Burton on the Bay
Saving Our Bay
Part 1: Recommitting to the Job
2003 has been one of the worst years ever. Most days, we ran 18 miles down the Bay to the Sharp Channel edge by Buoy 72. We used to catch bigger fish on that edge in 35 feet [of water], but there was nothing that deep this year. The water was empty maybe two or three little balls of bait [menhaden].
Capt. Sonney Forrest, Solomons charterboat skipper
Within the Philip Merrilll Environmental Center building of Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Annapolis, the commodes in the restrooms dont flush. They are environmental friendly: no water, no chemicals involved. Human waste is composted, which means no runoff or treated sewage to taint the Chesapeake Bay.
Fittingly, it was in this building that a coalition of charterboat skippers, sportsfishermen and commercial watermen met in concert with the Foundations declared war on nutrient contamination of the Bay. The lions share of nutrient pollution that prompts among other problems dead zones with little or no oxygen hails from sewage treatment plants and agricultural runoff.
Oxygen-starved waters are not fitting for aquatic life, and their cause nutrient pollution remains the main culprit of the Chesapeakes water quality woes. Even an environmental dummy knows that, but sadly theres a big difference between knowing and doing.
Will Baker, Foundation president, says the time has come to do something about it: to keep the pressure on both those who pollute and those who let them pollute. He now suggests the possibility of litigation, seeing that he considers states not having or enforcing nutrient limits in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.
The dramatic impact of nutrient pollution came to light convincingly as a dozen Bay users, six from Virginia and six from Maryland, and others participated in a Fishermens Forum Nov.18. Then as television and still cameras clicked away, they signed a letter requesting the Chesapeake Bay Executive Council of Bay state leaders to take action to reduce nitrogen pollution.
Copies of the letter are headed to the governors of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, the mayor of the District of Columbia, Roberts S. Bloxom, chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, also Michael O. Leavitt, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. So the battle is on and raging. At last.
Hope Springs Eternal
Since I came to Maryland in 1956, Ive witnessed previous efforts with much fanfare to clean up the Chesapeake. With few exceptions, they flopped. Though this writer remains a skeptic, I have the feeling that with Chesapeake Bay Foundation playing a visible and assertive leadership role, something might come of this latest endeavor. Hope springs eternal.
After all, Will Baker and crew succeeded in bringing together the diverse user-interests of the Bay charter skippers, watermen and sportsfishing organizations and not to haggle about who is or isnt doing what; instead to solidify this effort to flush nutrient pollution not into the Bay, but out of it.
Look, I also know that success hinges on follow-up, keeping the pressure not just on the aforementioned leaders of the Chesapeake Bay Executive Council but also on legislators and polluters. Fittingly, forum members laid it on the line, indicating they were prepared to follow through. The Foundation said it also was, and the future of the Chesapeake is in the hands of all involved in this latest crusade.
Danger: Algae at Work
Comments and observations of the 12 Bay users participating in the forum were, shall we say, a horrible horror story. Even I who use the Bay about as much as anyone else, commercially or recreationally, wasnt fully aware of the extent of nutrient pollution that fuels algae blooms that turn the water into a green, brown, red or yellowish soup.
Algae blooms block sunlight and shade underwater vegetation, and when the blooms die and decompose, oxygen is removed, creating a dead zone in which fish and shellfish cant live. The runoff from this years record rainfall only made conditions worse. Poop from chickens, cattle and other livestock were flushed into the Chesapeake.
So extensive and serious were the dead zones that ultimately spread from the head of the Bay to its mouth that watermen and sports fishermen and sports crabbers not infrequently had to cruise great distances to find healthy fish. In doing so, they spent more time on the water than previously and that of course meant more stress on the Bay (more polluting motors running and more overboard disposal of wastewaters), not to mention more costs in the harvest, whether commercial or recreational.
Bad Water Means Bad Catches
In October, the Bay Foundation dispatched a questionnaire to several hundred representing a wide array of fisheries stakeholders in Maryland and Virginia. In answering, most respondents blamed nutrient pollution from sewage plants and agriculture as the main culprit.
Get this: 97 percent of those who responded reported that they observed unusual algae blooms or red tides during fishing trips on the Bay or its tributaries this year. The same 97 percent attributed algae blooms to the pollution.
Also, 93 percent observed fish kills during Bay or tributary trips this year. Yet one-third of them reported they had not observed such kills before. Whew.
Eighty percent of respondents observed dead fish or crabs in traps or other gear they set this year. And 97 percent figured bad water quality killed that marine life.
All of those surveyed had their fishing, crabbing or related activity affected by bad water quality; 73 percent characterized their experiences as disastrous or substantial. Some 83 percent were forced to alter their fishing activity due to bad water quality.
Overall, these respondents alone estimated they lost $737,500 due to this years bad water quality. Remarkably, despite such poor conditions, two-thirds of those responding said they will continue trying to earn a living from the Chesapeake. Though the survey didnt cover this aspect, there were jobs lost because of lower catches as some catchers gave up for the season and others didnt catch as much.
Bad Catches Mean Bad Economy
Jobs: That should catch the attention of Govs. Bob Ehrlich and Mark Warner, despite their concerns about the costs of corrective action. What about the loss of income in both states due to less productive catches, especially among watermen? And lets not overlook the impact on charter and recreational fishermen: Diminishing catches of crabs and finfish not only mean less food for the table but also an adversely impacted income among those who cater to this segment of Bay users.
Moreover, the longer we wait to address the problems of the Bay, the more increases the cost in time, effort and money probably far more than we or the governors can anticipate. Were already too late for that stitch-in-time-to-save-nine routine, but we can cut our losses by doing more than just patching now.
How bad have things been in 2003? Next week, this column will relate some of the observations and experiences of those who use the Bay for a livelihood, others for food on the home table and still others for fishing and crabbing as nothing more than get-away-from-it-all aesthetics of wetting a line, whether it be a trot or fishing line.
It wont be pretty, but its time we opened our eyes to whats going on in that 200-mile stretch of water we call Chesapeake Bay. Some might say no news is good news, but methinks the lack of comprehensive news about whats really going on in our Bay contradicts that old saying. Stay tuned ...
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