After decades of effort, the voluntary, collaborative approach to restoring the health and vitality of the Chesapeake Bay— the largest estuary in the United States—has not worked and, in fact, is failing. A diverse group of 57 senior scientists and policymakers have joined forces to save the Bay. This is our plan.

A Sad Thanksgiving Reflection on the Bay’s Decline

(Posted by Gerald Winegrad)

We are all taking time from busy schedules and our frantic American lifestyle to give thanks for our many blessings here in Bay country. The Buffleheads and Hooded Mergansers are here on Oyster Creek where we live very close to the Bay and Double-crested Cormorants are diving and feasting on small fish. As I reflect on our bounty I come to the realization and then sadness of how we are surrounded by a much diminished population of waterfowl and wildlife due to human disturbance.

Then, it really gets scary when I reflect on new nightmarish documentation of more widespread contamination of our fish. Earlier this month, scientists released reports that they have documented intersex fish in lakes and ponds on the Eastern Shore. Male largemouth bass were found carrying female egg sacs and the problem was widespread for these fish in the six lakes and ponds sampled on the Delmarva Peninsula of Maryland and Delaware for two years. The prime suspect in this contamination: manure from nearby chicken farms.

This is the first gender-bending in fish found on the Shore but similar problems were found with smallmouth bass in the Potomac River seven years ago. Just recently, scientists also found female egg sacs on male smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna and Juanita Rivers in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission had already expressed concerns about their world-class smallmouth bass fishery and enacted emergency catch and release regulations for smallmouth bass on 98 miles of the lower portion of the Susquehanna River because of low recruitment for almost ten years.  The Commission believes this decline is clearly a water quality issue—most likely because of the rapid increase in dissolved inorganic phosphorus concentrations in the Susquehanna River. 

Perhaps as with the global problems of deformities and large die-offs of frogs and other amphibians, these bass in the Bay region could be the canaries in the coal mine signaling the need to ramp up our collective clean-up actions. There are at least 21 human health advisories calling for limiting the consumption of many species of fish from the Bay and its rivers, including for mercury contamination of Maryland’s state fish, the rockfish.

Documentation exists of widespread skin disorders and serious infections in both humans and their pet dogs that come into contacts with Bay’s waters during warmer months. These cases include a friend of mine who was hospitalized for two weeks with antibiotics administered intravenously because of a life-threatening leg infection from going into Plum Creek off the Severn River and scratching his leg.

Staff at the Arlington Echo Environmental Education Center in Anne Arundel County no longer go into the Severn River with students to plant Bay grasses because of repeated skin infections.

Key fisheries ranging from oysters to shad to soft clams have collapsed in the past several decades and hardly anyone speaks of a sturgeon fishery that once flourished until the turn of the 20th century. One species of sturgeon is federally listed as endangered; the other’s listing is pending.

The Bay states have failed to meet repeated, formal promises called Bay Agreements to clean-up the mess causing these human and living resource problems.

After 27 years of the formal, collaborative, non-regulatory Chesapeake Bay Program, 90 percent of the Bay’s waters are so polluted they are in violation of the Clean Water Act. That’s why our group of 57 Senior Bay Scientists and Policymakers has urged the states and federal government to adopt the Bay Action Plan with the 25 measures we believe will restore the Bay.

To meet the new pollution limits called Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL), the states will have to adopt bold new measures to reduce nutrients, sediment, and toxic chemicals or the bay will continue to die a death of a thousand cuts. Naysayers are trying to block this setting of mandatory pollution limits and the required state plans to assure the limits are met. Polluters are joining with some state and local officials and their Congressmen and other elected leaders to delay or weaken the pollution diet and measures to meet it.

What we have done to disrupt and undermine the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem is unconscionable. It would be even more unconscionable, indeed I would argue immoral, to continue to allow this great estuary to decline at the altar of political expediency. The time to act is long past—stop the whining and step up to the plate and take the actions necessary to stem the flow of Bay-choking pollutants.

Next Thanksgiving we all would like to be reflecting and giving thanks because states and federal agencies were aggressively pursuing the necessary measures to save the Bay and not just taking politically expedient half-measures.

View the 25 measures developed by the group of 57.

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