After decades of effort, the voluntary, collaborative approach to restoring the health and vitality of the Chesapeake Bay— the largest estuary in the United States—has not worked and, in fact, is failing. A diverse group of 57 senior scientists and policymakers have joined forces to save the Bay. This is our plan.

Shifting Baselines

Posted by Bill Dennison.

Incremental changes that occur slowly over long periods of time are often difficult to detect. For example, as a child grows and matures, the child’s immediate family does not see the changes as markedly as a relative or friend who has not seen the child for some h;time—”Oh, look how much you’ve grown!” is a common holiday greeting to a child. In this vein, the incremental environmental changes are often difficult to detect if you are close by. The danger with not detecting change is that the new conditions, particularly in degrading situations, become the new “norm.” This is known as “shifting baselines,” a term coined by Daniel Pauly in 1995. Diminished expectations and the lack of perspective of how much has been lost can compromise the efforts to protect or restore Chesapeake Bay.

In the case of Chesapeake Bay, this shifting baseline phenomenon became evident to me as I visited the Bay, and returned after 10-year intervals. My first visit to the Bay was via a tall ship, the R/V Westward, a 100′ sailing and oceanography training ship associated with SEA semester.

We sailed from Miami, the Bahamas, Sargasso Sea, Savannah, Cape Hatteras into the mouth of Chesapeake Bay in 1977. I remember being Junior Watch Officer as we crossed the bridge/tunnel at the mouth of the Bay with a large freighter bearing down on us. I rousted the skipper, as per standing orders, and asked if we could alter course (it was a lot bigger than us). The skipper reminded me of the rules of the road, which I intellectually knew, but I did not trust my knowledge–and did I mention that the freighter was really big? So we maintained course and speed and sure enough the freighter altered course (under sail, we had right of way), but I was a nervous wreck. We made our way up the Bay to Smith Island where we anchored. I was off watch, so several of us took the dory into the busy harbor of Ewell with crab boats zipping in and out. I recall my small boat handling skills were not very sharp, especially compared with the Chesapeake watermen who could handle their boats like an extension of their bodies.

I struck up a conversation with a tan young man about my age on the dock and quickly realized that I could barely understand him. He was a Smith Island waterman and his English was more akin to Elizabethan than any other dialect. He seemed so much more mature than me or the other college students on the Westward, as he had his own boat and his own income. We set off for a walk, looked at the headstones in the cemetery and noted only a few different last names buried there, and saw some of the marshes while experiencing some of the mosquitoes. What we were able to observe was a vibrant watermen community that was fairly isolated from the rest of society on an island that was low, but not flooded. After returning to the Westward, we weighed anchor and sailed up the Bay, stopping in Annapolis at the Naval Academy and over to St. Michaels where we stopped at the Maritime Museum. We then motored through the C & D Canal into Delaware Bay and eventually docked in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and homeport for the Westward.

My next visit to Chesapeake Bay in 1987 was also via a boat, this time it was a 32′ boat that I was living aboard. I motored into the Bay via the C & D Canal and moored the Adohr in a marina on the Choptank River. In the summer of 1988, we had a research project down near the mouth of the Bay, so I took the Adohr into Nassawaddox Creek and anchored off some large oyster reefs. We used the Adohr as a floating laboratory and befriended some young guys who were crabbing and fishing. They would go out early and return in the afternoon, often dropping off a fish for our dinner. They even would waterski, fully clothed behind their crab boat, whooping and shouting as they zipped through channels in the oyster reefs. At low tide, the exposed reefs attracted some noisy oystercatchers. We spent one sleepless night watching a huge thunder and lightening storm circle around us, cracking and booming. We were studying a large luxuriant seagrass meadow behind a sandbar. Unfortunately, a large menhaden fish kill threatened to spoil our nutrient fertilization experiment. This was one of the signs that the Bay was changing. The seagrasses growing in this meadow were eelgrass (Zostera marina) and widgeon grass (Ruppia maritima). Historically, this was likely entirely eelgrass. Since we were there in the 1980s, the eelgrass has been burned out at least twice due to thermal stress caused by extreme temperatures. This is likely a harbinger of the future with climate change, and eelgrass may become locally extinct. Widgeon grass, in the other hand, is gaining in the Bay, as it has broader tolerances for temperature and salinity extremes. Widgeon grass, like eelgrass, provides important ecological services, but it is not as good as eelgrass in many respects.

My next extended absence from Chesapeake Bay was from 1992-2002, when I was living in Australia. When I returned in 2002, I was struck by the chronic mahogany tides (phytoplankton blooms), the decline of oysters and crabs and the turbidity of the water. The Choptank River did not have working skipjacks dredging oysters anymore and I didn’t see as many oyster tongers out on the water either. When I asked about it, many people said that I didn’t understand all the great things that were happening with tributary teams and engaging the community, etc. Some people just shrugged and said that at least it wasn’t Physteria, the controversial bloom in 1997 that was implicated in fish kills and some thought had neurological effects on people. The new “norm” is a very degraded Chesapeake Bay, and the healthy watermen community on Smith Island that I visited in 1977 has been transformed (see Tom Horton’s excellent book, An Island Out of Time), and working skipjacks I saw in the late 1980s were gone, and the bay was more turbid with fish kills and harmful algal blooms have become commonplace. Recent observations suggest that the water in Chesapeake Bay is not safe for primary contact (e.g., swimming).

What do we do about these “shifting baselines”? My recommendation is that we do not continue to accept these ever diminishing expectations. While we need to have obtainable short-term goals and objectives, we should never lose sight of what a magnificent estuary Chesapeake Bay was and still can be. Our baseline should always be a healthy Bay that supports healthy communities.

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