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Volume XVII, Issue 3 - January 15 - January 21, 2009
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My Bay Report Card

At 3.5, Bay health is failing

Obviously, the governor would love to be sitting here putting more money into cleaning the Chesapeake Bay. … But unfortunately, the national economy has put a damper on all of that.
–Michael Busch, speaker of Maryland’s House of Delegates, on budgetary priorities in the ’09 session of the General Assembly, as quoted in the Sunday Sun

Weasel words, I say. Same old story in the continuing volume of excuses related to restoration of Maryland’s crown jewel, our Chesapeake Bay complex, the hub of the Land of Pleasant Living.

I arrived in Maryland in 1956, when the same words were spoken — to be repeated ever since. Talk is as cheap as the American dollar on the World Exchange.

The only change has been different governors and different legislators. Bay woes remain at the bottom of the totem pole.

We’re going into the General Assembly with a predicted $1.9 billion shortfall and so many interests — from highways and unemployment to social interests and state support of county programs — all vying for priority in the slicing of a sour-pickle pie. Even the most gullible and patient of Bay Boosters know what that means.

Wasn’t it Casey Stengel who said Wait until next year? Expect him to be quoted again and again in the 90-day session that opened this week.

Ruffling Feathers

As I’ve written several times in the past six months: How can we expect change in current economic times when we didn’t put a dent in solving the Chesapeake’s problems in the long stretch of good times?

Never mind the damage being done via miserly Bay budget allocations. Do the guys who run this state consider what the eventual costs will be until they face up to the ongoing rape of the Chesapeake? Do they know what’s going on? And how much do they care?

Each year, Chesapeake Bay Foundation issues a report card on the status of the Bay. Each year it gives discouraging grades on oysters, crabs, aquatic vegetation or pollutants. In good part, the Foundation has to play its cards with gloves on, seeing that finger pointing must involve the very same politicians who ultimately make the budgetary decisions. One doesn’t raise the ire of those one has to come begging to.

This writer is under no such constraints. I don’t care whose feathers I ruffle. So allow me to rant about how as a private Bay observer I see things in these troubled times. A rating score of 10 is good. Anything from five down is unacceptable.

Before I start, let me make it plain that the Department of Natural Resources is not my target. With its roster of highly qualified managers and scientists, DNR must manage on what little the governor and legislators dole out. In recent years that hasn’t been much. Despite good leadership, budgetary stinginess has cut back on personnel and programs.

Burton’s Report Card

Crabs: They’re currently the hottest of hot-button issues. When a bushel of Bay crustaceans sells for a hundred bucks or more in season and catches are as miserly as legislators’ budgets for environmental concerns, even the village idiot would realize something big was happening on the Bay. Moreover, that same villager would have to know that we can’t keep on waiting until next year: The crabs won’t buy that. One can only speculate when, not if, their population crashes.

While the politicians talk of making every penny count, there’s talk of money to tide over commercial crabbers, who have done most of the catching and whose negative influence has forestalled implementation of reasonable measures proposed by Bay scientists. Bottom line, we can no longer keep blaming Virginia. It’s time to look in the mirror. Score: 2, which is generous.

Oysters: It’s difficult to determine which is in worse shape, crabs or oysters. But the species have more in common than record low numbers, catches and political wrangling. Both are also victims of dilly-dallying. How long is it now that no meaningful decisions have been made whether to concentrate efforts on saving our Chesapeake oysters from disease or concentrate on introduction of alien species? As with crabs, how long does our leadership think oysters can wait? And let us not forget the role oysters play in cleansing Bay waters or the contribution of oyster bars as fish and other marine habitat. Score: 2.

Soft Shell Clams: They’re not in better shape than oysters and crabs, but they don’t get the attention because they didn’t play an appreciable role in our seafood industry until the 1950s, when the hydraulic dredge came along to make harvesting practical and affordable. I recall them selling as low as a couple dollars a bushel. Now it costs well over that for a small cardboard tub at a restaurant — and the price difference isn’t in the butter to dip them in. Score: 3.

Rockfish: Since the moratorium, our catches have kept increasing (though last year our Young of the Index took a big hit), so little concern has been expressed about them. But what about the diseased stripers, those with red blemishes? Where will the funding come from to nip in the bud something that can be about to bloom while our leaders play Scrooge? And what about the horrendous catches of pre-spawn rockfish being made in wintertime at the mouth of the Bay? Score: 6.

Other Bay Issues

Snow geese continue to degrade our marshes as do nutria. Score 5.

Aquatic vegetation, needed by just about all Bay critters, is impacted by pollution, runoff and development. Score: 5 at best.

Development, thankfully depressed at the moment due to the economy. Score 4.

Shad with a moratorium on for 25 years. Score: 2.

The emergence of predatory and competing snakeheads in fresh water environments that feed into the Bay. Score 5.

Menhaden, a prime food fish for many Bay species and Bay water cleanser, but the continuing target of the Omega fleet out of Reedsville, Va. Score: 4.

Terrapin: Score: 4.

Budget constraints curbing enforcement of laws and regs by Natural Resources Police. Score: 5; maybe 4.

This is only the tip of the iceberg; there isn’t enough space in this edition to cover all the woes. Yet we’re told Obviously, the governor would love to be sitting here putting more money into cleaning the Chesapeake Bay.

Here we are, you and I, watching and waiting helplessly as so many Bay resources wither or worse while we get only promises. We cannot accept It’s the economy, stupid. If we do, we’re as stupid as those who tell us so. Enough said.


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