Author Archive

Learning to Love Jellyfish?

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

We love to hate jellyfish.  Growing up, my cousin and I used to list jellyfish along with mosquitoes as critters that appeared to have no clear reason for being.

Sea nettle

Streaming stinging tentacles, sea nettles are a nuisance, but they are also part of the Bay's ecology.

The jellyfish in question are the stinging sea nettles, Chrysaora quinquecirrha.  With their long streaming tentacles, they pulse like ghostly white umbrellas, beat like white hearts in the Bay’s chest.  For hours on lazy summer days I’ve watched them.

I saw my first jellyfish from my grandmother’s pier on the York River, but it wasn’t until I was twelve that I saw mats of them.  That was in Sturgeon Creek, off the Rappahannock River, when I started summer camp.  We used to joke that you could walk across the creek on that mat of jellyfish.

What a place to learn to water ski.  As the skis sprayed through the water, white blobs streamed by.  The motivation for not falling down was powerful.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve been stung by jellyfish over the years.  As some people say, if you haven’t been stung, you haven’t been swimming in the Bay.

Are there more jellyfish now than in the past?

Probably not.  According to Denise Breitburg at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, there actually appear to have been more jellyfish in the 1960s than now.  Breitburg’s been delving into past records, including those kept for some thirty years by David Cargo at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory pier.  He started his regular recordkeeping in 1960.

The observation that there were a lot of nettles back then squares with my experiences on the York and Rappahannock rivers.  I was twelve in 1959, so my eyewitness account on Sturgeon Creek (though entirely unscientific) began about the same time as Cargo’s more rigorous monitoring.

And there’s more to the story.  According to Breitburg’s analysis, declines in sea nettle populations track closely with declines in the Bay’s oyster population.  There’s a logic in this, since in their polyp stage sea nettles attach to hard surfaces on the bottom.  In an earlier Bay, where oyster shell abounded, there would have been many more hard surfaces to attach to.

Breitburg suggests that there may be a synergy between oyster reefs and jellyfish.  The oysters give the jellyfish a place to settle.  The jellyfish consume (and out-compete) their fellow jellyfish, the comb jellies, which are predators of oyster larvae.  It could be that there’s a natural symbiosis here.

Breitburg says that the joint decline of jellyfish and oyster bars seems pretty clear, but that our observations have occurred since World War II, in a Bay that had already seen increases in nutrients.  We can’t be sure how many jellyfish there were in a less-nutrified Bay.  “What the sea nettle population looked like in the 1920s is anyone’s guess,” she says.

What we can be sure about is that while we may curse the stinging jellyfish, the truth is that they were just as abundant — and perhaps more so — fifty years ago, when underwater grasses flourished, when the waters were clearer, when the Bay was in better shape.

And if Breitburg’s hypothesis linking jellyfish and oyster reefs turns out to be right, I guess we’ll have to learn to love them.

I’m not sure if I can.

For good descriptions of Denise Breitburg’s research linking jellyfish and oyster bars, see Scientist Looks to Data from the Past and Recovering Resilience.

After Earth Day

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

It was April, 1970. I was right out of college, teaching English in a public school in Appomattox, Virginia. First semester I taught in an all-African American school named Carver-Price, but while I was still teaching in the same building, the second semester had brought change. The school was now Appomattox Middle School, a school for both black students and white students. Integration had arrived, at the very place where Robert E. Lee turned in his sword to end the Civil War.

Teaching English meant grammar. Subjects. Verbs. Direct objects. But on that day, for me, it meant teaching about the Earth. About water conservation. About pollution. About our demands on the environment. It was the first Earth Day, and even though I was an English teacher, I wasn’t going to let this opportunity pass by.

Looking back, I’m not certain who among my colleagues down the hall taught something about the Earth on that day. The idea was, after all, new. There was no tradition to draw on. And it was a bit radical. In rural Virginia — and I’m sure in many communities through the south and across America — Earth Day smacked of liberals, hippies, and the anti-war movement.

I wonder if my students remember that day. What do they think of Earth Day now? A friend told me today that her daughter wants to move closer to her school so she can walk and not burn so much energy in a car. She’s concerned about “sustainability.” My friend’s daughter, bright and precocious, is three.

So many kids now will grow up with a different vocabulary. Sustainability. Climate change. Carbon footprint. They will be worlds beyond where most of us were in 1970. For me the lesson I’ve carried from 1970 to today is that environment should never be relegated to one class, one course, one discipline. As the writer David Orr says in his book, Earth in Mind, nature should permeate all our education from kindergarten through graduate school.

The Earth is where all of us stand, whether rich or poor, technician or artist, scientist or poet. The environment surges through everything. Even subjects. And verbs.

Farewell, Tom Wisner

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010
Tom Wisner with guitar

Photograph of Tom Wisner in October 2008. Courtesy of Kent Mountford.

The snows of 2010 have gone.  It was Tom Wisner’s last winter.

Tom Wisner — the Chesapeake Bay’s poet, singer, songwriter, and storyteller — passed away on April 2, in Calvert County, where he lived.

On the last day of January, when snow still covered the ground, he gave a remarkable concert in Easton, Maryland.  Heavy snowfall had cancelled a performance in Annapolis the night before.  He and his band of musicians were to have played at the Maritime Museum in Eastport.  Now the roads had cleared enough for many of us to make the next night’s concert in the cozy Avalon Theater.

The place was packed.

It was wonderful to see him play that night, remarkable that he could still sing with deep resonance despite his lung cancer.   He sang the familiar tunes, the ones that have for many of us become old standbys.  While his voice sounded strong, his memory at times played tricks.  He forgot words, stanzas.  This made him laugh.  The fact that his words could now fly away like wild birds struck him as amusing.

His memory was uneven, but his warmth remained.  Hearing so many of his songs reminded us how much of himself he poured into his personal celebration of the Chesapeake Bay. He always came back to the water, nature’s blood.  Sometime long ago, perhaps on his mother’s family farm, perhaps in streams near the Anacostia where he grew up, he formed a bond with nature.  That bond became a love affair with the Chesapeake Bay, with working the water, with all the creatures that crawl, swim, or fly there.

Sitting in the Avalon Theater were people who have labored a long time on behalf of the Bay.  A family of sorts, all of us drawn to this body of water.  One of them, sitting in blue jeans a couple rows ahead of me, looked familiar.  It turned out to be Governor Martin O’Malley.  Tom called the governor on stage to introduce a song they’d collaborated on, about Maryland revolutionary war soldiers who made a desperate stand against the British in New York.  Maryland’s Old Line. Then Tom and his friends played the song, a tune that seems destined to be sung by school children for years to come.

After the night’s performance I waited for the crowd of fans to drift away, then I walked on stage.  Tom’s wheelchair faced the stage exit.  He was making slow progress, a transparent loop around his face bringing oxygen from a steel tank.  He seemed breathless.  I thanked him for the concert.  For his years of music.  For everything.  He nodded.  We have to find a way, he said, to save the river.  I believe he meant the Patuxent, but of course he could have meant any and all of the Bay’s rivers.  For him they were all treasures.

Tom Wisner is gone now, just as the season turns and the tundra swan leave for the far north.  This year he has gone with them.  He’s left behind his songs, his stories.  And that obsession with the Bay that somehow still burns.

You can hear Tom Wisner’s songs and stories on his last CD, Follow on the Water, available from a center that he helped to found, Chestory: the Center for the Chesapeake Story.  To hear one of his most well-known songs, “Chesapeake Born,” online, visit the Smithsonian Folkways site at

Honoring Senator “Mac” Mathias

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

We are still absorbing the loss of Senator Charles “Mac” Mathias, who passed away on January 25.  His legacy is one that will last a very long time.

Those of us who love the Chesapeake remember his well-publicized journey around the Bay in 1973 — a remarkable example of leadership.  It was not just that he advocated for the Bay on Capital Hill.  Mathias listened.  He traveled to small Bayside towns to hear what people had to say, including farmers and watermen.  He listened to scientists, scores of them.  And because he was a U.S. senator, he brought public attention with him.  By the end of his journey he had rallied broad support — not just from one advocacy group, but from a large swath of the region’s citizenry.  He helped us understand that something was wrong with the Bay, and that we had to do something about it.

In recognition of his pivotal role in focusing our best energies on restoring the Chesapeake, two decades ago the Sea Grant programs of Maryland and Virginia and the Chesapeake Research Consortium came together to create the Mathias Medal.  This medal honors researchers who have made fundamental contributions to our understanding of the Bay — special individuals whose work has affected policy as well as science. Since 1990, the award has been given only five times.

Each time it’s awarded, it honors the legacy of “Mac” Mathias.

Mathias was happy to give his name to this award.  In an interview we did with him years ago, he said he was especially pleased to see it bestowed on researchers he had come to respect.  Researchers like Eugene Cronin, a leading expert on crabs but also a general advocate for science in service of policy — called by some the Grandfather of the Chesapeake.

When we conceived of this award, we did not consider whether Senator Mathias was a Republican or a Democrat or an Independent.  Frankly, it didn’t matter.  He was a leader.  He was the person who walked the extra mile to rally all of us around the challenges that confronted us — especially civil rights and the abuse of the Chesapeake Bay.

His leadership is a reminder of a less polarized time.  A reminder of the skill it takes to cross the aisle, to get the job done.  For that skill, and for so much more, we are deeply grateful.

Let’s Talk About Oysters

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

Recent news of a noisy hearing on a proposed oyster law brings back memories of past debates over oysters.  I remember Governor Harry Hughes telling me once of hearings where oystermen stood in the hearing room with their long sharp hand tongs at their sides.  A rather threatening image.

My uncle’s father was an oysterman.  I remember his deadrise workboat, always crisp white, swinging from a stake.  As kids we could mess around with the other skiffs and rowboats, but we weren’t allowed near that boat.  That boat was his workplace, his livelihood – at least until oyster diseases finally brought down the fishery in his area and it was hardly worth going out for oysters any more.

His name was Mr. Minor.  He was a gentle man, with that country wisdom you can’t learn in a schoolroom.  He’s been gone a long time now, but I wonder what he would think about today’s debates over oysters.

A quiet man, I don’t think he would like the tone.  Evidently when one of the state resource manager was testifying at the recent oyster hearing, people jeered.  Someone started making coo-coo bird sounds.  The oyster debate has gotten personal.  It may get worse.

There’s a reason people are tense.  These are tough times.  Watermen in particular have never been rich, at least not in financial terms.  Their wealth comes from family, from what they know about the water, from hard work.  It comes from the satisfaction that derives from independence, from working for themselves and making it on their own.

We need to find a balance between honoring that independence and protecting the public good – in this case the public oyster bars that belong to all of us.  We have to find a way to balance these values if we’re going to live in a civil society.

It’s too bad that public hearings often bring out the worst in people.  Attitudes get hardened.  Frustration turns to ridicule.  Ridicule leads to anger.

Is there a place for a better dialogue?  Or will it all come down to power politics in the end? I think we all deserve something better.

Who Killed the Bay’s Oysters?

Friday, January 15th, 2010

It seems that there’s a broad misunderstanding about what’s happened to the Bay’s native oyster.

I encountered an example of this recently when I was on the West Coast.  I was grilling Pacific coast oysters with my son and his wife, and speaking with one of my daughter-in-law’s cousins (turns out that he’s the son of TV personality John Tesh).  As the subject turned to comparing Chesapeake oysters with Pacific ones, he said, “Oh yes, I read that Chesapeake Bay oysters have all been killed by pollution.”

That’s a wide perception, both here and across the country.  That the Bay’s native oysters have been killed off by pollution.

Filmmaker Michael Fincham helps to dispel that assumption in a new film entitled, “Who Killed Crassostrea virginica?” Near the beginning of the movie, Fincham airs an interview clip with William Hargis, the former director of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.  Hargis, who died in 2008, headed up VIMS in the late 1950s at a critical time for the Bay’s oyster population.  “Yes, pollution is a problem,” Hargis says, leaning toward the camera, “but it’s NOT what killed the oysters.”

Fincham does a great job of carefully laying out the backdrop for this story.  He follows the Bay’s oldest skipjack captain, Art Daniels, who recalls when he first began to follow the oyster as a boy.  He trails researchers like Dr. Ken Paynter as they dive on oyster bars, trying to see what’s going on now.  And most importantly, he goes back to the late 1950s, when all the oysters started to die.

It’s an amazing story.

There is a story here, too, about Michael Fincham.  He’s been writing about the Bay and producing films for Maryland Sea Grant for 30 years.  During the 1980s he produced a documentary entitled, “Chesapeake: The Twilight Estuary.”  That film told the story of the disappearance of underwater grasses in the Bay.  At the time, many thought that “toxic pollution” (from herbicides or big industry) was the culprit.  As it turned out, it wasn’t.  “The Twilight Estuary” describes how scientists uncovered the real killer of Bay grasses:  nutrients — from farm fields, from waste treatment plants, from septic tanks and stormwater runoff.  That’s common knowledge now, but it wasn’t then.

Fincham went on to produce other award-winning films.  “Watershed for the Chesapeake,” about the launching of the regionwide Bay restoration effort.  “Alien Ocean,” about the threat of invasive species.  “The Pfiesteria Files,”  about the appearance of a strange and still mysterious phenomenon blamed for fish kills, illness, and memory loss.  (That film won a regional Emmy Award and a first place award at the New York Film Festival.)

His new film on oysters promises to be just as informative and just as entertaining.  “Who Killed Crassostrea virginica?” will premiere at the Annapolis Maritime Museum on January 21, 2010.

A Walk in the Woods

Monday, January 11th, 2010

It was a great pleasure to take a walk in the woods with people like Nancy Ailes of the Cacapon and Lost Rivers Land Trust and Keith Eshleman of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.  I tried to give a sense of their life’s work in the article “Saving Trees for the Forest.”

Nancy Ailes is downright inspirational.  She doesn’t like being credited with what she’s done in the Cacapon watershed — so far saving 10,000 acres from development.  She prefers to give credit to the farmers and landowners who’ve established conservation easements on their land.  And it’s true that Mike Rudolf and other landowners who’ve taken this step are heroes.  On the other hand, one can imagine that without her dedication, her sincerity, her persistence, that number of acres may never have been placed under conservation easement.

Another surprise came up while working on this issue — the plight of a small patch of woods on the College Park campus called the “wooded hillock.”  Environmental researchers like Stephen Prince in the Department of Geography put me in touch with this debate, which surrounds one of the University’s last remaining woodlots along busy University Boulevard.  Campus officials want to cut down almost half the woods to move some facilities away from Route 1, an area picked for more upscale development.  I describe the conflict briefly in “A View from Above.”

Just after we went to press, the faculty senate at the University of Maryland, College Park voted to preserve the “wooded hillock.”  Now apparently the ball is in the court of campus officials.  On the one hand they have to figure out where to put a parking lot and some maintenance facilities; on the other hand they have committed to preserving the campus’s natural environment and what remains of its trees.  Perhaps there are those charged with facilities management who can come up with some creative solutions.

For the sake of the trees, I hope so.

An update (March 18, 2010):  Since I wrote this blog, the College Park campus has been in negotiations to purchase the parcel along Route 1 used by the Washington Post as a printing facility.  The University would use the parcel for their own maintenance facilities and parking lots.  If this goes through, it will prove a creative solution to a challenging issue — and the trees of the wooded hillock will be spared.

The Population Puzzle

Friday, January 8th, 2010

In a recent chat with Bay author Tom Horton, he reinforced a point he’d made to me last summer.  That if he were to write his report now on overpopulation in the Bay region (Growing, Growing, Gone), he would focus less on population and more on our culture’s addiction to “growth” — not only more people, but more of everything.  More money, more cars, more houses, more highways, more gadgets.  More things.

He makes a good point.  In his Eastern Shore drawl he argues that we often forget the rewards of being better, not bigger.  Studies of happiness, he notes, often show that while people need enough money to meet basic needs, “wealth” and the ownership of material goods don’t always correlate with a sense of satisfaction, of well-being.

In Chesapeake country, it sometimes seems that money can cause as many environmental problems as it solves.  Where a modest summerhouse once graced a rural riverbank, one now finds a mini-mansion.  Perhaps even a row of mini-mansions — with piers, cars, bright lights, super-green lawns right down to the water’s edge.  Our impacts on the landscape are bigger now, because we can afford more.

Horton is a big fan of living leaner.  But at the same time, his paper on population makes another sobering point.  While we can go a long way toward reducing our footprint on the earth — by reducing our energy demands, by driving less and walking more, by eating lower on the food chain — at some point absolute numbers will overtake us.

This is especially true if we want to preserve open space and natural areas.  If we want secluded marshes and riverside forests to remain undeveloped, if we want the Bay’s ecosystem to remain in the same shape we remember from the 1950s.

Worldwide, we need to balance human population growth with our demands on this planet we call Earth.

The United Nations posits three possible scenarios for global population, from high to low.  Of course unpredictable things could happen as well.  We could witness a world war.  We could be hit by an asteroid. We could be visited by plague or famine.  All of these things have happened before.  At some level, the trajectory of human population lies in the hands of fate.

But human beings are also thinking creatures.  We can look around us and observe. We know that current population in the Chesapeake watershed is more than 16 million, with another 100,000 added each year.  The U.S. population has now topped 300,000,000.  We know that world population has more than doubled since 1960.  The human population on this round globe is now over 6.7 billion and rising.

What happens next no one knows.  (For an interesting discussion of the possibilities, see Which World? by Allen Hammond.)

It’s hard even to talk about population growth.  Discussions run right into cultural issues, religious issues, ethnic issues.  There is a chance for prejudice to raise its ugly head.  This is especially true when one considers that much of the population growth in the U.S. comes from immigration, and that most immigrants come from what have historically been minority cultures in this country — at least since the English colonies took hold in the 17th century.  (Before that, the Spanish were here, and before that, of course, Native Americans.)

The question before us now is what kind of conversation about human population growth we can have that is not driven by nationalism or racism or exclusionary thinking but rather by a compassionate concern for the future of the human race and for the planet on which we all live.  In this region, that includes a concern for the Chesapeake Bay and for the watershed that feeds it.

These are tricky waters, and Tom Horton deserves credit for his courage in beginning to navigate them.  While his focus may shift toward our consumptive lifestyle and the myth of endless growth, the questions he raises about population shouldn’t remain unanswered.

(See more about Tom Horton’s report at Chesapeake Quarterly online , and read the report itself, published by the Abell Foundation.)

Going Through the Changes

Monday, August 24th, 2009

What a difference a few decades can make.

While researching a short piece for Chesapeake Quarterly on the Bay’s once popular beaches, I came across some strange reminders of the past.

There were memories of summers decades ago when rock-and-roll bands played under the stars at Mayo Beach and at other hopping Bayside spots. Listening to aging beach-goers recall those summer nights I could feel the humid dark, see sunburned bodies sway, hear crickets trill beneath crying electric guitars.

When speaking to Daryl Lofgren, I sensed an even longer history. Lofgren is manager of what is now Anne Arundel County’s Mayo Beach Park, and his enthusiasm for the place and its past stirred thoughts of lost, long-ago landscapes of Colonial mills and farms — like the one belonging to Commodore Isaac Mayo, a naval hero of the War of 1812, for whom the Mayo peninsula is named.

I was also reminded of a darker past, one of exclusion and prejudice.

During the era of segregation, African Americans and Jews were not allowed on many Bay beaches and had to look for places of their own, places like Carrs Beach or, for Jewish families out of Washington, the Captain Salem Avery House, now a watermen’s museum.

One longtime Annapolis resident described how a high school friend was turned away from a popular Bay beach for being Jewish. In fact, she wasn’t Jewish, and said so. But that didn’t matter — evidently the ticket takers didn’t believe her. In the end she was turned away simply because she looked Jewish.

That was the harsh reality of the time. You could be turned away if you belonged to the wrong race, the wrong religion. Or even if you looked like you did.

We face many political and ecological challenges in the Bay region, including rising sea level and the washing away of so much beachfront. But with our losses have come gains, and some changes have been for the better. Though we still have a long way to go, we should be thankful for how far we’ve come.

For more, see A New Day on the Bay.

Turbidity in the Chesapeake: Why so murky?

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

Why in the world is the Bay getting so cloudy?  That’s the question that’s puzzled so many of us.  Sure there is construction in the watershed and agriculture and stormwater runoff, and yet the cloudiness appears to be worse than one would expect, even with all that runoff. 

And especially strange, this haziness has been getting worse and worse every year, in a one-way slide.  This is disturbing, since even nutrients and dead zones are largely tied to changing conditions.  Wet years versus dry years.  More wind or less wind.  Hotter or cooler.  The Bay’s cloudiness, what scientists call turbidity, has been getting worse every year no matter what the weather.

That is downright weird.  And worrisome.

 When asked about what’s going on, most researchers would answer, “We just don’t know.”   Some even said, “It’s a mystery.”  Scientists don’t often use words like “mystery.”  This seemed out of the ordinary. 

Two scientists who have delved into this puzzle are Larry Sanford and Charles (Chuck) Gallegos.  Sanford (at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science) is an expert in sediment.  Gallegos (at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center) is an expert in algae.  They think the turbidity question has remained a mystery largely because it falls between the cracks of different disciplines.  Between those who study sediment and those who study algae.  Between the inorganic and the organic.

 What is occurring in the Bay, if these two researchers are right, cannot be explained in terms of sediment alone or algae alone.  Instead, there appears to be an interaction in the Bay’s waters that results from an overload of both nutrients and certain kinds of sediment.  The organic matter fueled by nutrients and the fine sediment that now floats in the Bay are apparently sticking together in ways that cause a cumulative build-up, a worsening cloudiness.

The resulting haze reaches its peak during the summer, much like the haze of those hot humid days in the city.  Smog in the air.  Turbidity in the water. 

For more on the story see “Shadow on the Chesapeake.”