Threats to water purity at Chesapeake

Water pollution is a problem that is easily overlooked. It is easy as most people whose livelihoods depend entirely on large waterbodies do not have the power to make policies and join pacts that can ensure their safety and restoration of the ecosystem.

ChesapeakeHowever, the Chesapeake Bay Program has improved the state of health of the watershed and saved lives of aquatic animals that would have perished due to nutrients toxicity.

The program that began in 1983 with a goal to reduce pollution and restore the ecosystem has seen many influential policy makers append their signatures in support of the cause. The results have been immense;

  • Clean waters
  • Healthy ecosystem
  • Reduced nutrients pollution
  • Reduced aquatic life mortality
  • Improved community Engagements
  • Improved land conservation mechanisms

While these are just a few of the benefits that have been achieved by Chesapeake Bay Program, the drive to improve the state of the ecosystem is a motivation that polluted waters can be restored and aquatic animals can be saved.

Here are some of the threats to clean water

Nutrient Pollution– The methods of farming that were used in the past left so much fertilizers unused on lands. When it rains, all these nutrients get into the water causing excess nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen.

When these nutrients are deposited in the water they foster the growth of algae that depletes the oxygen in the water and interferes with how fish breathe. When the algae blooms persist, fish and other aquatic animals will die of asphyxiation. Also, these algae can produce toxins and make the water dirty and unsafe.

Poor agricultural practices- Agriculture is the backbone of most world economies. We depend on agriculture for our nutritional needs. However, poor agricultural practices have led to deterioration of the Chesapeake Bay health.

These harmful practices include; over using fertilizers and pesticides, over tilling, and poor irrigation methods. Such harmful agricultural practices push pollutants into the waterways hence contaminating the water.

Needless to say, pesticides may still be potent when they are dumped into the waterways, hence will kill aquatic life.

Invasive Species- Invasive species; plants and animals that are introduced in the waterways can interrupt how native plants and animals live.

Obviously, when invasive species join an ecosystem they will create competition for nutrients, this will cause starvation and possible loss of some species. Some invasive species also feed on native species.  An example of invasive species that feeds on native species is the northern snakehead which originates from china.

There is so much more that can be done to restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay health. We have a responsibility to take care of the waterways and the bay, we therefore must adopt healthy farming practices to achieve the prime goal—restoration of the bay.

How to Control Algae Blooms

Some algae levels are unavoidable especially in aquatic environments. The organisms become a threat depending on their extent of growth and algae type. Large blooms minimize oxygen levels in the water and release harmful chemicals that are lethal to both animals and plant life. You can get rid of existing organisms from your tank or aquarium to keep the fish healthy and active.

  1. Removing algae blooms from the tankAlgae Bloom
  • Change the water in your tank partially. This is one of the most effective ways of eliminating algae blooms in the tank. Water replacement dilutes the seaweed content and mostly leaves the water clean.
  • Scrape the algae bloom from the glass walls. You can do this while carrying out the partial water change since you will have better access to the tank walls when the water level is relatively lower. Do the cleaning once every week by using a sponge.
  • Use algaecide in the tank. This chemical helps in killing the organisms quickly and efficiently. However, you should be careful since the chemical agent can upset your tank’s balance if not used well.
  • Introduce invertebrates and algae eating fish. Seaweed can easily be removed by introducing living additions that consume the organisms from the tank.
  1. Minimizing the chances of future algae blooms
  • Reduce the amount of lighting in the tank. Light facilitates the growth of algae blooms hence necessitating its reduction. Consider replacing the fluorescent bulbs at least once per year.
  • Feed the fish less frequently. Overfeeding the animals is a primary cause of scum in the aquarium. It’s essential to ensure that the fish is well fed because the excess food that remains settles down in the tank and decomposes, fueling the growth of seaweeds.
  • Increase the level of aeration. Proper aeration helps in keeping the fish waste, debris, and the extra food floating around for easy cleaning and filtering. Upgrade the aerator or add several air stones to the aquarium to improve ventilation. The top of the tank or aquarium should always remain open most of the time to maximize the flow of oxygen.
  1. Ensuring that your tank has quality water
  • Test the tap water you are using. Algae thrive well in water that has high nitrate and phosphate levels. Regular testing is required to ensure that it does not have these seaweed friendly compounds.
  • Put up a protein skimmer in the tank. Protein skimmers remove the excess nutrients and other organic materials from the water.
  • Change the filters every month. Your aquarium filters can facilitate the buildup of nutrients and organic waste. Although the screens efficiently remove the components, they will start licking the additives back to the tank once they are filled.

In summary, keep algae bloom away by removing the seaweeds, preventing future algae accumulation, and by protecting the quality of your water.

Recycling and the Bay

First Step Is To At Least Put Trash in the Trash

We live along a busy street and it is amazing the amount of trash that people toss onto our lawn. That is simply obnoxious, but part of a bigger problem. All the trash that people end up throwing on the street or out the car window is likely to end up in the storm drains or into streams and rivers.

If you are ever down in the Inner Harbor, there is the Trash Wheel by Pier 6 at the mouth of the Jones Falls. It is amazing the amount of trash that it collects that has been washed down Jones Falls, especially after storms. All this trash is not good for the environment and especially not good for the Chesapeake Bay as well.

Reusing and Recycling

If you go down some country roads you will see old refrigerators, old tires and other large items tossed to the side of the road. There are other solutions. Edixon of Maryland Used Appliances points out that many of the used appliances that people get rid of can have a happy second life in someone else’s home with just a bit of work refurbishing them. This means less energy and pollution used for mining, manufacturing and transport of the components and the appliance itself. For the ones that can’t be reused, the scrap yard will recycle the metal to be used again.

Same with old tires. It only costs about a $1 per tire at a tire recycler and tires get chopped up and reused for a variety of things, including being added into the asphalt when paving new roadways.

Household Recycling

You can also help by putting out your paper, aluminum foil, other metal, plastics etc. into the recycling containers that the city or county comes by and picks up once a week. Similar to the used appliances, this is then taken and reused. The benefits are a little bit less clear hear though compared to the used appliances. Some studies have shown that the energy used to collect the recycled trash isn’t that different from the cost of manufacturing it in the first place. Some have even argued that these city and county recycling programs are a net negative.

There is a Nov. 12, 2008 article in Popular Mechanics that said there were problems when recycling first got started and that a lot of the problems have now been worked out. For many items, aluminum in particular a clear environmental and economic benefit to recycle as much as possible instead of making new. For other items it is more expensive to recycle so those just go to the dump. Overall, the math shows it is generally better to recycle for environmental and economic reasons as long as it is done intelligently. However, it is often just as much a political decision depending on the views of the local population.

Maryland Oysters in Danger from Gov. Hogan

Maryland oysters are exposed to danger again

The CBF (Chesapeake Bay Foundation) is requesting to allow oyster restoration to follow good science. CBF is ready to assess the long-awaited administration of the state’s management plan regarding oyster.

Governor Hogan is pursuing the progress by confirming the oyster’s management through science said CBF Maryland Executive Director, Alison Prost. The information about investing in oyster program was done and CBF requested to offer permit to pursue the work. Any disregard with respect to work restoration may not be in the best of the interest of the health bay or in the fishery sustainability was announced.

Nevertheless, Department of Natural Resources Secretary, Mark Belton said he will personally review the program of state’s oyster management. The review will be assessed for the first five years of the program that will be in three parts. The program was approved first in 2009 and the program confirmed:

  • Adding of sanctuary reefs so that the oysters could not be harvested.
  • Commitment to find oyster harvesting sustainable path.
  • Enhanced potential income for people wishing to farm oysters and watermen.

Belton publicly suggested the changes in the plan and considered the points noteworthy such as opening oyster reefs sanctuary to harvesting.
CBF believes science dictates changes done to the program and will consider if there is any scientific evidence justifying changes. Several important facts must be considered insists CBF prior to making any decision to alter the oyster management as the facts include:

  • The program is very new and may be considered the infancy stage. The ideal way to grow the population of oyster is by helping them to reproduce naturally. The best way is to build reef systems and allow nature enough time to work.
  • Maryland, non-profit partners and its federal completed an oyster reef, the largest in the Bay and there are two more large reefs under construction. These may become dynamos spreading for miles the larvae so that it populates even to far-flung reefs, thus benefit the ecosystem and the harvest.
  • The small reefs have not received much assistance from the state that it is unable to recover even after decades of harvesting, inferior water quality and disease. It makes no sense to open to harvest as it may be meager and the reefs structure may get more damaged that the recovery may be delayed to doubtful.

Maryland is committed to expand five more sanctuary reefs by 2025. Besides other large reefs are in the Tred Avon River and Choptan River. The scientists believe the oyster growth will spur beyond boundaries when the reefs function fully after few years.

Supreme Court Supports Chesapeake

The Supreme Court by deciding to do nothing has helped the Chesapeake Bay. What was at stake was a cleanup program designed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Challenge from Afar

Locally, most people seemed to be aboard for the plan. However, there were challengers from other parts of the United States including the American Farm Bureau Federation (a group that doesn’t believe in climate change).

They challenged the Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan, saying that the federal government shouldn’t have a role and that it should be solely up to the states in the Chesapeake watershed.

Why is a Cleanup Important?

The activities of man has had a dramatic impact on the Chesapeake. Many species survive at only a small fraction of their original abundance. The number of oysters in the Bay is at 1% of historic levels. All the water in the bay used to be filtered every day or two by all the oysters. The water used to be crystal clear. Since the 1950s it has been murky. There is too much sediment and pollution in the water. Sediment from runoff across the entire watershed, pollution from multiple sources including runoff, factories, farms and waste treatment plants, and nutrient runoff from farms causing algal blooms that cloud the water and suck the oxygen out of the water creating dead zones where nothing can live.

Lower Court Ruling Stands

In 2013, Judge Sylvia Rambo of the US District Court ruled that the Clean Water Act allows the EPA to work with the six states in the watershed. In her decision, she pointed to the economic and ecologic importance of the Bay. The amount harvested from the Bay is way down because of over-harvesting and pollution. But, the Bay is the largest estuary system in the United States and one of the largest in the world. The judge liked the “holistic watershed approach” that the plan uses. Plus she said that there was support for the cleanup agreement in the Clean Water Act legislation and its legislative history as well as support from prior Supreme Court precedent.

Why the Farm Bureau Federation Fought the Legislation

A lot of pollution comes from excess fertilizer runoff from farm land as well as runoff from manure from factory farms. In the case of the Chesapeake, chicken farms on the Eastern Shore, but also from cows. A question is whether the EPA will use the win from this case with the Chesapeake to organize cleanups of other waterways across the US.

Groups that were critical of the opposition by the American Farm Bureau Federation said that they had shown little if any interest in the Chesapeake before they filled the suit in 2011. These groups, probably correctly, said that the only reason the suit was filed was to try to keep the EPA from regulating pollution of the Mississippi River caused by runoff from mega-farms. These mega-farms are who the Federation represents and prior to this they had only focused on the Mid-West and not the Chesapeake.

Republicans Against the Environment

So not only did the American Farm Bureau Federation try to fight the cleanup agreement, but also the attorneys general in 21 states, mostly Republican, joined in the fight. These were states no where close to the Chesapeake Bay watershed, including places like Montana and Alaska. This was not appreciated by the states in the watershed who had come to the agreement with the EPA.

Besides the attorneys general, home builders and chemical and fertilizer companies also tried to fight the agreement.

Farmers are worried about the expense of having to put up barriers to prevent runoff of fertilizer and manure during rain storms. Municipalities will also have to spend millions to upgrade their sewer systems so human waste doesn’t flow into the Bay and its tributaries during storms. But, the end result should be a much healthier Bay.


Erosion Controls Hurt the Bay

Erosion control is a good idea, right? Maybe not. “Hardened” water fronts may hurt the Bay. This includes rip rap and bulkheading and is perfectly legal. Landowners are not breaking the law by doing this (assuming they have a permit), but more and more are doing this and it is having a cumulative impact. It keeps the water cleaner and reduces erosion, so why is it so bad?

Specialized Environment

The shoreline is a special environment. These new structures are reducing the places where terrapins, crabs and fish can find food and shelter. It can even help the increase in sea nettles (stinging nettles) and aid in the spread of an invasive species of marsh grass.

That We are Rapidly Changing

In several rivers near Baltimore, 50% or more of the shoreline has been modified. A study was done looking at 50 places around the Bay to compare and see how changes to shorelines affect the estuaries.

There also seems to be an effect on submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) or what some people call seaweed. They are important because geese and ducks feed on them. Also, crabs and fish hide in them. This is particularly important for crabs that are sloughing and becoming soft shell crabs temporarily.

The SAVs are beginning to come back but the study seems to indicate the SAVs are smaller and less dense in front of hardened shoreline. This is probably because waves reflect off the hard walls and the extra turbulence can uproot or make conditions more difficult for the underwater grasses.

Also, there tends to be more nutrient runoff where there are hardened shorelines because these then to be put where there are lawns or fields vs. natural landscapes.

More Sea Nettles – Yuck!

The hard surfaces give more places for sea nettle larvae to settle which increases the sea nettle population. It also makes it harder for wetlands to establish themselves and increases the chances of the invasive grass, phragmites, invading.

When Grass is Bad

Phragmites likes disturbed soil and loves nutrients. So when the shoreline is altered by hardening it, it disturbs the soil and as said earlier, these locations tend to have high nutrient runoff. Just what phragmites loves. It can grow so thickly that it crowds out all native vegetation and is generally not as good a habitat for native animals as native plants are.

Since 2008 people have been required to put in living shorelines instead of hardened shorelines. Unfortunately, the study didn’t look at these closely enough to draw any conclusions.

The study authors think that when future shoreline projects are evaluated for permits in the future that they should not be looked at independently but how the fit into the bigger picture on each river / estuary.

Chesapeake Bay Grasses

Yeah, time to celebrate! Chesapeake Bay grass beds expanded by 27% in the last year. Then again, maybe not as we will see. The grass beds had been expanding until 2011 when two storms, Irene and Lee devastated the beds.

The increase in the last year has brought the grass beds back to 76,000 acres, nearly where they were before 2011. But it is still less than half the 185,000 acre goal targeted by the restoration effort. The effort is one part of a larger effort to bring back the health of the Bay. Even so, the target is still far less than the historic area covered by grass beds and subaquatic vegetation (SAV).

Why should you Care about Grasses in the Bay?

They are also known as seaweed. If you like oysters and crabs and rockfish, you should care about the grass beds. They provide sanctuary and breeding grounds for crabs and fish. They are also a safe place for crabs to molt when they are most vulnerable.

Helping Clean the Water

The grasses also filter nutrients out of the water and help keep the water clear. They need sunlight just like plants on land, so they grow better if the water is clear. Beds of seaweed have an amazing damping effect on waves and can greatly decrease shore erosion as well which will also help clear the water. Plus, they absorb nutrients which helps prevent algae blooms which are caused by excess nutrients.

There could also be a synergistic effect between grasses and oysters. Oysters are filter feeders and also help clear the water and also do better in clear water.  If we can succeed in getting both the oysters and the grasses to thrive, we might once again have clear waters in the Chesapeake like it was before the 1950s.

If there is too much sediment in the water, such as after a storm, the sediment not only shades out light, it can settle on the grasses’ leaves and further block the sunlight. Algae blooms also block the light getting to the plants.

Temperature has an affect as well. Hot summers in 2005 and 2010 killed a lot of eel grass int the southern part of the Bay. They bounced back somewhat this past year as well. The hope is that the summer won’t be too hot and the eel grass will continue to recover.

Short Term or Long Term Gain?

The big worry is that this gain may be ephemeral. In the past, grass beds have been a mix of species. If conditions weren’t good for one species, the others would fill in.

The large gains in the last year are worrisome because it is almost entirely due to widgeon grass. This particular grass can disappear as rapidly as it appears. So, if the conditions change and the widgeon grass dies back, all of this last year’s gains could be lost.

Floating Wetlands

Baltimore Harbor’s Floating Wetlands

If you have sailed or powered into Baltimore Harbor or been walking along the waterfront, you might have noticed small islands floating along the shore line. Some are in front of the World Trade Center and others next to the National Aquarium. More have been proposed and are awaiting approval.

The waterfront looks very different than it did two hundred years ago. Now it is all pilings and concrete and a very artificial man-made environment. Back then, there would have been tidal wetlands lining most of what is now the inner harbor, as well as the outer harbor which is now docks for freighters and other large ships. In fact now, it is almost impossible to tell that it is part of an ecosystem and part of a river. It looks more like a dirty Disneyland.

To try and replace some of the ecosystem effects of a tidal wetland, these floating platforms have been built. They are built with buoyant materials so the weight of the growing plants won’t sink them. They are planted with different wetland grasses including saltmeadow hay, saltmarsh cordgrass and marsh hibiscus.

A number of different companies make these floating islands. The one by the aquarium is made by Biohaven Floating Islands and is 200 square feet which sounds large but is only 10 x 20 feet. Others were designed by Biohabitats and students at the Living Classroom Foundation helped to build them.


Despite their relatively small size considering the large quantity of tidal wetlands that have been lost due to development, they provide habitat enhancement and some improvements to water quality. A number of animals have been seen in, on and around the islands including otters, eels, blue and night herons as well as ducks. Insects and birds  perch on and hide in and generally use the plants for habitat.

Not only do grasses grow on the top but barnacles, mussels, and a variety of other plants and animals grow on the underwater portion. Also, the roots of the plants that stick down into the water and the island itself provide by shelter and shade for fish, crabs and other creatures. The general scientific term is nekton which is any marine organism which can move and includes everything from the microscopic to whales. (Obviously the islands are not going to attract whales.)

The barnacles and mussels are filter feeders and help clean the waters. The roots of the plants also absorb nutrients and remove them from the water. This includes heavy metals although due to the  size of the islands and the fact that is an open system it doesn’t have as much impact as if it was a closed system.

There are plans to add more of these islands but the best way to clean up the river is to control runoff at its source. Most of the trash and pollution in the river come from runoff. Despite the islands small ecological impact, they are very important as an educational tool. They are in very public places and help people realize that what they do on land has an impact on the water.


What is the Big Deal about Oysters?

Ok, so why does everyone make such a big deal about oysters and the Chesapeake Bay? Fine, so they are good to eat. But why do the environmentalists make such a fuss over them? How does their health affect us?

Currently, oysters are less than 1% percent of the population in the Bay when the first Europeans came here. For several hundred years after their arrival, there wasn’t much of a problem. But, in the 1800s and then the 1900s when things became more mechanized and people started dredging oysters from boats, the oysters started being decimated.

At one point in their lives oysters are free swimming but they very soon settle down and start forming shell which protects them and also fastens them to a surface so they can no longer move unlike a scallop. So if they get sediment on top of them, they are out of luck and die. As farming increased (and land development in general) and the amount of sediment runoff increased that stressed or killed oysters.

The Caribbean had coral reefs. Up until sometime in the 1800s, the Chesapeake had oyster reefs. At low tide you would even see the tops of them at times. They were very rich environments. Not only were the oysters there but they supported numerous small crustaceans, invertebrates and fish. Larger fish then were attracted as well.

But this environment was destroyed by over harvesting. The dredges, a kind of trawl dragged behind boats, would scrape along the reef and pick up oysters and disturb others. At one point, the reefs were so numerous that they were almost like extensions of the land and the rivers flowed along them. You needed to be careful that you didn’t run aground. Over time though they were knocked down and degraded by the dredging. This also destroyed the habitat for the all the other creatures mentioned, causing a decrease in them as well.

There was another impact. Oysters are filter feeders and it has been estimated that originally they would filter all the water in the Chesapeake Bay in a week. Now it is probably years. This means that the water is not as clear. That affects the sub aquatic vegetation, (seaweed) and causes die offs, especially in combination with the increased sedimentation. The seaweed patches are another important area where small creatures can hide and be less likely to be eaten.

More recently, two viruses have attacked the oysters. Probably in part because of their decrease numbers and increased sedimentation and pollution they were stressed and more susceptible to disease.

We have heard people talk about how clear the water in the Chesapeake was up until the early 1950s. Because the oysters filtered the water it apparently was like the water in the Caribbean. You could frequently look right to the bottom.

There was a great example of the effects of the filtering not too long ago. There is a small mussel that lives in the Bay and is normally not very plentiful. However, for some reason in 2004 the conditions were perfect for it and millions of them grew on every possible surface in the Magothy River. They were on pilings, boat hulls, you name it, they were there. That year the water was amazingly clear. The next year things went back to normal and they died off and the water got much more turbid / cloudy.

So, rather than complaining about restrictions in oyster harvest, we should be applauding. If some areas are restricted it is likely the overall harvest will go up. It will also have a major impact on the abundance of other animals including commercially important fish and crabs.