The Chesapeake Bay: Destruction and Rehabilitation in the Nation’s Largest Estuary
It’s another drizzly day on the Chesapeake, and the boat we are on bobs gently on the opaque, mud-colored water. A crusty old crabber from Tangier Island, by the nickname of Captain Cook (use of nicknames is an old and strong tradition on Tangier), has just dropped a scraper overboard and brought up a bunch of seagrass, which is dumped on a sorting table in front of us.
Our hosts are members of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and this is their educational boat. “We” are the crew of Hōkūle‘a, the Hawaiian voyaging canoe that recently circled the globe promoting the message of Mālama Honua—take care of the Earth. I met the canoe in Yorktown, Virginia on May 6, 2016. Two guests were already among us—Kirk Havens, the assistant director of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and his cousin Dan Havens from the Washington Canoe Club. We were joined the next night by the mayor of Tangier Island, James Eskridge (“Mr. Mayor”) and Captain Cook. Together we all set out from Yorktown the morning of May 8. As we approached the mouth of the York River, the great grey expanse of the Chesapeake Bay stretched out before us so far that we could not see the other side.
Because it is one of the earliest sites of continuous European settlement in the U.S., and because of the importance of its ecosystem, the Chesapeake Bay is an excellent example of how modern humans have mismanaged nature’s bounty. The Bay is the largest estuary in the United States, with a 64,000-square-mile watershed feeding fresh water into this salt-water inlet, resulting in a range of aquatic and marine ecosystems. “What makes an estuary more productive than coastal areas,” says Paul Willey, Director of Education Operations for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and one of our hosts on this trip, “is the mix of fresh and salt waters. But what makes the Chesapeake Bay even more productive is that it’s shallow.” Average depth in the main portion is only about 30 feet, decreasing to 20 feet if you include the tidewater tributaries. “It’s just mind-boggling to think of how productive this bay was, even 150 years ago,” Paul adds.
When Captain John Smith sailed this bay four hundred years ago, the water clarity in the bay was exceptional, thanks to the natural filtration provided by oysters, wetlands, and submerged grass beds. Smith wrote that oysters “lay as thick as stones,” and the fish population included “sturgeon, grampus, porpoise, seals, stingrays … brits, mullets, white salmon [rockfish], trout, soles, perch of three sorts” and a variety of shellfish. The schools of fish could be so massive that at one point Smith and his men attempted to catch them with frying pans.
This was an ecosystem managed, to some degree, by the native peoples who lived in dispersed and shifting settlements throughout the region. Drawing on the bounty of the bay itself, as well as the abundant game on land and in the air, plus a variety of farming practices, the peoples of the Chesapeake left gentle footprints on the region compared with the Europeans who followed them.
The Europeans were colonists—coming with the intent to stay, to acquire and transform land, and to produce wealth in the form of cash money, within the context of the emerging global economy. That method of wealth production is pretty straightforward: find an environmental resource—fish, minerals, agricultural land, forests, whatever—and process it on as large a scale as possible to produce the most goods for sale. 400 years ago the impacts of that process on the planet were relatively small and usually recoverable. 400 years later, the bay is struggling with that very recovery.
Colonists set about clearing forests, plowing fields, spreading fertilizer, and interfering with the streams and waterways. The overflow of sediment and fertilizer, and the increase in streamflow from the reduced forest cover, clouded over the underwater grasses, while the increase of nutrients spawned the growth of microscopic algaes and planktons. This is true of estuaries world wide, and as Robert Carter writes, “The decline of estuaries, without a doubt among the planet’s most important nursery grounds, represents one of humanity’s greatest challenges and most obvious management failures.”
The waters of the bay seem always to be brown with sediment, especially after a rain. As we made our way towards Tangier Island, we saw numerous fish wiers. These are sticks driven into the shallow bottom, holding nets in a funnel shape that guides fish into heart-shaped net pockets. This is the same technology used by Indians, as shown in this 16th-century drawing. The Indians began teaching the Europeans how to do it as early as 1608. Even today, the method is taught by oral tradition.
We didn’t reach Tangier Island that first night, but pulled in at Reedville. Here a Maine sea captain named Elijah Reed had set up shop to fish the vast school of menhaden. A member of the herring family, menhaden are filter-feeders that thrive on zooplankton and phytoplankton, thereby providing a key role in the Chesapeake ecosystem. They are an oily fish, not generally eaten by humans, but processed into fish meal, fish oil and fertilizer. Their incredible abundance in the mid 19th-century turned Reedville into one of the world’s leading fishing ports, with a per capita income among the highest in the United States.
That was then. Today Reedville looks like an odd mix of ghost town, fishing town, and suburb. The menhaden were declared overfished in 2012, owing mostly to the water quality of the bay. Factories have come and gone, leaving rotting carcasses of old warehouses and crumbling remnants of towers where ospreys make their nests. But sprawling old homes speak to the former wealth of the town, and fishing ships are still present. Reedville is also one of the few places where one can catch a ferry to Tangier Island. Master navigator Nainoa Thompson himself, and his entourage of two, joined us here.
In the grey haze and ultimately rain of the next day, we set out for Tangier. “Where are you from?” Mr. Mayor asked me. I told him I was born and raised in Washington, D.C. but that I now live in Baltimore. “Oh,” he said, and looked at his feet. “Then I guess you must be used to being around a whole lot of people.”
Tangier is one of a small group of islands forming a remote outpost in the Chesapeake Bay. It has a population of about 470 people, down from about 1,500 a century ago. Captain John Smith came across these islands in 1608. The island has had a colorful history since then, including a distinct dialect of Tidewater English closer to its British roots than mainstream USA. Much has been written recently about Tangier because of the conflicts over the crabbing industry—the mainstay of the island—and because the island, like the land all around and in the bay, is sinking due to tectonic forces. As such, it provides a model for climate-change-induced sea level rise.
We entered a sea-scape the likes of which I had never seen before: little houses and piers out in the water and all around us. I still think of Tangier Island as the “Venice of the Chesapeake.” We pulled up to the dock in the rain, set up a tarpaulin over the deck, and welcomed the scores of school children that had come to see Hōkūleʻa. Later that evening, after dinner and ceremony, a group of local kids were seated in a circle, along with Nainoa and some of the senior people from the canoe. The older voyagers spoke of the bay, of mālama honua, and of what voyaging has to teach about life on small islands. The young people asked questions, and spoke of their own concerns for the future. One senior member, quoting Mau Piailug’s lesson of how a navigator must “see the island”—the destination—in his or her mind when one starts out on a voyage, told them “you’re already on the canoe, and the future is a distant island. The question is, what kind of future do you want to see? Envision that ‘island,’ and raise it from the sea.”
We stayed in dormitories of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation on neighboring Point Isabel, and the next day were taken out in one of their boats with Captain Cook to scrape the sea bed. Once the scrapings had been dumped on a sorting table, we were told to set about sorting through the grass to see what we could find. The question posed to us was, How does the health of the bay seem, based on what you see here?
Little baby crabs went skittering all over the place. Pipefish—a relative of the seahorse—wriggled about and were dumped into a large, clear jug of bay water, along with small shrimp and curious bug-like creatures. It looked like abundance, but of course we have no way of knowing how rich it would have been 400 years ago.
Our guides Paul and Page explained the importance of the sea grass and the health of the bay, and how the teaming life on the table in front of us reflected a healthy area, thanks to efforts to reduce the pollutants. “We’re at the southern limit of eelgrass,” Paul explains. “Any one degree of temperature increase moves that boundary north.”
“Eelgrass is a productive habitat and nursery area for a lot of smaller species.” Kirk Havens added, “Decrease the water clarity and we lose the eelgrass. Bigger species, such as water fowl, feed on the smaller species, so there’s a feedback loop.”
Water clarity was brought home to us at our next stop, a subsidiary campus of Longwood University on Northern Neck Virginia. Two aquarium tanks had been filled with water from the inlet that morning. In one tank, there was nothing but water. In the other tank, there were live oysters. Near the end of the day, the difference between the two tanks was stark. The first one was still cloudy, while the second one had become clear, thanks to the filter-feeding oysters.
Oysters provide three key benefits to the bay: first, they build reefs—massive structures that help stabilize sediment flow. Second, these reefs of alkaline shells provide a chemical buffer against the acidic freshwater that enters the bay, thereby enabling the survival of many marine invertebrates that in larval form need the right pH to survive. And third, they feed on the phytoplankton and zooplankton, cleaning the waters. In fact, biologists have recently estimated that when Captain John Smith sailed here, oysters were so plentiful that they filtered the entire bay once a week. Add to that the massive schools of filter-feeding menhaden and you have pristine waters, clear down to 20 feet or more.
The Indians of the Chesapeake ate oysters, but their technology—and perhaps their sense of balance with nature—limited their ability to harvest them to shallower waters. Early colonists followed suit. But in the 1830s and 40s, the discovery of deeper oyster reefs coupled with the advent of new technologies to harvest, can the oysters and transport them turned the Chesapeake Bay into “a maritime version of the Wild West.” This history is recounted by Dr. Henry M. Miller of Historic St. Mary’s City, and powerfully displayed at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Maryland. Harvest reached 20 million bushels in the 1880s.
Again, it is the typical story of modern economics: find a resource and exploit it to the maximum extent possible. And the story ends as they so often do: the resource was over-exploited to the point of depletion, the ecosystem was altered and weakened, and then (in this case) some introduced diseases further devastated the bay’s oysters. As Miller states, “Today, virtually nothing is left of the abundant oyster bars and reefs of the past. Although efforts are being made to restore the native oysters, introduce non-native oyster species, and expand oyster farming, it is uncertain whether they will meet with success. The Chesapeake oyster industry is a classic example of a recurring tendency in human history: use it until it is gone.”
Fortunately efforts to improve the health of the bay have increased in the past few decades, as the extent of the crisis affected more and more industries. But as the country’s largest estuary, the watershed—not to mention the airshed—of the bay is enormous, encompassing several different states and state governments. When efforts began in the 1980s, each jurisdiction made its own rules independently, and they were all voluntary. In 1998, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) published the first “State of the Bay,” a report card on the Bay’s health. They graded it a 27 on a scale of 100. Lawsuits have been filed against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for not using its authority to set pollution limits. In 2010, the EPA and its partners developed “the landmark Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), setting limits on the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment that can enter the Bay and its tidal rivers to meet water quality goals.” A 2010-2025 blueprint was set in place. This year the CBF published its Midpoint assessment report. Many goals have been met, many have not, but there is progress.
At our departure, the Longwood University folks gave us each a fossil shark tooth, which had eroded out of a cliff further up the Potomac. A reminder of how the Earth changes over time, even without human interference. A lesson on how careful we have to be to maintain the bounteous balance that we have, while we can. Mālama honua.
1 Robert Carter, Epilogue, in Helen C. Rountree, Wayne E. Clark and Kent Mountford, eds., John Smith’s Chesapeake Voyages, 1607-1609. University of Virginia Press, 2007.
(Photos by RDK Herman, except where noted.)