Survey Finds Bay Crab Population Strong with Record Number Of Females

Boosted in part by a record number of female blue crabs, the Bay’s crab population remained strong through the winter — something scientists say bodes well both for the crustaceans and those who catch and love to eat them.

Overall, the annual winter dredge survey conducted by Maryland and Virginia estimated that the Bay held 455 million crabs, a decrease from last year’s tally of 553 million. Most of the drop was attributed to a falloff in juvenile crab numbers, which are both more variable and harder to survey.

But survey results released Wednesday showed that the number of female crabs — which have been the focus of conservation efforts for nearly a decade — reached 254 million, a 31 percent increase over last year, and their highest level in the survey’s 28-year history.

As a result, fishery managers expect solid harvests this spring and into early summer, buoyed by the large number of adult crabs from last year. But they warn that the low number of juveniles “recruiting” into the overall population may require some harvest restrictions when the young crabs start reaching market size later this year.

“I’m pretty confident the stock is solid,” said Rom Lipcius, of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who helps oversee the annual survey. “But we need to be careful. We can’t just open up the fishery and stuff, especially with what appears to be lower recruitment.”

The survey, conducted in the winter when crabs are normally dormant on the bottom, is a closely watched indicator of the status of the Bay’s most valuable fishery. State fishery managers typically tweak catch levels, both up and down, based on the results compiled by VIMS and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

For instance, the states imposed catch restrictions to reduce the Baywide harvest 10 percent in 2014, when the survey revealed the number of females had sharply dropped. But managers have also eased restrictions when the crabs are found to be more plentiful, as they did last year.

While there have been ups and downs from year to year, survey data show that blue crab abundance has trended upward overall since 2008, when scientists warned the population was dangerously close to collapse. Maryland and Virginia acted together then to impose harvest limits on female crabs, allowing more to survive and reproduce.

Though the total number of crabs was down in this year’s survey, compared to last year, it was still the third highest since 2008.

Harvests have rebounded as well. An estimated 60 million crabs were caught Baywide last year, up from 50 million in 2015, and the record-low of 35 million a year earlier.

“I feel optimistic in the grand scheme of things,” said John M.R. Bull, commissioner of the Virginian Marine Resources Commission. “The trend line is that the stock has improved, and the harvest has improved at the same time.”

This year was the second time since 2008 when the number of female crabs exceeded the Bay target of 215 million recommended by scientists. It was only the third time in the history of the winter dredge survey that it had exceeded that mark.

“The good news is we’ve got a bunch of momma crabs out there,” said Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association. “Hopefully, they hatch out good.”

Watermen in some areas have been reporting catching a lot of female crabs, Brown said, to the point that some are shifting their gear to try to find more males.

One concern voiced by scientists and fishery managers was the relative dearth of young crabs in the survey. The 125 million baby crabs estimated this winter was the lowest since 2013, and the second lowest since 2007.

Scientists cautioned that the juvenile numbers have the highest level of uncertainty in the survey because the small crabs sometimes move into shallow water where they are hard to find.

Other factors can contribute to wide swings in juvenile numbers, Lipcius said. Juveniles spend the first several weeks of their lives drifting in the ocean after they are spawned, and weather conditions greatly affect the number that return to the Bay. Those that return can suffer heavy predation from fish, and even cannibalism from adult crabs.

“One low year of [juvenile] crabs is not by itself a danger sign,” said Tom Miller, a fisheries scientist and director of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. But, Miller cautioned, two years in a row of low numbers would be cause for concern.

Fishery managers in both states said they may consider action to protect seemingly sparse juveniles, perhaps by curbing catches later this fall and next spring when they reach market size. That would increase the chances that more of them would survive to reproduce and support future harvests.

“We need to be prepared for the challenges ahead of us as it relates to the juveniles,” said Mike Luisi, assistant director of fisheries and boating services with the Maryland DNR. “We want to make sure that we’re not overharvesting on that lower abundance.”

Matt Ogburn, a fisheries scientist who works with blue crabs at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, MD, said the fact that crab numbers have generally risen in recent years, along with harvests, offers “a good example of how fairly conservative management actions can actually lead to increases in the fishery.”

“As short-lived as they are, blue crab populations can decline very quickly if you’re not careful,” Ogburn said. “But they can also come back quickly if you are conservative about the management. And I think the last decade has proven that out.”

Nonetheless, those decisions can be difficult. A longtime crab manager with the Maryland DNR, Brenda Davis, was fired earlier this year after a group of Eastern Shore watermen complained about her unwillingness to ease crab harvest rules. The firing prompted outrage, and a legislative hearing in Annapolis.

“It’s almost more difficult, scientifically, to manage a rebounding fishery,” said Miller, “because it’s a question of how much is enough . . . if we change the regulations, how much is that going to impact the harvest?”

The winter dredge survey has been conducted annually since 1990 by scientists in Maryland and Virginia, who tally crabs dredged from the bottom at 1,500 sites across the Bay from December through March — when they are buried in mud and stationary. Historically, the survey has provided an accurate snapshot of crab abundance, and is the primary tool for assessing the health of the crab stock.

Karl Blankenship is editor of the Bay Journal and executive director of Chesapeake Media Service. He has served as editor of the Bay Journal since its inception in 1991.

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.

Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Hangs it Up for Politics

There has been a change of the guard for the Lower Susquehanna River. Michael Helfrich, the first Riverkeeper for the bottom half of the Chesapeake Bay’s largest tributary, is leaving after 12 years, to pursue a career in politics.

Already a part-time York, PA, city councilman and president of the five-member municipal governing body, Helfrich vacated his full-time Riverkeeper post on April 1 to run for mayor of his hometown.

“After nearly 12 years of having my focus and energy spread out over 9,215 square miles of Lower Susquehanna issues — and issues of the Chesapeake Bay — I’m now going to focus my energy on the 5.2 square miles of York City,” Helfrich says.

Helfrich, 47, says he’d rather not identify his successor until the Riverkeeper board of directors signs off on a work contract. But a photograph posted on his Facebook page from his going-away party in late March shows Helfrich exchanging chugs from a jug of Susquehanna River water with Ted Evgeniadis, current treasurer of the organization, avid fisherman and a veteran of many watershed improvement activities. Also, Evgeniadis confirmed that he’ll be the new riverkeeper.

“He’s passing me the torch,” Evgeniadis says. “And I’m going to run with it to support all of the efforts and accomplishments that Mike has made over the past 12 years.” Evgeniadis and Helfrich have worked together on water quality issues in York since 2011.

Helfrich founded the Codorus Creek Improvement Partnership in 2001. It organized citizens around a section of the creek, once known as the Inky Stinky, which flows through the community of nearly 44,000 people, according to the 2010 Census.
During the organization’s first three years, volunteers and partners formed waterway pollution patrols, removed more than 150 tons of trash from the creek, and brought attention — and legal actions — against polluters. The Codorus does not stink as much anymore, partially as a result of a 2001 settlement of a lawsuit filed by York city residents against York-based paper company P.H. Glatfelter Co. to clean up effluent from its paper mill upstream from the city. Following the lawsuit, Helfrich worked with Glatfelter on Codorus Creek improvement projects.

In 2005 Helfrich set his sights on bigger waters — the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay — when he founded the group Stewards of the Susquehanna and became a licensed Riverkeeper. Since then, he’s spent countless hours surveying the river from the back roads of south central Pennsylvania and paddling in it and its tributaries. When not in his clunky Subaru station wagon or his kayak, Helfrich was in Harrisburg or Washington, D.C., lobbying someone to do something, or in some policy meeting with state officials. Depending on a person’s position, Helfrich was seen as either an annoyance or a strong voice at these meetings. Either way, he was always a gadfly.

“The work of a Riverkeeper is not for the faint of heart,” says Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake. “The hours are long, the work is endless, and there is strife and conflict at many turns. . . . Michael Helfrich has been fighting for his river for twelve years — and has pushed back against a host of different pollution sources.”

Sometimes the struggle brings results. Helfrich joined other groups pressuring PPL Electric Utilities and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to investigate thermal pollution from an electric utility linked to several large fish kills in 2006. After a lengthy process and pressure, PPL agreed to invest $120 million in upgrades to the Brunner Island steam electricity plant on the Susquehanna between York and Lancaster counties. The utility installed a system that lowers the temperature of water used to cool equipment in the plant before releasing it into the Susquehanna. The project reduced the temperature spike in the river caused by the 600-million-gallon daily discharge, and eased the thermal shock experienced by fish in the area.

The upgrade of Brunner Island is one of two accomplishments of which Helfrich is most proud. The second, albeit not as neatly resolved, involves addressing the millions of tons of sediment trapped behind Conowingo Dam. Responding to concerns raised by him and others, a multi-year, federal and state study has documented that the dam is at capacity for storage of nutrient–laden sediment, and that it could have impacts on restoring water quality in the upper Bay. But there’s no agreement yet on how — or even whether — to deal with it. Some are pushing for dredging and removing the sediment, while others argue that the long-term solution lies in curtailing the runoff of sediment and nutrients upriver in the Susquehanna’s watershed.

Helfrich isn’t done with riverkeeping completely. If his mayoral bid is successful, he won’t start his new job until January 2018. He is committed to another nine months of mentoring Evgeniadis and keeping an eye on the watershed.

“We worked hard with [the U.S. Geological Survey] and others to get Conowingo on the map,” Helfrich says. “Eleven years later, and we still don’t know what to do. I’m going to stick around for a while and help the new Riverkeeper keep Conowingo on the radar.”

By Donna Morelli

Donna Morelli is a staff writer for the Bay Journal based in Harrisburg. She’s a former staffer for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

Ecosystem Long Form: Author John Englander on Rising Sea Levels at the Chesapeake Bay

As John Englander, noted oceanographer and author of High Tide on Main Street and more recently, Rising Seas and Shifting Shorelines, recently noted in his keynote address sponsored by the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy last Saturday morning, one sometimes needs to say something seven times to make sure your audience gets your most important point. In John’s case, it is undoubtedly the under-reported consequences of rising sea levels on rural communities.

As part of the ESLC’s ongoing conversation about the impact of climate change on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the author was invited to give a summary of the research and increasingly grim data has been collected in recent years that points to the Chesapeake experiencing from three to six feet in sea levels over the next one hundred years as opposed to the one to two feet forecast currently being used by local and state government and other policy organizations as they anticipate this severe environmental event.

The Spy was at the Eastern Shore Conservation Center for John’s remarks and present them in their entirety.

This video is approximately twenty-nine minutes in length. For more information on ESLC please go here 

 

 

Ecosystem: Lawmakers Blast Trump Budget that would Cut Chesapeake Bay Cleanup

Lawmakers from states surrounding the Chesapeake Bay on Wednesday expressed bipartisan criticism of President Donald Trump’s proposal to end federal support for cleaning up Chesapeake Bay.

“The president’s budget that would zero out the Chesapeake Bay Program is outrageous,” Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat, said at a Capitol Hill meeting with members of the Choose Clean Water Coalition. “It’s dead on arrival.”

Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., said cutting investments for the bay clean up will not help the economy.

“Our Chesapeake Bay is an economic engine and the cleaner it is the more it produces economically,” he said.

The nonprofit coalition hosted its fifth annual lobbying day, centered around saving the federally funded Chesapeake Bay Program after Trump last month proposed a “skinny budget” that would eliminate the $73 million bay restoration project.

The Environmental Protection Agency provides the program with monetary support to restore the bay’s ecosystem and reduce pollution.

Started in 1983, the program is conducted under a six-state partnership with Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and the District of Columbia.

Advocates from each state attended the meeting with lawmakers.

“We know how important the Chesapeake Bay is for the entire region,” said Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md. “We are going to fight harder and harder and harder.”

Ruppersberger said the bay generates more than $1 trillion annually and the restoration of oysters, tributaries and streams is a project that needs to be continued.

The bay is a source of drinking water for 75 percent of the region’s 17 million residents, according to the Choose Clean Water Coalition.

The Chesapeake also is the largest estuary in the United States serving as a place for recreational water activities, as well as a workplace for the commercial fishing and crabbing industry.

Made up of 225 local, state, and national groups, the Choose Clean Water Coalition has been advocating for a healthy Chesapeake watershed since 2009.

“The Coalition will work to continue to push back on the president’s proposed budget, and secure the essential funding that is necessary to return clean water to the Chesapeake Bay,” coalition spokeswoman Kristin Reilly said in a statement Wednesday.

Members of the House and Senate said they were pleased to have bipartisan support for clean water.

“The Chesapeake Bay is the perfect thing to come together around and serve energetically,” said Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, last year’s Democratic vice presidential nominee.

He said everyone has to work together to make sure checks and balances are implemented.

“We have an EPA administrator who doesn’t accept science. If you don’t accept climate science, it’s a fair question to ask if you accept science,” Kaine said, referring to Scott Pruitt, head of the EPA.

Trump signed an executive order last week to shut down the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, a program aimed at reducing climate change by cutting carbon emissions from power plants.

“We are faced with a tough budget battle, but an attitude from the EPA that says we can ignore science,” Kaine said.

The bay is a valuable natural resource and if Trump wants more jobs, then he should work to rehabilitate the bay, Wittman said.

The congressman said he was deeply concerned about Trump’s budget plan and wrote a letter to the administration asking to restore resources to the bay.

Wittman wants more money to help revitalize wetlands.

“Our wetlands are the nursery for everything that lives in those ecosystems…mother nature is the sponge that absorbs what man puts in it,” he said.

By Briana Thomas

A Serious Warning from Horn Point Lab: Director Mike Roman Talks of Climate and Sea Levels

Yesterday afternoon, the President of the United States travelled to the Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters in Washington to sign a number of executive orders to gut his predecessor’s hallmark Clean Power Plan and nullifying many of this country’s climate change efforts, reviving its coal industry, and, as the New York Times pointed out this morning, “effectively cede American leadership in the international campaign to curb the dangerous heating of the planet.”

There could be no better backdrop to the Spy’s recent interview with Michael Roman, director of the University of Maryland’s Horn Point Laboratory,  who, in no uncertain terms, warns of the grave consequences of these anti-science actions and policies, which will have profound consequences for the entire Chesapeake Bay ecological system.

From this very candid and forthright interview with Mike, we learn first hand from one of the most respected research centers in the world of the devastating impact that would take place with President Trump’s new initiatives to seriously dilute, if not completely withdraw, America’s pledge to honor the historic 2015 Paris Agreement to reduce America’s greenhouse gas emissions by more than one quarter below 2005 levels by 2025. 

This video is approximately six minutes in length. For more information about the Horn Point Laboratory and its mission please go here.

 

Black Rail Bird Population Sinking Fast as Rising Sea Level Drowns its Habitat

Getting to know the Eastern black rail has always been tough. The sparrow-size bird lives deep in marshes that are hard to access, and it is most active in the wee hours of the morning. Even then, it tends to scamper through dense vegetation, rather than fly — some call it a “feathered mouse.”

“We know almost nothing about this species,” says ornithologist Bryan Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology in Virginia. “It’s very tiny and incredibly secretive. Even most bird watchers have never seen this species before.”

Now, even hearing their call is unlikely. Its habitat, a delicately balanced zone deep within coastal marshes, is being flooded by the rising waters. And the Eastern black rail is disappearing fast — potentially becoming the first victim of sea level rise around the Chesapeake Bay and other areas of the East Coast.

Watts recently completed an exhaustive review of literature about the black rail, going back more than 100 years. His findings on the status and trends of the rail population were compiled in a 148-page report released in 2016.

“They are sort of evaporating around us,” Watts says.

The decline has been rapid and unexpected. Only 50 years ago, part of Dorchester County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore was a world-renowned hot spot for birders seeking a glimpse of the elusive black rail. Today, the black rails are gone from Elliott Island, and only a handful are left in the state. None have been seen in Virginia’s coastal marshes for a couple of years.

Their exact number doesn’t make much difference, Watts said, because the downward trend is so strong — Maryland numbers have fallen 90 percent in just 25 years.

“This species is not going to be sustainable in its landscape in the face of sea level rise,” he says. “It will be lost. Maybe in five years, maybe in 10 years. But it’s on the way out.”

David Brinker, an ornithologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, shares this assessment. He said that surveys for the state’s next Breeding Bird Atlas would start in 2022. “By which time,” he says, “we’ll be really lucky to find a black rail, unless some miracle happens.”

The bird is listed as endangered in both Maryland and Virginia, as well as several other states along the Atlantic Coast. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering protecting it through the federal Endangered Species Act and is expected to make a recommendation in September 2018.

Historically, the black rail has received little attention. Along with its deep marsh habitat and nocturnal activity, the black rail is quite small. Its body is about 6 inches long, with dark feathers and white speckles on its wings, back and abdomen. It has brilliant red eyes. But hardly anyone sees it — even among professional ornithologists. “I’ve seen one in my lifetime,” Brinker says.

The closest most birders — and scientists — come to the bird is hearing males call in the early morning hours of breeding season: “kickee-doo” or “kic-kic-ker.”

Biologists “look” for black rails by playing recordings of the call and listening for a response. Even that is difficult because the birds are most active between midnight and 4 a.m. Surveys sometimes require maneuvering boats in shallow-water marshes in the dark.

Black rails were once found from Texas up the East Coast as far as Massachusetts. Over time, they have suffered major habitat loss as marshes were buried to make way for urban growth. Places such as Cambridge, MA; Queens, NY; Atlantic City, NJ; and Baltimore once supported black rails. The historic ditching and draining of marshes eliminated more habitat.

But scientists believe the recent, rapid demise of black rails is linked to rising water.
Black rails live in high marshes that, with slightly higher elevation, typically escape the daily tidal over-wash. But the birds forage for invertebrates, such as water beetles, in areas that have wet soil or even a thin covering of water.

It’s a narrow band that Watts describes as a “hydrology tightrope.” With sea level rise, he said that he believes the nests are increasingly inundated by storms and unusually high tides. If a nest is ruined in a single year, the population can rebuild the next year. But if nests are drowned more frequently — and eggs along with them — the birds gradually disappear.

The birds can adjust by moving upslope but, because marshes are relatively flat, even a small amount of rising water can push them out of suitable habitat toward trees, roads or stands of invasive phragmites.

“If the water gets up 2 centimeters, it is not just inundating the edge of the marsh, it is inundating the entire marsh,” Watts said. “Once it hits that tipping point, you are effectively flooding the entire marsh.”

In the Saxis Wildlife Management Area on Accomack Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, black rails were last located at the tree line, and then they were gone.

The decline has been rapid. In 1991–92, a DNR survey in Maryland’s portion of the Bay recorded 180 black rails. “We found more than we expected,” Brinker says. “They were widespread. It was the third most frequently encountered rail in the marshes of the Chesapeake Bay.”

In 2007, the DNR and the Center for Conservation Biology, which is affiliated with both the College of William and Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University, collaborated on a Baywide survey. They found just 50 calling males in Maryland and Virginia combined. “That was the first indication that we had that the population was collapsing,” Watts says.

Birders had been reporting a decline, Brinker says, “but the magnitude of the change sort of hit us in the face.” A 2014 survey found just 10 individuals — eight in Maryland and two in Virginia.

The decline isn’t limited to the Bay. Black rails have largely disappeared at the northern edge of their range, with “catastrophic” rates of decline in New Jersey, Delaware and North Carolina, according to Watts’ status report, which was prepared for the upcoming federal endangered species review. South Carolina had a slower rate of decline, but still more than 4 percent each year.

According to Watts’ report, the total number of breeding pairs along the Atlantic Coast is between 455 and 1,315. Their status might be better in Florida and Texas, both of which have large amounts of potential habitat, but many of those areas have not been surveyed. In those two states, “we have a huge amount of uncertainty,” Watts says. Biologists, state and federal agencies are coordinating to conduct surveys in those and other areas in the next two years.

Historically, black rails were also found at some inland sites in the Eastern United States that simulated conditions found in high marshes, such as hayfields adjacent to river flood plains. But over time, most of those locations have also disappeared, largely because agricultural practices have intensified and altered the habitat, Watts said.

Black rails are also found in the Caribbean and in Central America, but little is known about their status.

Devising protection for black rails will be difficult. Creating special habitats for the birds is one possibility; they have, for instance, survived in impoundments built for waterfowl, where they are able to nest on the edge and forage on the flat, wet bottoms. But, Watts cautions, “the slightest rain will fill these impoundments up and flush the nests out.” Designs might be tweaked to accommodate the birds, but doing so at a scale that would secure the population’s survival could be costly. “You have to get it just perfect, or they won’t be there,” Brinker says.

Also, securing funds for a bird that most people never see could be difficult. “Black rails are nowhere near as charismatic as bald eagles and whooping cranes,” Brinker says.

While the immediate concern is for the black rail, steep declines have been seen in other species that use the same habitat, such as the sedge wren and saltmarsh sparrow, which ranges from Accomack County in Virginia to New England. The sedge wren has already largely disappeared from most coastal areas in the region, though it is still found inland. But the saltmarsh sparrow is declining at a rate that would make it extinct in less than 50 years, biologists say.

But the black rail, the reclusive “feathered mouse” that scampers through the high marsh in the dead of night, is the canary in the coal mine,” says Brinker. “It’s telling us that things are going on in our tidal wetlands, and they are not good things,” he says. “[The black rail] is just the first one to go, because its niche is so narrow and so precise.”

Karl Blankenship is editor of the Bay Journal and executive director of Chesapeake Media Service. He has served as editor of the Bay Journal since its inception in 1991

ESLC Climate Change/Sea Level Rise Half-Day Conference Set for April 1

The Eastern Shore is the third most susceptible region to the effects of sea level rise in the country. The Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC), a progressive, environmentally-focused nonprofit organization headquartered in Easton, will host the half-day conference, Unsinkable Eastern Shore II: Rural America Responds to Climate Change, on Saturday, April 1st from 9am to 1pm. The event will be held at the Eastern Shore Conservation Center – the former McCord laundry facility which ESLC rehabilitated and has since occupied with several other conservation groups since 2015.

The event is $20 to attend and includes breakfast, two panel discussions, and presentations by two keynote speakers. Also included with admission is a copy of speaker John Englander’s book High Tide on Main Street, which Politico Magazine called “one of the 50 most important books to read in 2016.” Attendees may register online at eslc.org/events, but are encouraged to do so soon, as seating is limited.

The conference will be hosted by ESLC’s Coastal Resilience Manager, Brian Ambrette, who has been working with town and county government on the Mid and Upper Shore for more than two years, helping to bring awareness about the effects of climate change – most notably, sea level rise – as well as working to help implement sound planning in the form of mitigation strategies and town/county comprehensive plans.

“I hope our audience will learn how their communities and their neighbors are embracing change as an opportunity to innovate and make the systems we rely on stronger and greener”, notes Ambrette. “I am excited about the new ideas that our keynote speakers will inject into the conversation.”

While the conference panels boast a mix of knowledgeable educators and emergency management professionals, the inclusion of oceanographer, author, and consultant John Englander is perhaps the most impressive addition to the conference. As a leading expert on sea level rise, Englander’s broad marine science background coupled with explorations to Greenland and Antarctica has allowed him to see the big picture of sea level rise and its societal impacts. He has served as chief executive officer for such noteworthy organizations as The International SeaKeepers and The Cousteau Society. Interestingly enough, legendary Captain Jacques Cousteau tapped John to succeed him as CEO.

Please contact ESLC’s Communication Manager, David Ferraris, at dferraris@eslc.org or 410.690.4603 x165 for more information.

Bill may Ban Foam ‘to-go’ Carriers from Food Businesses in Maryland

All expanded polystyrene products used for packaging food products, including foam carriers, could be banned from all Maryland food businesses if pending legislation is passed in the General Assembly this session.

The legislation, sponsored in the House by Delegate Brooke Lierman, D-Baltimore, will prohibit a person or business from selling or providing food in an expanded polystyrene food service product beginning Jan. 1, according to a Department of Legislative Services fiscal analysis. The bill, which has also been cross-filed in the state Senate, also bans the sale and use of loose fill packaging.

The fiscal analysis defines the banned material as “a product made of expanded polystyrene that is used for selling or providing food.” This means the bill would ban food containers, plates, hot and cold beverage cups, meat and vegetable trays and egg cartons made of expanded polystyrene.

“Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) is the generic industry name for the white rigid material made by expanding polystyrene beads with steam and pressure to bond the beads together to form blocks or to shape molds,” according to Universal Foam Products.

Styrofoam, a registered trademark and a type of expanded polystyrene, is not included in the bill, according to the Department of Legislative Services report. “Although foam coffee cups and plates are often referred to as ‘Styrofoam®,’ that terminology is incorrect,” the fiscal analysis said. Styrofoam is generally used in industrial settings for building materials and pipe insulation, according to the report.

Lierman said in a Feb. 15 House Environment and Transportation Committee hearing that this bill is an extension of a concept that has already been enacted in some areas. Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, the city of Gaithersburg and the city of Takoma Park have prohibitions on expanded polystyrene already in place.

Dr. Richard Bruno, a doctor of medicine who works at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, gave written testimony Feb. 15 in support of the bill, saying styrene, a chemical found in expanded polystyrene, is a threat to health, waterways and ecosystems.

Delegate Al Carr, D-Montgomery, said it is important to make this a statewide ban because it is a statewide issue and the ban has been successful locally.

“Businesses and government agencies have been able to adapt and have not seen an increase in their costs,” Carr said. “I have been receiving many emails from constituents in favor of the bill.”

“It is important to make it a statewide ban so that the prices of alternative products go down,” Lierman told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service. Lierman pointed to California, saying when businesses there made the transition to stock alternative recyclables the prices changed. “(Expanded polystyrene) is now more expensive than recyclable products in California,” Lierman said.

Restaurants, fast food restaurants, cafes, supermarkets or grocery stores, vending trucks or carts, movie theaters, and business or institutional cafeterias would all be food service businesses affected by this bill, according to the fiscal analysis.

“Enacting a statewide ban on polystyrene foodservice packaging will level the playing field for businesses across the state,” Nick Rudolph, President of Pigtown Main Street in Baltimore, said in his testimony to the House committee.

Dart Container Corp., a national company that manufactures cups, plates, containers, lids and straws made from such materials as expanded polystyrene foam, solid polystyrene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, paper and sugar cane, opposes the bill.

Dart employs 630 Marylanders with another 50 open positions in high-paying, rural manufacturing jobs, according Paul Poe, Government Affairs and the Environment Manager at Dart. Poe said Dart is also planning to open a third facility in the state, in Havre de Grace.

Poe specified in testimony that expanded polystyrene is recyclable and Dart has created a program to accept expanded polystyrene items and recycle them with drop-off and pick-up options.

Delegate Christopher Adams, R-Caroline, Dorchester, Talbot and Wicomico, said in the House committee meeting that Dart’s stance on the bill should be considered. Since the company creates jobs for Marylanders, the state should do no harm to the company, Adams said.

“This bill is our hope for a cleaner and healthier future, to neighborhoods with less toxic trash, air and water,” Claire Wayner, a high school junior at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in Baltimore County and founding member of Baltimore Beyond Plastic, an organization created to teach students the problems with plastics like polystyrene and elevate their reactions against it, said in her Feb. 15 testimony to the House Environment and Transportation Committee.

“At Baltimore City public schools, lunch is served on polystyrene trays, and as many students are economically disadvantaged, it’s not possible to refuse a lunch … when it may be your only food you’ll see that day,” Wayner said.

“Baltimore City schools serve daily lunch on EPS trays to 83,000 students a year,” according to a Baltimore Office of Sustainability Feb. 15 letter.

“Using compostable paper trays, plates, and other containers in place of EPS would make food recovery efforts much more feasible, because users can simply place their tray and all leftover food directly into a compost container, rather than having to separate out trash and compost,” the organization said in its letter.

“Around 1 percent of the trash properly disposed of and sent to landfills is expanded polystyrene, but up to 40 percent of litter found in and along water streams is expanded polystyrene,” according to Lierman. “That shows the disproportionate amount of (expanded polystyrene) that is recycled and littered.”

Prince George’s County Department of the Environment Director Adam Ortiz told the House committee it costs $60 per ton to process expanded polystyrene food products, but when they are able to compost the alternative recyclable products, they make money.

Baltimore City, Caroline, Howard and Washington counties accept polystyrene plastics for recycling, but the rest of the Maryland jurisdictions do not, according to the analysis.

“Growing up in neighborhoods that are full of trash, it’s hard to not self-identify with the image of trash,” Wayner said in her testimony.

“Forcing businesses to use alternative products does not reduce litter; it simply changes in composition,” Melvin Thompson, senior vice president of the Maryland Restaurant Association said in a Feb. 15 letter to the committee.

Lierman said that she understands people who litter with foam containers will probably continue to litter with alternatives, but the alternatives are better for the environment and easier to pick up than the expanded polystyrene products.

There are also health risks for consumers who use expanded polystyrene containers, according to Lierman. When expanded polystyrene is heated, it leaches styrene into the food or liquid that is in the containers, Lierman said.

“Styrene, the main ingredient in (expanded polystyrene), has been listed as a possible carcinogen by both the International Agency for Research on cancer and the National Toxicology Program since 2002,” Bruno wrote in his testimony.

“The general public is exposed to 20 mg of styrene annually,” according to Bruno. “This toxin has no place in our bodies, schools, restaurants or homes.”

But the American Chemistry Council referred to a 2013 study completed by the Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group in its Feb. 15 written testimony that said “current exposures to styrene from the use of polystyrene food contact products remain extremely low, with the estimated daily intake calculated at 6.6 micrograms per person per day.”

“This is more than 10,000 times below the safety limit set by the FDA,” the organization said. “The FDAs acceptable daily intake value of styrene is calculated to be 90,000 micrograms per person per day.”

The fiscal analysis said the effect on small businesses and the state will be minimal. There will be an increased cost to the state of $19,300 in the 2018 fiscal year in order to conduct the education and outreach campaign, but will decrease to zero after one year.

“County health departments must enforce the bill’s prohibitions and may impose a penalty of up to $250 on violators,” according to the fiscal analysis. Health departments must issue a written notice of the business’ or person’s violation and allow three months to correct the violation before a fine can be issued.

By Cara Newcomer

Finally Some Good News from PA; Farmers have Stepped up to Curb Pollution

or several years, regulators and environmental watchdogs have been sounding the alarm about Pennsylvania agriculture’s lagging pace in meeting its Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals. For nearly as long, Pennsylvania farmers have been telling the government that they have been putting in a lot of pollution-controlling practices, but they weren’t getting credit for them.

So in 2016 the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection sought to determine who was right. Working with the Penn State Survey Research Center, environmental officials sent questionnaires to the state’s farmers.

A total of 6,782 farmers — 35 percent of the 20,000 farmers to whom the survey was mailed — answered the questions. They included information about how many best management practices were in place and where they were. To verify the information, the Penn State researchers visited 700 farms, about 10 percent of the respondents, to inspect.

So, who was right? Turns out, maybe both.

Patrick McDonnell, the state’s acting environmental protection secretary, said the farmers are clearly putting in practices that had not been accounted for previously. Among them, he said, are more than 2,000 barnyard runoff control systems that had not been counted in the Chesapeake Bay Program’s models. These systems help keep animal manure from washing into streams and rivers. The farmers also reported installing 1 million linear feet of fencing along streams, which was more than expected.

Still, it’s not enough, McDonnell said.

“We still have a big hill to climb in meeting our Bay obligations,” he said in a December webinar to report the Penn State survey results, which included several other environmental and agricultural officials. McDonnell said that the survey will help with that climb. Regulators, researchers and the specialists who install buffers and manure-management systems will now be able to get more complete data on what farmers are already doing to curb pollution.

“We can have a general understanding of what is happening out there,” he added.
Russ Redding, Pennsylvania’s agriculture secretary, called the survey an “unprecedented” effort to listen to the state’s farmers.

“We have taken a concern that has been raised in the agriculture community for some time,” Redding said, “and today we know more about what that concern is, what it looks like.”

Matthew Royer, director of Penn State’s Agriculture and Environment Center, which oversaw the survey, said researchers will continue to collect and analyze information gathered from farmers. For example, Royer said he did not know how many Plain Sect farmers had participated, or what practices they were most likely to put in, but he said researchers could find that out as they examined the results more closely.

All of the pollution reduction steps farmers have taken appear to be having some effect in the Susquehanna River, says Rich Batiuk, associate director for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program office.

“I never thought I would see it in my 30 years here, but for the first time, the amount of nitrogen is heading down,” Batiuk says. “We have a grass bed in the Susquehanna Flats that you can see from space. Pennsylvania farmers can take a lot of credit for that particular work.”

Despite such signs of progress, the Bay Program’s computer modeling indicates that the state still has a long way to go. Last year, the Bay Journal reported that an EPA review said that Pennsylvania needed to double the number of farm acres under nutrient management and plant seven times as many acres of forest and grass buffers as it did in 2014 to help it get back on track to meet Bay nutrient pollution reduction targets.

In the next three years, the 2015 report stated, Pennsylvania would have to reduce nitrogen loads almost four times as much as the rest of the watershed states combined to meet the goals set for the end of 2017. To assist with that effort, federal and state officials in October announced a $28 million aid package to focus on farm runoff.

Harry Campbell, Pennsylvania executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, says he is glad to see farmers are doing the right thing for the local waterways and using their own money to do it.

But, he adds, “with over 6,700 miles of rivers and streams impaired by agriculture, the work is far from over in Pennsylvania.”

Bay Journal staff writer Rona Kobell is a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun.

Senator Ben Cardin Set to Visit ESLC Cambridge Project March 10

Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) will be visiting Cambridge, Maryland on Friday, March 10, 2017 to join join representatives from the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC), Baltimore’s Cross Street Partners, and Preservation Maryland for a tour and media availability regarding The Packing House – a historic tax credit rehabilitation project.

In addition to addressing the media and answering questions immediately following the tour, Senator Cardin will spotlight his new legislation to improve the federal historic tax credit program, which will benefit rural communities and small towns across Maryland.

A partnership between ESLC, Cross Street Partners, and the City of Cambridge, The Packing House (ThePackingHouseCambridge.com) is an urban revitalization project that seeks to repurpose the historic, 60,000 square-foot Phillips Cannery building in Cambridge into an active, mixed-use plan for office and food-related innovation.

This structure is the last standing piece of the storied Phillips Packing Company empire, which employed thousands in Cambridge and served as the largest supplier of rations to American troops in World War II.

The project was recently awarded a $3M historic tax credit for revitalization of a structure located within an underserved community. Plans include an array of food-related uses that acknowledge and support local hunger and nutrition needs, building off of the Eastern Shore’s agricultural resources and a growing local food economy of growers, makers, distributors, retailers, and restaurants.

The ambitious vision to renovate and repurpose the former Phillips ‘Factory F’ is key to the continued revitalization of Cambridge, including Cannery Park – the adjacent 6.6 acres of land which includes the Cambridge Creek headwater area that will begin a stream restoration process this coming spring.

The event is free and open to interested members of the public, friends of ESLC, and the media. For members of the media planning to attend the grand opening of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center immediately afterwards, a bus will be held at the Hyatt Regency Cambridge so that they will be able to attend both events. Please contact ESLC’s Communication Manager, David Ferraris, at dferraris@eslc.org or 410.690.4603 x165 for more information.

LOCATION: Phillips Packing Plant, 411 Dorchester Avenue, Cambridge, MD 21613
AGENDA: Arrive at Packing House 11:15am; Tour the building; Press availability 11:40am; Depart Packing House at 12:00pm.