Photo: Crab boat in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland

Into the mist, a waterman works a trotline for crabs on Maryland's Patuxent River. Yet another push to clean such tributaries may be the bay's best hope.

Photograph by Peter Essick

By Tom Horton, Joel K. Bourne, Jr.

Republished from the pages of National Geographic magazine

It's a moonless February evening, heavy sleet and snow on the way, winds 15 knots and gusting, building a sharp chop on Chesapeake Bay. "Looks good to go," says my friend Don Baugh, meaning it's time to pull on fleece insulation and dry suits, and kayak for an hour to our roost for this long winter's night. We're headed for an uninhabited dab of marsh and dune, miles from the nearest mainland, with just enough lee from the oncoming blow to shelter a campfire. Waves slap a glaze of ice on our foredecks as we paddle through the splash and black.

Soon, under a tarp staked in the wind shadow of a dune, we've got chunks of glowing oak, stashed in balmier times, throwing off luxurious heat, popping open fat, locally tonged oysters on a grate. The evening's musical entertainment features a nearby band of wintering tundra swans, flown in from Alaska's North Slope. Sleet rattles the tarp as the storm blots the lights of fishing villages that sparkle from the mainland.

There are comfier ways to experience Chesapeake Bay, but no truer ones for us. In the nighttime, in wintertime, we find refuge and renewal in these shrinking vestiges of the wilder Chesapeake we knew many years ago. It was much easier then to lose oneself in the countless creeks and rivers that vein the tidal bay's more than 11,600 miles (18,700 kilometers) of coastline, to jump black ducks from the marshes, pluck soft crabs and oysters from the clear, grassy shallows, and float on waters not constantly churned by the wake of high-speed sport boats. So much has changed—oysters nearly gone, crabs near historic lows, waterman towns dying out, buildings and roads fracturing the countryside. Population in the estuary's watershed, which includes parts of six states and the District of Columbia, has doubled in our lifetime, from 8 million to 16 million, compromising solitude as well as water quality.

No one had illusions that the work of the Chesapeake Bay Program, a massive federal-state restoration effort, begun in 1983 and unmatched anywhere in the world, would be quick or easy. But no one anticipated that 22 years later we'd still be struggling. Chesapeake Bay is not alone. From the Gulf of Mexico to Europe's Baltic and North Seas, from Hong Kong to Chile to Australia, dozens of coastal regions are showing similar declines. Not one has yet fully recovered.

"If the richest, most powerful nation on Earth can't clean up this mess on the very doorstep of the nation's capital, what message do we send for the future of the planet?" asks William C. Baker, president of the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF). Founded in 1967, and one of the largest regional environmental groups in the U.S., CBF is the voice of the Chesapeake; in its latest ecological report card CBF gave Chesapeake Bay a failing grade of 27 out of 100.

It's a time of soul-searching for people like Baugh and me, who have dedicated our careers to reversing the decline—I as a journalist, he as an environmental educator. I've known the bay for six decades, through its health and decline, blithely gloried in it as a young hunter, fisherman, and marsh mucker; worried professionally about it for 30 years as an environmental writer for the Baltimore Sun; and written about it "hanging in the balance" 12 years ago in this magazine.

During the past year I've been traveling the approximately 200-mile-long (322-kilometer-long) estuary by kayak, skiff, and back road. Call it a farewell to old haunts, or maybe a search for hope. Or maybe it's the bay writer at 60 trying to come to terms with what was supposed to happen on his watch, but may not—may never.

This thought weighed on me one June weekend in the fishing village of Tilghman Island on Maryland's Eastern Shore. The graceful old oyster skipjack Rebecca T. Ruark was ready to sail from Dogwood Harbor. I've spent cold, blowy winter days watching tons of muddy oysters being hauled aboard her battle-scarred decks. Now freshly painted, with lounge chairs on her deck, Rebecca never looked prettier—or more out of her element. In the decades after she was launched in 1886, a thousand wooden sailcraft worked the bay. Now she's a national historic landmark, one of a handful of surviving skipjacks largely relegated to use for recreational charters, museum exhibits, or sailing at festivals.

"I do marryin's and buryin's—scatter your ashes—I do sunset cruises, special charters, whatever people want," said Wade H. "Wadey" Murphy, Jr., her captain and a fifth generation waterman. "I loved drudgin' for oysters like…life," Wadey said. "But tourism's coming, oysters are going."

He showed me a photograph taken in 1948 near where a new gated resort community now stands. The late Bill Page, a waterman, was in his skiff, grappling oysters from the clear shallows with scissor-like tongs. A stranger onshore, A. Aubrey Bodine, had orchestrated the moment, motioning Page to move a few yards. "Ain't no oysters there," Page had replied. Humor me, Bodine had said, and he snapped a shot that has become a bay classic. Wadey said Page always told people it was a fine picture, but he invariably added: "Where he had me pose, there weren't no oysters."

Baywide, oysters were abundant in 1948, with harvests of several million bushels a year in Maryland. But within the past two decades the catch has plummeted, hit by disease, from around a million bushels to 26,500 last year.

No one's feeling any pain, however, at Harrison's Chesapeake House, down the harbor from Wadey. The sportfishing fleet's back from a charity tournament with a haul of striped bass. At the waterfront bar, the country music's cranking and the beer's flowing. Striped bass—also called rockfish or just plain stripers—are great fighters and good eating, a firm white meat that needs no help from any sauce. Now managed under strict quotas, the stock has come roaring back.

The crowd of tourists at the weigh-in oohed and aahed as a handsome 33-pounder (15 kilograms) made the scales creak. The overall catch was sparse, but contestants said they were happy just for the chance to snag a big one. Suddenly people began pointing their cameras toward the water. There, perfectly accentuating a Chesapeake scene of cotton-puff clouds floating in a clean blue sky across sparkling waters, were Wadey and Rebecca T. Ruark on their final cruise of the day.

And I wanted to holler to the happy skipjack watchers and easily satisfied fishermen: But there aren't any oysters out there anymore!

Yet as the stripers indicate, the Chesapeake Bay is far from dead. During my kayak journeys I could still feed from it—belly and soul—as I paddled through remote marshes, passing close to ospreys, herons, pelicans, and bald eagles on their nests. The bay scene is changing, though, and there's an air of finality to it now. Crisfield, Maryland, which once proclaimed itself Seafood Capital of the World, is knocking down the old oyster houses for condos. Commercial clam growers in Cape Charles, Virginia, are struggling against pollution from upscale clusters of several thousand homes. And Solomons, Maryland, a thriving fishing village not long ago, is trying hard to become a sailing center like Annapolis, the capital of Maryland.

Another sign of the times: "Chesapeake style" crab dishes are still on local menus, but many are full of imported Asian crabmeat. Plump fried oysters, lightly breaded and crisped a golden brown, are widely available too—but they're trucked in from Louisiana and Texas for the most part. That a local seafood culture can prosper without being supplied locally worries me. It implies less urgency to make the bay healthy.

From Crisfield it's a three-hour kayak crossing to Tangier Island, a windswept marsh encompassing three slender ridges of barely dry land. It lies at the bay's center, just south of the Maryland-Virginia line. The persistence here, after more than two centuries, of what can still be described as a thriving waterman culture defies logic. But then no place I know works—or prays—harder than Tangier. In 1989 townspeople quadrupled property taxes to help finance a seawall to stave off erosion. In 1998, swayed by an environmentalist who shared their evangelical beliefs, around half the island's watermen stood in church to make a "covenant with God." They pledged to observe fishing and pollution rules, "to protect our heritage and ensure a future for the next generation."

A new school serving the island's 99 kids boasts one of the lowest dropout rates in Virginia. On the wall of his office, Tangier native and principal Denny Crockett has one clock showing 10 a.m., another establishing that it's two hours to high tide. "Tides sometimes cover the whole island," Denny said, "so I need to know when to let kids out early so they won't be wadin'."

When I told him I was going crabbing with one of his graduates, Denny said: "James Eskridge, I'll bet. He's got the get-up-and-go, and he hates anyone to beat him. If James doesn't make it, we might as well all pack up and leave."

It was 3:15 a.m. when James's dad, James Sr., known about town as Ooker, met me at the Double Six coffee shop. "James says, d'ye get seasick?" Ooker asked. " 'Cause he's not comin' in till he's done, and it's gonna be blowin'."

Ooker delivered me aboard James's 37-foot workboat, Rebecca Jean. James, 26, who's been crabbing since he was old enough to walk, briefly acknowledged me as he arranged baskets, bait, and crab pots in the glare of deck lights. Soon we were roaring out the channel with the rest of the Tangier fleet, churning the water to froth, spotlights stabbing the night sky. The east was barely gray when he located his first line of pots, a series of mesh-wire cubes tethered to a yellow-and-red cork marker on the surface.

"Guess you want me to act normal, like I'm by myself?" James asked. With that, he flicked a switch to two big all-weather radio speakers: "HalleLUUUyah! HalleLUUUyah! JOY MAKES ME SING! You're listening to praise music, 102.5." Backing in full reverse and simultaneously wielding a long pole, James hooked his first cork and in the same instant fed its line into a hydraulic pulley that shrieked as it rocketed each pot, with a dozen or so trapped crabs, to the surface. Hoist the pot aboard, dump the crabs, bait with another fish, full throttle ahead another 30 yards (27 meters) or so to the next pot.

Hook, pull, hoist, dump, bait. Pumped by the beat, slamming gears then sorting crabs by sex and by size, James ruled the deck with the power and precision of a prizefighter. He would fish 300 pots before the day was over—he was fishing about four pots to the song.

Although he opposes their recommendations, James is well aware of scientists' concerns about the steep downward trend in the bay's blue crab population since 1990. Spawning females are at historic low levels. To reverse the decline, Maryland and Virginia have restricted the hours crabbers can work. Maryland has also increased size limits, and Virginia has put an additional 270 square miles (700 square kilometers) of bay off-limits to summertime crabbers. Watermen say the problem isn't just them. It's also pollution, which is killing the crab's underwater grass habitat. But so far it's been easier to regulate watermen than pollution.

Has James considered leaving home for weeks to work on tugboats like nearly 20 other young Tangiermen? "NO!" he replied, adding, "well, never say never, but it would have to get real bad before I'd give this up." He said he'd wanted this life since he was six, when his grandmother made him a miniature set of waterman oilskins.

James may be the exception, as I learned from Cindy Parks, the state's commercial fishing license agent on Tangier Island. Parks estimates that out of some 170 licensed watermen on Tangier, maybe 100 crab for the entire summer. And only a few of those are young men, Parks said. "We're losing our young people. We had seven babies last year, and that was a big crop."

All across the bay there may be no more than 2,500 watermen crabbing full-time now, down from an estimated 10,000 baywide a few decades ago. Tangier has held on better than many other waterman communities, but one has to wonder whether a generation from now, with or without their covenant, James Eskridge and others will still be out on the water hoisting crabs.

A couple of hundred miles north of Tangier Island, I parked my car beside the barn on Harold Wissler's neatly kept farm in Voganville, Pennsylvania. If he and Eskridge met, they'd probably get on well: Farmers and watermen share a natural sympathy born of their independent lifestyles and wariness of government intrusion.

But farming intrudes heavily on the ability of places like Tangier to make a living. For more than a decade, agricultural researchers around the bay have been documenting how farming—even with the best controls—still "leaks" far too much pollution. The bay today has become the ecological equivalent of a morbidly obese person, force-fed nitrogen and phosphorus. Excessive amounts of these nutrients and sediments have depleted the water's oxygen and killed about two-thirds of underwater grass beds vital to crabs, fish, and waterfowl.

"You have to use the land so intensively now to make it on these small acres," said Wissler, 62, who raises corn, barley, soybeans, beef cattle, and a quarter million chickens a year, all on his modest 97-acre (39-hectare) Lancaster County farm. Farmers here have doubled their use of manure in the past several decades, adding more crops and animals to increase their profits. Such productivity is why Lancaster County alone yields enough meat, milk, and eggs to feed more than half the people living in the bay's watershed. But this "fat of the land" translates directly to an over-fatted bay, as excess fertilizers wash into the Susquehanna River, which provides about half of the Chesapeake's fresh water.

Agricultural pollution control is largely voluntary in Lancaster County and throughout the bay's watershed. "I'm regulating 240 farms out of more than 5,000 here—the rest don't come under any state or federal standards," said Kevin Seibert, nutrient program manager for the county's conservation district. "We've been working here with farmers for decades, and most of those willing to be educated have been educated."

According to Seibert, Harold Wissler is doing more than most Pennsylvania farmers to control runoff. He spreads only as much manure as he needs to grow his crops, shipping the excess to a broker for mushroom growers, who pays him seven dollars a ton. But farmers must do a lot more to reach the approximately 40 percent cuts in nutrient pollution needed to restore the bay. An experiment on farms in Maryland went well beyond anything Wissler does, eliminating manure and planting special crops in the fall to absorb excess fertilizer. Pollution was cut by 25 percent, while maintaining yields. State officials in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia now have plans to dramatically cut farm pollution, but they're still mostly just that—plans on paper—and may remain so until the states find the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to help farmers meet the new standards.

What more could Wissler do now to help the bay? Seibert ticked off a list of added measures like building more manure storage containers and planting the fall crops used in the Maryland experiment. When I suggested them to Wissler, he responded patiently. "Well, it would be very difficult. It would move up my retirement pretty fast." If so, he'd have no trouble selling his farm: Land-hungry developers are paying up to $20,000 an acre in Lancaster County.

No one said cleaning up the bay would be easy. Bernie Fowler knows that better than anyone. He's my inspiration for paddling some 55 miles (89 kilometers) in four days down Maryland's Patuxent River, from its upper reaches amid the Baltimore-Washington megalopolis, to where it broadens majestically between rural shores near its meeting with the Chesapeake. There, for the 17th year in a row, we're going to wade into the river, up to our shoulders, hoping to see our toes. It's been decades since the bay was clear enough to do that.

A former state senator and native of Broomes Island on the lower Patuxent, Fowler, now 81, has spent nearly half his life fighting to make it possible to see clear water again. He's prayed and politicked, begged and sued: Led by Fowler in 1977, three counties along the lower part of the river sued the state and federal government and won, leading to a commitment of hundreds of millions of dollars to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage-treatment plants.

For a time the Patuxent looked like a model for bay-wide restoration, but even its cleanup hasn't been enough. "A lot's been done, a whole lot," Fowler allowed. "But we still don't have a lot of underwater grasses, crabs, or oysters. We don't have as many fish. This river and this bay are still a disgrace."

In 2003, for the first time, University of Maryland scientists graded the Patuxent's water quality, fisheries habitat, and abundance of algae. They gave it a D plus.

"I tell my grown son about when 60 oyster boats were working out of Broomes Island, and 12 commercial fishing operations, and about catching six sugar barrels of crabs a day, and he can't believe it," said Fowler. "And that's my fear—we're coming to accept the river as it is."

By now a good-size crowd had assembled to hear speeches before the testing of the waters. Once the bay is put on a healthy, reduced nutrient diet, explained Walter Boynton, a top bay scientist who lives and works on the Patuxcnt, it will respond "in a year or two." Indeed, when a recent drought cut polluted runoff, water clarity and underwater grasses rebounded, and the bay's dead zone, where dissolved oxygen is too low to sustain life (less than one milligram per liter) shrank. "If we do right by water quality—cut nutrient pollution by about half—we won't pay for the sins of the past."

Anson Hines, a marine ecologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center near Annapolis, had a similar message about the bay's crabs, which are incredibly fecund and mature and reproduce quickly. With a combination of conservation and restored environmental quality, Hines said, "it may be possible they could rebound fairly quickly."

Oysters are another matter. A debate is now raging over introducing an Asian species that reportedly grows fast and resists the native oyster's diseases. Even if officials decide that the benefits of bringing in an exotic oyster outweigh the risks, "we may be looking at decades before we have significant stocks of non-native oysters," said Ken Paynter, a University of Maryland biologist.

The moment had come for Fowler and me, and into the Patuxent we went. But a stiff wind had churned the water, and I made it to around knee-deep before my size 15 sneakers vanished, nearly a yard short of our shoulder-high goal.

Why isn't the Chesapeake in better shape? Two decades ago the hope was that by reducing excess nutrients by 40 percent, we would have returned the bay's water quality to 1950s levels by now. Yet efforts have focused mainly on sewage treatment, the easiest target politically and financially because laws were already in place. Unquestionably, dealing with sewage is important—Maryland just passed a law that will generate another billion dollars to further upgrade treatment—but sewage contributes only about 60 million of the estimated 275 million pounds (125 million kilograms) of nitrogen entering the bay every year. The Environmental Protection Agency calculates that restoration will at minimum require cutting excess nitrogen by 110 million pounds (50 million kilograms) a year.

A lack of both political will and enforcement has slowed progress in tackling the other big pollution sources—agriculture, cars, power plants, and urban storm water. We've been similarly lax in containing the sprawl consuming forests and wetlands—vegetation that absorbs millions of pounds of nutrients from polluted air and runoff—at the rate of more than 100 acres (40 hectares) a day. And the demise of oysters, which once filtered and cleansed huge volumes of bay water as they fed on algae, has been an ecological disaster. "It's like someone removed 99 percent of the filter in your aquarium," said Bill Goldsborough, a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

In theory we're now assembling the pieces to make the puzzle of bay restoration work. Under the federal Clean Water Act, if the bay states aren't making real progress in reducing excess nutrients by 2010, federally mandated pollution controls could usurp the states' efforts. To avoid this, the states have produced detailed lists of actions to achieve 1950s-grade water quality. These include everything from less polluting types of agriculture to cleaner technologies for septic tanks and reduced use of lawn fertilizer. A panel of businesspeople, politicians, and environmental leaders is seeking some 15 billion dollars in federal and state restoration funding.

Cleaning up the bay by 2010 seems highly unlikely. A recent report co-authored by Donald Boesch, head of the University of Maryland's environmental research laboratories, suggests restoration will be possible by 2030—but only if we pursue our goals aggressively.

Paddling down the Patuxent last summer, reflecting on the slow progress of voluntary cleanup, I began to think the best recourse now is to heed the advice Bernie Fowler got years ago from a mentor: "Sue the bastards." At least two environmental groups have recently taken legal action against polluters and enforcement agencies. But no amount of lawsuits can be expected to turn the water-quality clock back half a century if more than a million people are added to the region every decade. Controlling growth may be a national issue, but what better place to begin than in the bay's watershed, where the U.S. government resides?

Do we have the will to restore the Chesapeake? Public support often seems like the estuary itself, impressively broad but deceptively shallow. Walter Boynton, the Patuxent scientist, recalls how when he arrived on the Chesapeake nearly 40 years ago, oysters were "an essential food, part of the culture—and now they're an hors d'oeuvre. I wonder if the bay has become like that for many people, from being essential to an hors d'oeuvre."

I only hope he's wrong. As Fran Flanigan, who organized the original bay restoration summit meeting in 1983, said in a recent speech, "Ultimately we're confronted with a question of values, which no amount of money can fix."

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