Chesapeake Bay Critters Suffer from Climate Change and Pollution

The country’s largest estuary faces the loss of its life below the surface. These animals not only make up a significant part of the overall ecosystem, but they also provide for a vital industry in the Chesapeake region.

In May of 2009, President Obama declared the Chesapeake Bay a national treasure because of its many environmental assets, including the seafood, public lands, military installations, museums, and wildlife. However, the bay is also in the state of natural disaster because of the pollution build-up and loss of marine life that has plagued the bay for years.

The executive order reports that the major pollutants to the bay are the build-up of nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus), sediment and runoff waste coming from energy plants, farms and development projects.

Marine life most affected by pollution, according to Chesapeake Bay Project

How Pollution affects the blue crab

In 2008, Congress declared a blue crab disaster. The blue crab population has been at its lowest for over a decade, although since Congress stepped in they’ve been steadily increasing. For the past decade, the population has shrunk almost 80 percent, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation works to rebuild the declining populations of marine life. While they have no control over pollution, they work with the harvesting industry to limit the amount of marine life taken from the bay that have significantly depleted.

According to an April 17, 2008 article in The Washington Post, governors Timothy Kaine of Virginia and Martin O’Malley of Maryland ordered state agencies to cut harvest of female blue crabs by one third. At the time, watermen were catching 60 percent of the crabs in the bay, which exceeds the goal of 46 percent set by the states.

Chuck Epes, director of media relations at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation says the signature marine life have all suffered from the increased fishing and pollution.

“Blue crab is the last commercially successful fishery left in the Chesapeake. Oysters are virtually gone and striped bass have a catch limit on them. Shed, known as our “founding fish,” are in many places almost extinct.”

Epes says excess nutrients and waste runoff depletes grasses where the bay’s signature blue crabs feed and protect their young.

“We have three chief pollutants—phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment. The problem is, we’re getting too much of all three of them,” he said.

The nutrients that come from both water and air pollution over-fertilize the algae that in turn cover sunlight necessary to produce oxygen for sea life. When the algae dies and sinks to the bottom, an overdose of bacteria forms and eats away additional oxygen.

“Algae reproduces like gangbusters and turns parts of the bay a Jell-O green,” he said.  Commercial fertilizers produce negative affects on the bay found in suburban yards and golf courses that scatter through Virginia.

“This creates dead zones and a “crab jubilee” which is tragic,” he said. “It’s where they climb out of the water onto shore to survive.”

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation reports that within the past five years, dead zones that form as a result of this lack of oxygen covered more than 42 percent of the bay.

John Bull, media relations director at the Virginia Marine Resource Commission says they’ve been watching the crab population go down for a number of years. The VMRC works with local farmers in buying back commercial crab fishing licenses in efforts to protect and rebuild the pollution. They’ve worked to cut crab harvesting by 30 percent.

“Last year, we realized that we can’t wait for Mother Nature to bounce back,” he said. “The water has gotten cloudier, underwater grasses have died, the heat wave in 2005 has hurt their livelihood. We can’t stop pollution, but we can reduce the numbers of commercial crabbers and how often they crab.” Since the VMRC has taken measures to reduce crabbing, the population has doubled.

According to a February 5, 2008 article in The Washington Post, 2007 was the second lowest blue crab catch as a result of environmental damage. Watermen, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, took 21.8 million pounds of blue crab.

Coal-fired power plants are major causes of that nitrogen build-up that suffocates underwater life in the Chesapeake Bay. Below is a map detailing the number of coal-fired power plants in the Virginia, DC, and Maryland area. Although some listed sites are not near the bay, air pollution travels to the bay’s subsidiaries.

Local initiatives to replenish crab population

Local governments are working to control the harvest and pollution of Chesapeake Bay marine life, particularly in the blue crab. Anne Havemann, communications director at the Chesapeake Climate Action Network says the group has focused on combating new coal-fired power plants from forming and global warming. Coal plants are significant producers of air pollution, which in turn produce an influx of phosphorus and nitrogen responsible for algae production in the bay.

“There’s been a lot of work going into cleaning up the dirtiest coal plants and stopping them,” she said. “One of the things global warming will do is increase the temperature of the water, which has a huge effect on the composition of the bay.”

Jennifer Peterson, a lawyer for the Environmental Integrity Project, has been involved with a number of suites against local coal plants that have violated permit laws in the Clean Air Act. Many operate under outdated permits that don’t require the same standards as new plants.

“Many power plants are just now turning on their scrubbers,” she said. She also noted the detriment to water that comes from coal plants not only from nitrogen buildup, but also from other toxins that affect people.

“Coal plants are the second largest discharger of toxic metals. Mercury and other metals bioaccumulate and can get into our systems. Currently there is no limit on toxic discharge metals.”

The blue crab disaster declaration provided federal assistant to programs aimed at paying crab harvesters to remove their pots. 30 million dollars was distributed between Virginia and Maryland for programs that would support farmers and rebuild the population of blue crabs.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission issued a statement in November 2009 saying it would buy back commercial licenses to reduce the amount of blue crabs taken from the bay. 359 licenses will be placed for auction where fishermen can put a bid on a price. The initiative will remove more than 75,000 crab pots from Virginia waters.

Similarly, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources bought back more than 3.500 crab licenses. Approximately one third of the crab licenses are inactive, meaning they have not been used in the past five years but have the potential to be used.
Bull says the community of crab fishers has not responded well to these initiatives because of its direct affect on their livelihood. However, he hopes they approach the issue as a long-term benefit.

“We take the long term approach to get the population up to when it was in the 80s. It’ll benefit both the fishermen and environment, but it’s hard to see that if you’re thinking about your next meal,” he said. “They’re not convinced of the long-term benefits.”

Havemann remains hopeful of initiatives being made my local and natual governments. In particular, the Copenhagen conference could have significant implications for the Chesapeake Bay.

“Copenhagen will affect the bay indirectly if an international renewable energy standard results,” said Havemann. “It would put additional pressure on the senate to pass something. It would not only stop global warming from harming the bay, but it’ll also reduce the demand for coal plants.”


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