Cherishing the Chesapeake—Land&People

It is the nation's largest estuary, up to 20 miles wide and stretching 200 miles through Virginia and Maryland. So it may seem odd that after 40 years of exploring Chesapeake Bay by skiff, canoe, and kayak, I'd mostly call it an intimate place.

To see why, ignore for a moment its broad vistas and look down. For all its length and breadth, the great bay is thinly watered, its average depth little more than 20 feet. One can paddle its 64,000 square miles for days and seldom be more than a meter or two from the fecund life of its submerged grass jungles, tidal flats, and oyster beds. Or follow the Chesapeake's edge–if you have a few lifetimes. More than 40 significant rivers and thousands of creeks incise it. In few other places do land and water so intertwine, creating a tidal shoreline of more than 8,000 miles.

Since Colonial days, most of the population in my native Maryland has lived in close communion with tidewater. So it is no surprise that our official state dog is the Chesapeake Bay retriever, or that the state fish is the striped bass that each May seek the bay from all over the East Coast to spawn. No surprise, either, that the state boat is the skipjack, a unique sailcraft invented to dredge oysters. And while "Go Terps!" may not be the most stirring rally cry, no one here questions why the University of Maryland's mascot is the diamondback terrapin, ubiquitous in Chesapeake waters.

Although beset by pollution and growing development of its open spaces, the Chesapeake's long, rich overlaps of marshes and shallows remain world-class wildlife magnets. It is why the bay has one of the biggest concentrations of nesting bald eagles outside Alaska; also why ducks and geese and swans, from Alaska's North Slope to northeast Canada's Ungava Peninsula, flock here each winter.

In summer, the long, shallow edge becomes a wading-bird paradise, stalked by egrets, herons, and ibis, patrolled from above by pelicans and ospreys. Blue crabs, of which the Chesapeake is the nation's leading producer, depend on the grassy shallows in their early life stages and seek refuge there again when they shed their shells as adults, turning temporarily soft and vulnerable. The shrinkage of these once vast seagrass meadows, key habitat for most of the above species, is dramatic evidence of pollution's toll on the Chesapeake in recent decades. It's estimated that these seagrasses once carpeted at least 600,000 acres of bay bottom, thriving in the clear, sunlit shallows. But between 1960 and 1980, about 90 percent of them vanished. Had forests on land suffered such a rapid decimation, it would have made international news; but underwater, few paid attention until too late.

Huge excesses of nutrients–chiefly nitrogen and phosphorus –are the main culprits, scientists determined. The nutrients come from a growing population's sewage discharges, from the airborne fallout of auto exhausts and power plants, and runoff from the cutting, plowing under, and paving over of green spaces in the watersheds of rivers and creeks that feed the bay. These pollutants act as fertilizer, growing excessive amounts of algae, clouding bay waters, and shading out light to the grasses. And when the algae decomposes, it exhausts life-giving oxygen in up to a third of the Chesapeake's water.

A Threatened Way of Life

When the grasses and the oxygen go, a whole food web is imperiled, along with unique human cultures like that of Smith Island, a marshy archipelago 10 miles offshore in the mid-Chesapeake. On clear, calm days, the white-painted homes and church steeples of Smith's three tiny fishing villages (total population 350) seem to float magically between great sheets of sky and bay.

Many islanders, who have retained their own distinct accents, are descended from settlers who came here more than two centuries ago. They have neither government nor jails, and they espouse an evangelical brand of Methodism that harks back to Colonial times. With the nearest doctor or nurse nearly 10 water miles away, and no supermarkets or high school (kids ride a school boat to the mainland instead of a bus), life in mid-Chesapeake can be hard, they concede. "But you got your freedom here," says David Laird, one of the island's top crabbers.

Laird, a hardy 64, has been crabbing since he was a teenager. His little wooden craft, Scotty Boy, was built the same year he was born, 1937, and is the same hull Laird's dad crabbed in until he died of a heart attack in 1957. "Put me in a new boat, and I don't think I would know how to crab," he says.

Spend a summer morning with Laird in Scotty Boy, and you'll understand why retaining the bay's remaining grass beds is a life-or-death matter for places like Smith Island. It's five a.m. when he heads out, the peak of rush hour on "main street"–the narrow channel that serves the island's main town of Ewell. Red and green running lights of crab boats stud the darkness. Shouting over the rumble of engines, Laird gives fair warning that his focus will be on crabbing, not on answering too many silly questions: "When I come aboard here, it's like I take on a different personality. I'm Dr. Jekyll on land, and here I'm Mr. Hyde."

It's a half hour run to the crabbing grounds, a broad "bottom" on the island's marshy interior, no more than a few feet deep. The sky is dully luminous, and tints of green, tipped with the merest hint of gold, are beginning to infuse the dark body of the marsh when Laird throttles back. He heaves overboard his "scrapes"–wide-mouthed frames of heavy iron, backed with a long, nylon mesh bag. Scotty Boy slowly pulls these, one on each side, scooping seagrass from the bottom until Laird, feeling his tow ropes, deems it's time to see what he's caught.

Wrestling a scrape onto Scotty Boy's low, wide perimeter decking, he dumps a thigh-thick roll of glistening, slim-bladed eelgrass. Laird rips into the matted grass, intent on plucking out the market-sized crabs within–particularly the "softies" that have shed their shells or the "peelers" that are about to shed. In its softshell stage, the blue crab is several times more valuable than when hard. But the rolls of seagrass literally quiver and throb with all manner of other life, too. Grass shrimp and pipefish leap and wriggle; also the young of striped bass, white perch, speckled trout, flounder, red drum, seahorses, and dozens of other species, as Laird pulls apart the rolls over the course of the morning. It is no wonder that scientists often refer to seagrasses as "aquatic rainforests."

Crab scrapes break seagrasses off at their stems, leaving the roots to allow regrowth. Laird says the grasses around Smith Island these days are actually in better shape than in some recent years but just a shadow of what existed when he started crabbing in the 1950s. Baywide, though, crabs are in the worst trouble ever. Their population has sunk to record lows in the last few years. Reasons include continued pollution, combined with increased fishing pressure and perhaps unfavorable climate patterns.

Alarmed by biologists' predictions of an even worse crab situation on the horizon, Maryland and Virginia have begun to ratchet down the hours and the seasons crabbers can work. In the short term, there seems no other way to ensure that the Chesapeake's last great fishery won't crash. Oysters, the traditional winter mainstay of many fishermen, have already been marginalized by decades of disease, overfishing, and pollution.

But the latest round of restrictions has left bay crabbers frustrated and discouraged. "The truth is, no matter what they do to [limit] us, it's not going to matter a fiddler's damn if they don't take care of the bigger environmental pressures," says Larry Simns, longtime president of the Maryland Watermens' Association. "We're out there, and we see that water getting cloudier and cloudier," he says, "and I don't know anymore if we're going to beat it." Simns has advocated research to find or breed species of grasses that can thrive in more turbid water.

To Restore and Preserve

Meanwhile, considerable work is under way to restore clear water and native grasses to the bay's shallows. Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania–the states that make up the bulk of the Chesapeake's huge, 64,000-square-mile watershed–have set ambitious goals. One is to reduce nutrients to levels lower than the bay has seen since at least the 1960s, when the bay's grass beds were still largely intact, by the year 2010.

In the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement, signed by the three states, as well as the District of Columbia and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more than 30 land use-related commitments were made, including a monumental agreement to permanently preserve from development 20 percent of the land area in the watershed by 2010. "No other region of the country has so strong an agreement to protect the environment," says Ann Swanson, director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, an environmental oversight body of legislators from the three watershed states.

Toward that end, the commission and the Trust for Public Land recently issued a report titled Keeping Our Commitment: Preserving Land in the Chesapeake Watershed. The report lays out what it will take to meet the land conservation goal. It will mean preserving an additional 1.1 million acres, with an estimated price tag of $1.8 billion in new spending by all levels of government. (The report assumes that private land preservation efforts will remain at the current level of just over 28 percent.) TPL has already protected some 11,000 acres in the Chesapeake watershed, and is working with landowners and public agencies to protect 3,500 more acres in the next year.

Protecting Water by Protecting Land

The preservation goal is not exclusively to produce cleaner water, but there are clear links between green spaces on the land and a green, grassy, healthy Chesapeake. Studies along bay tributaries have shown that nutrients in runoff from watersheds with heavy farming and paving reach levels 20 times those of forested watersheds. Other studies show that when development replaces as little as 12 percent of natural watershed vegetation, noticeable declines of aquatic life occur in streams and the estuaries they feed.

More than most bodies of water, the Chesapeake is vulnerable to such polluted runoff. Its balance of land to water–64,000 square miles draining into 4,000 square miles–is more disproportionate than in any other estuary on earth. And because it is so shallow, the bay has even less water to absorb excess nutrients and other pollutants than its 16:1 land-to-water ratio indicates.

Bringing back the clearer bay waters of four decades ago will require huge reductions in nutrients: "doing two to three times as much in the next decade as we've accomplished in the last decade and a half," says Bill Matuszeski, until recently head of the federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program. Every source of nutrients, from homeowners' septic tanks to power plant emissions to the way chicken farmers handle manure, is under new scrutiny. In addition, "land conservation and sound land use take center stage" in meeting the 2010 goals of the Chesapeake Bay restoration program, according to the TPL-Bay Commission report. This presents a major opportunity for TPL. Over the last 13 years, TPL's Chesapeake Field Office has been working to protect key natural resource lands along this world-famous estuary and along its main tributaries, including the Potomac, Rappahannock, Patuxent, James, Gunpowder, and Patapsco Rivers, protecting more than 11,000 acres throughout the bay watershed.

Across the country, TPL's polling shows people are willing to pay more for land conservation if it means cleaner water," says Debi Osborne, director of TPL's Chesapeake Field Office. Recent projects include orchestrating an innovative, $1.65 million easement on nearly 300 acres where a subdivision was planned. It was the final piece needed to assemble an extraordinary, 800-acre block of unbroken forest with nearly two miles of tidal shoreline on the Severn River outside Maryland's capital of Annapolis. Called the "Green Cathedral" by local environmentalists, the site preserves–in the midst of the populous Baltimore–Washington corridor–a place for breeding bald eagles and great blue herons, as well as nearly two dozen varieties of songbirds, several of which flourish only in the interiors of large stands of forest.

It may be hard to see the links between preserving forests on the edge of bustling Annapolis and David Laird's crabbing livelihood on Smith Island, 70 miles down the bay, but they are connected by the life-giving rivers. Billy Moulden, who lives on the Severn and worked for years to preserve the Green Cathedral, says that one of his dreams is bringing back for his own children the river's lush seagrasses, where he waded and dipped soft crabs in the clear shallows during the 1950s. He has started a small underwater "nursery" in a protected pocket of the shoreline, where he is growing grasses for transplantation to other areas.

Osborne calls the goal of protecting another 1.1 million acres around the Chesapeake "very achievable" but cautions that development is now chewing up an unprecedented 128,000 acres a year throughout the watershed, driven by both increasing population and large-lot sprawl. "If we don't meet the goals now, it will be too late for many of these special places," she says.

Tom Horton is an environmental columnist for the Baltimore Sun and the author of five books on Chesapeake Bay.