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Loaded Landscapes—Empty Waters
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by Mattawoman Watershed Society | 2012

This spring marks two disquieting milestones in our flight from sustainability.First, anglers in Maryland are now prohibited from keeping their catch of river herring. The moratorium follows one initiated in 1982 for their cousins, the American and hickory shad. Then, the Atlantic sturgeon was granted federally endangered status, a grim step that echoes the shortnose sturgeon’s declaration decades ago. All are migratory fish that once were plentiful in Chesapeake Bay waters. But none more than river herring, which with the shad once surged in unimaginable numbers from the ocean to spawn each spring in our local rivers and streams, and fed alike wildlife and people, from Native Americans to recent generations.

 

This spring marks two disquieting milestones in our flight from sustainability.First, anglers in Maryland are now prohibited from keeping their catch of river herring. The moratorium follows one initiated in 1982 for their cousins, the American and hickory shad. Then, the Atlantic sturgeon was granted federally endangered status, a grim step that echoes the shortnose sturgeon’s declaration decades ago. All are migratory fish that once were plentiful in Chesapeake Bay waters. But none more than river herring, which with the shad once surged in unimaginable numbers from the ocean to spawn each spring in our local rivers and streams, and fed alike wildlife and people, from Native Americans to recent generations.

 

      Two centuries after the Native Americans were driven from the tidal Potomac basin, John Chapman, one in a long line of proprietors of his family’s fishery at what is now Chapman State Park, could recall that “seine hauls on the shore piled the herring up from the water’s edge 12 or 15 feet landward. The men waded knee deep among them, thrusting in their arms to find and select out shad, and allowed the herring to float off at high tide.” In living memory, many people of our region, including the economically stressed, augmented their food supply with salted or frozen river herring, which could be taken with nets from small streams.

     Anglers came to measure their catch in 5-gallon buckets, while commercial enterprise measured abundance in tens of millions of pounds. But the planet’s measure was a maelstrom of life, infusing our landscape with energy. These brilliantly reflecting fish were messengers of sunlight, having converted oceanic plankton to the protein and fat they carried to our landscape during the spring run. In addition to people, and the fish themselves, beneficiaries included estuarine predators like striped bass and bluefish; scavengers like crabs plucking fish that succumbed to wounds or breeding stress; and hunters like the herons, ospreys, eagles, otters, and bears that fished ankle-deep streams for the swirling masses. Even forest plants were nourished by fish-enriched guano.

     While news articles report the continuing depletion of the world’s oceans in an unbalanced age, river herring bring word to our very backyards. For after maturing in the Atlantic, these fish can struggle into remarkably small streams to spawn the next generation (see figure). They return again to the sea, to be joined not a year later by their adolescent offspring who summer in estuarine nurseries, in what was once a vibrant circulation of life between oceanic and inland waters.

      Aquatic organisms fundamentally require unpolluted habitat to survive. But a sprawling human presence is muscling in, hacking away forest in the Bay watershed at 100 acres per day, and then sealing much of this land with impervious surface—at five times the rate of population growth! The results? Absent transpiring leaves of the forest canopy and a spongy forest floor, twice as much erosive stormwater gushes into streams. Road salts create a chemical “dam” that repels river herring from spawning in their natal streams. Streams no longer nurture the base of the food chain, and instead deliver mud to choked estuaries. Water tables, sealed by roads, roofs, and parking lots, decline and fail to maintain stream flow between storms. Add the pollutants and the elevated temperature of urbanized stormwater, and the loss of aquatic biodiversity is a given.

       The fundamental solution requires thoughtful land-use decisions, for the landscape is densely penetrated by a network of first-order perennial streams, so called because they are the first to collect water. A filigree of capillaries, these streams convey what is happening on the landscape to second and higher-order streams, thence to rivers and estuaries, and finally to the Bay. Thus, to restore the Bay, it is critical that we begin at the local level—through our master and comprehensive plans that serve as blueprints for where and how we grow.

      Mattawoman Creek and its watershed serve as a perfect example. The Bay’s most productive nursery for migratory fish is now in decline as a consequence of rampant development in its watershed, according to studies by Maryland’s Department to Natural Resources (DNR). Most of the watershed lies in Charles County, which presently is in the throes of a battle for its soul as big money, pushing for business-as-usual in the county’s comprehensive plan revision, is undoing beneficial elements in the current draft. The DNR has said in a major new report that this plan revision is probably the last chance to save Mattawoman. (For insights into the battle, see the article by Claudia Friedetzky, page 11)

      Meanwhile, we continue to pass milestones marking our march into the Anthropocene geologic epoch. Considering the loss of habitat for a decimated but spunky marine fish reveals how it happens, and what is at stake. To turn things around, we must use all tools, including permits, legislation, the law, and efforts like the Bay’s pollution diet. But none will work without public support and ever greater public participation. As Baltimore’s sage H.L. Mencken quipped, “The cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy.” Here Sierra Club members and their allies are at the front lines, and must continue to educate many more lest milestones continue to lead to a bleak and impoverished future.  

 

 

This article was provided by the Mattawoman Watershed Society.

 

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