Is Organic Farming Good for the Chesapeake? By Whitney Pipkin

Organic agriculture is the fastest growing sector of the food industry in the United States, and its footprint in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is growing in kind.

The brand of agriculture that eschews the use of pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and genetically engineered ingredients now makes up 20 percent of Perdue Farms’ poultry production on the Delmarva Peninsula, where the company is headquartered.

Smaller poultry producers in the region also are growing their organic operations at a steady clip: Bell & Evans, which is based in Fredericksburg, PA, and sells its chicken meat to high-end retailers such as Whole Foods Market, launched its line of organic products in 2009 and opened a certified organic hatchery this year.

Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley Organic opened its first poultry facility in Harrisonburg in 2014, providing contract feed growers interested in making the switch with an alternative buyer in that region.

As organic poultry production increases, so does the demand for organically grown grains to feed the birds, such as corn and soybeans, much of which comes from outside the country. But that’s beginning to change — and could represent a significant shift in land use for the Bay watershed. Perdue alone is buying organic grains grown on more than 13,000 acres of cropland across the region, and seeks much more.

The practices that earn poultry and grain producers the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic label may keep certain pesticides, antibiotics and hormones out of foods, but are they necessarily better for water quality and the Bay than conventional agriculture?

“The basic answer is, it depends on if you’re a good organic grower or not,” said Michel Cavigelli, lead scientist on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farming Systems Project in Beltsville, MD. “Not all organic is equal, and not all conventional is equal.”

Comparing organic and conventional practices on mid-Atlantic soils is just what Cavigelli’s team has been doing for more than 20 years. The project has measured the performance of conventional and organic cropping systems by applying the different management systems to fields planted with the same crops.

Nutrient runoff is one of several factors monitored that has implications for local water quality. When asked whether the growth of organic practices in the watershed could be good for the Bay, Cavigelli began with the caveats.

For starters, he said, each type of farming comes with tradeoffs: Conventional growers use genetically engineered seeds and herbicides to combat weeds; organic growers till their fields to suppress weeds, which can lead to erosion and nutrient runoff when compared with farms that practice no-till cultivation.

The project’s findings so far indicate that organic fields typically have less phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment runoff than conventional plots — unless those conventional plots are no-till. That, in part, is because organic farms tend to build organic matter in the soils over time, which helps fields retain water and nutrients. But some of that work is undone when an organic farmer, rather than using herbicides, tills the soil to prevent weeds.

About a quarter of cropland acres in the country are farmed using no-till practices, according to the latest U.S. Census of Agriculture in 2012. Another 20 percent of those acres were farmed with other “conservation-tillage” practices aimed at minimizing soil disturbances. Maryland farmers had the highest percentage of no-till acres at 55 percent in 2012.

“Based on our studies, no-till has less runoff of silt and nutrients than any other method we use, including organic,” Cavigelli said.

Since time immemorial, farmers have fertilized and plowed croplands in the spring to turn over the soil and prepare it for planting. But heavy spring rains can wash fertilizer and soil from bare fields. The nutrients from fertilizers and sediment from freshly plowed fields run off into nearby ditches and streams, eventually winding up in the Bay.

No-till farming, which began taking root after the 1930s Dust Bowl, leaves the soil undisturbed from the fall harvest through winter. In the spring, seeds are planted in narrow slots that are “drilled” into the ground.

Cavigelli’s research project has compared the different cultivation regimens using virtually the same crop rotations, patterned after most commodity-growing fields in the Bay region, over a three-year period: corn the first year, soybeans the second year and wheat the third. In the third year, the conventional fields, including tilled and no-till, follow the wheat with a quick crop of soybeans, which are harvested too late in the fall to allow a cover crop to be planted. The organic fields, in contrast, are planted in a perennial alfalfa after the third-year crop, so they have less nutrient runoff that year than all of the conventional fields.

In the short-term, the runoff-control benefits of no-till farming edge out organic. But if the organic crop rotation pattern is repeated for decades, using cover crops for longer periods, Cavigelli said, the organic fields could end up performing better on overall nutrient absorption.

“We’ve been improving conventional for 100 years now,” he said, referring to technological improvements that have reduced conventional farming’s impacts on water quality over time, “and organic for just 20 years or so. There are trade-offs between all these systems, but it seems there’s a lot of room for improvement with organic.”

Cavigelli acknowledges that his work focuses on just a few aspects of the many comparisons that can be drawn between the farming practices. There’s another factor to consider — fertilizer use.

Organic crops typically use less nitrogen to begin with, or rely on slow-release forms of nutrients, such as manure, which reduce the risk of nutrient runoff and leaching.

While organic advocates bring that up as a water-quality advantage, other research indicates organic farming practices can leach just as much nitrate as conventional farming systems if the goal is to maintain the same crop yields.

With manure application, “it’s more difficult to be prescriptive,” said Ken Staver, research scientist at the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “When you use chemical fertilizers, there are methods to apply it very precisely and to apply it closer to where the crop uptake is” to reduce nutrient loss.

But that comparison only holds true if the fields are planting the same crops. If organic agriculture does, in fact, plant more perennials such as alfalfa, Staver added, “that will always lower the nutrient loss.”

As a riverkeeper who grows organic grains for Perdue chickens on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Jeff Horstman views the intersection of agribusiness and water quality from a unique perspective. Horstman is the executive director of ShoreRivers, a new consolidation of watershed advocacy groups on the peninsula — the Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy, the Chester River Association and the Sassafras River Association.

Those organizations’ priorities have at times diverged from those of local poultry producers, to put it mildly. The Waterkeeper Alliance, the umbrella organization for riverkeeper groups like his, filed an unsuccessful federal lawsuit seven years ago accusing Perdue and one of its contract growers of polluting a Bay tributary. The case, dismissed by a judge after a lengthy trial, left a trail of lingering bitterness and suspicion between farmers and environmentalists.

But Horstman and others see in organic agriculture a growing opportunity to find common ground. “I moved back to the family farm and one of the things I wanted to do was become an organic farmer,” said Horstman — whose grandfather, J. I. Rodale, founded the Rodale Institute, a nonprofit devoted to organic farming research in Kutztown, PA. “I appreciate what Perdue does for the Shore and how they’re trying to cultivate organic.” he said. “I think agricultural diversity is good, and organic is a step toward that.”

This fall, the farmland Horstman inherited on the Wye River in Queenstown produced its first crop of organic corn — 170 acres of it — to be sold to Perdue for chicken feed.

Perdue got into organic poultry with its purchase of Coleman Natural Foods in 2011. In response to growing consumer demand, Perdue has since converted a poultry plant in Milford, DE, and a feed mill in Hurlock, MD, to process only certified organic products. The company has also banned the use of antibiotics by all its producers, not just organic operations.

The company has been spreading the word among local growers that it needs organic grains — and that the price is right. This season, farmers could get close to $10 per bushel for organic corn, which can come with lower yields, compared with $3 a bushel for conventional. But a farmer who decides to grow organically on a piece of land in 2017 typically would have to wait until 2020 to sell its first organic crop because of a three-year transition period required by the organic label.

Even with the lag, Perdue expects to have purchased 7,000 acres of organic corn, 3,600 acres of organic soybeans and 2,700 acres of organic wheat from Bay watershed states this year, company spokesman Joe Forsthoffer said. Most of Perdue’s organic grains are currently imported from growers in South America.

“The nice thing about the larger outfits like Perdue is, because they need it and have the capacity, they’re willing to do a contract that reduces your risk and locks in a price early,” said Matt Nielsen, the farmer who’s growing organic grains on Horstman’s land.

Nielsen, 33, also has 75 acres of his own land in organic production and is looking for more organic acreage to farm. He thinks 250 acres or so would be enough to achieve some economies of scale and would also allow him to diversify. He’d like to pasture animals on some acres that aren’t fit for crops and leave several fields at a time in perennial grasses to combat weeds.

But is all that better than the alternative when it comes to local water quality?

“The soil will truly benefit from a lot of different types of agriculture,” Nielsen said. “I’m not sure if you can conclusively rule organic as better or worse, but I do know that there are things we do in organic that have benefits.”

For Horstman, growing organic grains is a good place to start — both for his family farm and for the local water quality he’s concerned with protecting. Like the consumers who are fueling the organic industry’s growth, Horstman is concerned about the environmental and health impacts of conventional agriculture: its reliance on pesticides and herbicides and the way it bolsters an intensified approach to both grain and meat production.

“It’s definitely going to be better for human health, and I think less herbicides and pesticides in the water is definitely an improvement,” he said. “I do think it will be better for the Bay.”

Steve Levitsky, Perdue’s vice president of sustainability, said the company’s ultimate goal is to make organic poultry more affordable for consumers — and sourcing more organic grains from the Bay watershed, rather than overseas, will help.

“Part of the equation is getting more organic [feed] grown on the Eastern Shore,” he said. “That would also help the local grain farmers get higher premiums for their crops, and maybe they won’t need as large of a land mass to be viable.”

Perdue growers produced almost 40 million organic chickens in the Bay region in 2016, or 20 percent of the company’s regional production, with 80 percent of those houses in the Lancaster region of Pennsylvania and the rest on the Eastern Shore.

There are several reasons that organic chicken costs more at the grocery store, and some of them have stronger links to environmental benefits than others. Most of that extra cost is attributable to organic chicken feed, which can cost two to four times as much as conventional. Organic poultry houses also include comparatively expensive amenities, such as windows, “enrichment” equipment and access to the outdoors.

Alicia LaPorte, campaign manager for Fair Farms Maryland, a coalition of environmental and public health groups that advocate for better farming systems, said Perdue’s operation-wide antibiotics ban changed the industry, with other retailers and producers following suit. That gives her hope that other incremental changes, including the continued growth of organic production.

Fair Farms founder Betsy Nicholas, who’s also the executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake, said more organic options in the watershed might be a step in the right direction for local farmers and water quality — but one that still doesn’t go far enough.

Nicholas points to a growing number of small farms, organic and conventional, that are raising animals on pastures, rather than growing feed for them on the Eastern Shore and selling them to local markets.

“It’s absolutely better to have more organic than non-organic farming, [considering] pesticides alone,” she said. “But, ultimately, what we’d want to see is a more diverse agricultural system with more diverse crops. If you have a system that’s based on animal agriculture and the grain crops to feed that animal agriculture, that’s not a diverse system.”

Whitney Pipkin writes at the intersection of food, agriculture and the environment from her home base in Northern Virginia. She is a fellow of the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources.

Cambridge Residents Invited to Kick-Off Event for Cannery Park

The Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC) and its project partners will host two community design charrettes, as well as a project kick-off event, to celebrate and gather community input for Cannery Park. The park, which will be located adjacent to the former Phillips Packing Co.’s last remaining building (soon to be known as The Packing House), is the culmination of a planning and funds-seeking process that has been in the works for approximately seven years.

The media kick-off event will happen at 11am on Tuesday, January 23rd at 411 Dorchester Avenue. All residents, local businesses, and members of the media are encouraged to attend to find out more about the future park, and about Parker Rodriguez – the Alexandria, VA-based landscape architecture firm that has been selected to design and create Cannery Park.

The two community design charrettes will be open to the public in an effort to capture feedback and input on the design of Cannery Park’s master plan, as well as to provide updates on Cambridge’s newest public space. The first charrette will be held from 6:30 to 7:30pm on Tuesday, January 23rd at the Cambridge Empowerment Center, located at 615 B Pine Street. The second charrette will be held at 6:30pm on Thursday, January 25th at the Public Safety Building, located at 8 Washington Street.

Along with ESLC staff, members from the City of Cambridge, Dorchester County, Cross Street Partners, and Parker Rodriguez will be in attendance during all of the week’s events. The restoration of Cambridge Creek, along with the removal of an inactive railroad line so as to create a rail trail connecting the park to downtown, will be among the first action items in the creation of the new park.

Parker Rodriguez was founded in 1996 as a full service land planning, landscape architecture, and urban design firm serving public and private clients across the U.S. The firm has a strong record of working in close collaboration with public planners, citizens, architects, and artists during its projects, which has led to landscape design that is imaginative, sensitive to the community, and authentic to place – all reasons that the firm was selected from the many who submitted proposals. The firm is also known to be deeply informed by principles of sustainability, believing that good design and ecological effectiveness are not mutually exclusive.

For more information about the media event on January 23rd, please contact ESLC’s Communication Manager David Ferraris at dferraris@eslc.org or 410.690.4603 x165. For questions regarding the community design charrettes, please contact ESLC’s Community Projects Manager Elizabeth Carter at ecarter@eslc.org or 410.690.4603 x152.

Eastern Shore Land Conservancy

Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC) is a 501(c)3 nonprofit land conservation organization committed to preserving and sustaining the vibrant communities of the Eastern Shore and the lands and waters that connect them. More at www.eslc.org.

Bay Ecosystem:Tangier Island Recovers from Icy Grip

As temperatures on the Chesapeake Bay dropped as low as 9 degrees early this month, a barricade of ice up to 10 inches thick formed around Tangier Island, preventing boats from bringing groceries, medicine and other supplies to the 722 residents on that speck of Virginia off the Eastern Shore.

Fortunately, a variety of agencies came to the rescue — the U.S. Coast Guard out of Maryland, the Virginia National Guard and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources organized emergency ice-breaking operations to free Tangier Island.

Nearly two weeks after the snowstorm, regular activity on the waters around Tangier resumed Wednesday, and the mail delivery ferry went out to Tangier’s residents for the first time Thursday morning.

“We’re happy to help with what is really life-saving work,” said Gregg Bortz, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Tangier is located in the Chesapeake Bay and consists of three villages — Ewell, Tylerton and Rhodes Point. The island depends on boats for mail and shipments, and single-digit temperatures and thick ice made that impossible.

Tangier Island falls within the Coast Guard’s 5th District, which includes Maryland and Virginia.

“The Coast Guard has a history of providing assistance to Tangier,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Ronald Hodges. “The organizations that responded to Tangier Island were based on the availability of assets with ice-breaking capabilities.”

Then the Virginia National Guard flew in from Richmond, making two trips to deliver additional food.

Island officials sought assistance from the Coast Guard, which sent the cutter Chock on Jan. 3. The ship conducted ice breaking and supply delivery until Jan. 5, Hodges said.

“The Chock had to be redirected to break ice in another area, and second request was submitted to the Coast Guard by Tangier for assistance,” Hodges said. “The Coast Guard was unable to facilitate the request, and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management took over relief duties.”

According to Bortz, a 100-foot Maryland icebreaker, the J. Millard-Tawes, was brought in from Crisfield, Maryland, 13 1/2 miles from Tangier.

Clearing a path, he said, was “the primary goal.”

The Maryland DNR was called to the island last in 2015. Bortz said the U.S. Coast Guard primarily responds to Tangier while Maryland DNR focuses on helping nearby Smith Island, Maryland.

Capt. Eddie Somers of the J. Millard-Tawes was part of the rescue team that met trucks of supplies at the city docks in Crisfield and took the two-hour journey to Tangier.

Besides the Tawes, the Maryland DNR has three ice-breaking vessels — the John C. Widener in Annapolis, A.V. Sandusky in Kent Narrows and Big Lou on the Choptank River.

Tangier Mayor James Eskridge said the island hasn’t experienced ice like this in many years. The community, he added, always pulls together.

“Some 40 years ago, folks would have bonfires and go ice skating,” he said. “This was the closest to an ice storm we’ve had since then.”

By Sophia Belletti and Katie Bashista.

Photos from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources 

CBF Notes: How About Home-Grown Oysters and Wine?

Crabs and Old Bay. Rockfish and lemon butter. Crab cakes and tartar sauce. The bounty of the Chesapeake Bay presents plenty of delectable combinations.

What about a new tradition: home-grown oysters and wine?

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) invites you to “Oysters & Wine on the Eastern Shore” on Sunday, Jan. 21 from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. to learn how this unconventional pair is perfect together, and also to learn about oyster farming on the Shore, and other oyster-related issues.

The event will be held at the Eastern Shore Conservation Center, 114 South Washington Street, Easton.

Oyster aquaculture is a rapidly growing industry on the Shore, thanks in part to a 2010 change in state policy that created new opportunities for oyster farming. The state has approved about 400 shellfish aquaculture leases for 173 different leaseholders covering about 6,100 acres. It’s a $5 million industry, and growing, with production increased 1,000 percent since 2012.

Listen to local oyster growers tell their stories, and enjoy a selection of farmed oysters paired with a variety of wines, champagne, and craft beer. Heavy hors d’oeuvres, Smith Island cake, music by local favorite Kentavious Jones, and a CBF membership are all included in the ticket price–$35 with advance purchase at cbf.org/oystersandwine.

Oysters will be featured from Orchard Point Oyster Company, Hoopers Island Oyster Company, and Madhouse Oysters. Representatives from those oyster farms will be present to speak and answer questions. Oyster policy experts and scientists will also be on hand to provide information.

Johnny Shockley, a founding partner in Hoopers Island Oyster Company, recently hosted staff and board members from CBF at his new hatchery, the state’s first large private oyster hatchery built in decades. The 12,000-square-foot building is a sign of the potential growth in the industry on the Shore. The company plans to produce 700 million oyster larvae a year, some of which will be used to grow its own oysters, and some of which will be sold to other growers. Hoopers just announced the beginning of such sales this month.

A third-generation waterman from Hoopers Island, Shockley crabbed and harvested wild oysters for 30 years. His goal is not only to grow the aquaculture industry in Maryland, but also to revive the local Eastern Shore economy, and help create a sustainable oyster population.

If you are like us, you will find Johnny’s remarks, as well as those of other oyster farmers, fascinating. They also will show you the best way to eat an oyster. There’s more to it than you might think!

Tom Zolper is the assistant media director at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Count Maryland In: Hogan Announces State will join Coalition to Fight Climate Change by Tim Wheeler

Declaring that the need for states to work together to fight climate change “grows stronger every day,” nnounced Wednesday that Maryland would join the U.S. Climate Alliance, a mostly Democratic coalition of states committed to reducing greenhouse gases.

The move, disclosed in a letter released by Hogan’s office, represents a shift for the Republican governor, who had remained noncommittal to pleas last year for Maryland to join the alliance, saying he wasn’t sure what the group’s intentions were.

In the letter to the alliance, Hogan recalled that he had publicly disagreed with President Donald Trump’s decision last year to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate accord reached by nearly 200 nations, including the United States.

The governor’s announcement comes on the heels of another move to distance himself from the Trump administration’s rollback of environmental regulations and initiatives. On Monday, Hogan’s office released a letter by Ben Grumbles, his secretary of the environment, opposing the Trump administration’s proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan, the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions from power plants adopted by the Obama administration.

For much of last year, Hogan had been sparing in his public comments, pro or con, on the Trump administration, something Democrats had relentlessly highlighted. But Hogan is seeking re-election this year in a state where voters are overwhelmingly registered Democrats, and where surveys show they tend to support environmental protections.

Some had pressed Hogan last June to join the alliance, a group of 15 states — including Delaware, New York and Virginia in the Bay watershed — that have pledged to curb greenhouse gases in accordance with the 2016 Paris agreement.

Hogan rebuffed those calls then by saying Maryland’s clean air standards were already more stringent than those called for in the Paris deal. He reiterated that stance in the letter Wednesday, but indicated that his views about the need for state action have changed.

“The importance of aggressive but balanced action in states, communities and businesses, and the need for multi-state collaboration and international leadership on climate change, grows stronger every day,” Hogan wrote.

His chief reason for joining the alliance, the governor said, will be to urge all states to adopt air quality standards and greenhouse gas reduction goals as strong as Maryland’s.

The state is on track to meet a goal set in 2009 of reducing climate-altering emissions 25 percent by 2020, and is working on a plan to reduce emissions even further — by 40 percent by 2030.

Hogan’s pledge to join the Climate Alliance drew a mixed reaction from environmentalists, who are continuing to press for even stronger climate action in Maryland.

Karla Raettig, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, applauded the Hogan administration’s decisions to address climate change as the federal government balks. But she added that Maryland can “continue to lead on climate” by increasing renewable energy production in the state even more.

Mike Tidwell, executive director of Chesapeake Climate Action Network, saw nothing to praise, arguing that Hogan should have joined the alliance months ago. “Why did it take so long?” he asked. “What evidence was he weighing?”

Tidwell charged that Hogan had been similarly slow to publicly criticize the Trump administration’s move to withdraw the Clean Power Plan. “[Hogan] has never embraced the single-most powerful tool for reducing carbon pollution in the state — the renewable portfolio standard,” Tidwell said. That standard, adopted in some form by 30 states, requires electricity generators to produce a portion of their power from renewable sources.

In 2016, Hogan vetoed legislation that increased Maryland’s renewable energy requirement from 20 percent to 25 percent by 2020, saying it would force citizens to pay for “overly expensive” solar and wind energy credits. The Democrat-dominated General Assembly overrode that veto last year.

New legislation is being introduced this year that, if passed, would raise the goal to 50 percent renewable power by 2030. Environmental activists rallied at the State House Wednesday in support of that bill.

Timothy B. Wheeler is managing editor and project writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for the Baltimore Sun and other media outlets.

Bay Ecosystem: Ocean Deoxygenation Changes Pose Real Threat to Marine Ecosystems by Amy Pelsinsky

An international team of scientists warns that the ocean may run out of breath unless action is taken to rein in climate change and nutrient pollution. In the first sweeping look at the causes, consequences and solutions to low oxygen worldwide, published in Science, researchers reveal that the amount of oxygen in the world’s oceans and coastal waters is steadily decreasing.

The oxygen content of the open ocean and coastal waters has been declining for at least the past half century as a result of human activities that have increased global temperatures and nutrients discharged to coastal waters.

“Oxygen is fundamental to life in the oceans,” said Denise Breitburg, lead author and marine ecologist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. “The decline in ocean oxygen ranks among the most serious effects of human activities on the Earth’s environment.”

In the past 50 years, the amount of water in the open ocean with zero oxygen has gone up more than fourfold. In coastal water bodies, including estuaries and seas, low-oxygen sites have increased more than 10-fold since 1950. For the upper ocean, oxygen and heat content are highly correlated for the period of 1958-2015 with sharp increases in both deoxygenation and ocean heat content beginning in the mid 1980s.

Many areas around the globe are looking at how we used sound science to make wise environmental management decisions to improve the water quality of Chesapeake Bay.

The study came from a team of scientists from GO2NE (Global Ocean Oxygen Network), a new working group created in 2016 by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission that includes Mike Roman and Kenny Rose from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Horn Point Laboratory.

The review paper is the first to take such a sweeping look at the causes, consequences and solutions to low oxygen worldwide, in both the open ocean and coastal waters. The article highlights the biggest dangers to the ocean and society, and what it will take to keep Earth’s waters healthy and productive.

The Stakes

In areas traditionally called “dead zones,” like those in Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, oxygen plummets to levels so low many animals suffocate and die. As fish avoid these zones, their habitats shrink and they become more vulnerable to predators or fishing. But the problem goes far beyond “dead zones,” the authors point out.

Even smaller oxygen declines can stunt growth in animals, hinder reproduction and lead to disease or even death. It also can trigger the release of dangerous chemicals such as nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas up to 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, and toxic hydrogen sulfide. While some animals can thrive in dead zones, overall biodiversity falls.

The ongoing recovery of Chesapeake Bay, where nitrogen pollution has dropped 24 percent since its peak thanks to better sewage treatment, better farming practices and successful laws like the Clean Air Act, is an example of what’s possible to reverse this trend. While some low-oxygen zones persist, the area of the Chesapeake with zero oxygen has almost disappeared.

“Many areas around the globe are looking at how we used sound science to make wise environmental management decisions to improve the water quality of Chesapeake Bay,” said Roman, co-author of the report and director of the UMCES’ Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge, Maryland.

Climate change is the key culprit in the open ocean. Warming surface waters make it harder for oxygen to reach the ocean interior. Furthermore, as the ocean as a whole gets warmer, it holds less oxygen. In coastal waters, excess nutrient pollution from land creates algal blooms, which drain oxygen as they die and decompose. In an unfortunate twist, animals also need more oxygen in warmer waters, even as it is disappearing.

People’s livelihoods are also on the line, the scientists reported, especially in developing nations. Smaller, artisanal fisheries may be unable to relocate when low oxygen destroys their harvests or forces fish to move elsewhere. In the Philippines, fish kills in a single town’s aquaculture pens cost more than $10 million. Coral reefs, a key tourism attraction in many countries, also can waste away without enough oxygen.

Some popular fisheries could benefit, at least in the short term. Nutrient pollution can stimulate production of food for fish. In addition, when fish are forced to crowd to escape low oxygen, they can become easier to catch. But in the long run, this could result in overfishing and damage to the economy.

“Getting the effects of low oxygen on fish populations and supporting food webs correct, especially as it worsens, will enable more effective analyses and decisions on how to sustainably manage many fisheries, from artisanal that support local communities to large-scale industrial fisheries,” said Rose, a co-author of the report and a professor at Horn Point Laboratory.

Winning the War: A Three-Pronged Approach

To keep low oxygen in check, the scientists said the world needs to take on the issue from three angles:

Address the causes: nutrient pollution and climate change. While neither issue is simple or easy, the steps needed to win can benefit people as well as the environment. Better septic systems and sanitation can protect human health and keep pollution out of the water. Cutting fossil fuel emissions not only cuts greenhouse gases and fights climate change, but also slashes dangerous air pollutants like mercury.

Protect vulnerable marine life. With some low oxygen unavoidable, it is crucial to protect at-risk fisheries from further stress. According to the GO2NE team, this could mean creating marine protected areas or no-catch zones in areas animals use to escape low oxygen, or switching to fish that are not as threatened by falling oxygen levels.

Improve low-oxygen tracking worldwide. Scientists have a decent grasp of how much oxygen the ocean could lose in the future, but they do not know exactly where those low-oxygen zones will be. Enhanced monitoring, especially in developing countries, and numerical models will help pinpoint which places are most at risk and determine the most effective solutions.

The Global Ocean Oxygen Network (GO2NE) is a scientific working group organized by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, part of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Established in 2016, its scientists from around the world are committed to providing a global and multidisciplinary view of deoxygenation, advising policymakers on countering low oxygen and preserving marine resources.

Amy Pelsinsky is Director of Communications at  the University Of Maryland’s Center For Environmental Science. For more information please go here

 

Pickering Creek EcoCamp: Winter Edition Sign Up Opens

Summertime is months away and, it seems even further away when you are stuck inside escaping the cold. Help your stir-crazy young ones by sending them to Pickering Creek Audubon Center during a school vacation day.

This winter, Pickering Creek will be offering two single day camps during Talbot County Public School no school days. Survivor Village on Friday, January 26th is for 5th to 7th graders and Animal Olympics on Monday, February 19th (President’s Day) for 2nd to 4th graders. Both days will focus on outdoor exploration and teambuilding.

Pickering Creek will be offering single day camps (modeled from their popular summer camp) during school vacation days this winter.

During Survivor Village, campers will learn how to explore nature during the cold outside temperatures. They will be building winter shelters, learning to track animals, and practice orienteering. The day will end with a large group scavenger hunt for survival supplies and a lesson and practice on safe camp fire building.

Animal Olympics in February will be celebrating our local animal athletes. While records are breaking during the Winter Olympics, we’ll be outside learning about the extreme skills of the animal world. Campers will see who can build the warmest shelter, find and collect the most food, and quickly move their “flock” to safety.

Both days are from 8:30 am to 5:30 pm, $60 per camper, at Pickering Creek Audubon Center. Limited transportation from Easton to Pickering Creek will be available at 8:00 am with drop-off at 6:00 pm. Space is limited and you must sign up in advance. Call the office at 410-822-4903 for more information and to sign up.

Exelon: Analysis Shows Conowingo Revenues Insufficient to Fund Additional Sediment Mitigation

Providing clean, reliable and affordable electricity has been the paramount focus for Exelon Generation and the Conowingo Dam for the last 90 years.

In December 2017, The Chesapeake Bay Foundation in conjunction with The Nature Conservancy released a statement and accompanying report by Energy & Environmental Economics (E3) that incorrectly assessed the economic status of the Conowingo Dam. The NorthBridge Group, performed a detailed analysis of the E3 report and found that the E3 conclusions are fundamentally flawed due to a gross over-estimation of the future revenues of the Conowingo Dam.

The E3 report inaccurately inflates future revenues in two ways. First, the report greatly overestimates the dam’s capacity revenue, which Conowingo earns for being available as an electricity resource. The dam’s capacity revenue going forward is expected to be roughly 80 percent less than the E3 report estimate. Second, the report bases Conowingo’s future revenues on 2013 energy prices, which are much higher than today’s prices and expected future energy prices. Energy prices in the market available to Conowingo were 30-45 percent lower in 2016 and 2017 versus 2013, yet the E3 report ignored this fact.

When the E3 analysis is run using current information, the analysis demonstrates that Conowingo’s revenues are not even high enough to cover costs plus an adequate return, let alone sufficient to fund additional contributions for sediment. Conowingo provides significant benefits to the region, as confirmed by more than 50 studies since 2010.

As a member of the Chesapeake Bay community, Exelon Generation remains steadfast in our commitment to helping identify the most effective ways to address the health of the Bay.

Exelon Generation
Kennett Square, PA

 

NorthBridge Group Report

Bay Oysters increasingly Resistant to Diseases

Oysters come to the Cooperative Oxford Laboratory for a checkup. But they never go home, even if they’re in peak health. They’ve sacrificed their goopy gray bodies to science.

The federal-state lab in the former fishing village of Oxford on Maryland’s Eastern Shore is where government scientists examine oysters and other fish for parasites, diseases and any other maladies that may be afflicting populations in the wild.

The low brick building was built in 1960, on the heels of a major oyster die-off in the Chesapeake Bay attributed in large part to a mysterious new disease called MSX. Since then, the lab has been engaged in a long-running effort in both Maryland and Virginia to track and understand MSX and another disease, Dermo.

Both are single-celled parasites that target oysters, but uncharacteristically can kill their hosts — in a matter of weeks in the worst cases. Dermo was first detected in the Bay in 1949, though it may have been here long before that. MSX first popped up in Delaware Bay in 1957 and in the southern Chesapeake two years later. Precisely how it’s transmitted remains unknown.

Both diseases have repeatedly ravaged Chesapeake oysters over the last five decades, and remain a major concern for the future of the estuary’s keystone shellfish. It is not only a source of income for watermen, but also a prolific water filterer and a builder of reef habitat for other fish and aquatic creatures.

Hundreds of oysters collected by Maryland Department of Natural Resources biologists during their annual reef survey are brought to the Oxford lab every fall. Once there, tissue samples are taken and processed, with cross-sections of the animal sliced thinner than a human hair, then stained purple, pink and blue-black and studied under a microscope.

“You see this pink coloration?” pathologist Carol McCollough asked as she pointed to one slide showing the cross section of an oyster’s internal organs magnified on a screen. The small blot in the oyster’s intestinal tract indicated that its blood cells were responding to something foreign, she explained. “There’s MSX in that area.”

That’s a much less frequent sight in the oysters examined these days at Oxford —and at its counterpart at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point. Once a scourge of the Bay, especially its saltier waters, MSX has receded, and though still found infecting some oysters in some places — 11 percent on average in Maryland last year — it’s nothing like it used to be.

Dermo, on the other hand, remains widespread — nearly two-thirds of the oysters collected from Maryland’s Bay waters in the fall of 2016 had it. But Dermo doesn’t appear to be as lethal as it was in the past, either.

“The trend that we’re really seeing is that the mortality consequences of those disease pressures seem to be fairly consistently less than they were in previous years,” said Chris Dungan, a DNR research scientist who oversees the Oxford lab’s oyster evaluations.

Although there’s no direct evidence, Dungan said he and others think that the decline in dead oysters found in surveys “reflects increasing resistance to those diseases . . . by the process of natural selection.”

Ryan Carnegie, Dungan’s counterpart at the Virginia lab, said that, although it’s largely circumstantial, he also sees evidence that oysters have developed resistance to becoming infected by MSX. And there are indications, he added, that they’ve developed an ability to tolerate Dermo without succumbing to it.

MSX was once rampant among oysters in the saltier Bay waters in Virginia, but now, Carnegie said, “we do not see much MSX at all . . . which suggests they are resisting the parasite from colonizing their tissues.”

Dermo levels seen by Virginia’s fall survey so far appear to be normal, Carnegie said, though it’s a relatively new normal. Disease levels the last decade or so, he noted, have been higher than they were in the 1990s, the last time there was a major outbreak.

“The baseline for Dermo levels in the Bay has increased,” Carnegie said, “yet the oysters are doing better and better. . . . They’re not allowing themselves to be completely overrun by the parasite.”

That’s a big deal, he added, because at its peak, MSX was killing 90 percent of the oysters it infected in the Bay, and Dermo was killing 70 percent of those it infected — every year.

One of Carnegie’s graduate students, Lauren Huey, is looking into another phenomenon that may be a byproduct of oysters’ growing ability to tolerate Dermo: even though they’re infected, they’re ramping up their ability to reproduce.

Since 2003, around the time of the last major Dermo outbreak in the Bay, Carnegie said that research shows infected oysters have been able to increase their egg production.

“We don’t fully understand how they’re doing it,” he said, but it’s clear that oysters are living longer in the Bay than they used to. As a result of that longevity, they’re reaching bigger sizes and producing more eggs.

Carnegie cautioned that the Bay’s oysters aren’t going to be free of the specter of disease anytime soon. “It’s still a dominant factor influencing oysters,” he said, “but the oysters are starting to regain control of the situation and they’re doing much better.

“This has taken decades, and it’s a long race,” he concluded. The key to continued progress may lie, he suggested, in protecting the continued survival of those oysters that apparently have the right genes to fend off or tolerate the diseases.

For Bay scientists and managers, Carnegie said, “It’s a matter of promoting policies that are going to help the oyster help itself as it fights these parasites.”

To some, that may sound like leaving a significant number of bigger, older oysters unharvested so they can produce offspring — the intent behind establishing sanctuaries.

Timothy B. Wheeler is managing editor and project writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for the Baltimore Sun and other media outlets.

Volunteers Needed for 2018 Eagle Survey on Blackwater NWR

Join Refuge staff and volunteers for this annual survey of eagles on the refuge!  This is part of a nationwide survey effort that has been monitoring eagle populations for over 30 years.  Last year a total of 138 eagles were counted during the morning survey on the refuge.  This year’s count will be held on Wednesday January 10, 2018.  The rain date will be January 11, 2018.  On the day of the survey participants will meet at the Blackwater NWR Visitor Center on Key Wallace Drive at 8 am.  Binoculars are available for loan during the survey.  For more information or to register to participate in the survey, please contact Kathy Slaughter by email at kathypaul548@comcast.net or by phone at (410) 463-0890.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, located on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, protects over 29,000 acres of rich tidal marsh, mixed hardwood and pine forest, managed freshwater wetlands and cropland for a diversity of wildlife.  To learn more, visit our website at www.fws.gov/refuge/blackwater or @BlackwaterNWR.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals, and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit http://www.fws.gov/. Connect with our Facebook page, follow our tweets, watch our YouTube Channel and download photos from our Flickr page.