Yes, our nation’s settlers would have seen Orcas, also called Killer Whales (Orcinas orca), in the Chesapeake Bay. Naturalist and researcher for the Oceanic Society, Wayne Sentman says, “Orcas would not have been uncommon in the bay, yet today no one would dream of seeing them here.” The Orcas disappeared from the bay long ago along with Sturgeon, another species seen frequently by our colonists. Today, declines continue in many of the bay’s common residents. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) continues to work diligently on their campaign to “Save the Bay,” saying declines are due in part to pollution causing poor water quality and low oxygen levels.
High levels of phosphorous and nitrogen in the water, as well as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other toxins are proving detrimental to the bay. It seems populations already strained by pollution can no longer thrive with the added pressures of the fishing industry. Maryland and Virginia alone suffered more than $640 million in losses over the last decade strictly due to the decline of the blue crab. In 2007, CBF says waterman suffered the worst crab harvest since bay-wide record keeping began in 1945. Although all the causes of the blue crab’s decline may be murky, it is clear that what we do on land is negatively impacting not only to underwater inhabitants of the world, but everything that lives on shore, as well.
The Bad Waters 2008 report, a comprehensive assessment of pollution’s impact on the blue crab population, calls blue crabs “the most economically important fishery in the Chesapeake Bay,” and an “essential strand in the web of life that forms our nation’s largest estuary.” One reason this species continues to decline is due to a lack of food caused by the low oxygen levels in the water. Large areas of the bay have been aptly named “dead zones” because oxygen levels are now too low to sustain any life. According to the report, the increase in dead zones has prevented the growth of 75,000 metric tons of clams and worms a year.
In part, these dead zones are caused by sediment run-offs from agriculture and construction, pollution from human waste plants, and other toxins in the water. All of this has increased the nitrogen and phosphorous in the bay, stimulating large algal blooms which deplete the life-giving oxygen levels in the water. These blooms also darken the waters, killing the underwater grasses, and depleting habitats for these animals. The CBF report states, “More than half of the bay’s eel grass has died since 1970.” The underwater grass beds provide shelter against predation for blue crabs and many other declining species.
PCB levels in our waterways are a major concern to scientist across the globe, and a better understanding of the causes and effects of this pollutant remains the focus of world-wide ongoing studies. A recent study by The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) detected PCBs, agricultural herbicides, and components of oil and its byproducts in nearly every sediment sample collected in the Chesapeake area. Even though the use of PCBs and DDTs were banned in the 1970s, they are highly resistant to degradation and there is an ongoing release of these toxins from old electrical transformers and hazardous waste sites. The enormous level of plastic waste in our waters also seems to be exacerbating this problem.
Plastic waste in the oceans has been gaining world-wide attention due to the discovery of a huge floating trash dump called the North Pacific Gyre reportedly now larger than the continental United States. Increasing levels of plastics float into the oceans via all of our inland waterways. Sentman says, “80% of all trash found in the ocean comes from our rivers and our cities, even those not near the ocean.” The plastic items found in the North Pacific are from all over the world and range in size from large construction items and commercial fishing nets to everyday household items on down to tiny beaded particles which are the raw materials for making those products.
According to Sentman, many species are ingesting plastics. The smallest floating plastic particles look much like fish eggs or plankton and are now commonly ingested by many animals from the fishes to the whales. Not only are these foreign objects directly harming animal’s digestive tracts, but plastics also act as sponges collecting PCBs and DDTs on their surfaces before they are ingested. Because of their resistance to break down, these toxins may very well be finding their way back to humans through the food chain. Not only do PCBs resist break down, but plastic products themselves have a life-time of about one thousand years.
One thing is for certain, fisheries around the world are continuing to decline and the Chesapeake Bay is no exception. William C. Baker, CBF president, recently stated that the Chesapeake Bay is now producing less than 30% of its historical potential. Not only is crabbing at an all-time low, but rockfish (striped bass) and many other populations are also suffering. The oyster levels in the bay have been reduced to less than 1% of historic levels.
With many populations continuing to decline, waterman may be fishing at an unsustainable rate, which will most likely mean more regulations on future harvests. This will not just affect the waterman trying to make a living, but as a basic building block to an enormous part of our economy, it will reverberate out to grocery store and restaurant owners to everyone connected with the tourism industry on down to each consumer in each household.
So, what can we do? This seems a no-brainer. We need to clean up our practices on land and pay attention to how they affect our water quality. It is important to accept that all of our waterways connect us to each other around the globe. Assuming things float away from you and are no longer your concern is a false assumption. Every problem downstream will cycle back to you eventually. We, as citizens of the world, must be diligent about cleaning up our acts.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to reduce, reuse, and recycle, particularly our plastics. We should each take the time to change our individual habits, and at the very least, to properly reuse or recycle all of our plastic waste. Many of us still work or live in places which are not employing simple recycling practices. This kind of program is inexpensive and easy to implement. Please consider being the one to start such a program in your home or place of business. We must all be willing to speak to people who are not recycling. There can be no more complacency or laziness with so much at stake. We must make it clear that everyone everywhere will be expected to do their part.
In addition, we must be willing to hold our elected officials accountable for taking water quality and environmental issues seriously. We must let them know we expect these issues to be one of their top priorities. The long-term effects of our actions today on the environment are important to the survival of us all and are therefore one of the most important political issues we face. There can be no economic upswing if life sustaining elements like our water and air quality continue to decline and are no longer clean and safe for us to thrive on.
Lastly, please consider joining organizations like CBF in their efforts to affect change. You can visit them online here and join the “Biggest Fight for Clean Water This Nation has Ever Seen.” This can mean donating funds, or time, or writing letters, or simply telling your friends, helping to educate others about the severity of the problems and why these issues are important to everyone. Take the time to read about CBFs ongoing and amazing efforts to restore clean water to the Chesapeake Bay area. If you are interested in learning more or helping with the ongoing oceanic studies and research projects around the world, you can also visit the Oceanic Society or Wayne Sentman’s Naturefinder website.
Photos appear courtesy of Amanda C. Sandos