generally grow faster and larger in the cages, and with tending to keep them pretty and regular, aquaculture oysters are all ready for the more-lucrative half shell market.
Oysters in floats from the dock of Marinetics in Cambridge, Maryland
More oysters in the Bay are a good thing- for the environment and for the economy. One of the ways aquaculture ventures are looking to distinguish their oysters from their wild-caught Chesapeake competition is by naming them, like their New England and Gulf counterparts. These farmed varieties, which, as Crassostrea virginicas, are biologically identical to their brethren harvested from the Bay’s bottom, boast whimsical titles like ‘Shooting Point Salts,’ ‘Witch Ducks,’ ‘Forbidden Oysters’ or ‘Pleasure House Oysters’. Evocative of the Bay’s biodiversity, marshy landscape, and the silky, delicate flavor encouraged by the Chesapeake’s brackish water, aquaculture oyster industries hope to distinguish their particular bounty by appealing to all of a consumer’s senses.
Oyster aquaculturist Kevin McClaren on the dock at Marinetics.
The people of the oyster industry are a pragmatic bunch, whether working as watermen or as aquaculturists; don’t let the fancy boat or oyster names fool you. Kevin McClaren, aquaculturist at Marinetics, which produces the ‘Choptank Sweet’ oyster, is no exception. He speaks plainly and knowledgeably about the process of growing and harvesting his oysters, and though he’s clearly an advocate of his own brand, he makes no bones about the work involved in the process and some of the hard decisions he’s made since the venture was started several years ago.
Since oyster farming with floats as a practice is still in its infancy, experimentation is part of the business. Whether to start from your own spat (baby oysters) or to buy it in from a lab, whether to go with oysters that reproduce naturally, known as ‘diploids’, or get the sterile ‘triploids’ that will grow much faster but not replace themselves, or even whether to grow your oysters on the top of the Bay in floats or to manage them on bottom leases instead: it all depends on your business, your location, and what you’re looking to produce. It’s still a wild-west industry, where innovation, a lot of sweat, and not a little self-promotion are key to success.
Kevin’s product, Choptank Sweets, are sold for the wholesale market, destined for restaurants and oyster bars throughout the Chesapeake. Raised on the water’s surface and fed with the natural plankton supply close to the to the waterline, his oysters grow much more rapidly than their wild counterparts 20 feet down or more. Within a year, some oysters can grow up to 3 inches- in contrast to uncultivated oysters, for which an inch a year is more typical. The faster your oysters grow, the faster you can get them legal size (3 inches) and to market, right- so that’s a good thing? Not according to Kevin- who explains that the quickly-grown oyster frequently has a thin, brittle shell, which is a nightmare to shuck and ruins the oysters for the profitable half-shell market.
As Virgina and Maryland legislation grows to encourage more aquaculture ventures like Marinetics, the culture of Chesapeake oystering will change to include these new, experimental techniques and technology. And as some of the shorelines of Bay tributaries slowly begin to encapsulate with oyster floats as protons hovering around their nucleus of docks and posts, new and experimental oyster varieties will accordingly proliferate on chalk-board menus- certainly a good thing for the centuries-old Chesapeake oyster fishery. Because for everyone that agrees that we all want more oysters in the Chesapeake- there are ten more people that agree that they want more oysters on their plate, whether they’re called ‘Chunu’ or ‘Watch House Point’, ‘Olde Salts’ or ‘Choptank Sweets’. Whatever you call their oysters, just don’t call their consumers late to dinner.
For more information on Marinetics and their brand, Choptank Sweets, check out their site here: http://bit.ly/XeOTSb
And this great oyster-lover’s blog, In a Half Shell , offers a fairly comprehensive list of some of the more established aquaculture brands in the Chesapeake, as well as further up and down the East Coast: http://bit.ly/X99N6M
A salt marsh near Chincoteague, VA.
There is nothing more quintessentially Chesapeake than a marsh vista. Over the horizon, the sunrise comes raging and the marsh is on fire: the stem of every reed distinguished in the burnished light, dipping and rippling, a mirror image of the brackish water below. Within this rich environment, only a few feet high, teems all manner and shape of life. Just a cursory glance displays the tiny, pulsing ribcage of a trilling spring peeper, the winking orange flash of a redwinged blackbird, the frantic wittering of all sorts many-legged insect swamp dwellers. Chesapeake marshes are the nursery of so much Bay life, and the livers, too, cleansing through a living grass filter the pollutants we shore folk flush, spread, cloud, and run off the watershed’s land mass.
Wetlands at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. (Adam Langley, SI)
Joseph Stromberg, from Smithsonian Magazine:
In a tidal marsh on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay, dozens of transparent enclosures jut above the reeds and grasses, looking like high-tech pods seeded by an alien spacecraft. Barely audible over the buzz of insects, motors power whirring fans, bathing the plants inside the chambers with carbon dioxide gas.
To scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) in Edgewater, Maryland, it’s the marsh of the future, a series of unusual experiments to simulate the effects of climate change and water pollution on a vital ecosystem. “What we’re doing out here is studying plant processes to predict the conditions of wetlands like this one—and tidal wetlands everywhere—in about 100 years,” Patrick Megonigal, a scientist at the center, says as he strides a boardwalk stretching into the 166-acre marsh.
The field study, stemming from an experiment first begun in 1987, is the only one of its kind worldwide that examines how multiple factors such as air and water pollutants will affect tidal wetlands—embattled ecosystems that will become even more important as a buffer against the storms and sea-level rise that are predicted to accompany global warming.
Made from PVC piping and clear plastic sheeting, each open-topped enclosure is a microcosm of a marsh under attack. Once a month, SERC scientists squirt nitrogen-rich water into the soil within the enclosures, replicating the fertilizer runoff that increasingly seeps into bodies of water like the Chesapeake. The plants are exposed to a carbon dioxide concentration roughly twice as high as that in today’s atmosphere; scientists have predicted that the higher level will be the norm by 2100, largely because of the burning of fossil fuels. The gas comes from the same tanks used in soft drink machines. “Our vendor tells us that we use more CO2 than Camden Yards,” Megonigal says of the Baltimore Orioles’ ballpark. “I actually calculated how many sodas that is, and it’s impressive: roughly 14 million 16-ounce bottles.”
Plants, of course, require carbon dioxide and nitrogen. But SERC studies have found, among other things, that some plant species grow more quickly when exposed to higher CO2 and nitrogen, while others show little response, a dynamic that could alter the overall makeup of the marsh. Still, predicting the consequences is tough. These excess nutrients boost plant growth and soil formation, which might counteract sea-level rise. But nitrogen also boosts microbe activity, accelerating the breakdown of biomass in the soil and reducing the wetland’s ability to serve as a carbon sink to offset carbon dioxide emissions.
Lately the researchers are examining a third environmental hazard: an invasive species. The tall, feathery grass Phragmites australis was introduced from Europe in the late 1800s through its use as a packing material aboard ships. In contrast to the native strain of Phragmites, the European version has become one of the most feared invasives in the eastern United States, aggressively displacing native species. In the SERC marshes, invasive Phragmites now covers 45 acres, roughly 22 times more than in 1972.
In greenhouse experiments, Megonigal and colleagues found that air and water pollution are a boon to the European Phragmites. With elevated carbon dioxide, it grew thicker leaves, allowing faster overall growth without any more water; with elevated nitrogen, it devoted less energy to growing roots and more to growing shoots. It was “more robust in nearly every plant trait we measured, such as size and growth rate,” Megonigal says.
In the chambers on the marsh, the Phragmites experiments look like a window into an unwelcome future: a perfect storm of climate change, water pollution and an exotic species poised to hit wetlands up and down the East Coast. A Phragmites invasion, Megonigal says, “has a cascading effect, with implications for food webs and the biodiversity of wildlife overall.”
Where the mouth of the Chester River yawns wide to connect with the main stem of the Chesapeake, a roughly heart-shaped island stanches the flow of water as it disgorges into the Bay proper. Located at the very tip of Kent County’s southernmost peninsula, Eastern Neck Island is disconnected from the rest of the land by a thin tidal stream that grows more and less substantial with the wax and wane of the moon. The island itself is edged with billowing skirts of marsh grasses that waver with the wind, and inland, loblollies and hardwoods shade the interior’s thick layer of leaf duff. It is a beautiful place, an empty-of-people place, although it wasn’t always so. Eastern Neck Island, today a refuge for wildlife, was once a center of intense human activity. Like the Chesapeake in sum, the island has seen many versions of itself, revised by use, by erosion, by human hands.
It is winter the best showcases the uniquely Chesapeake gorgeousness that Eastern Neck Island embodies. As the island’s hundreds of acres of meadows and marshes turn ginger and rust, an incredible influx of waterfowl arrive to seek shelter in the island’s depopulated coves. Teals and canvasbacks, tundra swans and Canada geese all collect in Eastern Neck’s protected waters and as the sun sets, their clustered numbers turn the quiet island into a thousand-count conversation between goose, duck, and swan contingents.
A walk across Eastern Neck makes it easy to believe the island has never been influenced by people. Its trees tower, eagles circle high above on warm wind currents. Small creatures burrow noisily in the pine mulch, salt meadow hay lies in golden whorls, and cloven hoof marks are clearly impressed into the black mud along buzzing inland ponds. All seems as it evolved to be.
But it is only through the intervention, management and artifice of humans that Eastern Neck Island has achieved such pristine wilderness. Several iterations before its rebirth as today’s Chesapeake eden, Eastern Neck Island was a highly trafficked outpost of the Ozinie Indians, an Algonquian-speaking people connected through trade with the Powhatans, the Nanticokes, and the Susquehannocks tribes of the Western, Lower, and Northern Bay. The island, standing sentinel at the mouth of the Chester, afforded a perfect location for a seasonal people who sought the sustenance of teeming flocks of migratory waterfowl and the bounty of the great oyster reefs just offshore that could be waded to and plundered.
Today, parts of the island reveal the white, flaking remains of thousands of years of oyster dinners known as middens. These great mounded oyster discards now form bisque-colored beaches where delicate wafers of shell slowly recede back into the estuary that bore them several thousand years ago. Indications of favored Indian oystering grounds, the midden beaches are visual clues to one chapter of Eastern Neck’s oyster-laden history that has vanished from the modern day Chester River.
Oyster midden beach on Eastern Neck’s Bogle’s Cove.
During colonization in the early part of the 17th century, Eastern Neck Island, like Kent Island, was a choice location for its fertile soil, access to fresh water and plentiful game, and ready proximity to harbors with water deep enough for the draught of transatlantic sailing vessels. Two men in particular, Col. Joseph Wickes and his partner Thomas Hynson, coveted the island and sought to own it in its entirety, steadily purchasing tract after tract of land over a period of 12 years. The island’s forests were partially cleared, and fields of tobacco and wheat were planted. Wickes and Hynson were able to export their crop in vessels constructed of Eastern Neck lumber, in shipyards located on their doorstep. Houses made of fine red brick boasted of Wickes and Hynson’s agricultural and trade successes- “Wickliffe” and “Ingleside” were constructed in the center and the northwest portion of the island, respectively, and over the next 150 years they grew higgledy-piggledy, as Chesapeake houses did, with additions and cat slide roofs and gables. Other houses soon joined them, as the population of the island expanded to include slaves, craftsmen, shipwrights, and merchants.
Wickliffe, early 20th century.
By the 19th century, there were a few small towns on the island, basing their livelihoods on agriculture and the water trade. Overton was the largest, and was located near the steamboat dock known as Bogles Wharf. There were schools and barn dances, an oyster packing house. The water, and the abundance of life harbored in the islands coves and points remained the backbone of the community, and winter oyster harvests, spring shad runs, summers of watermelons and peaches piled high on buyboats, and fall with the vast numbers of waterfowl provided sustenance, income and security. A few hunting lodges were built in 1902 and 1930 to house wealthy sportsmen who only stayed during hunting season. So time would pass for a hundred years, with little changing beyond the the seasons for the inhabitants of the heart-shaped high land in the embrace of the Chesapeake and Chester.
In this 1902 map of the island, the town of Overton and the wharf south of Bogle’s Cove is clearly marked.
During this era, William Dixon, a visitor in 1923, remarked, “…as far up the creek as one could see, was literally a mass of waterfowl, so thick, that it almost seemed one could walk upon them. I am not exaggerating in the least when I tell you-no history of the earliest records of the flight and congregation of waterfowl could have exceeded what we saw that day. There must have been hundreds of thousands-the very best of all our known varieties-Canvas, Red and Black Heads; intermingled also great quantities of geese and swan.”
Swans collect in an inlet.
But change was on the horizon, as the Bay Bridge opened up the Eastern Shore to development speculators in the years following World War II. The country was booming, the economy was flush, and thanks to the mass production of personal yachts and sailboats, there were more people yearning to make their leisurely sunset over the Chesapeake a permanent fixture of their day-to-day lives. Places like Kent Island were being divided up and sold off in lots to newcomers to the Eastern Shore, who sought a rural lifestyle with the convenience of an easy commute to the larger cities on the other side of the Bay. By the early 1950’s, the scrutinizing eye of suburban progress had its eye on Eastern Neck’s open fields and loblolly stands, superimposing a grid pattern of over 290 lots where meadows and shoreline existed.
A map of the island shows the proposed development on the island’s western shore.
A closeup of the “Cape Chester” development.
An outcry rose against the proposed development, as it has many times since then on the Eastern Shore. The local population objected to the transformation of their Chesapeake eden into the banal landscape of sameness constructed extensively throughout the counties on the other side of the Bay. In particular, the rich habitat of Eastern Neck’s shorelines and marshes was threatened by the construction, which would have consumed hundreds of acres of salt meadows under tidy lawns and asphalt curbs. It was at this point that the federal government stepped in, acknowledging the island’s increasingly rare waterfowl habitat and ultimately approving Eastern Neck Island as a game refuge in 1962. Ironically, much of the public opinion at this point was against the refuge (for fears about it negatively impacting the property tax base), although the development concept had also been reviled. On the Eastern Shore, many have observed, no change is a good change.
Today, Eastern Neck Island is a stunningly beautiful trompe l’oeil of a Chesapeake wilderness seemingly untouched by plow, axe, or mason. On warm days, visitors in search of a patch of isolation in the midst of a busy world arrive, cresting the little bridge that barely attaches the island to the rest of the county. They walk their dogs under the oaks and beeches, skip stones over the tickling waves at the water’s edge, and bask in the lovely idyll that this little lonely bit of Eastern Shore could be all theirs, if only for a moment. But while its quiet expanses of pine savannah and waving plumes of spartina patens may seem utterly natural, uncontrived and uninhabited, all is not as it seems. Below a crust of oyster shells as thin as a teacup lip are the remnants of the people, the community, and the commerce that once dwelled here, and the ghosts of a future that almost came to be. The crockery of the island’s departed people, their obscured foundations, and their memories form the foundations of today’s Eastern Neck Island, a place where today, to quote Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Just a few weeks ago, the residents of the Chesapeake huddled in their respective dwellings while the winds howled, the rains raged, and Hurricane Sandy pummeled the East Coast with furious tides that swept boldly inland.
Although many Chesapeake folks had prepared for the worst, stockpiling staples like toilet paper, water, milk, and Budweiser, for most of us within the Bay’s watershed, we were able to emerge relatively unscathed (though the contents of our refrigerators might have suffered rankly from the extended power outages). Given the appalling devastation just a few hours north, the Bay had gotten off pretty much scot-free. Or had it?
High storm surge tide on Hooper’s Island.Photo by David Harp.
Looking south, the Chesapeake ‘s inhabited islands, Smith, Hooper, and Tangier in particular, are often observed to be bellwethers for the Bay’s eroding state of flux. In storms like these, where the wind and the waves scour the shoreline, up to 20 feet of land are lost annually and a canary sings sweetly from its coal-mine cage as the future of the Bay is written in the sediment washed away. Whole islands have been lost to the Chesapeake’s endless appetite, only to be reformed as sandbars or shoals somewhere else. It’s the Bay’s way.
Holland’s Island, now depopulated, still has some reluctant residents not anxious to seek higher ground. Photo by David Harp.
But these islands contain remnants of their human habitation that are not so easily removed. Even as the people moved away to avoid the water’s steady pull and the island’s shrinking perimeter, their houses, belongings, docks and yes, even their headstones and dearly departed remained. As strong ‘superstorms’ like Sandy flood the Chesapeake’s main stem with more and more frequency, things are bound to wash up on these Bay islands. And on Tangier, it wasn’t just old, corroded boat parts that got stirred up in the hurricane’s immense floods. It was the island’s previous generations.
If you ever needed a reminder that the the Chesapeake is a changing place, and of the visceral impact that shoreline erosion can have, this video is definitely it. In the end, it seems, some Chesapeake people indeed felt the wrath of Sandy’s power- they just happened to not be the living ones.