Volume 13, Issue 48 ~ December 1 - December 7, 2005

Burton on the Bay

By Bill Burton

Part 2: Naming the Losses

And use it we have.

—Tom Horton, in his book Bay Country: 1987

Tom, whom this writer considers Mr. Chesapeake, told the story of the Bay Country woes in a few paragraphs of his book, which should be on the shelves of all Bay activists. Some Bay boosters wade the Bay, others swim it, still others rave about its neglect. Politicians spout off about what they are doing to restore it. But Tom Horton writes about the Bay in a way that paints a vivid and fascinating profile of it and those who use it.

In “The Lady of Lyons,” Baron Lytton wrote, “The pen is mightier than the sword,” and Tom’s pen cuts a wide swath in his weekly column in The Sun. No sacred cows, just how things are as seen by him and also those on the Bay of whom he writes.

And the Bay — well, we all use it, and to quote Tom:

Waterfront, water view, water access, water privilege — nothing sells lots better than proximity to the shoreline. To the waterman, the Bay is 27 million pounds of oyster meats annually, and 55 million pounds of crab meat atop that. It is a vast and economical heat sink for power plants, the largest of which sucks three billion gallons of Bay water a day across its nuclear core to cool it.

Our Bay is highway and harbor to two of the world’s great shipping complexes, at Norfolk and Baltimore, and the setting for millions of individual fishing and hunting trips each year. To the biologist it is a world-class source laboratory; to the industrialist, and the sanitary engineer, an economical source of the dilution of what was considered the ultimate solution to pollution.

It is a federal and military Bay, a proving ground for big guns at Aberdeen, a bombing and strafing and shelling range for naval jets and destroyers at Bloodsworth Island, its depths are convenient to the Pentagon for underwater demolition experiments, which occasionally have blown up weakfish [sea trout] by the ton, and it is home port, near its mouth, to the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Fleet.

Summing up, Tom wrote the Bay is so many things to so many users, but for all of us “the ultimate sink, the settling basin, the end of the road, for the sediments and chemicals.”

I ask: Has anyone ever said it better?

Point by Point

Recently, Chesapeake Bay Foundation scored the State of the Bay in its annual rating based on what the Bay once was — and what it is today. This year’s rating: Basically the same as last year, a 27; that’s 27 of a possible 100. We flunked, and miserably. Read on, and while doing so, think of your role in screwing up the mighty Chesapeake:

• Nitrogen and Phosphorus: A one-point increase was noted for the former, four for the latter, a bottom line of 13 and 20. They’re the two foremost pollutants, fueling enormous algae blooms that rob oxygen at the expense of aquatic life. The primary sources are agricultural, urban and suburban runoff, inadequate sewage facilities and deposits from the air — as when we drive to Ocean City in our gas-guzzling vehicles.

One- and four-point increases don’t mean much when the score is so dismal. Honestly, do you see in the foreseeable future much chance for a meaningful hike in these categories?

• Dissolved Oxygen: The Bay is down to a 12 on this one, minus one point from ’04 — and oxygen is the life blood of the Bay. We who fished it this year did so at times when dead zones comprised nearly half the Bay — about the worst in recorded history.

No need to be a rocket scientist to appreciate that aquatic life can’t survive without dissolved oxygen, and that an insufficient supply results in stress to make inhabitants susceptible to disease and other woes. Worse still, this problem is closely associated with nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. See any chance for a quick fix?

• Water Clarity: A 15, no change from ’04 in this critical category dictated by the amount of sunlight that can penetrate water. Light is essential for the growth of Bay grasses that provide cover for fish, crabs and water-dependent wildlife such as waterfowl. High early-season runoffs messed up the Bay, and only a late summer improvement managed to hold the line. But much of the damage had already been done.

• Toxics: No change, again a 27, and this one can impact human health what with all the mercury, PCBs and other harmful contaminants that build up in the bodies of the Bay’s bounty. Stormwater runoff, air pollution (including from motor vehicles), power plants and such are the culprits. Methinks they will continue to be so as we wonder about the safety of some seafood from some areas of Chesapeake Bay Country.

• Rockfish: Down one point to 71, but here’s the big question — what happens if the rape of the menhaden population continues by factory ships out of Reedville, Va.? Insufficient food supply can mean stressed fish more vulnerable to disease (Mycobacteriosis) already increasingly evident. It can add to stripers’ predation of other species (among them, crabs and hardheads) if insufficient menhaden are available. And why do rockfish leave the Bay in earlier stages of their life? More worries here than meet the eye.

• Oysters: Up one, but to only a three. How low can we get and still slurp a tasty Chesapeake oyster on the half shell? Blame disease, insufficient rain and high salinity and fears that the native oyster will play second fiddle in management to an oriental import. Cross all your fingers.

• Riparian Forest Buffers: Remains the same at 55, and only a major slowdown in development can turn the tide. Are we willing to give up the quest for digs on the Bay to help the Bay? Of course not.

• Wetlands: No change at 42, and we’re barely living up to our commitment of no net losses in wetlands of the Chesapeake Watershed. Meanwhile, accelerating global-warming and rising sea-level woes become more evident as well as people encroachment. No silver lining here.

• Underwater Grasses: Up two, but still only 20. Some local increases, but problems in the lower Bay slow overall improvement of habitat so vital to crabs and finfish that utilize the Bay as a nursery. A real concern.

• Resource Lands: A 29, no change from ’04, but how can we slow people sprawl when everyone wants to live and work on the Chesapeake? Local and state governments, eyeing demand and potential tax dollars, don’t have the guts to say no, no more development. What’s needed is more backbone than found on a clam. Speaking of clams, why aren’t they included in this index? They’re almost as bad off as oysters.

• Shad: A 12, up two points, and the brightest spot — though there’s still much room for improvement. We’re far behind where we were. This took some doing; a moratorium for decades. Are we willing to make more such monumental sacrifices, monetarily, in lifestyle and harvesting in all the other categories. If you know the answer, it’s not a question.

Enough said.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.