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The Chesapeake Bay Program featured this incredible photo essay this week, focusing on Poplar Island. Off of the point of Tilghman Island, on the neck of land shaped like a raptor’s profile that the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum also calls home, Poplar Island has been the focus of intense restoration efforts over the last decade. Like many Chesapeake islands, sea level rise, storm surges, and deforestation took its toll on Poplar, and the island disintegrated back into the Chesapeake over a hundred year period. Old timers can remember the club on the island in the 30’s that welcomed politicians and celebrities (one woman recalled spilling peas accidently down Harry Truman’s neck), and before that, a town of about 100 souls had called Poplar home. It was even a military base during the war of 1812. But by 1990, less than five acres were left. A century of plows, cattle, and the ceaseless activity of wind and water had first broken up the land into three separate islands, and as the decades inexorably passed, those islands dwindled until only shrinking fragments of green remained in the great expanse of Bay.

It was only due to an ironic turn of events that saved the island from total immersion: dredging saved the island from sinking. While federal and state officials sought a location to dump the sediment dredged from shipping channels approaching Baltimore Harbor, the National Fish and Wildlife Service was seeking a new location for protected habitat for birds, waterfowl, and other wildlife. Poplar Island was the perfect solution: use the dredge spoils to rebuild the land mass, which would be planted with grasses and would provide shelter and food for animals.

In this essay, the remarkable progress on Poplar is clear. The fate of many other Chesapeake islands, slowly slipping into the Bay with every tide, is not so certain. But, as Tom Horton says, “They’ll go out with a bang.” And from these photos, the visual fireworks of an rescued Chesapeake island are undeniably evocative, compelling, and a reminder of what we stand to lose as these wild outposts disappear back into the waves.

All photos courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Program: http://bit.ly/m7GQZ

An Oyster by Any Other Name

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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  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.

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    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.

Kevin McClarin, aquaculturist, on oyster size from Kate Livie on Vimeo.

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.

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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.

Kevin McClarin, aquaculturist, on oyster size from Kate Livie on Vimeo.

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

Blue Cats

As long as humans have lived throughout the Chesapeake, we’ve altered our environment. The Indians used controlled burns to reduce understory coverage below the soaring canopy and between massive trunks to allow for easier hunting. The first colonists slashed and burned their fields to cultivate tobacco, growing the seedlings in mounded hillocks around the charred stumps that were left behind. The 19th century saw the Bay’s bottom completely reshaped as thousands of years of accrued oyster reefs were demolished by the teeth of the dredges, pulled by sailing skipjacks.

Today, our changes to our environment are ever more obvious, and the footprint of their impact is as wide, deep, and extensive as the Chesapeake itself. The poster child is Phragmite australis, an invasive reed that uses disturbed marshes as its entree into an ecosystem, which has proliferated throughout the Chesapeake as humans have turned over swampland to create docks, lawns, and bulkheads. Now it waves gaily, a fronded impostor, welcoming passengers crossing the Bay Bridge to the Eastern Shore where its choking roots have stifled hundreds of thousands of miles of native marsh grasses.

    

                                     Sure is pretty, though.

Below the dun-colored waves of the Bay are other non-native bullies, who arrived as released pets, or in ballast-water, or sometimes even on purpose. Snakeheads, the east Asian fish famously behind the draining of a Maryland pond in a failed attempt at eradication, are the ugly, snaggle-toothed face of the Chespeake’s aquatic invasives. Released into the pond by a man who had purchased a live pair in a New York Asian market where they were being sold for food, dramatic attempts at wiping out the snakehead proved fruitless. To date, 40 snakeheads have now been found in the Potomac River. There’s even an annual “snakehead catching contest” run by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to encourage management of the species through recreational fishing. Snakehead control is also being promoted through the same thinking that brought them to the Bay in the first place: as a delicacy. Apparently, they make for some good eating.

     

 Not all aquatic invasive species look so dramatically alien, however. Many can pass as native Chesapeake creatures, so completely at home are they in the Bay’s brackish environment. The blue catfish is an especially good (bewhiskered) example. They look and live very similarly to their relative, the white catfish, that evolved in the deeper tributaries of the Chesapeake. But at their largest, whites cats can grow up to 4 feet and weigh 50 pounds- which seems like a real Bay bruiser, until you compare them to the blue catfish whose maximum size tops out at 5.5 feet and scale-crushing weight of 100 pounds.

    

A fish that size needs an enormous amount of sustenance to maintain its energy as it silently cruises along the sedimented channels of the Bay’s bottom, consuming molluscs, insects, crabs, and fish with a ravenous appetite. Blue cats are such voracious predators, in fact, that they’re classified as “apex” predators- like wolves or lions. But in their native Mississippi River environment, they are surrounded by prey that has evolved defenses against the barbed behemoths. Here in the Chesapeake, however, these year-round residents hoover up humbler species, growing more fearless as they gain size and mass. Their endless consumption has hit certain Chesapeake fish hard- like shad, whose population has already suffered a major decline since the 19th century due to river damming, pollution, and overfishing.

         

A monster blue catfish, caught in the Potomac by a staff member from the District Department of the Environment.

Believe it or not, the blue catfish was purposefully introduced to the Chesapeake by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries in 1977 to encourage recreational fishing. 300,000 small blue cats were released in the James, and over the next few years, several more nearby river systems were stocked. The blues took to their new environments with ease, quickly dominating the food chain with gusto. Their population increase was swift and expansive- within four decades, they’ve explosively reproduced, making up 75% of the fish in Chesapeake rivers like the Rappahannock and the James.

           Blue catfish are monitored in Virginia through electrofishing.

Today the blue catfish makes up just one of the dozens of invasive species making their expanding mark of the Chesapeake’s forests and marshes, streams and channels. Some you can catch and control, some you monitor, and others you just watch as they silently replace the animals and plants that were once the trademark features of our environment. The Chesapeake has always been inarguably a changing land- but we residents of the Bay proper have ensured, since the first days that humans explored the piney woods along the shoreline, that the transformation would be continuous and complete. Who knows if  hundred years from now, will we recognize the water we swam in, the fish that swim in it, or the land surrounding it? Once the cat’s out of the bag, the future is anything but clear.

For more on the blue catfish:

Chesapeake Bay Program- blue catfish field guide

http://bit.ly/O9O0EX

Chesapeake Bay Journal- Blue catfish boom threatens region’s river ecosystems

http://bit.ly/Pxy2oh

Summer Drought, Summer Flood

Over the weekend, the heavens opened up and poured into the dry summer soil of the Delmarva Peninsula. The entirety of Sunday was a cacophony of thunder rumbles and lightning blasts, all underscored by the rushing patter of inches and inches of water falling. A fragment of a hurricane was stalled over us, and for hours, the furies of the weather continued unabated by an eye or a twinkle of sunshine.

     

From our little hill, in the slightly elevated part of the upper Eastern Shore, all was safe, if saturated. But an hour south, in Talbot County, some incredibly dramatic events unfolding, precipitated of course by the day’s seemingly endless precipitation.

   

                           Photo courtesy of the Talbot Spy.

In Easton, Maryland, just about the mid-point of the Eastern Shore, it was raining too- but in wet, wild torrents, that submerged the town in 8 inches of water and rising. Cars were stranded, with waves from the flooding runoff lapping at their windows. Drivers were rescued, as the town’s arteries surged and overflowed with rainwater that bypassed the usual storm drains and instead created temporary rivers where the traffic usually flowed.

  

                             Photo courtesy of the Talbot Spy.

Farther south, in St. Michaels (home of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum), the rain had also swamped the low-lying town. People gamely plowed through the rushing water, attempting (bravely or foolhardily, depending on how you look at it) to go about business as usual as if a foot of water wasn’t obscuring their passage.

This storm was certainly an unusual occurrence for the Eastern Shore- and particularly this summer, when much of the state suffered drought conditions and record-breaking temperatures for much of the sultry summer months. For weeks, it seemed as if the only sign of rain was the constant presence of a veil of humidity, softening the edges of the horizon with a suffocating wetness.

 

Smoky the Bear warned visitors at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge, Maryland of the heightened possibility of summer blazes in July. source

Thought the drought this summer has touched almost every corn field with its withering finger, there is a silver lining. For the Chesapeake Bay, a summer with hardly any rain also translates to a summer with almost no pollution. And when there is no pollution (read: fertilizer both animal and chemical, sewage, or exhaust), the dead zones in the Chesapeake shrink to a size not observed since 1983.

              A 2005 chart of the Chesapeake’s  record high dead zones.

To translate, dead zones are simply expanses of water where the oxygen levels are not high enough to support life. They are caused when pollution, including nitrogen and phosphorous from fertilizers on lawns and farm fields, is washed by rains into the Bay, where it spurs algae blooms during longer, warmer summer days. When the blooms die off, bacteria that break down the dead algae consume oxygen in the water. Dead zones tend to be found in the Chesapeake’s main stem, where the runoff from rivers with high populations collect and merge (see chart above).The algae blooms that precede them can be green, brown, or even red, and often, though a harbinger of foul conditions, are quite beautiful from above.

   

An algae bloom in Hampton Roads, Virginia, in the Leehaven River. (Ryan C. Henriksen | The Virginian-Pilot)

This year, only 11.8% of the Maryland portion of the Bay had official dead zones, but normally the number is at least twice as high. It’s especially interesting since all predictions for this summer were dire. With 2011 Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee sending torrents of water and sediment coursing down the Susquehanna, through Conowingo Dam, and into the Bay, the assumption was the Bay this summer would be its least life-sustaining yet. But the extreme Chesapeake crisis was averted, though it was through an unpredicted but just-as-extreme summer drought that left many Bay farmers examining fractured soil and dried corn stalks for signs of life.

   

                           A Maryland farm field in July 2012.

In today’s modern Chesapeake, it takes a killing drought on land to restore balance below the water. Simply put, that’s the definition of unsustainable- and on a scale that seems to huge as to be insurmountable. But this very question of restoring balance to the Chesapeake, especially when the effects are so visibly obvious, hasn’t deterred or dispirited advocacy at all. Rather, the Chesapeake’s distress has  become a lightning rod for innovation- and most of it is humbly human-sized. From oyster restoration to cover crops, organizations and individuals throughout the watershed are cooking up potential solutions to the problem that can be addressed by one person at a time. A great illustration of this outpouring of ideas is summarized, for a youthful audience (though we can all benefit), in Sunday’s Washington Post: http://wapo.st/Nm0oWH

The flood we endured this weekend was one of torrential rains, but the flood we need is one of ideas, to help create a Chesapeake we can all live in, whether we farm, mow, garden, swim or filter. Sometimes it takes a deluge, a profound drenching that swamps our cars, our yards, and our complacency to remind us that we still have a lot of work to do, if we want to take care of this place we call home.