ANNAPOLIS — There is no panacea for the Chesapeake Bay’s health, and the piecemeal approach — a program here, a development ban there — that the region has been using to clean up the estuary are insufficient and ineffective, scientists say.
What’s needed is an approach to bay clean up that looks at the whole bay, its tributaries, waterways, surrounding development, habitats, forests — all components. Without such a holistic approach to Chesapeake Bay health, researchers say, clean up plans will continue to fail.
“What happens every day on back yards and street corners and everywhere else miles from the Chesapeake Bay has a great impact on bay health,” said Margaret Palmer, an ecologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, who has spent decades studying streams feeding the Anacostia River and ultimately the bay.
Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s administration agrees. The governor has been instrumental in two high-profile environmental programs: imposing a surcharge on sewer customers to pay for treatment plant upgrades to reduce runoff into the bay and pushing for introduction of the hearty Asian oyster because native oysters have been decimated by disease.
But neither program is the quick-fix “silver bullet” to the bay’s problems, and the oysters could cause many more serious problems than they might solve, some researchers say.
Yet despite the programmatic approach, Ehrlich Natural Resources Secretary C. Ronald Franks is an advocate of the whole-bay restoration theory.
Franks said the old-style save-a-single-species effort back in the 1980’s — rockfish, or striped bass — showed excellent success in that populations recovered after a fishing moratorium. But he said what is really needed is a healthy, thriving, integrated ecosystem, that involves the whole region, and that makes the Chesapeake Bay perpetually healthy, something “that my children and grandchildren can enjoy.”
“An integrated Chesapeake Bay will be self-perpetuating — not something that continually has to be tweaked,” Franks said.
Such a holistic approach must also address the whole watershed feeding the bay. The watershed is dependent on rivers, which pick up household yard chemicals, agriculture runoff and sewage leaks containing polluting nutrients and toxic chemicals, running into the bay. And it’s affected by air quality, for pollutants in the air, from vehicle emissions and power plants, end up in rain falling and flowing into the bay.
“We must think across the boundaries that traditionally lead to disjointed, uncoordinated efforts in freshwater and coastal systems,” said Jonathan Kramer, director of the Maryland Sea Grant, who organized a long session discussing a watershed-wide approach to restore the Chesapeake at a recent American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, where Palmer also spoke.
“We are headed in the right direction, we know where we want to go, but need to be more efficient and accountable in order to get there,” said Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, at the session.
“The multi-species approach is the way to go,” said Larry Sims, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association. “If you talk about all the species, you got to put humans in. Humans are causing the problem. You’ve got to do it all together.”
Franks agrees and says the state is working on it.
The five most important facets of this approach, said Franks, involve cleaning up sewage leaks, cleaning up storm water, stopping agricultural runoff, restoring oxygen to “dead zones,” and bringing back a species, like oysters, which act as natural filters, sucking in bay water and removing sediments.
The sewage surcharge revenues would be used to upgrade sewage treatment plants so fewer nutrients are released and to paying farmers to plant winter crops right after they harvest their main crop. These “cover crops” help absorb extra fertilizer and reduce nutrient runoff into the bay.
Invasive species like nutria and mute swans that tear up wetlands and grasses, which provide habitat for other beneficial species, must also be dealt with, he said — though killing swans will be politically difficult. They were introduced to the Eastern Shore in the 1960’s. For years their numbers were kept down by lead poisoning from lead shot on the bottom.
“They’re beautiful and elegant,” Franks said, but when they eat they pull grass up by its roots, and their populations are rapidly increasing.
The really divisive issue, as evident from hearings in January and last week on bills opposing their introduction, is another non-native species, an Asian oyster, Crassostrea ariakensis.
Witnesses, from scientists to environmental activists to watermen, testified about the dangers of introducing an alien species that could upset the ecosystem balance and spread.
The native oyster Crassostrea virginica, was once so populous that its reefs poked out of the water, but it has been decimated by pollution and diseases, including one, MSX, which some researchers suspect was brought in by an attempt to introduce a different Asian oyster half a century ago. The harvests of the native oyster has gone from about 2,600,000 bushels in 1974-75 to about 26,000 bushels last year.
“I think the bay should be managed by science, but we don’t have all the data yet,” said Sen. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset. “Some people get impatient and want to do right now with regulations — impose what we know we’ll have to do sometime.”
But even the scientists see hope for the bay in the future.
“We have plotted a good course for restoration. What we need now is a method of course correction that encourages us to make adjustments along the way,” Kramer said. – 30 – CNS-3-18-05