Tom Horton’s “Why Can’t We Save The Bay?,” an article in the June 2005 issue of National Geographic, is essentially a regional piece, focusing on the watershed of the Chesapeake Bay. This bay, however, is the largest estuary in the United States; as such, it is a litmus test for environmental degradation everywhere.
I grew up on the Atlantic side of the Delmarva Peninsula, the thin slice of land extending south from Pennsylvania. Three states share the territory, with Maryland and Delaware claiming the wider span of the peninsula in the north and Virginia holding title to the narrow, southern tail. Connected to mainland Virginia only by the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, a 23-mile long engineering feat, the Eastern Shore of Virginia was my home for the first thirteen years of my life. My parents still live there. Like most towns on “the Shore,” as we natives call it, my hometown was almost exclusively populated by fisherman and farmers in the late 1970s. Today, however, as with so many towns on the Delmarva Peninsula, these jobs are vanishing. Instead, most folks work in the “service industry,” meaning they hold jobs at McDonald's, 7-Eleven, or Food Lion (Wal-mart has yet to arrive on the southern peninsula), but a significant portion also find employment at the chicken factories of Perdue Farms, Holly Farms, and Tyson. As those that still remember when a charter boat captain was a wealthy man and a crabber could support a family die and the younger people become more disconnected from the ecosystem, the bay suffers.
Tom Horton blames population and pollution for the Chesapeake's ails. As he points out, two times as many people now live here as in 1950 (8 million has become 16 million). Unfortunately, many of these new settlers view the bay as a “major playground.” Living in New York City, I take a certain pride in being a southern boy, but a trip home (or a look at the spread on pages 24-25 of the magazine, which features a group of beer-guzzling speed boat enthusiasts who call themselves the Battle Creek Gang) too often reminds me of what the Shore’s populace has become. As with all environmental concerns, everything comes back to population and pressure. One can only hope that the writers addressing the issue, whether popular or outdoor journalists, communicate the urgency. For the Chesapeake Bay, the situation is dire; as Horton points out, “The latest ecological report card gave the bay a failing grade of 27 out of 100.” Worse yet, a dry year means the grade would have been even lower had more excess nitrogen been washed into the bay from farmers' fields upriver.
While increasing pollution is directly connected to the burgeoning population, pollution legislation seems more practical than population control measures, which raise the ire of most citizens. But apathy is endemic on the Delmarva Peninsula; the western shore, with our nation’s capital sitting alongside one of the bay’s major tributaries, offers the most hope. Some conservationists worry that, barring drastic and immediate action, we've already reached the “tipping point."
“A lack of both political will and enforcement has slowed progress in tackling the other big pollution sources – agriculture, cars, power plants, and urban storm water. We’ve been similarly lax in containing the sprawl consuming forests and wetlands – vegetation that absorbs millions of pounds of nutrients from polluted air and run-off – at the rate of more than 100 acres a day. And the demise of oysters, which once filtered and cleansed huge volumes of bay water as they fed on algae, has been an ecological disaster. ‘It’s like someone removed 99 percent of the filter in your aquarium,’ said Bill Goldsborough, a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.”As Scott Phillips, Chesapeake Bay coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey states, “You’re going to have to change people’s values to improve this ecosystem.” Tom Horton seems discouraged. “Public support often seems like the estuary itself, impressively broad but deceptively shallow,” he writes. Perhaps part of the problem is the cultural divide which separates the two shores, west and east. As my father wrote in his 1982 book Wanderer On My Native Shore,
“Because the bay is divided between two state governments that rarely see eye to eye on any issue, and because the bay is further divided culturally between its city-based white-collar populations and its rural-based farmers and fishermen, the Chesapeake offers special problems in resource management quite unlike those found in other sections of the nation.”Sadly, such challenges are no longer isolated to the Chesapeake watershed.
In May of 1607, Captain John Smith landed on the banks of the James River on the western shore, just downstream from my alma mater in Williamsburg, Virginia. Smith and his companions found an ecosystem exploding with abundance. Despite their battles with illness and sporadic attacks from the region’s Native American tribes, food was plentiful for those settlers willing to fish, hunt, and trade. Almost four hundred years later, we have nearly exhausted the supply of blue crabs (Callinectes sapidus: the translation is “savory beautiful swimmer”), American oysters (Crassostrea virginica), ducks, and most game fish species. Those species still thriving today are, not surprisingly, those which adapt well to human settlement, including the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), snow goose (Chen caerulescens), Canada goose (Branta canadensis) and the invasive mute swan (Cygnus olor). The large predators – the black bear (Ursus americanus), red wolf (Canis rufus), and grey wolf (Canis lupis) - have long since been exterminated. In the National Geographic article, Walter Boynton, a scientist working on the Patuxent River points out that, just 40 years ago, oysters were “an essential food, part of the culture – and now they’re an hors d’oeuvre.” But Boynton continues, “I wonder if the bay has become like that for many people, from being essential to an hors d’oeuvre.”
Reading Horton’s article, I thought of the closing comments my father made in his chapter on the Chesapeake watershed. He wrote them in the early 1980s, but the language is similarly eulogistic.
“A philosopher might take the long view. This benign-weather interlude we have been enjoying since the first colonists came to the New World may be coming to an end. Perhaps, in another thousand years, climate patterns will be so altered, the Susquehanna will have reverted to its primeval course and surge into the Atlantic many miles east of the present Virginia capes; or, contrariwise, there may be no Virginia capes when a rising sea drowns the coastal plain.Dad, let's hope not.
Will our descendants have the diversity of life that inspired such great variety in Algonquian culture? What will recreation be like on a less salubrious and species-poor planet? Will the requirements of survival be so compelling that most people will work with their heads down, oblivious to the world around them, like oyster cullers [in the Chesapeake] today?”
Photo credit: Peter Essick, 2004