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A thick and hazy layer of fog covers the hillside as a steady parade of headlights slowly floats down an uneven, pothole-filled gravel driveway leading to the middle of a field. Early Saturday, November 16, over 100 volunteers pulled their boots on, grabbed their gloves and drove to Carroll County to support the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and partake in a reforestation tree-planting at Lovell Farm. A man dressed in boots, jeans, a plaid flannel shirt and a red puffy vest directs the influx of cars toward parking. A family, with two young boys, walks toward the table spread with sign-in sheets, information, supplies and refreshments. As the boys finish their breakfast the parents sign-in and pick out shovels and gloves. They head down the steep hill to the bottom where the creek divides the hills and there are a lot of trees to relocate.

Carmera Thomas, the Maryland Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator for the CBF, has organized this event, with a goal to plant 1,000 trees, all native species to the Maryland watershed. The tributaries and smaller areas of the Bay have a large impact on the health of the Bay, and their health needs to be improved in order to improve the rest of the Bay. The tree-planting is an effort to improve northern watersheds, planting trees is just like installing filters to clean up the water that eventually gets to the main bay areas.

“We aren’t really close to the Bay at all, actually,” she says, “we’re on the upper Potomac watershed, we’re on a little creek that leads to a larger river, the Monocacy watershed, which leads to the Potomac River, which eventually leads to the Bay.”

She says that the trees they are planting, Maples, Sycamores and Oaks, will help filter the storm run-off. Whereas the run-off from the farmland can be full of nutrients the bay needs, the run-off from nearby roads and parking lots can be harmful to the Bay, she explains. The surrounding land, almost as far as you can see, is covered with 1,000 perfectly augered holes. People walk back and forth, carrying trees to every hole.

“Once we get all of the trees placed,” Thomas says, “we will all meet back here at the refreshments table and do a little demonstration on planting the trees, and then we will get to planting.” She says that many of the volunteers donate money annually to the foundation, and like to come participate and see exactly what their money is buying. Others are students trying to meet environmental education requirements, or service learning hour requirements. Some just enjoy doing something good for the community.

Some regions of the Bay are slowly improving in health, while others are suffering severely. Since 2007, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science  has conducted a scientifically-based assessment of the Bay’s health which they report as a “health report card” for the Bay. There are 15 regions of the Bay that are scored individually, and then the Bay is given an overall score.

The 2012 Chesapeake Bay Health Report Card  gave the Bay a “C” overall. The lowest scoring region of the Bay is the Patapsco and Back Rivers region (not far from Lovell Farm) which scored an “F.” This means that the ecosystems of this region are close to failure. Also, the Mid Bay region, which scored a “C,” shows a “significantly decreasing trend- indicating that the overall Mid Bay health is declining over time.

There were seven indicators that were scored in the Patapsco and Back Rivers region: chlorophyll a, which scored zero percent, dissolved oxygen, which scored 49 percent, water clarity which scored zero percent, total phosphorus which scored 21 percent, aquatic grasses which scored zero percent, benthic index of biotic integrity which scored zero percent, and finally total nitrogen which also scored zero percent. Not only does the Bay provide many jobs, it is a resource for seafood, which is a large part of what our local restaurants rely on. As the Bay suffers, so do many professions and businesses right here at home.

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Crab pots are stacked by the tens, filling almost the entire crab boat. The thick-feeling air over the water is filled with a fishy, muddy smell. As “the boys” pull in the drive and get out of their truck, with what look like extra-large coffees in hand, Jimmy Fortier, a long-time Maryland crabber and fisherman, proceeds to prepare his boat for a day of fishing. The Bay is crucial to Fortier, as it is his way of supporting his family.

“Come on princess, we’re losing day light,” Fortier barks at one of his workers, even though the sun is just rising at the moment and they only work into the early afternoon. The wind coming off of the water seems to freeze any unclothed skin immediately. As he stacks the crab pots and lugs heavy ropes, Fortier’s hands show their 40 previous years of this work, muscular, tough and scarred.

He points to a scar on the palm of his right hand and says, “A real nasty fish with sharp spines got me good here. Had to get stitches all the way across my hand basically.” He says after doing this since his teens, he hopes the Bay will return to the “way it used to be,” but he doesn’t think it will.

“Not the way things are going now, at least,” he says. The sun continues to inch up in the sky, however it doesn’t seem to be warming up at all. The boat engine starts up and the water behind the boat becomes cloudy with mud. Fortier lights up a Swisher Sweet cigar.

He says, “We can’t keep blaming it on the overfishing and the big storms, people need to start doing their part to protect the bay. Stop washing their cars weekly, stop littering, and realize what the Bay needs. People around here aren’t going to be happy when they can’t get steamed crabs whenever they want, but that’s where we’re headed.”

* * *

The Chesapeake Bay is a unique and complex ecosystem, where any one aspect can affect another somewhere else in the Bay, according to Captain Bob Evans, Second Vice-President of the Maryland Waterman’s Association Board of Directors, and President of Anne Arundel Waterman’s Association.

“A storm that blows in the southern end of the bay in the spring this year, will affect our blue crab population next year, so we can’t afford to have the populations damaged by our own doing.”  He explains that for main sections of the Bay, like the Mid Region, to be healthy, the smaller rivers that filter into those parts must be healthy.

Many people do not realize that pollutants, like the soap they use to wash their car way out in the northern parts of the county, don’t just go away when they rinse them off their car, he says. They travel all the way to the Bay. When too many unnecessary nutrients or pollutants flow into the Bay, it can ultimately create “dead zones.” The Patapsco and Back Rivers region is dangerously close to that point.

The nitrogen and phosphorus pollution causes low amounts of oxygen, causing fish, crabs, oysters and any other animals in the water to suffocate. Without them the ecosystem becomes unbalanced, and the excess in those unwanted nutrients supports growth of dense algae blooms that block sunlight that underwater grasses need to grow in order to continue providing food for waterfowl and shelter for blue crabs and juvenile fish, according to the CBF. This is why, something as simple as planting more native trees close to any part of the watershed can significantly help, because the trees filter all of the phosphorus and nitrogen out, while sequestering carbon.

If we take a look back at the status of the Patapsco and Back Rivers region, it recently scored zero percent for aquatic grasses, meaning no shelter for crabs and juvenile fish, or food for waterfowl. It also scored zero percent for water clarity and for chlorophyll A, which might be one of the reasons the grasses can’t grow, they have no sunlight.

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At the National Aquarium, visitors can experience sea creatures from all over the world, but also take a look at what the ecosystems of the Bay should look like.   When it comes to the health of the Bay, the most important exhibit is on the second floor.  There, visitors will find four tanks that replicate the different habitats of the Bay.  Different plants and animal species from the Alleghany stream, tidal marshes, coastal beaches and the Atlantic Shelf can be found.  These species are the species that are directly impacted by the health of the Bay.

Laura Bankey, Director of Conservation at the National Aquarium mentions that this year there was a decline in the number of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAVs) in the Bay as a result of the decreasing Bay health.

“It’s just a plant, but it provides habitat, it provides nesting area, foraging area and shelter,” she says.  The decrease in number of SAVs in the Bay could be an ominous sign.  If the plant life in the Bay is struggling and is allowed to diminish, then the wildlife will soon follow.

The Aquarium does an outstanding job of relaying just how widespread the area is that can impact the Bay.  Near the ticket plaza is a granite model of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.  It shows all of the areas that feed into the Bay, ranging from Virginia up to New York.

The Aquarium also supplies people with the knowledge about how to do their part at home.  Surrounding the granite model of the watershed are different gardens.  Each garden represents a different region of the watershed.  There, visitors can see native plants of their region and read information about how to create a Bay-friendly garden.

With the Bay’s health decreasing, many people wonder what they can do to do their part.  For some, they might think the problem is too big for them to be able to make any real impact in fixing. Bankey explains that people on an individual level can make a bigger impact than they think.

“There’s small things that we can do in our homes,” says Bankey.  “For example, we can conserve water…we don’t need all that water running.  We can dispose of plastics properly.  There is a lot of debris in our Chesapeake Bay watershed unfortunately.”  Other things that Bankey recommends are: basic recycling, driving less and using environmentally friendly lawn care methods (vinegar is effective for killing weeds).   Bankey also stressed the importance of planting native plants in order to boost Maryland’s ecosystem.

“Native trees provide a tremendous habitat value.” Says Bankey.  “Having native plants…. we’ll be able to really really help out the larger ecosystem questions pertaining to the Chesapeake Bay.”  The reason why Bankey wants emphasize people doing things on a small scale is because of what is called the rise of “non-point source pollution.”  These are factors that harm the Bay but are not widely obvious like dumping.  Non-point source pollution means events such as storm water running into the Bay or other tributary streams.  Any trash that is on the ground gets swept away by the storm water and carried straight to the Bay or one of its tributaries.   That is why simple things like recycling or using a reusable water bottle can go a long way for the wellbeing of the Bay.

* * *

There is no disputing that the species living in the Bay are feeling the impact of the Bay’s health.  But what about the city of Baltimore and the people who live there?  Bankey says that Baltimore will surely feel more of a negative impact as time goes on, if things don’t change.  Steve Pfeifer, a resident of Fells Point for the last 20 years, knows how important the Bay is.

“The Bay is so much more than just a body of water,” he says.  “It is the livelihood for so many people here as well as a symbol of pride for the city and state.”  Anyone who walks along the harbor will unfortunately see trash and debris floating in many spots of the water.

Trash is a regular sight for those who look into the Bay.  The Inner Harbor has to be regularly cleaned out.  Photo by Matt Woods.

Trash is a regular sight for those who look into the Bay. The Inner Harbor has to be regularly cleaned out. Photo by Matt Woods.

“All that trash really upsets me,” says Pfeifer.  “It bothers me personally and it bothers me when I think of all the visitors that come to Baltimore and see it.”

Pfeifer went on to admit that he consistently has second thoughts about eating foods that come from the Bay. Those second thoughts could greatly harm the city’s restaurant industries.  Think about places like Duda’s Tavern in Fells Point.  It is family owned and boasts that it has Baltimore’s best crab cakes.  What would happen to small family owned restaurants like Duda’s if all of a sudden people do not want to eat the food that comes from the Bay?  Pfeifer says he recycles but admits he could do more, and that he expects more from his fellow Baltimoreans.

“It is a source we all need to conserve,” he says.  “If not for us, then for the city and the city’s future.”

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