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Maryland Oysters - Past Wars & Present Challenges

An important chapter of Maryland history with relevance today is the Oyster Wars saga beginning around 1830 and featuring oyster pirates, boat chases, gun fights, and cannons. Through the nineteenth century, skirmishes pitting pirates against enforcement officers, and tongers against dredgers occurred fairly often and even resulted in fatalities. Today, having moved beyond the fierce Oyster Wars, watermen, environmental scientists, elected representatives, and Marylanders, still retain their deeply-held, and often conflicting, opinions about harvesting and restoring Bay oysters. Current trends are hopeful for the future of Maryland oysters. 

OYSTER WARS
Wars over oysters began early in the 1800s when upon the apparent depletion of New England oysters, the Chesapeake Bay was found to have a plentiful stock. So plentiful in fact that oyster harvesting reached its peak in the mid-1880s when more than 17 million bushels were taken from the Bay annually. Battles over the local Bay oysters were both violent and political. 1 The Oyster Wars are memorialized in the records of the Board of Public Works:

A petition of the citizens of the eighth district of Anne Arundel County, asking that they be furnished with a cannon to protect oyster grounds from depredation, was presented to the Board and ordered to be filed.  The Board decided that they have no authority for such proceedings –besides they have no cannon. 2

The 1865 Maryland General Assembly, hoping to protect Maryland watermen against oyster seekers arriving from Virginia and New England, restricted oyster catches in State waters and required anyone harvesting or selling oysters to obtain a license from the Comptroller – but only Maryland residents could be licensed.  By 1874 the Maryland Oyster Navy operated nine vessels outfitted with cannons that cruised State waters, verifying that those catching, buying, or selling oysters be licensed, and violators would be arrested. 




The final Oyster Wars skirmish took place on the Potomac near Colonial Beach in 1959. An oyster dredger from Virginia saw a police boat and sped toward the Virginia shoreline; Maryland police pursued his boat, firing a warning shot, which killed him. His death proved to be the last of the bloody conflicts as the states entered into the Potomac River Fisheries Compact. 3

OYSTERS TODAY
Today oysters are still in great demand – highly valued for both their environmental contributions (cleaning the Bay water they inhabit and producing live bottom) and for harvesting (from the Bay to your dinner plate).  These facts will provide context for analyzing oyster harvest and restoration issues.
 
Oyster Science
1. Maryland’s current oyster population is at record low levels compared to historic levels. Based on harvest records oysters have declined to less than 2% of historical harvest levels. 

​Year​​ ​# of Bushe​ls Harvested
​1608 ​Oysters "lay as thick as stones." -John Smith​
​1880s ​17,000,000 (est.)
​1920s ​3,000,000 (est.)
​2009 ​107,000
​2014 ​430,000
​2015 ​<400,000
​2016 ​<400,000
  
2. The decline in the oyster population is a result of disease, harvesting, and changes in water quality. Silt and sediment deposits on oysters cover vital shell habitat and deter the setting of new oysters (called spat) to the bottom. Improving water quality to reduce the deposits is critical to supporting a vibrant oyster resource. 4
3. Oysters clean the Bay and its tributaries - an average oyster is able to filter up to 30 gallons of water a day.  
4. An oyster bar has firm shell bottom built up over centuries from generations of oysters inhabiting an area. A bar is a two-dimensional structure with a typically low oyster population and varying numbers of oysters depending on spat setting rates. 
4. An oyster reef is a dense population of oysters that creates a three-dimensional structure on the Bay bottom. Because a reef contains many oysters, they attract many other organisms and create a diverse ecosystem. A reef can develop in as few as 3 to 5 years as a result of a strong natural spat set or a dense planting of hatchery seed. Reefs and well-populated bars provide habitat for crabs, clams and finfish, as well as promoting oxygen mixing to offset dead zones.  
5. Dead zones and disease: Dead zones are areas where oxygen is not sufficient to support marine life. Low oxygen levels – due to nitrogen and phosphorus pollution – have been shown in the laboratory to weaken an oyster’s immune system and increase oyster susceptibility to oyster diseases, like Dermo and MSX. 5  Dead zones may not be a problem for Bay oysters since most oyster bars are shallower than a typical dead zone location. ​

Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR)
1. DNR is responsible for conservation management of fisheries, fish resources, and aquatic life in Maryland 6 , including oyster harvesting and restoration.
2. DNR’s Oyster Advisory Commission, established in 2007 and restructured in 2016, is charged with advising DNR on Bay oyster issues – specifically, strategies for “rebuilding and managing the oyster population.” 7  Currently, the Commission is a 23-member group composed of watermen, scientists, lawmakers, and environmentalists. 
3. DNR manages oyster harvesting and the oyster population through two management types: Harvest Areas and Sanctuaries Areas.
• Harvest Areas are those areas where oyster harvesting is legal. They are managed by season, daily limits, a size limit on oysters to conserve oyster broodstock, and other laws. Some harvest areas are planted with hatchery produced seed oysters to boost harvest levels.
• Sanctuary Areas are State-designated and marked areas that prohibit the harvest of oysters. Of 51 sanctuaries in Maryland, three have large scale oyster restoration projects underway, with two more in the selection phase. Most sanctuaries have only limited amounts of restoration efforts underway due to lack of funding. 
• Maryland established the first oyster sanctuaries in the 1960s and expanded them in the 1990s, with a more recent and significant expansion occurring in 2010.
• The sanctuaries are specifically established to: 
-Protect the most productive oyster grounds
-Provide ecological functions not obtained on harvested oyster bars 
-Serve as reservoirs of reproduction generating larvae to populate other  areas including public shell fish areas
-Facilitate development of natural oyster disease resistance 
-Increase the ability to protect against poaching 
4. In 2010, DNR designated the sanctuary areas that exist today. 8  The 51 sanctuaries cover approximately 9,000 acres or about 24% of the Bay’s estimated remaining oyster bar habitat. 



Three-quarters of the Bay's oyster reefs were removed between the Civil War and the 1920s,
leaving huge mounds of shells like this. Photo credit: CBF

Today's Challenges
1. Water quality: Efforts to control nitrogen and phosphorus pollution are critical to support successful oyster establishment. 9
2. Lack of hard Bay bottom and oyster shell.
• Young oysters grow by attaching themselves to older oysters or to other hard surfaces. 
• Siltation and historical harvesting have buried or stripped away older oyster shell and other hard surfaces. Nearly 70% of oyster reef habitat along the Bay bottom and its tributaries has been lost to siltation. 
• Successful demonstration projects have shown how to successfully build oyster reefs with old shell, concrete, and construction rubble, and then plant these structures with oyster spat. 
3. Poaching: DNR engages in continual efforts to combat illegal oyster harvesting (poaching) which remains a problem. 10


OYSTER FUTURE
1. The Oyster Advisory Commission is currently evaluating potential changes to the sanctuary program. These changes include plantings for sanctuaries, modifying boundaries (reducing some/expanding some), creating rotational harvest zones that will limit and rotate harvest to provide for harvest and ecological value, and selecting two additional tributaries for large scale restoration that will bring Maryland’s commitment up to five restoration tributaries. 
2. Legislation from the 2017 General Assembly 11  prevents DNR from reducing or altering the current oyster sanctuaries boundaries until a management plan is developed following completion of DNR’s final report to the Governor and Oyster Advisory Commission on its stock assessment study in December 2018.  
3. An increasing number of watermen are obtaining leases and adding oyster farming as an additional income source while continuing their work in public fishing grounds. 


Footnotes:
1 Oyster Wars of the Chesapeake Bay, Susan Elnicki Wade http://www.marinalife.com/magazine/241-oyster-wars
2 Board of Public Works Minutes (Jan. 20, 1887) quoted in The Maryland Board of Public Works: A History,
Alan Wilner, at 66-68 (1984).
3 Potomac River Fisheries Commission, MD Manual
4  2004 Chesapeake Bay Oyster Management Plan. P. 1
5 On the Brink: Chesapeake’s Native Oysters: What it Will Take to Bring Them Back,
CBF (July 2010); pg. 5
6 Section 4-202, Natural Resources Article, Annotated Code of Maryland.
7 Section 4-204, Natural Resources Article, Annotated Code of Maryland.
8 On the Brink: Chesapeake’s Native Oysters: What it Will Take to Bring Them Back,
CBF (July 2010); pp. 11-12
9 U.S. Army Corp of Engineers Environmental Assessment (2009).

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Date: 5/17/2017 Category: News


World Wetlands Day - Feb 2, 2017


 




Date: 2/2/2017 Category: News


Community Radio for Art and the Bay (CRAB) Interview

On December 28th, two STEM students from South River High school, Natalie Moning and Joshua Baker, came to BPW to ask questions about wetlands for a radio broadcast. Below are excerpts from our discussion to be featured on CRAB radio this coming spring. 

Do you have any personal stories with wetlands to share? 
Growing up in suburban Massachusetts, I explored streams and wetlands with friends near my house when we were in elementary school.  We used to frequent one extensive wetlands system bursting with acres of tall reeds; constructing huts out of those reeds was very cool! As a teenager I loved discovering the varied marshes and beaches of Cape Cod. Relocating to Maryland as an adult, I’ve enjoyed exploring streams and wetlands with my family by kayak. My favorite Maryland wetland kayaking experiences include paddling the cypress swamps of the Pocomoke River and the tidal guts of Smith Island​.

Describe your experiences with wetlands and their destruction.
There is one that stands out.  In my native Massachusetts, one of my tasks as a young wetland scientist included delineating wetlands. This involves work in the field setting the boundaries or edges of wetlands. I was delineating a property where the owner had established an extensive exotic animal zoo complete with ostrich, peacocks, and miniature deer. The problem was that the owner had filled in acres of wetlands to establish his awesome zoo!  He told me he was not aware that laws prohibit the filling of wetlands; as we talked, it became clear to me that he did not understand the value of wetlands. This experience taught me the importance of educating the public concerning wetlands. It’s best if we can start teaching youth in elementary school to understanding the important functions and values provided by wetlands so this understanding is part of our culture.


Illustration by James Point Du Jour


Why is this topic important for the public to understand?

•  Wetlands protect and improve water quality, provide fish and wildlife habitats, and store floodwaters.

•  Wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems in the world, comparable to rain forests or coral reefs. An immense variety of microbes, plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, fish and mammals can be part of a wetland ecosystem.

-  Wetlands are "biological supermarkets." They provide great volumes of food and attract many animals. These animals use wetlands for part of or all of their life-cycle.

-  Wetlands produce an invaluable material called detritus – dead plant leaves and stems that break down in the water to form small particles of organic material. This enriched material feeds many small aquatic insects, shellfish and small fish that are food for larger predatory fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals.

•  Wetlands store carbon within their plant communities and soil instead of releasing it to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. In the Chesapeake Bay, salt marshes and seagrass beds absorb large quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere and store it, thus offsetting some climate change effects. The Bay’s coastal habitats – referred to as carbon sinks – store carbon accumulated over hundreds to thousands of years, a process known as carbon sequestration.

•  If we want to “Save the Chesapeake Bay,” we must protect and enhance Bay wetlands, a critical key to saving the Bay.


What is being done to protect our wetlands?
We are fortunate in Maryland because we have state wetland protection laws firmly in place that complement federal wetland protection laws.  

•  On the federal level:

-  The Clean Water Act was revised in 1972 and regulates pollutant discharge into rivers, lakes, and wetlands and has created water quality standards. Section 404 of the Clean Water Act regulates the discharge of dredge or fill materials into rivers and wetlands.  

-  The Clean Water Rule was established in 2015 to clarify what is protected by The Clean Water Act. 

•  On the state level in Maryland:

-  The Nontidal Wetlands Protection Act regulates and restricts activities that impact nontidal wetlands or rivers

-  The Tidal Wetlands Protection Act requires permits or license for filling or dredging in tidal wetlands. Licenses for these activities must be approved by the Board of Public Works (Maryland’s highest administrative body composed of the Governor, Treasurer, and Comptroller) in its role to oversee state assets because the State owns most tidal wetlands, (wetland areas influenced by the tides and connected to the Bay and the ocean).


What type of wetland is most at risk today?
Coastal wetlands are most at risk from development pressure and sea level rise. Surface temperatures on earth are rising causing glaciers to melt and seas to rise. We see evidence of sea level rise right here in Annapolis where City Dock and the Naval Academy flood far more frequently than they used to. These areas and other low lying areas, including many wetlands, are threatened by sea level rise.

Maryland salt marshes are at risk due to sea level rise and some marshes are dying out because water elevations are too high and increasingly severe storms cause marsh grass mortality. New techniques are being used to combat salt marsh decline. For example, at the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County sediment from nearby rivers is added to the marsh; dredged soil is deposited across the marsh to maintain marsh elevations so marsh grasses can thrive. 

Our region’s location provides a further quirky challenge as global climate impacts lead to sea level rise. During the last glaciation, glaciers extended down through northeastern and northwestern Pennsylvania. Around the boundary of where glaciers were located, the downward pressure and weight of the glaciers squeezed the land upward. Part of the area that was squeezed upward is the Chesapeake Bay. The resulting “glacial forebulge” has been sinking back ever since, at an average rate of a few millimeters a year. So sea level rise is greater than average in the Chesapeake Bay because we are also sinking as the oceans rise.


What can the community do to further protect wetlands? 

•  Learn more about wetlands by visiting a local nature centers. In Anne Arundel County you can visit Jug Bay Wetlands Center in Lothian and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Annapolis. In Queen Anne County you can visit the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center in Graysonville

•  Get out and explore wetlands: kayak, canoe, or paddleboard some of Maryland’s beautiful rivers like the Nanticoke; explore Janes Island State Park in Crisfield; the beaches and salt marshes of Calvert County or check out the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County. 

•  Become informed about the value of wetlands, share that knowledge with others, and speak up or write your lawmakers when wetland impact issues arise 

•  Participate in public education events about wetlands. 

•  World Wetlands Day is February 2nd. The Society of Wetland Scientists is holding a drawing and photo contest to honor WWD. 



If you could tell the community one thing about wetlands and their impact, what would you say and why? 
We need to be vigilant about protecting and enhancing our wetlands everywhere. The Chesapeake Bay is unique in that we must balance many factors: we want to enjoy abundant crab and oysters harvests, clean drinking water, and beautiful places to recreate; yet we also want to build homes near the Bay and continue to support the agriculture and chicken industries. Protecting our wetlands can help improve Bay ecology. Protecting wetlands is key to Saving the Bay.

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Date: 1/26/2017 Category: News


Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (SAV) in the Chesapeake Bay: It’s a Big Deal


2014 UMD photo of SAV in the Susquehanna Flats at mouth of Susquehanna River


SAV- short for Submerged Aquatic Vegetation, a name for underwater grasses – is an essential biological community in the Chesapeake Bay estuary. SAV abundance is an indicator of the Bay’s water quality and as we continue to clean up the Bay, underwater grasses should expand.

SAV beds improve water quality and water clarity within the Bay’s 64,000 square mile watershed by:

   •  Filtering polluted runoff from roads, rooftops, parking lots, and farms;
   •  Reducing nutrient pollution by absorbing nitrogen and phosphorus;
   •  Absorbing wave energy to help reduce shoreline erosion;
   •  Trapping suspended sediments by binding Bay bottom substrate;
   •  Serving as a food source for bottom-dwelling aquatic life and for waterfowl;
   •  Providing habitat for our prized blue crab as well as for striped bass and other aquatic species.

How much SAV lived in the Bay historically? Aerial photos from the early to mid-1900s suggest that SAV could be found covering 200,000 acres. Recreational crabbers would wade through SAV beds with long-handled nets and bushel baskets placed in inner tubes. The water was clear enough for the crabbers to see crabs lurking in the SAV beds, catch them in the net, and drop them into the basket.

By the 1950s and 1960s Bay grasses declined significantly largely due to degraded water quality. Then 1972 brought Tropical Storm Agnes with significant rainfall and runoff, severely damaging Bay SAV. Apparently, tropical storms and hot temperatures are a bad combination for SAV. By 1984 Bay grasses covered only 38,958 acres.

Promising results have now emerged from recent Bay cleanup efforts, however. By 2014 SAV rebounded to approximately 75,438 acres and in 2015 surveys recorded 91,621 acres. The 2015 SAV survey results indicate that the Bay is about halfway to meeting the goal of 185,000 acres of SAV set by the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). (Surveys are conducted by the hardworking scientists at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science [VIMS]).


© Jay Fleming Photography


The recent rise in Bay underwater grass coverage may be attributed at least in part to the recovery of wild celery and other species in the fresher waters of the upper Bay; the continued expansion of widgeon grass in the moderately salty waters of the mid-Bay; and a modest recovery of eelgrass in the very salty waters of the lower Bay.

Experts advise cautious optimism: widgeon grass is a “boom and bust” species whose abundance can rise and fall from year to year; a spike in the presence of widgeon grass does not guarantee that it will persist in future seasons.

For a great book on underwater grasses in the Chesapeake and Mid Atlantic see: 




Date: 9/28/2016 Category: News


Celebrate National Estuaries Week – September 17-24

Now in its 28th year, National Estuaries Week is the nation's largest celebration of coasts and estuaries and the multitude of benefits that they provide.  Each year, dozens of organizations throughout the country host restoration events, beach cleanups, education events, and more to get local communities out to enjoy and restore their local waterways.  To find an event near you, visit www.nationalestuariesweek.org.​​

Date: 9/19/2016 Category: News


Smith Island: Land of Blue Crabs and Now -- a Living Shoreline

A fish and a crab were playing ball. Suddenly the crab wouldn't toss the ball back to the fish. The fish cried, "You're shellfish!" (source: http://www.jokes4us.com/animaljokes/fishjokes.html)

bluecrab-fish-revised.jpg

Shellfish or not, blue crabs are the lifeblood of Smith Island. The Board of Public Works and Maryland Department of the Environment staff visited Smith Island in mid-June to see first-hand a breakwater and living shoreline project providing erosion protection for the island as well as valuable ecological habitat.

Smith Island has a mystique all its own as the only inhabited island in Maryland (12 miles by water from Crisfield), with its residents’ unique Elizabethan accents, and its famous 10-layer Smith Island cake – our official Maryland state dessert since 2008. As an island less than five feet above sea level, sea level rise is a serious threat to “islanders,” as residents refer to themselves. No wonder that not only the 276 islanders but scores of other fans of Smith Island applauded the $8.5 million project for shoreline protection and habitat enhancement along four miles of the Martin National Wildlife Refuge near Ewell, the largest of three small island villages.

 
 

Matt Whitbeck, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and project manager for this project, says Smith Island and surroundings are “the closest thing you can come to wilderness in the Mid-Atlantic area." Matt led our tour and shared many of the benefits of this project:

  • Creating more than eight acres of new salt marsh 
  • Protecting marsh from erosion and stabilizing fragmented marsh
  • Protecting over 150 acres of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) 
  • Creating structural stone headland breakwaters and stone sills at locations of greatest erosion
  • Shielding a portion of Smith Island’s northernmost town of Ewell from wind-driven waves
  • Creating an aquatic science database for sea level rise in the Chesapeake Bay by project post-construction monitoring including metrics for density/distribution of SAV, shoreline slope and movement, native and invasive plant cover, breakwater structural integrity, interior marsh elevation change, and Atlantic ribbed mussel densities.



The abundance of bird life was striking – we saw peregrine falcon, black duck, mallard, gadwall, gulls, terns, black skimmers, oystercatchers, willets, herons, egrets, glossy ibis, and even brown pelican. Clapper rail, seaside sparrow, and marsh wren also depend on the protected habitat the project helps preserve. Also notable during the tour were fragments of marsh forming the outer edge of protection for hundreds of acres of internal SAV beds teaming with blue crabs -- this project provides breakwaters protecting many of these areas so the marsh can remain intact.



Looking for a good summer read? Tom Horton’s An Island Out Of Time does a great job of capturing the mystique, history, and daily life of Smith Island. The book chronicles three years when Mr. Horton and his family lived on the island. Or better yet, visit the island taking one of the ferries running daily from Crisfield. http://www.visitsmithisland.com/gettinghere.html​




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Date: 7/15/2016 Category: News


It’s Official: Chesapeake Bay Awareness Week - June 4 to June 12, 2016 - Let’s Celebrate All Month!

By popular demand, Maryland has joined forces with Virginia and Pennsylvania to declare June 4 through 12 as Chesapeake Bay Awareness Week (a week that includes two weekends!). Governor Hogan recently signed legislation enacted by the General Assembly to set aside the second week in June every year to commemorate the Chesapeake Bay. 


Choptank River with turtle “micro-channels” – Caroline and Talbot Counties


During this week, all of us in the tri-state region can focus on the pivotal economic importance, the vast ecological benefits, the varied recreational features, the sheer beauty, and the rich history of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. 

FUN FACT: Chesapeake Bay Awareness Week was scheduled so that it could culminate with Senator Bernie Fowler’s Annual Patuxent River Wade In​.  What will the sneaker index show this year?

To find plenty of more Chesapeake Bay Awareness Week activities, click here​. Events are updated and added on a regular basis.  

If you’re reading this blog, you probably already are enthusiastic about the Bay and its restoration. For Bay enthusiasts, you can help increase the number and diversity of citizen stewards who participate in the efforts to protect and preserve the Bay.  Perhaps you can invite a friend, neighbor, or colleague to join you and your family in one or more of Chesapeake Bay Awareness Week activities.

For my part, I’m taking a field a trip to Smith Island later this month to visit a recently constructed living shoreline. I’m planning to bring along colleagues, students, and residents to see this newly-constructed U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service project comprising more than 20,000 linear feet of protective sand and rock structures. Come visit the Wetlands Blog in July when I report back on this trip to the heart of the Chesapeake.


Aerial view of Ewell, Smith Island



Date: 6/8/2016 Category: News


May is American Wetlands Month - Explore a Local Wetland!

May brings us American Wetlands Month – a prime time to learn the value of wetlands and to celebrate their importance. What better way to celebrate American Wetlands Month than by visiting a picturesque wetland in Maryland? Let’s take a look at three of the most scenic Maryland wetlands with outstanding walking and canoeing/kayak trails.

Cypress Swamps on the Western Shore and the Eastern Shore
Battle Creek Cypress Swamp and Nassawango Creek Preserve, two striking bald cypress swamps on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, are a great destination for a spring outing. Do you know these bald cypress facts?

  • Early Maryland settlers sought out cypress wood because of its resistance to decay, especially underwater
  • Cypress trees can live for over 1,500 years
  • Bald cypress trees are easily identified by their knobby "knees" that emerge from the water.

Aside from having awesome trees, these two Maryland cypress swamps are home to numerous songbirds (golden-colored Prothonotary warbler, Louisiana waterthrush), frogs (green frog, spring peeper, aboreal, and gray treefrog), and wildflower species (cardinal flower, jack-in-the-pulpit, and red turtlehead).

Battle Creek Cypress Swamp in Calvert County is home to bald cypress at the northernmost limit of their range in the U.S. It provides a quarter-mile boardwalk through a 100-foot tree canopy as well as a nature center with interpretive displays. Designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1965, it is located at 2880 Grays Road, Prince Frederick, 20678. Admission is free. For more information visit 

 


Nassawango Creek Preserve in Worcester County is a healthy bald cypress forest with 14 species of orchids and carnivorous pitcher plants as well as a historic furnace town demonstrating people’s use of swamp resources. The Preserve is a critical stopover point for migratory birds with more than 60 recorded species of migratory birds including scarlet tanager, yellow-throated vireos, and prothonotary warbler. Nassawango Creek Preserve has its own canoe launch; canoe/kayak rentals are available in nearby Snow Hill. Novice or experienced canoers and kayakers can start at Snow Hill and enjoy the Pocomoke River’s shady caverns, flat water, pink or white blossomed water lilies, and exposed cypress "knees." 

 


Tidal Wetlands on Kent Island
Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center in Queen Anne’s County is a 510-acre preserve on a peninsula with over four miles of hiking trails, canoe/kayak rentals, and a LEED-certified arts and education center. Observe osprey from the deck overlooking Prospect Bay, enjoy views of Kent Narrows from the observations tower, spot waterfowl on Lake Knapp, or take in the sea air along the tidal marsh and beach boardwalks. Explore Marshy Creek, Kent Narrows, and Prospect Bay by boat or learn about local culture through rotating art exhibits. 



There’s a lot to do during this 25th annual celebration of American Wetlands Month.
You can check out the many events scheduled in May on the EPA’s American Wetlands Month website​ and the Society of Wetland Scientists website​ for event information.

And remember, when you visit – wear long pants and long sleeves and bring a good bug spray. Then with your hiking shoes or a boat paddle (or both!), explore a Maryland wetland to celebrate American Wetlands Month! 

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Date: 5/9/2016 Category: News


Wetland Protection, Restoration, Policy & Funding Trends and Activities

Positive trends and activities for wetland protection, restoration, policy, and funding were key topics at the recent Association of State Wetlands Managers conference. This national conference brought together 150 representatives from federal, state, and local governments and tribes, as well as the private sector, shared their work and outlined current and new directions for U.S. wetland managers. 

Your Maryland Wetlands Administrator was fortunate to attend this year’s conference at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia at the end of March. This striking facility is designed for permanence and low maintenance with locally-sourced materials including steel, Pennsylvania fieldstone, and red oak. Check out the Center’s Eagle Cam which is trained on the resident bald eagles and two newly-hatched eaglets. Both eagle parents (eagles mate for life) have been busy – hunting and feeding their eaglets, who will take flight 10 to 13 weeks after hatching. 


 NCTC Commons Building and Terrace                 NCTC resident bald eagle and two eaglets


Focus on Wetland Protection and Restoration 
The conference participants discussed how best to prioritize three categories of wetland acreages and convey each category’s unique importance to the public. This pyramid image is a handy depiction. Our best strategy is to protect wetlands in the first place. More than 100 million acres of U.S. wetlands are currently protected. Since many wetlands are degraded, altered, or filled – there is ample opportunity to restore wetlands. Restored wetlands, together with protected wetlands, make up the vast majority of U.S. wetland acreage. Finally, significant resources of time, energy, and funding are committed to wetland mitigation, with over 1,300 approved U.S. stream and wetland mitigation banks.   

Funds Available for Wetland Restoration and Mitigation 
Funding sources for wetland restoration, living shorelines, and other wetland mitigation projects were shared including: 
  • EPA: restoration grants, coastal wetland ecosystems grants (in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), 319h Grant Program, and the RCPP Partnership Program (in collaboration with the USDA)
  • FEMA: grant programs for climate-resilient mitigation activities
  • Federal Highways Administration (FHWA): in collaboration with the EPA funds living shoreline projects
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: coastal zone conservation grants
  • NOAA: regional coastal resiliency grants

Funded Wetland Restoration and Enhancement Projects
Wetland restoration and mitigation projects that have received recent funding awards include: 
  • USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service awarded the Maryland Association of Conservation Districts $4.5 million to enable farmers to meet the nutrient and sediment water quality goals set forth by the Chesapeake Bay TMDL
  • HUD awarded $125 million to Hampton Roads, Norfolk, VA to implement work resulting from Dutch Dialogues: Life at Sea Level​. This project, carried out by the non-profit Wetland Watch, identified numerous strategies to promote integrated water management and resiliency for communities across Hampton Roads.

All in all, the 2016 Association of State Wetlands Managers coordination meeting was jam-packed with wetlands information. Participants – including your Wetlands Administrator – left motivated to continue moving forward, bolstered with new knowledge, armed with caution and some encouraging wetland trends, and supported with connections forged with old and new wetlands colleagues.

Date: 4/7/2016 Category: News


Maryland Salt Marshes: Workhorse Ecosystems Worthy of Respect

Salt marshes are among the most productive ecosystems in the world. Salt marsh ecosystems accomplish so much that we call them workhorses. Read on to discover how salt marshes begin the food chain; protect young species from predators; filter toxins; and protect against climate conditions (natural and human-made). The natural conditions of salt marshes also make them, we hypothesize, adaptable to anticipated seal-level rise.


A portion of Maryland's coastal salt marshes (in blue) in southern Worcester County at Chincoteague Bay, Assateague Island is on the right. (Data was compiled by the Nature Conservancy in cooperation with Maryland's Ocean Atlas Mapping Service.)

The Salt Marsh and Decomposition 
Diverse and abundant marine life in salt marshes is possible because of an amazing food chain that begins with detritus, another word for decomposed plants and animals. Most marsh plants flourish in spring and summer, growing greener, taller, and more abundant, and by fall begin to decay. Microscopic organisms like bacteria, small algae, and fungi help decompose this detritus. Tidal flow then distributes the detritus within the same marsh or to adjacent marshes and mudflats where the decayed material becomes the first level of the food chain; the microorganisms and the decomposing plant material become food for salt marsh bottom-dwellers such as worms, fishes, and crabs. As with many food webs, these microorganisms in the most primary food-chain level feed on detritus, cover the mud surface, stabilize sediments, feed larger animals, and add nutrients to marsh sediments. Microorganisms, though small and unseen, do a lion’s share of work in salt marshes. These tiny critters are the unsung heroes of the underworld!   



The Salt Marsh as Habitat 
Leaves, stems, and roots of salt marsh plants provide shelter from predators and nourish young fish and crabs. Without this protective environment, survival for fish and crabs would be greatly reduced. Among young salt marsh species are periwinkle snails, mummichog, bass, and blue crab. Larger predators like the great blue heron, green heron, and snowy egrets live in creeks and wait for fish to emerge from the marsh when the tides change. The marsh is also home to the horseshoe crab and the diamondback terrapin. The terrapin turtle depends on marsh tidal flow for food and for laying its eggs. 

More Salt Marsh Ecosystem Benefits
Healthy salt marsh vegetation buffers against storm surge during hurricanes providing a natural first line of defense. Marsh plants are valuable for combating global warming by trapping carbon [Ed. Note: see 6/15/15 Wetlands Web Blue Carbon and the Chesapeake Bay​]. The marsh improves water quality by collecting organic and inorganic nutrients and toxins from the water that flows across the marsh, and then retaining this sediment so that it does not run into the open water of the Chesapeake Bay. 


This photo is from a 2015 visit to a salt marsh at Deal Island National Wildlife refuge in Somerset County. Your Wetlands Administrator points out: In the foreground (light green) is Smooth Cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), and (greenish brown) Black Needle Rush (Juncus roemerianus). The submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) includes Widgeon grass (Ruppia maritima) and Muskgrass (Chara sp.). Black needle rush is again visible in the distance (top right.)

The Salt Marsh and Humans
Human activities such as pollution, ditching to control mosquitos [Ed. Note: see 8/18/15 Wetlands Web Maryland Wetlands and Mosquitos], and building canals can damage salt marsh health. Polluted runoff can contain petroleum products, pesticides, and fertilizers polluting marshes, causing a loss of native species and an increase in exotic, invasive flora and fauna upsetting the ecological balance and damaging the marsh. Ditching can cause undesirable nutrients to pass through the salt marsh affecting species, like birds, higher up the food chain. Canal construction can change marsh water levels stressing marsh vegetation and the entire ecosystem. 

The Salt Marsh and Sea Level Rise, and the Future
While some researchers predict a dark future for salt marshes due to sea level rise, Matt Kirwan, a professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, is optimistic. In his 2016 study, Kirwan says "Catastrophic predictions of marsh loss appear alarming, but they stem from simple models that don't simulate the dynamic feedbacks that allow marshes to adapt not only to present rates of sea-level rise but the accelerated rates predicted for coming decades. Marsh soils actually build much faster as marshes become more flooded." Kirwan’s team studied and re-analyzed 179 records of marshes in North America and Europe. "Our study shows that soil accretion rates more than double as marshes become more flooded, suggesting a strong ability for marshes to survive accelerations in sea-level rise." http://www.vims.edu/newsandevents/topstories/salt_marsh_resilience.php


Extensive salt marsh in Dorchester County.

Kirwan’s study is great news for the salt marsh – a workhorse that we hope will keep up its amazing ecosystem functions far into the future.

Date: 3/7/2016 Category: News


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