Helping the Chesapeake Bay from Upstream

WESTOVER, Va. (AP) – The Atlantic eel that Ken Slazyk pulled from the pot in the James River, 8 miles downstream from Hopewell, was an 18-inch-long green juvenile that had, in one of modernity’s greatest mysteries biology, traveled up the river where his parents had spent their early days, feeding on James’s baby crabs, baby minnows and insects.

So this eel could, like its mother, turn gray and white, grow as thick as Slazyk’s forearm, and swim out to the vast Sargasso Sea of ​​the mid-Atlantic, mate, and in the spring , seeing its tiny “elvers” or glass eels, making their way back to the James – just like the eels that have swum to the Sargassum over the winter from the Delaware, Hudson, Connecticut and a dozen European rivers from Norway to the Mediterranean will infallibly return to the spring and summer feeding grounds of their parents.

If, that is, this eel manages to escape the eel traps of a growing Chesapeake Bay fishery, said Slazyk, senior education officer at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. in Virginia.

Eels are a popular food fish in Europe and Asia, and one of this size could easily fetch a fisherman $2 or $3; the smaller ones are popular for bait.

A short boat ride on the James from Hopewell, where from 1966 to 1974 Allied Chemical dumped Kepone insecticide, a poison that stopped crabs and oysters in the rich waters off Newport News where the James casts in the Chesapeake for over a decade, Slazyk had also shot some large male blue crabs – Jimmys. No one is quite sure why some male blue crabs like to hang out so far up the river, while mature females, after spawning, head for the saltier middle of the bay itself.

But one of the main challenges of a stock assessment that has just been launched will be to learn more about the male crabs, said Chris Moore, a senior scientist at the foundation involved in the assessment, the first since 2011.

Virginia and Maryland manage their blue crab fisheries by monitoring the number of female and juvenile crabs, but Moore said scientists are beginning to wonder if there are enough males around. The assessment will also see what new data on rainfall, water temperature and predators suggest about ways to manage blue crab numbers.

After returning the eel to the James, Slazyk would quickly drag a small trawl through the Herring Creek tributary of the river and raise baby crabs, some barely as big as the first knuckle of a finger, tiny chub minnows. water, a small shad and a flounder. – like a “pig choker” – so called because when settlers tried to feed them their pigs, the animals choked if the fish were fed tail-first, said foundation scientist Chris Moore .

And a surprise:

“A place, 80 miles from the bay,” Slazyk said, holding a 4-inch-long specimen of Leiostomus xanthurus, a small, short-lived saltwater fish that anglers regularly haul from the Chesapeake as they hunt popular fish such as striped bass, cobia and drum.

The water here is barely salty – roughly the equivalent of slipping a grain of salt into a liter of water – but even so far away the same tides that raise and lower the bay 3 feet cause the waters to of the river at Hopewell ebb and flow as well.

“Kepone was truly a turning point in Virginia,” said Peggy Sanner, the foundation’s executive director in Virginia, as the foundation’s Baywatcher departed from her berth near the Benjamin Harrison Bridge outside of Hopewell for the journey to Herring Creek.

“People realized we had a big problem.”

But these days, Hopewell is a leader in tackling a major challenge for the bay. After cleaning up its act with Kepone, the small town at the confluence of the Appomattox and James rivers focused on preventing rainstorm runoff from flowing into those creeks.

Stormwater runoff is a major source of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that pollutes the bay, feeding algae that create summer’s oxygen-deprived dead zones and smothering underwater weeds and tiny creatures , from juvenile crabs to baby striped bass, which shelter there.

Sanner said one of the priorities for the upcoming General Assembly is to strengthen the state‘s Local Stormwater Assistance Fund, which provides matching grants to local governments for planning, design and implementation. implementation of stormwater management best practices, such as retention ponds and wetlands or stream restoration projects.

The Kepone disaster, meanwhile, prompted the formation of the Virginia Environmental Endowment, the $41 million fund that provides grants for projects across the state — including the Better Farming Practices program that Moore is helping to set up near the headwaters of the James in the Shenandoah Valley, in addition to its day-to-day work monitoring crab, oyster and fish population trends in the bay.

The aim is to persuade farmers to plant trees along riverbanks to slow erosion and the movement of groundwater carrying leftover nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers and animal waste into the waters which eventually reach the bay itself. Moore also urges farmers to put up fencing to keep livestock out of waterways and consider moving livestock more frequently from field to field to reduce erosion.

These days, as the foundation launches a new effort to plant endangered freshwater mussels across the upper watershed – including some that have just been bred at the Harrison Lake National Fish Hatchery in Herring Creek that is to be planted in the James by the southern Albemarle County town of Scottsville – Moore would like to remind farmers that their efforts to reduce pollutants flowing into the bay also pay off locally.

Clearer streams are good for trout; preventing erosion keeps fields fertile; stamps attract deer for hunters; and keeping cattle out of waterways means they are less exposed to bacteria and less likely to get stuck in mud and risk breaking their limbs, he insists telling farmers – an argument that Augusta County Shenandoah Valley Foundation Trustee Robert N. Whitescarver also does.

Agricultural runoff is perhaps the biggest source of pollutants left to address if Virginia is to meet the 2025 bay cleanup goals, Sanner said. As Virginia farmers are interested and the General Assembly has increased cost-sharing funds to help them with these efforts, she plans to ask the assembly to authorize even more help in the form of an incentive program.

Agriculture and stormwater runoff are tough challenges because there are many individual sources of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment, unlike wastewater treatment plants where Virginia’s investments since 2010 have had a significant impact. .

Stormwater is of particular concern because the amount of pollutants pouring into the bay from city and suburban streets is actually increasing, the only area where it is, she said.

At the same time, the state’s overburdened environmental regulators have lagged in reviewing stormwater permits and simply extended those that have expired without requiring updated pollution-reduction standards.

Another area of ​​growing concern is aging septic systems in rural coastal counties, Sanner said.

Rising sea levels and failing systems mean the foundation will ask the assembly to find ways to help residents of the Middle Peninsula, North Neck and East Coast install the new, more expensive systems. that can cope with higher water tables, she said.

On the Baywatcher, skirting far upriver from the bay itself, Sanner said it’s important to remember that cleaning up the bay must involve more than those who live on its shores.

The foundation’s boat, for example, has the mission of taking students from the Richmond area on the river for environmental education excursions.

And a favorite way to make a point of connecting the upstream with the bay is the bridge run to Ducking Stool Point, named after the colonial era test for witches, where on this trip took the opportunity to spot a darting blue kingfisher and a giant bald eagle returning to its nest in a tall loblolly pine.

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