Burton on the Bay

Vol. 8, No. 39
Sept. 28-Oct. 4, 2000
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What’s the State of the Bay?
Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Grades a Tad Generous

With all such reading as was never read:

For thee explain a thing till all men doubt it,

And write about it

-The Dunciad:Alexander Pope, 1688-1744

Well said, AP, and it holds true to this very day, more than two and a half centuries since you penned it. Our head is stuffed with reports on the status of the Chesapeake, we've heard and read so much about - and often conflicting assessments - that we're tempted to doubt it all.

What's an observer without a background in marine science to think? We only know what we see, we don't have test tubes and microscopes, we wouldn't know a Phylum Chaetognatha from a Phylum Bryozoan, nor do we have any means of determining salinity, toxic content or dissolved oxygen in our Bay.

We only know what we hear - see with our own eyes, experience on the waters, marshes, developments and woodlands bordering the Chesapeake. Contrary to what we often hear from the guv, Department of Natural Resources, the politicians and others, we find it difficult to believe that we have turned things around and that the ills of the Bay are being cured.

But, before we go into that, in case you're interested, a Phylum Chaetognatha is a small planktonic marine animal of the mid and lower Bay, and is more commonly referred to as an arrow worm.

A Phylum Bryozoan, found throughout the Chesapeake, is a creature so tiny a microscope is needed to identify it. It comes in all shapes, structures and sizes; some are nothing but rubbery and lumpy masses. Though both presumably play an important role in the environmental chain of the Bay, it's best they be left to the marine scientists to ponder. We non-professional Bay watchers already endure enough confusion regarding the doings and status of the Chesapeake.

But in this year when crab catches are at a low ebb and when oysters - though their numbers have increased tenfold - and clams remain mired in problems galore (along with who knows what else), it doesn't take a Ph.D. to realize the Bay is in deep doo-doo.

Bay Health: 28%

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation obviously thinks so, too. But, one even wonders whether the foundation is a bit too generous in its evaluation. Marine scientists, valued as they are in their role of monitoring, assessing and curing environmental ills, are notoriously conservative: They talk little, study a lot and do all possible not to cry wolf.

The Foundation's annual assessment rated the health of the Chesapeake at 28 of a possible 100, the same as last year. Methinks that's being a bit generous. We note that the foundation's look to the future puts much reliance on the signing in June of the new Bay management agreement and a pledge to preserve millions of acres while reducing by 30 percent "the rate of loss of forest and farmland sprawl."

"Dramatic improvement will result if the political will to implement the new Chesapeake Bay agreement is exercised over the next decade," said foundation president William C. Baker. "All of us who love the Bay must demand nothing less."

How true, but Mr. Baker, like the rest of us, must realize we've been through this before. We've heard of the studies, the suggested remedies, the short- and long-range plans, the agreements to implement them. We've also heard of how they flopped once the bureaucrats, politicians and special interest groups got into the act.

You might say that when we see it, we'll believe it - and we're not holding our breath. Too often history repeats itself; hopes are dashed in the big step from the drawing board to reality.

Nothing against Chesapeake Bay Foundation, mind you. It's a highly respected Bay watchdog. Also, it's refreshing to note that a group of deserving influence and knowledge speaks out - in plain unbiased language. But this writer harbors skepticism in some areas.

Let's face it: Would we expect the administrations, bureaucrats and politicians of Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia and Pennsylvania to tell us the status of the Bay stinks when their blatant lack of stewardship can be blamed for the aroma?

What is our status, according to the Foundation? Let's take a look at the various combined segments that create the overall score for the Chesapeake.

Crabs: 46%

Crabs rate a 46 out of a possible 100, down a couple of points from last year, which comes as a surprise when crabs are so scarce that much of the year they sold at more than $100 a bushel, sometimes topping $200 when full, heavy and large.

Foundation scientists attribute the decline to intense fishing pressure coupled with far too little of the underwater grasses so vital to crabs during vulnerable stages of their lives. Dr. Michael Hirshfield, the Foundation's vice president for resource protection, said management programs were being implemented, "but no matter how well we manage the fishery, we will never have a truly healthy blue crab population until we have healthy underwater grasses. And we will never get grasses back until we get serious about reducing polluting nutrients."

There's much to ponder in Hirshfield's assessment. The extreme upper Bay in the area of the Susquehanna Flats enjoyed a resurgence of Bay grasses in some sectors such as the Bohemia. In this year of dismal crab catches, guess where crabbers enjoyed a resurgence in catching? The Bohemia and other nearby waters not known for crustacean catching.

The crabs weren't big old-timers but smaller, as if new like the Bay grasses thereabouts. Could there be a relationship? If you know the answer, it's not a question.

For what it's worth - and based on personal observations and association with Bay users - I'd like to suggest a few changes and additions. Read on:

Second Guessing

Crabs: the 28 the Bay gets as a whole, and that's being generous.

Shad: 28. They're coming back with assistance and attention long overdue.

Clams: Not in the index, but they're so depressed they rate down with oysters.

And how about the important fishes that visit the Chesapeake, whose migrations are presumably primarily dictated by the environmental status of the Bay? The Burton score: Hardheads, 75; Spanish mackerel, 70; Norfolk spot, 60; bluefish, 40; black drum, 30; flounder, 25; menhaden, the important foodfish for gamefish, 25; cobia, 5; blowfish (sea squab or chicken of the sea), 2.

For species not indexed: white perch, 70; yellow perch, 15.

Sad, isn't it, when one considers 100 would put us back to where things once were?

So what do we do? The practical answer is obvious, but sadly among the majority of those who catch marine creatures of the Chesapeake, practical solutions are not practical - if solutions mean they have to cut back on their catching. The same can be said for those who must pay or otherwise sacrifice to heal the wounds. Enough said ...

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly