Watermen Blues:

Economic, Cultural and Community Impacts of Poor Water Quality in the Chesapeake Bay

More than 25 years since the Chesapeake Bay Agreement of December 1983 created a region-wide partnership "to improve and protect the water quality and living resources of the Chesapeake Bay,"  the bay's water quality has not improved, and communities that rely on a clean, sustainable bay are paying a high price for the lack of progress.
Pollution is a major cause of the bay's problems. Fertilizer-laden runoff from farms and lawns, as well as discharge from sewage treatment plants, flows into the bay. This fuels algae blooms, using up oxygen in the water and creating unnaturally large dead zones—areas where dissolved oxygen levels in the water are so low aquatic creatures flee or die. Sediment from farms, roads, and construction sites further pollutes the bay.

Oceans

Report

Economic, Cultural and Community Impacts of Poor Water Quality in the Chesapeake Bay

Environment Maryland Research and Policy Center

Executive Summary

More than 25 years since the Chesapeake Bay Agreement of December 1983 created a region-wide partnership “to improve and protect the water quality and living resources of the Chesapeake Bay,”  the bay’s water quality has not improved, and communities that rely on a clean, sustainable bay are paying a high price for the lack of progress.

Pollution is a major cause of the bay’s problems. Fertilizer-laden runoff from farms and lawns, as well as discharge from sewage treatment plants, flows into the bay. This fuels algae blooms, using up oxygen in the water and creating unnaturally large dead zones—areas where dissolved oxygen levels in the water are so low aquatic creatures flee or die. Sediment from farms, roads, and construction sites further pollutes the bay.

This pollution creates multiple problems, including:

  • Low dissolved oxygen levels. All of the bay’s waters should meet state standards for dissolved oxygen. But dissolved oxygen levels are worse today than they were 10 years ago, when 30 percent of the bay’s deep areas met the dissolved oxygen goal of at least 5 parts per million. From 2006 to 2008, only 16 percent met that goal.
  • Depleted underwater grasses. The grasses, which provide important shelter for young fish and crabs, need sunlight to survive, but pollution-fed algae blooms block the light. A healthy bay would have 185,000 acres of underwater grasses; in 2008, it had slightly less than 77,000 acres of this critical habitat.

Pollution is not the only reason for the fisheries’ decline. Other factors, such as overfishing and competition from foreign imports, are also involved.  But low oxygen levels and the lack of underwater grasses harm the bay’s commercially valuable fish and shellfish in several ways:

  • The dead zones kill bottom-dwelling organisms that are food for fish and crabs.
  • Dead zones often kill crabs in their traps and limit the areas where watermen can catch crabs.
  • Dead zones force striped bass to leave the cool, deep water they prefer and into warmer water, which stresses their bodies, making them vulnerable to disease.
  • Without underwater grasses to hold bottom silt in place, sediments move into the water column. Oysters suffocate under layers of silt, and too much sediment in the water column may weaken oysters so much that they cannot fight off lethal diseases.

Historically, the bay supported commercial fisheries for oysters, soft shell clams, blue crabs and striped bass. The oyster and soft shell clam fisheries have collapsed. Since Maryland and Virginia lifted a moratorium on catching striped bass in 1990, low catch limits designed to protect the striped bass population have severely restricted the ability of watermen to harvest this species.  Crab harvests have fallen so steeply that in September 2008, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce declared the Chesapeake Bay commercial blue crab fishery an economic disaster.

As the commercial harvests fall, people and communities are suffering economic hardship, social upheaval and the loss of cherished traditions.

  • A Tilghman Island waterman built a seafood company that employed 100 clam- and oyster-shuckers. But after those two fisheries failed, the business shrank by four-fifths.
  • After the dead zone in the Chesapeake made it too difficult to catch live fish, a Chincoteague-based gill-net fisherman no longer fishes in the bay.
  • The women entrepreneurs of Smith Island are struggling to keep their crabmeat cooperative alive in the face of low harvests. Former co-workers, relatives and friends have left the island to work on the mainland as truck drivers or prison guards.
  • A seafood company on the Rappahannock River ships less and less fish to wholesale fish markets because watermen are catching fewer fish.
  • A bay community near Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge supported six grocery stores 15 years ago. Now it’s down to one grocery, and this summer the owner laid off an employee for the first time.
  • A ship’s carpenter has trained dozens of apprentices in the art of restoring the bay’s iconic skipjacks, but the apprentices have all left the bay area to work in out-of-state museums.
  • The owner of the oldest working skipjack on the bay can no longer make a living as a waterman. Instead, this third-generation waterman runs sailing trips for tourists, and grieves that his two sons have “gone to carpenters.”

Economists say the bay’s commercial fisheries are on the verge of extinction.  Healthy fisheries and healthy fishing communities are vital parts of the Chesapeake Bay region’s economy and heritage. To restore the health of the bay, federal and state governments must:

  • Strengthen limits on agricultural pollution, particularly related to large poultry and livestock operations.
  • Cut pollution from new and existing developments.
  • Provide adequate funding for wastewater treatment plants to meet a best available control technology standard.
  • Fully enforce pollution limits for all polluters.
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