Tag Archives: Chesapeake Bay

Call for Oyster Moratorium Fails to Sway Watermen, Officials

Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS – The Chesapeake Bay’s oyster population has plummeted since the late 1960s, when Willy Dean, a Maryland waterman since the age of 17, would go hand tonging with his father and “load the boat with oysters.”

“The catch is way, way down from what it was back then,” Dean said.

The population is so low that several scientists recommended a complete halt on oyster harvesting in a study published in August by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. But a moratorium has not gained traction among watermen and state officials, who see the industry as an important tradition and a small but significant part of the state’s economy.

“People would have to get other jobs, leave the business. And once they leave, they don’t come back,” said Casey Todd, manager of Metompkin Bay Oyster Company, which operates an oyster shucking house in Somerset County. “You can bring the oysters back but you’re not going to bring these people back,” he said.

That would mean the end of what Todd and others see as an integral part of Maryland’s culture and history.

“We’ve been doing it for generations. My great-great-great grandfather did it,” Todd said.

Maryland should work to retain “even a small portion of that old business,” said Delegate Jay Jacobs, a Republican who represents all or parts of Kent, Queen Anne’s, Caroline and Cecil counties, and is a fourth-generation resident of Rock Hall on the Eastern Shore.

“Even though the numbers are very low as far as the catch goes, I think it’s important that we maintain that view of that heritage,” said Jacobs, who recently boarded a Chesapeake Bay Foundation boat to watch hatchery-produced oyster spat being placed on a sanctuary reef.

Plagued by disease, overfishing and habitat loss, the bay’s oyster population — once the nation’s largest fishery — has declined nearly 100 percent since the early 1800s and 92 percent since 1980, according to the recent study.

Michael Wilberg, the study’s chief researcher, argues a complete halt to fishing is necessary to restore populations and reefs.

“We think that fishing pressure has been one of the more important forces that’s been acting on oysters over the last probably 150 years or so, and that reducing or eliminating that fishing mortality on oysters would provide them an additional opportunity to begin to recover,” said Wilberg, who works in the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons.

Based partly on recommendations from the state’s Oyster Advisory Commission, which issued its legislative report in February 2009, Maryland recently expanded its network of oyster sanctuaries but stopped short of a full moratorium.

William Eichbaum, former chairman of the commission, said he started out believing a moratorium might be the solution. But leaving oysters alone, with neither fishing nor investments in restoration, would be a “gamble,” he said.

“My own view, as the commission worked, evolved to the point where I didn’t think that (a moratorium) was the single-bullet solution to the problem,” Eichbaum said, adding that even without fishing, investments would be necessary to help restore the population.

With disease a significant short-term challenge, Eichbaum came to the conclusion that a “large-scale, well-designed sanctuary program” would be sufficient to give oysters an opportunity to develop disease resistance and bounce back. Most oysters in the state’s restoration efforts come from UMCES’s Horn Point Oyster Hatchery.

Eichbaum said he has not seen Wilberg’s study, but a group of scientists and fisheries managers — members of the Bay Foundation’s Fisheries Goal Implementation Team — is reviewing management options for the oyster fishery based on the latest science, said Stephanie Westby, oyster coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay office.

Members of that group “have some interest in creating some process whereby the new science and old science, the best available science … can be reviewed, and to try to evaluate the status of the wild fishery in order to help drive management options,” Westby said.

Officials at the Department of Natural Resources argue a complete moratorium is unnecessary and would hurt the state’s economy.

“We have already put 24 percent of our oyster grounds into a moratorium, and we are committed to studying how that affects populations of oysters in those areas over a five-year timeframe,” said Michael Naylor, assistant director of the shellfish program at the Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service.

Slightly more than 100,000 oyster bushels were harvested in the 2010-2011 season. While dramatically lower than harvests of several decades ago, last season’s harvest had a dockside value of more than $3 million, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

Harvested oysters have their shells pried open in shucking houses, which adds value, before going to distributors and supermarkets.

“There’s this whole vertical structure between (a waterman) and that eventual buyer, all of which would be affected locally by a moratorium,” Naylor said.

Naylor said the fishery’s direct impact on Maryland’s economy is probably between $10 million and $15 million.

“That’s not nothing in anybody’s book,” he said.

But the sanctuaries, which are sometimes targets of poaching and are starting to be opened for aquaculture leases, are not enough, said Mechanicsville resident Ken Hastings, a longtime environmental activist who supports a moratorium.

“I can’t think of another resource that anyone would allow to get down to 0.1 percent of its historical abundance and still insist on going out and indiscriminately killing,” Hastings said. “You wouldn’t do that with deer or pheasants or black bear or anything like that.”

The oyster habitats are so diminished that a moratorium would have little impact on the industry’s cultural importance in Maryland, Hastings said.

“I think the cultural significance is pretty much gone, and I don’t see that coming back, certainly in my lifetime,” he said.

Dead Zone Worst in October

State officials say the Chesapeake Bay’s “dead zone” reappeared this fall because of flooding from Tropical Storm Lee and covered most of the water from the Bay Bridge down to the Patuxent River. A DNR scientist says it is the worst they have seen in October. Scientists are concerned about what this fall’s dead zone will mean for next year.

Lack of Salt Blamed for Oyster Die-Off

Lowered salinity levels in the upper Chesapeake Bay are being blamed for an intense but also concentrated die-off of oysters. State biologists say the die-off is limited to two areas north of the Bay Bridge and affected about two-percent of the state’s overall oyster harvest. The oyster bars hit hardest along the mouth of the Magothy River and Patapsco River, and also near Rock Hall. The “Baltimore Sun” says scientists also found that other oyster bars in the Bay, including some north of the Bay Bridge, were relatively unscathed. The die-offs are attributed mainly to an increase in the amount of fresh water flowing into the bay going back to the spring. State officials say it is a not an uncommon result when that happens.

No Rockfish Cutbacks

The Atlantic Marine States Fisheries Commission decided against cutting back on the amount of rockfish that can be harvested next year. The proposal originally could have meant watermen would have to make do with as much as a 50-percent reduction in next year’s harvest. Last year, recreational and commercial fishermen caught more than four-and-a-half-million pounds of rockfish. Representatives from states along the north Atlantic Coast say they are not catching many rockfish anymore and say overfishing in Mid-Atlantic States is to blame. Reps from those states say population numbers do not suggest overfishing is occurring. One Maryland rep tells the “Baltimore Sun” if the rockfish population is a concern, the commission should come up with new protections for menhaden today, since that is the primary food source for rockfish.

Bay Gets New Artificial Reef

An old dam is bringing new life to the Chesapeake Bay. The Simkins Dam was removed from the Patapsco River, crushed into pieces and then scattered onto the floor of the bay to create an artificial reef. Stephanie Westby of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the oysters will help filter the water and provide habitats for other species. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation will use a specially designed boat to scatter the oysters across the two-acre reef rising about a foot off the ocean floor. Westby says the Chesapeake Bay was once a highly productive oystering ground.

Gansler Asks To Protect Menhaden

In an effort to combat further environmental and economic damage to the Chesapeake Bay from the historic decline of Atlantic menhaden, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler today asked the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), the interstate body tasked with managing menhaden, to take much needed steps to better protect menhaden from unsustainable fishing levels. Unchecked commercial fishing, particularly the industrial practice of “reduction fishing” which grinds the fish up for its oil, has contributed to an 88-percent decline in the Atlantic menhaden population since 1985. The ASMFC’s fishery management plan for menhaden has so far failed to reverse this decline.

Attorney General Gansler issued comments to the ASMFC as it considers updating its menhaden fishery management plan for the waters that include the Chesapeake Bay. The Atlantic menhaden has been called “the most important fish in the sea” and is crucial to the health of the Bay because of its role as a filter and forage fish. Menhaden remove plankton from Bay waters and serve as a staple food in the diets of species like osprey and striped bass, Maryland’s state fish.

The decline of the Bay’s menhaden population has “coincided with the appearance of larger and more frequent algal blooms in the Bay, which cause substantial environmental harm,” according to studies cited by Attorney General Gansler in his statement. “Research has shown that harvesting of low-trophic level species like menhaden can have major impacts across the ecosystem. Because menhaden, by nature, travel throughout much of the East Coast and are fished in many states, no one state can comprehensively reduce their decline from overfishing.  For example, although Maryland banned commercial harvesting of menhaden with purse seine nets many decades ago, the practice continues to be permitted elsewhere.”

Demolished Dam Finds New Home Helping Chesapeake Bay Oysters

Capital News Service
ON THE CHESAPEAKE BAY – Rubble from a demolished dam on the Patapsco River moved to its new home on the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay this week, where it will soon be joined by a boatload of new neighbors — 4 million baby oysters.

For more than 100 years, Simkins Dam in Ellicott City prevented eels, herring and shad from migrating upriver before it was torn down last winter at the urging of environmentalists. In its more eco-friendly second life, the dam’s concrete will serve as the base for a new oyster reef near the mouth of the Chester River.

“It was a win-win situation for fish upstream and downstream,” said Stephanie Westby of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

With natural reefs in the bay in short supply, artificial beds have become increasingly important in the effort to restore the oyster population, said Erik Zlokovitz, artificial reef coordinator for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Zlokovitz said the department is placing a greater emphasis on developing new oyster habitats because of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s push to revive the oyster population. They are increasingly using materials like limestone and granite that can serve as the base for artificial reefs.

“You have to be really resourceful now to build an oyster reef,” said Tom Zolper, Maryland communications coordinator for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The idea to reuse concrete from the 10-foot-high, 150-foot-wide Simkins Dam to create an oyster bed came from NOAA, which funded the dam demolition using stimulus funds from the Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“Once the dam was torn down in Ellicott City and allowed the fish to pass through, we thought it was a good idea to make good on the rubble left over from that project and bring it over to make good on another project for fish,” said Karl Willey, who runs the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s oyster program.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources, NOAA and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation coordinated with state and federal agencies to develop the new reef site, which is off-limits to harvest.

The dam’s rubble, a mixture of concrete and granite, was cleaned and crushed to the correct size before it was deployed to the oyster bed.

The treated rubble was placed at the 2-acre oyster reef site using large water cannons that pushed the rubble off of a vessel onto the reef site.

Bay Restoration Fee Increase Proposed to Task Force

Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS — A governor’s task force on sustainable growth on Tuesday heard a proposal to double and eventually triple Marylanders’ monthly water and sewer fee of $2.50 for Chesapeake Bay restoration.

Because of funding shortfalls, the workgroup also recommended extending Maryland’s timeframe to meet its bay cleanup goals to 2025, which is the Environmental Protection Agency’s deadline, instead of the self-imposed deadline of 2020 that Gov. Martin O’Malley set last year.

While Maryland should continue to move at the accelerated pace set by O’Malley, no funding scenario would get the state to its goals by 2020, said John Griffin, secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and chair of the funding workgroup that made the recommendations.

“To suggest that, in the face of what we’ve seen here in this workgroup, we’re going to meet all this by 2020 I think goes away from the whole notion of being candid and transparent with the public,” Griffin said.

In 2010, the EPA established a “pollution diet,” known as the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, for Maryland and other bay watershed states. Annually, Maryland must reduce nitrogen pollution from urban areas and septic systems by about 7.6 million pounds to meet the TMDL requirement for developed areas.

To meet that goal, the state plans to retrofit stormwater management systems and septic systems, as well as finish upgrading its 67 major wastewater treatment plants.

But the Bay Restoration Fund, created in 2004 to finance the treatment plant upgrades, faces a funding shortfall of about $385 million, and funding for retrofits is also uncertain.

“When you compare the need to the amount of revenue we’re bringing in and the timeframe we committed to doing it, it just doesn’t match up,” said Erik Fisher, a workgroup member and land use planner with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The recommendation that Griffin made to the Task Force on Sustainable Growth and Wastewater Disposal would increase the average residential fee from $30 per year to $60 per year starting in the 2013 fiscal year and $90 per year in the 2015 fiscal year. Starting in fiscal year 2016, the fee would be indexed to inflation, with a 3 percent cap per year.

Fisher favored a higher increase in the bay restoration fee, with an additional increment to $10 a month, or $120 a year.

“I’m concerned that even the scenario that was recommended will not reach, will not fulfill that commitment,” Fisher said.

Some members of the Maryland Sustainable Growth Commission, which also took part in the task force meeting, raised concerns about the recommendations.

“The concern is that if we do move from 2020 to 2025, what certainty, what assurance, do we have that the goals for the bay cleanup will be achieved?” said Alan Girard, senior land use policy manager for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Girard said he thinks the fee increase will help Maryland meet its bay cleanup goals, but the task force needs to “get it done right.”

“We want to make sure that the assumptions that go into the calculations are correct and that if the money’s raised, it provides the results that we need,” he said.

O’Malley spokeswoman Takirra Winfield said the governor will continue to aim for 2020 if the task force recommends the deadline extension in its final report.

“We’ve been a leader and we’re going to continue to be a leader. It makes more sense for us to aim for a positive result sooner rather than later,” Winfield said.

The task force’s final report to O’Malley is due Dec. 1.

Growing Algae Could Clean the Chesapeake Bay and Create Biofuel

Capital News Service
HENDERSON – The Eastern Shore is known for vast soybean and corn farms, but if Patrick Kangas had his way it would be covered in slime.

Kangas, a researcher at the University of Maryland, helped create a system that uses fields of slimy algae to clean up the Chesapeake Bay by removing pollutants from agricultural wastewater.

Typically, algae hurt the bay because they contribute to dead zones, oxygen depleted areas harmful to aquatic life. But by growing fields of algae in a controlled system, the tiny plants can clean water while creating a feedstock for biofuel.

“We’re really just taking what happens in nature and controlling it and channeling into the kinds of ways that we want to use the algae essentially to work for us,” Kangas said.

Kangas, who is the founder of a new center at the University of Maryland that aims to scale up this technology, has two small experimental algae cleaning systems in place in Maryland now.

But he hopes to eventually create systems that span hundreds or thousands of acres of land that would mimic his operation at a farm in Henderson, a small town in Caroline County on the Eastern Shore.

At the Henderson farm, the smell of muck and the sound of dribbling water surround the “algal turf scrubber” system. A solar-powered pump moves the wastewater from a nearby canal into 50-meter troughs where the algae grow.

Thin screens catch the algae. The organisms use sunlight to grow as they filter phosphorus and nitrogen out of the wastewater and add oxygen before the water trickles to the bay.

Once a week during the growing season, Kangas dons galoshes to harvest the algae. Using an old broom, he pushes the dark green globs down the to the end of the troughs. Here the algae marinates in the farm breeze, drying out until Kangas returns a week later to collect it and take it back to the lab.

Harvesting rejuvenates the system, allowing for new algae to grow and continue to clean the water. Then the process repeats.

Much like the surrounding fields of corn after the seeds are planted, the algal turf scrubber system is mostly self-sufficient. The strands of algae grow like stalks until it’s time to harvest.

“The idea is that if we have remote locations we can operate the system in areas where people aren’t hanging around,” said Tim Goertemiller of Living Ecosystems, an environmental consulting company, who worked on the design and production of the algal turf scrubber system.

The algal turf scrubber system is modeled after the way algae grows near coral reefs. The flow of water in the algal turf scrubber system mimics the pulse of the waves near a coral reef, which helps maximize growth.

Increased growth would mean more algae to use for biofuels, if Kangas’s plans pan out.

“At that scale we’ll produce a lot of biomass. So we’ll need something to do with that biomass. We’re most interested in algal biofuels,” Kangas said.

Kangas is working with chemical engineers from the University of Arkansas and Western Michigan University that are designing a process to turn his algae into butanol and ethanol.

Different types of algae yield different types of biofuel. The algae growing in Kangas’s system are filamentous algae, which can be used to produce ethanol or butanol. But, Kangas said, very few types of algae produce enough oil to be economically viable options for biodiesel production.

Other groups are trying to produce biodiesel using genetically engineered algae, Kangas said.

“I hope those kind of technologies work, but they’re very expensive, and I just am skeptical of them,” he said.

In addition to the algal turf scrubber system in Henderson, Kangas grows algae at a Constellation power plant near Baltimore.

He also has a working system at a sewage treatment plan on the New York City harbor, one at a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, and several systems that are temporarily shut down in Virginia.

Another system is scheduled to start operating at the Baltimore Inner Harbor soon, Kangas said.

“We are really anxious to scale up the technology and realistically hope to operate at the acre scale next summer, hopefully with hundreds of acres within 10 years,” he wrote in an email.

Tracking Devices on Commercial Fishing Boats

A pilot program to install tracking devices on some commercial fishing boats in the Chesapeake Bay may go into effect next year. The program, which will be discussed at two open houses along with proposed fishing regulations from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service, would be voluntary for commercial fishermen. Vessel monitoring systems ultimately may be required to discourage illegal fishing in Maryland, said Tom O’Connell, director of DNR’s fisheries service.