The Chesapeake Bay: On the mend

(Photo by ezioman/Wikimedia Commons)

Born and raised in the Washington D.C., area, the Chesapeake Bay always has been held in the highest regard as an almost mythical monument to the natural world — an untouchable ecosystem.

My childhood was filled with stories of my father’s adventures on the bay: Days of waking up early to go fishing with friends, catching as many fish, crabs, and oysters they could fill their stomachs with, as they bonded with each other and their surroundings. At the age of five, my father took me on my first fishing expedition on the famed bay.

I can vividly remember my excitement as I climbed on the boat eagerly awaiting the numerous fish I would soon be catching.

But that day we did not catch many fish — and I probably threw up more times than fish caught.  

Reminiscing on this day, I know it serves both as one of my fondest childhood memories and also my first personal experience of the disastrous condition the bay's ecosystem has fallen into. Even at a young age it became clear that this was no longer the same body of water, which once flourished.

The bay's origin

The Chesapeake Bay has taken several forms over the past 10,000 years. Once a glacier formation, which then melted and flooded the Susquehanna River Valley, and now the largest estuary in the United States and the third largest in the world, as well as home to two of the five largest seaports in the North Atlantic — Baltimore and Virginia Beach.

Prior to European colonization, the Powhatan tribe primarily inhabited the Chesapeake Bay region. Living within the bounds of the natural world, the bay grew alongside the tribe. The symbolic relationship between the Powhatan and the bay allowed an alliance to grow strong.

But the expansion of European colonization started the next stage in humanity’s relationship with the bay.

The introduction to what appeared to be an endless supply of natural resources combined with the ability to port boats allowed society to slowly strip the bay of its natural bounty.

For hundreds of years we continued to take from the bay without consequences. Today, we are faced with serious environmental concerns.

Natural filters

Part of the trouble with the health of today’s bay can be tied to one of its natural inhabitants: The oyster. And, specifically, the number of oysters in residence.

The shellfish act as a filtration system. They filter sediment and pollution, and promote a naturally sustainable ecosystem for the underwater grass and aquatic life.

The late 18th century brought a steep decline in oyster population to the bay. Prior to the mass harvesting of oysters, their reefs were so large and numerous they were known for causing hazardous navigation within the bay.

It is estimated that during this time more than 15 million bushels of oysters were harvested from the bay each year. A number, which later jumped to over 20 million at the end of the 19th century.

As large amounts of oysters were harvested, that natural filtration system slowed. It is estimated that it once took no more than three days for the oysters to filter the 18 trillion gallons of water that flow within the bay. Today? It’s believed to take over a year for the bay to be naturally filtered. 

Steps for recovery

OystersRestoration2012_800px.jpg

Crews placed granite and mixed shell (e.g., clam, quahog, etc.) as substrate materials to rebuild the oyster habitat in Harris Creek off the Chesapeake Bay. (Photo by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

These serious environmental concerns were brought to light in the 1970s. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted a report from 1976-1983 demonstrating the steep decline in the health of the bay. This report sparked the creation of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, created in 1980, an agreement between Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland legislators, in order to protect, sustain, and assist in re-establishing the thriving the ecosystem of the bay.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Chesapeake Bay Oyster Management Plan have allowed individuals to involve themselves in the restoration effort. Through these programs easily accessible means local communal support has been established.

Although the formation of these organizations has assisted in the health of the bay, it still faces an uphill battle.

Learn more

Get more information on the Chesapeake Bay oyster restoration.

The simple acts of recycling oyster shells, cultivating oyster reef communities, and monitoring and reducing agricultural runoff have shown positive signs of an uptick in the health of the bay. The revival and restoration of oyster reefs communities have played a large role in the cultivation of the increasing population.

Once able to sustain, grow, and thrive on an individual basis, society has taken this away from the bay. We are now charged with the preservation and protection of the bay, in order to live in harmony beside it.

It has been 16 years since my first memorable interaction with the bay. Today, summer weekends are filled with impromptu trips to the bay. Each weekend getaway we take provides a further glimpse into my father’s youth, as the bay continues to rejuvenate itself.

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