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Volume 16, Issue 2 - January 10 - January 16, 2008

2007: A Year of Watching Our Bay Slip-Sliding Away

Bad news cheered by Choptank oysters and a Christmas goose

The amazing, sometimes disturbing, findings of Bay scientists drew us, in 2007, from the top to the mouth of the Chesapeake and up some of its rivers.

We joined researchers in their boats and at their labs, looking for firsthand answers to how science will save the Bay.

Wrong question.

“Science describes options and consequences,” said J. Emmett Duffy, a Virginia Institute of Marine Science professor who studies natural communities, such as sea grass, and how they benefit people.

Duffy’s field experiments can show how to help ailing ecosystems, but advocating a particular action would compromise his scientific objectivity. Scientific knowledge has a job to do — but it’s not the scientists who need to be putting it to work. “Public policy increasingly needs scientific input,” he said.

This sentence became our Understatement of the Year. As we touched the beautiful shores of the Bay through the four seasons, living aboard our trawler Bright Pleiades, we saw everywhere the ominous changes measured by science — contrasted against how the rest of us didn’t change much.

In 2007, reality set in even among those who usually see through rose-colored glasses.

“We truly believed the Chesapeake Bay could be saved,” Ann Swanson, who heads the Chesapeake Bay Commission, told The Washington Post. But people have flooded into the watershed, and “as fast as we took two strides forward, we would take three strides back.”

The Chesapeake Bay Program made less progress than initially reported in 18 of 36 measures to improve the ecosystem, doing better in only three, according to a University of Maryland analysis announced late in the year. “We need to do more,” said Jeffrey L. Lape, the program’s director.

We won’t. The day after Christmas, President George W. Bush signed the federal spending bill for 2008. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation said the new law cut nearly $50 million from key Bay clean-up projects, while the EPA Bay Program got just a $2 million raise.

A Woodland Vanishes

From January to April, we based our liveaboard life in Solomons. Across the creek, new condominiums loomed over the shore, and a swath of woodland was erased as we watched.

That’s just the start. BoatUS Magazine says the Solomons peninsula now occupied by Calvert Marina — mainly treed and grassy hillsides fringed by boat slips and boat services — is getting a “residential enclave” of 252 new single-family houses. Marina owner Matt Gambrill, the magazine says, hopes the houses will “generate enough economic activity to take what is now a less-than-fully-developed area to the next level” and that buyers “will be interested in our waterways and the nautical lifestyle.”

Lifestyle. With development fingered over and over as detrimental, we started to see lifestyle as the enemy of the estuary’s ecology.

But many researchers we met in 2007 described the Chesapeake’s situation more ominously as just one visible sign of a worldwide marine ecosystem that is environmentally stressed and overfished with little relief in sight.

Unexpected Pleasures

Science did have a voice in 2007. Research helped to close the lower Rappahannock River to oystering, and a multi-year survey of the Bay’s menhaden population was underway.

And, like many who love the Chesapeake, we were seduced by successes we saw with our own eyes. In the fall, on the James River, bald eagles soared ahead of our boat — not one or two, but scores. Since the 1970s, the population has risen from zero to 120 breeding pairs, Riverkeeper Chuck Frederickson told us.

The river’s striped bass population, like the Bay’s, recovered in 1995 and has remained strong since then, Frederickson said. Near Shirley Plantation we saw a sturgeon jump, clearing the water like a rocket. Atlantic sturgeon had been thought extinct in the Bay area. Albert J. Spells of the Virginia Fisheries Coordinator Office told us the James now might have its own breeding population.

Year’s end brought unexpected pleasures. In the Choptank just above the Route 50 bridge, Maryland opened a managed oyster bed to hand-tonging in December. Two ecstatic watermen sold us half a bushel of the biggest and best Bay oysters we’d had in years. They brought 17 bushels in to Cambridge, their day curtailed by 50mph winds rather than a lack of harvest. Soon the concerns of science slipped a bit further toward the back burner when our marina manager, Scott Fitzhugh, honored us with a goose he’d shot the previous evening. We roasted it as directed for Christmas dinner, enjoying the bounty as if there were no tomorrow.

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