Welcome to Superoceras, a blog about science and natural history, slightly biased towards paleontology and zoology, but inclusive of all sciences. Started in October of 2009, my goal is to communicate scientific knowledge (and the occasional piece of nonsense) in an informative and entertaining manner. Feel free to contact me with questions, comments, concerns, or criticism at superoceras(at)gmail(dot)com, and follow me on Twitter @Superoceras for all that and more in 140 characters or less!

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Blogging on the Bay (Part 2)

Sunrise over the Chesapeake Bay, taken on the beach in front of the Philip Merrill Center.

Although I'm a little farther from the Bay at this point, it always remains very close to my heart.  So I just wanted to say a few more words on some of the issues affecting the Chesapeake Bay watershed today.  I know the last time I wrote (which was quite a while ago - my apologies) I spoke of oysters, and some of the problems they've been having over the last hundred years or so.  Disease, poor water quality, and over harvesting are three of the big culprits. This time, I want to home in a little on the poor water quality issue.

It's no secret that the water in the Chesapeake Bay is not as clean and healthy as it once was.  The reduction in oyster population is part of the problem, but there are other anthropogenic factors involved as well.  One of the biggest is changes in the way the land in the Chesapeake Bay watershed has been used in the last 100 years.  Many of the traditionally forested areas have been turned into agricultural, urban, or suburban areas.  This may seem like a good idea, as people need food and places to live.  But it has had some serious side effects on the Bay.  Trees play a crucial role in the watershed.  They literally hold onto the soil with their roots, preventing sediment and runoff from eroding into the streams, creeks, and tributaries that lead to the Bay.  They also absorb nutrients from the soil in order to survive and grow.  But today, these excess nutrients flow into the Bay, and are one of the major pollutant offenders.

These nutrients aren't only good for trees, but for another group of photosynthesizing organisms as well: algae.  And if the nutrients aren't absorbed by the trees, they make it into the Bay, where they cause algae blooms to flourish.  This is also not a good thing.  Algae live fast, and die hard, ad as their bodies decompose, dissolved oxygen in the water is used up, causing hypoxic conditions.  Low oxygen levels in the water means that the critters that live in the Bay - oysters included - have one more agent working against them.  The stress from poor water quality, over sedimentation, and excess nutrients, also makes them more susceptible to a number of diseases that hurt their populations.

 A field of freshly planted trees on a farm in the Prettyboy watershed that will one day grow into a reclaimed forest.
It's a viscous cycle.  Too many oysters are harvested, so the young don't have a place to attach and grown, and water quality begins to degrade.  Changes in land use release more sediments and unwanted nutrients into the Bay, which only makes the situation worse.  Disease takes a foothold.  Less oysters survive into adulthood, even in protected areas, and it takes longer for the Bay to bounce back.  The Eastern oyster serves a crucial role in the bay, providing a habitat for other species of plants and animals, and as the primary filtering agent. And it's easy to point to them and show their importance in protecting the fragile ecosystem of the Bay.  But like any ecosystem, the Chesapeake Bay is a complex environment, composed of many living and non-living factors, and the interactions between them.  Trees might not seem all that connected, because when one thinks of the Bay, they think of blue crabs, osprey, and diamondback terrapins. But they play a vital role, as do the people working to restore and many of the traditionally forested areas in the Chesapeake bay watershed.  Every tree planted; every oyster spat that grows to maturity, makes a difference.  And so can you.  Whether it's picking up a piece of litter you find on the ground and preventing it from going down a storm drain, donating a few dollars or your time to a non-profit organization, or just fixing a dripping faucet, each one of us has the potential to make a huge positive impact on the health of the Bay, or your local watershed.  So do what you can, when you can, and be a part of the process that will help preserve this beautiful place for generations to come.  The seafood lovers and beach goers of the future thank you!

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