Volume XI, Issue 48 ~ November 26- December 3, 2003

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Burton on the Bay

Saving Our Bay
Part 2: Witnesses to Calamity

I saw a lot of dead water this summer. Visibility in shallow water is everything in my style of fishing, and over the last few years the turbidity has gotten much worse.
— Capt. Richie Gaines, president: Chesapeake Guides Association

Nutrient pollution is winning the big ongoing battle with Chesapeake Bay. With all its rain and runoff, 2003 was the worst year that just about anyone can recall.

Richie Gaines was only one of a dozen or more Bay users who spoke on problems involving dead zones in the Chesapeake at a Nov. 18 Fishermen’s Forum hosted by Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Annapolis.

Ask any fisherman of the Chesapeake — whether recreational, commercial or charterboat skipper. Deteriorating water quality is severely impacting their hunt for finfish and shellfish. Worse still, it is killing aquatic vegetation and fish life in the Bay.

Last week, this column covered in a general way the problems associated with nutrient pollution and promised for this week the comments and worries of those who work the Bay.

I hope you realize just how serious the problem has become. No one is crying wolf. What we’re witnessing on our Bay is probably the worst calamity to its waters ever.

As the human population along Chesapeake Bay increases, so do the woes of the Bay. Among those woes, nutrient pollution appears to be the most significant. Before we get to the comments, a thumbnail briefing on what nutrient pollution is all about.

Nutrient Pollution, in Short
The primary culprit is nitrogen-packed human and animal waste. It comes to the Bay from inefficient municipal sewage treatment plants and in runoff from the livestock of farmers. Let’s admit right up front that to some degree it comes from many of the people whose boats have inefficient wastewater systems. It’s virtually overboard disposal — right into the Bay and its tributaries.

There are other sources too numerous to list, but the bottom line is the same. Nutrient pollution (anoxia) leads to increased algae blooms that not only turn waters into unsightly colors but also block sunlight and shade underwater vegetation.

When the blooms die and decompose, oxygen is removed, creating insufficient — or no — oxygen in waters, which are referred to as “dead zones.” Within such zones, neither finfish nor shellfish can survive. Some marine life can relocate, but clams and oysters don’t have fins to propel them away from virtual suffocation. Crabs and finfish trapped in pots or nets can’t escape when the oxygen level becomes too low. They die.

The runoff from this year’s record rainfall was disastrous. Agricultural wastes poured into the Chesapeake like never before. Dead marine life in dead zones was evident in many places from above Baltimore to the mouth of the Chesapeake. Many fishermen, sports or commercial, not infrequently had to cruise long distances to avoid these dead zones.

Witnesses to Calamity
Last week, we quoted Capt. Sonney Forrest, a Solomons charterboat skipper who complained of many dead zones: He called them “empty waters.” Now let’s hear from others on the forum’s panel, seven watermen from both Virginia and Maryland.

  • Tommie Legett of Wicomico, Va., owner of Chessie Seafood and manager of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Oyster Aquaculture Program: “The Bay’s billion-dollar seafood industry is struggling against the tide of nutrient pollution. Putting a halt to nutrient pollution must be a top priority if there is to be any hope of restoring a Bay that provides jobs and economic prosperity for thousands of families who depend on this industry.”

    Leggett told of planting the Foundation’s 2004 crop of 700,000 oysters in cages at Sarah’s Creek — only to have red tides return. Within days of that August planting, more than half of the oysters died from lack of oxygen.

  • Sherman Baynard of Queen Anne’s County, Md., recreational angler and fisheries activist: “The Chesapeake was not a nice place to be a rockfish this year. There were pockets of blooms in the main Bay that ranged from a quarter-acre to 20 acres. There were no larger fish in the shallows. No matter what fishery management does, the fish need that base of healthy water.”

  • Chris Newsome of Hayes, Va., fishing guide: “It’s a shame that the poor health of the Bay makes it so hard for people in my profession to make a living. My livelihood is based on the intrinsic qualities of the Bay. We try to have minimal adverse impact on the resource.” Newsome also said that dead zones prevented him from fishing 50 percent of the waters he normally fished. Rockfish were highly stressed.

  • Jack Brooks of Cambridge, Md., owner of J.M. Clayton Seafood: “2003’s summer was as bad as I’ve ever seen. Crabs dying in pots were a common occurrence. It was worse in some areas than in others, but as a buyer I heard reports of dead crabs almost daily during the summer of 2003.” Brooks estimates the family business lost at least $200,000, possibly a half million, this year.

  • Charles ‘Pot’ Landon of Gloucester County, Va., crab shedder: “I’ve seen red patches [red tides] in the [York] river. I lost 100 dozen peelers from anoxia in the creek, and said [in disgust] ‘that’s it for this year,’ and turned off the shedding system.” Landon expects the events of this summer to be repeated.

  • Douglas Jenkins of Warsaw, Va., commercial fisherman: “This business has been good to me, and I would just like to see things improve so that others can benefit from the Bay the way I did.” Jenkins said crab pot buoy lines now foul with algae and seaweed in less clear waters, forcing crabbers to coat their lines with copper to prevent fouling.

  • Bob Evans of Churchton, Md., a waterman and owner of Bob Evans Seafood: “I love the water, but it’s getting harder to make a living on it. At 50 years old, what else can I do?” Evans added that this year waters where he set his traps were cloudy with a “dark reddish” color most of the summer.

  • More from Richie Gaines: “In ’02, I had to travel 15 to 20 miles to escape bad water and find conditions healthy enough to hold good numbers of rockfish. By ’03, the number of miles logged just to search out fishable waters nearly doubled.”

There were many other like comments, and not an encouraging one among them all. Those who work the waters have seen it coming, but few others listened to their concerns and predictions. Now who can ignore the problem of nutrient pollution?

Admittedly, the states of Virginia and Maryland face dismal budget problems, but restoration of the Bay cannot wait. Governors Mark Warner and Bob Ehrlich have no choice but to find the funding to turn things around. Starting now. The Chesapeake, according to economists, is more than a trillion dollar resource, and we can no longer watch it go down the drain.

Those who work on or manage the Bay know where things are headed. Does it ever occur to others that if neglect continues, the day could well come when the whole of the Chesapeake is as dead as the waters where algae blooms now erupt?
We’re not crying wolf. Enough said …

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Last updated November 26, 2003 @ 2:10am.