Dry Fall Contributes to Clearer Water in the Chesapeake

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The Chesapeake Bay has been reportedly clearer this season. Bay waters start to get less murky as temperatures drop (and algae growth slows) in autumn and winter. However, Bay-front residents have been impressed by just how clear waters have been recently.

Clear waters signify lower nutrient and sediment levels and improved water quality throughout the Bay. With fewer pollutants present, sunlight can reach submerged aquatic vegetation (underwater grasses), that act as important sources of shelter and food for finfish, shellfish and other aquatic species.

This season’s improved water clarity is likely attributed to low levels of precipitation this past fall. Less rain translates to less runoff, which brings nutrients and sediments into the estuary from freshwater sources. The Susquehanna River, the largest contributor to nutrients and sediments in the Bay Watershed, had, according to the USGS, two-thirds the rate of its average flow into the Bay this past September and October. The Susquehanna generally discharges large loads of nitrogen and phosphorus into the Bay, due to the large amount of agricultural activity that takes place within this subwatershed.

We saw indicators of good water quality (with low nitrate and phosphate levels) in Antipoison Creek this September, where waters have also been pretty clear. Water samples for the rest of the year were just sent into the laboratory for testing, so we are waiting on these results, which should tell a fuller story on water quality in Antipoison Creek. In terms of long-term water quality results, it will be interesting to see if these good water quality results were influenced by the fall drought of 2015 – if our water quality results were only temporary- or if this particular part of the Bay is in pretty good health.

Source: Pilot Online 

Microbeads Banned in US Waters

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Good news for the Chesapeake Bay, and watersheds around the nation!

Earlier this month, Congress voted to ban microbeads in common personal hygiene products, such as soaps, toothpastes and facial cleansers. The bill – the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015- was passed by the House of Representatives first, and then the Senate on December 18. President Obama signed the bill into law yesterday.

Microbeads, found in many health and beauty products, cause major problems in watersheds. The beads, which are rinsed down the drain with use, are too small to be filtered out in wastewater treatment plants, and end up directly in our waterways. These beads, which are plastic, adhere to PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in streams and estuaries, and are toxic to marine animals. Toxins make their way up the food chain, and have been found in significantly high concentrations in fish in watersheds such as the Great Lakes.

Nine states, and several municipalities around the country, have already passed bans on products with these beads, but this is the first nationwide bill of its kind. With the Microbead-Free Waters Act, all production of microbeads will be phased out of personal care products by July 1, 2017, with production phase out of microbeads in over-the-counter drugs and cosmetics to follow in July 2018 (with a ban on sales enforced by July 2019).

To read more about plastic debris in the Chesapeake Bay, CityLab has a post on Julie Lawson’s (director of Trash Free Maryland) efforts to document  plastic concentrations in Bay waters. Lawson’s team has found plastic debris from what they suspect comes from film associated with mulching on watershed farms. If or when the lab working on these water samples confirms this, our region will likely face a fresh set of challenges, revolving around the phase-out of harmful products from the agricultural sector.

Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Detroit News

Water Quality Monitoring on Antipoison Creek

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This autumn, I have begun water quality monitoring on Antipoison Creek, a small tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, located on Virginia’s Northern Neck. I have been collecting and preparing water samples for analysis of nitrates, phosphates, ammonium, and chlorophyll, and working with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Studies’ Nutrient Analytical Services Laboratory (NASL) on advanced analytical services for these water chemistry results.

Water sampling bottles are prepared using an acid wash procedure, to ensure that no remaining particles from manufacturing or previous water samples corrupt the results. When the bottles are ready, I collect samples from four locations via kayak along Antipoison Creek (2 samples per location, using a three-sample rinse method).

The first location is upstream from the beach from where I depart; the second location is several feet in front of the beach. The third and fourth locations are further downstream, at the mouth of Little Bay, (shown on the map below as Fleet’s Bay- Little Bay lies just between Fleet’s Bay and the mainland).

Once the samples are collected, they are filtered and divided into auto analyzer cups to be tested for nitrate, phosphate, and ammonium levels at NASL. (See photo below). Samples are frozen until they can be transported to the lab.

The samples must be filtered differently for chlorophyll- the lab receives just a filter pad for this, no water samples.

It took a little longer to get all of the supplies for the chlorophyll filtering procedure, and I have yet to send in samples for chlorophyll testing. However, the first results for nitrates, phosphates and ammonium recently came in. The ammonium test results have to be crosschecked with the pH levels of the samples, but I was able to read the phosphate and nitrate results.

According to North Carolina State University, phosphate designated use limits for estuaries, in order to support maximum diversity of aquatic life, must be 0.01 mg/L; for moderate diversity the phosphate limit is 0.1 mg/l.

Recommended nitrate limits are 0.1 mg/l for maximum diversity, and 1.0 mg/l for moderate diversity.

The results we received for phosphate (PO4) and nitrates (NO23) from Antipoison Creek were as follows (see bolded figures):

Screen Shot 2015-12-03 at 1.51.31 PM

The results for phosphates and nitrates are significantly lower than limits set for water quality standards– which is a good thing- it means there is not an excess level of nutrients in the water, which can impair aquatic life. There is a significant amount of oyster production taking place in this sample area- oysters are natural filterers of nutrients and sediment. Perhaps this has an impact on our results. This is only one month’s results, however, (September), and results from following months must be compared before further analysis can be made.

Future chlorophyll readings will give an indication of algae levels in the sample region. Ammonium is another type of nitrogen in waters- it is produced when plants and animals decompose, and is present in animal waste. It acts as a pollutant when levels are too high, impacting local aquatic species. We should be seeing low results for ammonium as well to indicate good water quality in this portion of Antipoison Creek.

New Study on Climate Change Impact on Bay Finfish

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We hear a lot about how climate change will impact the Chesapeake Bay region, with sea level rise and increased rates of flooding affecting shoreline communities; and ocean acidification potentially harming oyster and blue crab populations. What about finfish species? The U.S. Geological Survery, USGS, has just released a report examining how climate change will affect coldwater fish species (such as the brook trout), native to the Bay watershed. The report relays estimates (through models) on how temperatures of specific streams and watersheds in the Chesapeake Bay region will be impacted with climate change. This new data should allow conservationists to ramp up efforts to protect coldwater fish ecosystems in threatened areas.

Brook trout, and other coldwater finfish species, which can be found in our watershed’s freshwater streams, are expected to suffer from climate change, and warming water temperatures. While previous studies have looked at the relationship between air and surface water temperature to predict future water temperatures of streams, the USGS set out to create more accurate models for climate change impacts on coldwater fish, by taking groundwater into account. Groundwater, especially in headwater streams, can have a major impact on overall stream temperatures. The USGS created models for specific streams throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, using groundwater and surface water temperatures, to predict changing water temperatures in the wake of climate change, and with this, the future health of the fish that rely on these streams.

The full report can be found here.

Bay Grass Acreage Up From Last Year

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The abundance of total underwater seagrass in the Chesapeake Bay is up 27% from last year. Underwater grasses increased by thousands of acres across all four water ranges (from freshwater, slightly salty, moderately salty, to very salty) in the Bay watershed. There are currently an estimated 75,000 acres of underwater grasses in the Bay, up from 59,711 acres in 2013. The increase in acreage in each salinity zone (amount of salt in the water) is represented in a table below.

While this increase is a vast improvement from previous years, the Bay needs to have an additional 15,000 acres of underwater seagrass to meet 2017 restoration goals, and a further 40,000 acres to meet 2025 goals, set by the Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP). Beyond 2025, the CBP ultimately aims to restore 185,000 acres of underwater grasses in the Bay. Underwater seagrass acreage is gradually increasing in the Bay, but over 100,000 additional acres must be restored to meet CBP standards.

Zone 2013 Seagrass Acreage 2014 Seagrass Acreage Zone Goal Achievement (%)
Tidal Fresh Salinity 1,320 15,305 74%
Oligohaline Salinity (Slightly Salty) 1,800 7,413 72%
Mesohaline Salinity (Moderately Salty) 11,850 37,260 31%
Polyhaline Salinity (Very Salty) 1,154 15,857 47%

Bay grass acreage can fluctuate from year to year, due to die-offs from heat waves or major storms, such as Tropical Storm Lee in 2011. Long-term threats to underwater grasses, which have resulted in decades of declining seagrass abundance in the Bay, include nutrient and sediment pollution. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment runoff from agricultural activity and urban stormwater runoff contribute to the declining health and die-off of Bay grasses.

Underwater seagrass plays an important role in the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. Seagrass provides habitat and sanctuary to various underwater species, such as juvenile blue crabs and finfish. Grasses are able to improve water quality by filtering runoff in the Bay and taking up nutrients that would otherwise contribute to pollution in the watershed. Seagrass protects shorelines from erosion by absorbing wave energy and keeping sediment in place.

The 16,000-acre increase in underwater seagrass abundance in the Bay between 2013 and 2014 is great news. This is a trend that I hope to see continue in years to come. However, restoration, at levels expected by 2025, will not be possible without the Bay states’ cooperation in implementing and enforcing regulations that reduce nitrogen and sediment runoff into the watershed. While 2014 numbers are an improvement from previous years, Bay acreage will continue to fluctuate in years to come, and the only way to create a long-term positive trend in future seagrass abundance is to significantly reduce nitrogen and sediment pollution in the Bay.

Figure 1: Survey findings for underwater grasses in Chesapeake Bay in 2014, compared to historical highs and lows. Image source: www.vims.edu/newsandevents/topstories/sav_2014_report.php
Figure 1: Survey findings for underwater grasses in Chesapeake Bay in 2014, compared to historical highs and lows. Image source: http://www.vims.edu/newsandevents/topstories/sav_2014_report.php.

Recent findings on Bay seagrass acreage come from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), which has released their annual report on underwater seagrass abundance in the Chesapeake Bay for 2014, (http://www.vims.edu/newsandevents/topstories/sav_2014_report.php).

For more information on underwater seagrass, please see Part III of our Phosphorus in the Chesapeake paper here: https://beyondthebayblog.com/2015/05/07/phosphorus-in-the-chesapeake-part-iii/.

The Chesapeake Bay’s Blue Catfish Problem

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A growing blue catfish population in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed is depleting the Bay’s native fish population. Regional restaurants, markets and nonprofit organizations are stepping up to this challenge, and offering this invasive species to consumers as a tasty, affordable alternative. Does a higher demand for blue catfish provide a solution to this environmental issue?

The blue catfish is a major predator of the blue crab population in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The VMRC has named the growing blue catfish population as one of the factors responsible for the low harvest numbers for crabs this year. Originally from the Mid-West, native to the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio Rivers, the blue catfish was brought to Virginia in the 1970s and 80s as a sporting fish. Stocked in the York, James, and Rappahannock Rivers, the fish has since spread north, to the Potomac River, infiltrating both Virginia and Maryland waters.

The blue catfish thrives in freshwater, in the Chesapeake Bay’s major Southern tributaries, but can also live in brackish, tidal waters. Since the blue catfish is an invasive species in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, it has no natural predators in this estuary. An unchecked population can do a great deal of damage to the underwater ecosystem, by preying heavily on shellfish, menhaden, white perch and fish eggs (such as shad), and competing for resources with native fish.

Blue Catfish Range in the Chesapeake Bay. Source: chesapeakebay.noaa.gov/fish-facts/invasive-catfish.
Blue Catfish Range in the Chesapeake Bay. Source: chesapeakebay.noaa.gov/fish-facts/invasive-catfish.

Spawning from late May into June, females of reproductive age release 4,000 to 8,000 eggs per kilogram every year. This can be quite a lot of eggs considering the large size of catfish. The largest catfish caught in Maryland was 84 pounds, while Virginia has recorded the catch of a 140-pound catfish.

While a 2012 Maryland Department of Fisheries report recorded an annual catch of 400,000 pounds of blue catfish, this has not been enough to reduce the environmental damage caused by this invasive species in our watershed. As a response to this issue, many area restaurants and markets have embraced the idea of selling locally caught blue catfish to help reduce the Bay population. Whole Foods and MOM’s Organic Market began to sell this fish in 2014, while restaurants such as Clyde’s, and other popular D.C. restaurants, now offer catfish on their menu.

A regional nonprofit, Wide Net Project, has also found a way to address this environmental issue, and works to build up the market for blue catfish. Wide Net Project works with regional markets, restaurants, and food service companies, marketing the blue catfish as a local, sustainable, tasty and inexpensive food item. In addition, this nonprofit works to stock local hunger relief organizations with the fish. A quarter pound of blue catfish is donated for every pound sold. In 2015, Wide Net Project is expecting to sell 75,000 pounds and donate tens of thousands of pounds of blue catfish.

Cleaning Up Bay Tributaries

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Interesting article in today’s Washington Post about a husband-and-wife led scientific team in Maryland experimenting with ways to clean up the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay.