Changing Baselines

“You shoulda seen it when:

  • you could see grass on the bottom in at least 10 to 12 feet of water."
  • oyster reefs were so abundant they were navigational hazards."
  • water flowed out of water wells at the land surface."
  • the shad run was so strong it looked like you could walk across the river on their backs."
  • you could paddle up any creek and fill the skiff with crab “doublers.”
  • ducks and geese were there for the taking."
  • sturgeon roe was more abundant than Russian caviar.”

All these statements once applied to Chesapeake Bay and the Northern Neck. Today, it is hard to imagine what the Bay was like at the time Europeans arrived. Scientists refer to changes in perception (Old Timer’s Syndrome) as “Shifting Baselines” (www.shiftingbaselines.org). Changes happen so slowly that individuals lose perspective on how significant they can be, and the mutterings of the “old folks” sound somewhat like science fiction to the next generation.

Scientists agree that the ocean ecosystems are in crisis worldwide. Every food species that is harvested is highly stressed, or worse. The recently released Pew Oceans Commissions report (www.pewoceans.org) concludes that 90% of the large fish in the ocean have been killed. There are three primary reasons for the decline in the global ocean ecosystem: over-harvesting, habitat destruction and by-catch. All three problems apply locally.

Over-harvesting affects all species in the Bay, and is the reason that stocks must be managed in a realistic scientific manner, irrespective of economic and societal implications. We know that proper management works, as is proven by the return of rockfish, and is being proven by the return of shad as dams are removed from rivers in which they spawn and permits for new dams are denied. Management of other stocks, such as the blue crab, has been less successful. The most egregious omission is for Virginia to continue to permit the taking of “sponge” crabs, or egg-bearing females. Continuing this practice is analogous to a herdsman slaughtering most of his cows and then wondering why there are so few calves in the spring. The egg-bearing sooks have put so much energy into making eggs that they aren’t meaty enough to be worth picking anyway. During the last three years, the worst on record, only about 50 million pounds of crabs were harvested, down from a typical average of about 75 million pounds and a maximum harvest of over 100 million pounds.

Repeated oyster dredging results in the destruction of habitat as the reefs are flattened. Clam dredging tears up beds of sea-grass. Nonpoint-source pollution by the nutrients nitrate and phosphate cloud the water and prevent Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (SAV) from growing. The demise of entire communities of organisms, such as oyster reefs or sea grass beds, has repercussions throughout the food chain. Oyster aquaculture is an obvious alternative to conventional oyster harvesting. It remains to be seen if we can return to harvests of 4 million bushels of oysters per year as was true between about 1930 and 1980, but which not even closely approached harvests of around 10 million bushels per year at the end of the 1800’s. Last year fewer than 100,000 bushels of oysters were harvested, less than 1% of the maximum harvests. The baseline continues to shift downward.

By-catch refers to the killing of inedible (or undersized) species as the result of fisheries operations. Oyster and clam dredging inevitably kills other organisms, and some pound-net operations kill many undersized species, or species undesirable for human consumption but critical for predatory fish like bluefish and rock. There are days when there are hundreds of barely under-sized trout floating in the river near my house, dumped by a local pound-netter. True, they are free crab bait for me, but neither commercial nor recreational fishermen will ever catch those trout, and they pollute the river.

Other baseline shifts involve the land. Some people still remember seeing water flowing out of artesian wells at the land surface. Water levels in the deep artesian aquifer are now more than 100 feet below the land surface. Everyone comments on the permanent loss of timberland to development, especially when the development results in clear-cutting and chemically maintained lawns adjacent to the water.

As stewards of the Northern Neck it is important that we not only act responsibly by doing things like maintaining our septic systems and shorelines, reducing our use of fertilizer, especially on lawns adjacent to the water, conserving water and never throwing anything in the creeks and rivers, but that we educate ourselves about the changes that have taken place. Each of us should actively strive to move the baselines back, and not to continue to allow them to decline. In the face of a growing population this will require conscious dedication and action. Inaction guarantees that baselines will continue to shift ever downward.

Previous NAPS "Stewardship Tips" that bear on issues of “changing baselines” have addressed oysters and shellfish restrictions, crabs, coastal marshes, and groundwater. These “Tips,” along with others, and along with the names of some excellent books, can all be found, along with links to other sources of information like the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, at the NAPS web site.

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