Where We Live
Chesapeake’s Three Stooges
After 30 years of “saving the Bay,” where the heck are we?
I grew up watching The Three Stooges, and I often find myself looking at the world through the eyes of those three crazy knuckleheads. The skit that seems to define our existence is the one where Moe slaps Larry, Larry slaps Curly, then Curly turns to slap someone but there’s no one left to slap.
I’ve been sailing a lot this year, and I’ve seen pretty clearly that the Bay is hurting. All spring and summer there have been red tides and algal blooms choking off the oxygen. This is a nitrogen imbalance directly related to our lush lawn fetish and run-amuck agriculture. In August, when almost half the Bay was a dead zone from lack of oxygen, there were massive fish kills in every river and creek around the upper Bay. If you were out on the water, you could not miss the constant death dance as fish and crabs swam frantically to the surface in search of air, while laughing gulls and Forster’s terns had a field day snagging the easy pickings.
A big part of the problem is that development regulations within the Critical Area are a joke. We allow humongo houses and massive stone walls to be constructed along almost every inch of shoreline. We discourage loss of wetlands while permitting homeowners to erect faux lighthouses and gazebos at the water’s edge. We let environmental protection take a back seat to property rights by granting variances and special exceptions, even when the applicant is a professional contractor who illegally constructs a mega-mansion with palm trees on an island in the Magothy River.
As I sailed the Bay this summer, I was equally struck by the air of desperate denial that permeates our fisheries. Have you ever seen so many crab pots? I saw crab pots near the Eastern Shore in 70 feet of water. Meanwhile, every restaurant you see features all-you-can-eat crab specials. I went fishing off of Bloody Point in July, and the first striper I caught was covered in hideous red lesions. I threw it back and put my fishing pole away for the rest of the season. Clams, of course, are long gone. Oysters are holding on for their dear lives.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s annual State of the Bay report card pretty much mirrors what I’ve seen in my travels. They awarded the Bay a score of 27, which they call a D. That grade was clearly based on a very generous curve. They gave failing marks for too much nitrogen, poor water clarity, depleted oxygen and oysters. Crabs got a C. For some inexplicable reason, they gave an A+ for rockfish, when more than half the species is infected with a killer wasting disease.
Will Baker, Foundation president, said, “Every American ought to be ashamed that ‘America’s Bay’ has been degraded to the extent that it has.”
Amen, Brother Baker, but what does this all mean? Last year’s score sucked too. As did the year’s before, and the year’s before that.
Does anybody really care anymore? After 30 years of “saving the Bay,” where the heck are we? We’re like the kid in some remedial inner-city school, who keeps failing each year until no one even notices any more.
Sixteen million people living in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and another 100,000 people move here every year. When and where does it stop? Does anyone truly believe that we will restore the Chesapeake with this kind of relentless pressure at work and play?
Baker went on to say, “The Chesapeake Bay enjoys enormous public support, but what’s lacking is the political will to implement existing plans that have proven to reduce pollution.”
That’s right. We allow recreational crabbers to run their thousand-foot-long trot lines every day of the summer but we balk at a $5 a year crab license to help preserve the fishery. We let homeowners cut every tree along their shoreline, then hit them with a $500 fine if they get caught which is extremely rare. We permit the destruction of a tenth of an acre of wetlands here and a tenth of an acre there because the loss is so infinitesimally small without admitting that it all adds up. We let people chop down large diameter trees near wetlands as long as they replace them with one-inch saplings.
Like the Three Stooges, we are slapping ourselves silly. Moe is us, pounding on the Bay every day with our consumptive need for more and more. Larry represents all of the well-meaning folks trying in vain to study and scold the problem away. And Curly is, of course, the Bay itself.
I keep wondering when Curly will get out of line and come looking for Moe.