Is Organic Farming Good for the Chesapeake? By Whitney Pipkin

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Organic agriculture is the fastest growing sector of the food industry in the United States, and its footprint in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is growing in kind.

The brand of agriculture that eschews the use of pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and genetically engineered ingredients now makes up 20 percent of Perdue Farms’ poultry production on the Delmarva Peninsula, where the company is headquartered.

Smaller poultry producers in the region also are growing their organic operations at a steady clip: Bell & Evans, which is based in Fredericksburg, PA, and sells its chicken meat to high-end retailers such as Whole Foods Market, launched its line of organic products in 2009 and opened a certified organic hatchery this year.

Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley Organic opened its first poultry facility in Harrisonburg in 2014, providing contract feed growers interested in making the switch with an alternative buyer in that region.

As organic poultry production increases, so does the demand for organically grown grains to feed the birds, such as corn and soybeans, much of which comes from outside the country. But that’s beginning to change — and could represent a significant shift in land use for the Bay watershed. Perdue alone is buying organic grains grown on more than 13,000 acres of cropland across the region, and seeks much more.

The practices that earn poultry and grain producers the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic label may keep certain pesticides, antibiotics and hormones out of foods, but are they necessarily better for water quality and the Bay than conventional agriculture?

“The basic answer is, it depends on if you’re a good organic grower or not,” said Michel Cavigelli, lead scientist on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farming Systems Project in Beltsville, MD. “Not all organic is equal, and not all conventional is equal.”

Comparing organic and conventional practices on mid-Atlantic soils is just what Cavigelli’s team has been doing for more than 20 years. The project has measured the performance of conventional and organic cropping systems by applying the different management systems to fields planted with the same crops.

Nutrient runoff is one of several factors monitored that has implications for local water quality. When asked whether the growth of organic practices in the watershed could be good for the Bay, Cavigelli began with the caveats.

For starters, he said, each type of farming comes with tradeoffs: Conventional growers use genetically engineered seeds and herbicides to combat weeds; organic growers till their fields to suppress weeds, which can lead to erosion and nutrient runoff when compared with farms that practice no-till cultivation.

The project’s findings so far indicate that organic fields typically have less phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment runoff than conventional plots — unless those conventional plots are no-till. That, in part, is because organic farms tend to build organic matter in the soils over time, which helps fields retain water and nutrients. But some of that work is undone when an organic farmer, rather than using herbicides, tills the soil to prevent weeds.

About a quarter of cropland acres in the country are farmed using no-till practices, according to the latest U.S. Census of Agriculture in 2012. Another 20 percent of those acres were farmed with other “conservation-tillage” practices aimed at minimizing soil disturbances. Maryland farmers had the highest percentage of no-till acres at 55 percent in 2012.

“Based on our studies, no-till has less runoff of silt and nutrients than any other method we use, including organic,” Cavigelli said.

Since time immemorial, farmers have fertilized and plowed croplands in the spring to turn over the soil and prepare it for planting. But heavy spring rains can wash fertilizer and soil from bare fields. The nutrients from fertilizers and sediment from freshly plowed fields run off into nearby ditches and streams, eventually winding up in the Bay.

No-till farming, which began taking root after the 1930s Dust Bowl, leaves the soil undisturbed from the fall harvest through winter. In the spring, seeds are planted in narrow slots that are “drilled” into the ground.

Cavigelli’s research project has compared the different cultivation regimens using virtually the same crop rotations, patterned after most commodity-growing fields in the Bay region, over a three-year period: corn the first year, soybeans the second year and wheat the third. In the third year, the conventional fields, including tilled and no-till, follow the wheat with a quick crop of soybeans, which are harvested too late in the fall to allow a cover crop to be planted. The organic fields, in contrast, are planted in a perennial alfalfa after the third-year crop, so they have less nutrient runoff that year than all of the conventional fields.

In the short-term, the runoff-control benefits of no-till farming edge out organic. But if the organic crop rotation pattern is repeated for decades, using cover crops for longer periods, Cavigelli said, the organic fields could end up performing better on overall nutrient absorption.

“We’ve been improving conventional for 100 years now,” he said, referring to technological improvements that have reduced conventional farming’s impacts on water quality over time, “and organic for just 20 years or so. There are trade-offs between all these systems, but it seems there’s a lot of room for improvement with organic.”

Cavigelli acknowledges that his work focuses on just a few aspects of the many comparisons that can be drawn between the farming practices. There’s another factor to consider — fertilizer use.

Organic crops typically use less nitrogen to begin with, or rely on slow-release forms of nutrients, such as manure, which reduce the risk of nutrient runoff and leaching.

While organic advocates bring that up as a water-quality advantage, other research indicates organic farming practices can leach just as much nitrate as conventional farming systems if the goal is to maintain the same crop yields.

With manure application, “it’s more difficult to be prescriptive,” said Ken Staver, research scientist at the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “When you use chemical fertilizers, there are methods to apply it very precisely and to apply it closer to where the crop uptake is” to reduce nutrient loss.

But that comparison only holds true if the fields are planting the same crops. If organic agriculture does, in fact, plant more perennials such as alfalfa, Staver added, “that will always lower the nutrient loss.”

As a riverkeeper who grows organic grains for Perdue chickens on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Jeff Horstman views the intersection of agribusiness and water quality from a unique perspective. Horstman is the executive director of ShoreRivers, a new consolidation of watershed advocacy groups on the peninsula — the Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy, the Chester River Association and the Sassafras River Association.

Those organizations’ priorities have at times diverged from those of local poultry producers, to put it mildly. The Waterkeeper Alliance, the umbrella organization for riverkeeper groups like his, filed an unsuccessful federal lawsuit seven years ago accusing Perdue and one of its contract growers of polluting a Bay tributary. The case, dismissed by a judge after a lengthy trial, left a trail of lingering bitterness and suspicion between farmers and environmentalists.

But Horstman and others see in organic agriculture a growing opportunity to find common ground. “I moved back to the family farm and one of the things I wanted to do was become an organic farmer,” said Horstman — whose grandfather, J. I. Rodale, founded the Rodale Institute, a nonprofit devoted to organic farming research in Kutztown, PA. “I appreciate what Perdue does for the Shore and how they’re trying to cultivate organic.” he said. “I think agricultural diversity is good, and organic is a step toward that.”

This fall, the farmland Horstman inherited on the Wye River in Queenstown produced its first crop of organic corn — 170 acres of it — to be sold to Perdue for chicken feed.

Perdue got into organic poultry with its purchase of Coleman Natural Foods in 2011. In response to growing consumer demand, Perdue has since converted a poultry plant in Milford, DE, and a feed mill in Hurlock, MD, to process only certified organic products. The company has also banned the use of antibiotics by all its producers, not just organic operations.

The company has been spreading the word among local growers that it needs organic grains — and that the price is right. This season, farmers could get close to $10 per bushel for organic corn, which can come with lower yields, compared with $3 a bushel for conventional. But a farmer who decides to grow organically on a piece of land in 2017 typically would have to wait until 2020 to sell its first organic crop because of a three-year transition period required by the organic label.

Even with the lag, Perdue expects to have purchased 7,000 acres of organic corn, 3,600 acres of organic soybeans and 2,700 acres of organic wheat from Bay watershed states this year, company spokesman Joe Forsthoffer said. Most of Perdue’s organic grains are currently imported from growers in South America.

“The nice thing about the larger outfits like Perdue is, because they need it and have the capacity, they’re willing to do a contract that reduces your risk and locks in a price early,” said Matt Nielsen, the farmer who’s growing organic grains on Horstman’s land.

Nielsen, 33, also has 75 acres of his own land in organic production and is looking for more organic acreage to farm. He thinks 250 acres or so would be enough to achieve some economies of scale and would also allow him to diversify. He’d like to pasture animals on some acres that aren’t fit for crops and leave several fields at a time in perennial grasses to combat weeds.

But is all that better than the alternative when it comes to local water quality?

“The soil will truly benefit from a lot of different types of agriculture,” Nielsen said. “I’m not sure if you can conclusively rule organic as better or worse, but I do know that there are things we do in organic that have benefits.”

For Horstman, growing organic grains is a good place to start — both for his family farm and for the local water quality he’s concerned with protecting. Like the consumers who are fueling the organic industry’s growth, Horstman is concerned about the environmental and health impacts of conventional agriculture: its reliance on pesticides and herbicides and the way it bolsters an intensified approach to both grain and meat production.

“It’s definitely going to be better for human health, and I think less herbicides and pesticides in the water is definitely an improvement,” he said. “I do think it will be better for the Bay.”

Steve Levitsky, Perdue’s vice president of sustainability, said the company’s ultimate goal is to make organic poultry more affordable for consumers — and sourcing more organic grains from the Bay watershed, rather than overseas, will help.

“Part of the equation is getting more organic [feed] grown on the Eastern Shore,” he said. “That would also help the local grain farmers get higher premiums for their crops, and maybe they won’t need as large of a land mass to be viable.”

Perdue growers produced almost 40 million organic chickens in the Bay region in 2016, or 20 percent of the company’s regional production, with 80 percent of those houses in the Lancaster region of Pennsylvania and the rest on the Eastern Shore.

There are several reasons that organic chicken costs more at the grocery store, and some of them have stronger links to environmental benefits than others. Most of that extra cost is attributable to organic chicken feed, which can cost two to four times as much as conventional. Organic poultry houses also include comparatively expensive amenities, such as windows, “enrichment” equipment and access to the outdoors.

Alicia LaPorte, campaign manager for Fair Farms Maryland, a coalition of environmental and public health groups that advocate for better farming systems, said Perdue’s operation-wide antibiotics ban changed the industry, with other retailers and producers following suit. That gives her hope that other incremental changes, including the continued growth of organic production.

Fair Farms founder Betsy Nicholas, who’s also the executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake, said more organic options in the watershed might be a step in the right direction for local farmers and water quality — but one that still doesn’t go far enough.

Nicholas points to a growing number of small farms, organic and conventional, that are raising animals on pastures, rather than growing feed for them on the Eastern Shore and selling them to local markets.

“It’s absolutely better to have more organic than non-organic farming, [considering] pesticides alone,” she said. “But, ultimately, what we’d want to see is a more diverse agricultural system with more diverse crops. If you have a system that’s based on animal agriculture and the grain crops to feed that animal agriculture, that’s not a diverse system.”

Whitney Pipkin writes at the intersection of food, agriculture and the environment from her home base in Northern Virginia. She is a fellow of the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources.

Count Maryland In: Hogan Announces State will join Coalition to Fight Climate Change by Tim Wheeler

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Declaring that the need for states to work together to fight climate change “grows stronger every day,” nnounced Wednesday that Maryland would join the U.S. Climate Alliance, a mostly Democratic coalition of states committed to reducing greenhouse gases.

The move, disclosed in a letter released by Hogan’s office, represents a shift for the Republican governor, who had remained noncommittal to pleas last year for Maryland to join the alliance, saying he wasn’t sure what the group’s intentions were.

In the letter to the alliance, Hogan recalled that he had publicly disagreed with President Donald Trump’s decision last year to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate accord reached by nearly 200 nations, including the United States.

The governor’s announcement comes on the heels of another move to distance himself from the Trump administration’s rollback of environmental regulations and initiatives. On Monday, Hogan’s office released a letter by Ben Grumbles, his secretary of the environment, opposing the Trump administration’s proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan, the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions from power plants adopted by the Obama administration.

For much of last year, Hogan had been sparing in his public comments, pro or con, on the Trump administration, something Democrats had relentlessly highlighted. But Hogan is seeking re-election this year in a state where voters are overwhelmingly registered Democrats, and where surveys show they tend to support environmental protections.

Some had pressed Hogan last June to join the alliance, a group of 15 states — including Delaware, New York and Virginia in the Bay watershed — that have pledged to curb greenhouse gases in accordance with the 2016 Paris agreement.

Hogan rebuffed those calls then by saying Maryland’s clean air standards were already more stringent than those called for in the Paris deal. He reiterated that stance in the letter Wednesday, but indicated that his views about the need for state action have changed.

“The importance of aggressive but balanced action in states, communities and businesses, and the need for multi-state collaboration and international leadership on climate change, grows stronger every day,” Hogan wrote.

His chief reason for joining the alliance, the governor said, will be to urge all states to adopt air quality standards and greenhouse gas reduction goals as strong as Maryland’s.

The state is on track to meet a goal set in 2009 of reducing climate-altering emissions 25 percent by 2020, and is working on a plan to reduce emissions even further — by 40 percent by 2030.

Hogan’s pledge to join the Climate Alliance drew a mixed reaction from environmentalists, who are continuing to press for even stronger climate action in Maryland.

Karla Raettig, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, applauded the Hogan administration’s decisions to address climate change as the federal government balks. But she added that Maryland can “continue to lead on climate” by increasing renewable energy production in the state even more.

Mike Tidwell, executive director of Chesapeake Climate Action Network, saw nothing to praise, arguing that Hogan should have joined the alliance months ago. “Why did it take so long?” he asked. “What evidence was he weighing?”

Tidwell charged that Hogan had been similarly slow to publicly criticize the Trump administration’s move to withdraw the Clean Power Plan. “[Hogan] has never embraced the single-most powerful tool for reducing carbon pollution in the state — the renewable portfolio standard,” Tidwell said. That standard, adopted in some form by 30 states, requires electricity generators to produce a portion of their power from renewable sources.

In 2016, Hogan vetoed legislation that increased Maryland’s renewable energy requirement from 20 percent to 25 percent by 2020, saying it would force citizens to pay for “overly expensive” solar and wind energy credits. The Democrat-dominated General Assembly overrode that veto last year.

New legislation is being introduced this year that, if passed, would raise the goal to 50 percent renewable power by 2030. Environmental activists rallied at the State House Wednesday in support of that bill.

Timothy B. Wheeler is managing editor and project writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for the Baltimore Sun and other media outlets.

Bay Ecosystem: Annapolis Lawmakers face Continuing Bay Debates in 2018 by Tim Wheeler

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As they return to their chambers this month, state legislators across the Chesapeake watershed face some of the same Bay-centric environmental issues they’ve seen before.

In Maryland, they’ll debate what more should be done, if anything, to conserve the state’s forestland from development and whether air pollution from chicken houses deserves a closer look. In Virginia, lawmakers will revisit what should be done with vast quantities of potentially toxic coal ash now stored in unlined pits at power plants. And in Pennsylvania, a proposal to regulate lawn fertilizer use, to keep it from fouling local streams and the Bay, is likely to rear its head again.

Legislators in all three jurisdictions will also tackle the annual challenge of scraping together the funds needed to meet their Chesapeake restoration obligations — made even tougher this year as support wanes in Washington for federal-state cleanup programs.

Adding to the mix, politics will play a bigger role than usual in how these and other issues play out. State legislative elections loom in Maryland and Pennsylvania, and their governors — Republican and Democrat, respectively — are seeking second terms. In Virginia, the newly elected Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, takes office with a legislature more evenly balanced between the parties than it’s been in ages, which could change how debates play out.

MARYLAND

Forest Conservation: Lawmakers in Annapolis are being pressed by environmental groups to take another look at tightening the state’s 27-year-old forest conservation law.

Since the 1960s, Maryland has lost more than 450,000 acres of forest, and before 2008 it was losing up to 8,600 acres each year, according to a November report by the state Department of Legislative Services.

As originally passed in 1991, the Forest Conservation Act regulates the removal of large numbers of trees for development and requires either that new ones be planted elsewhere or that the developer pay into a local government fund for later plantings.

In March, using highly detailed land cover data from 2013, the nonprofit Chesapeake Conservancy estimated that Maryland had nearly 2.5 million acres of forestland, covering almost 40 percent of the state’s land.
But based on data reported by Maryland counties, activists said, the state experienced a net loss of 14,500 acres through the Forest Conservation Act from 2009 through 2016. And they contend that the 1991 law has been particularly ineffective at saving the largest and most ecologically valuable woodlands.

A study published last year found that while tree cover has increased in residential subdivisions in suburban Baltimore County since the forest conservation law passed, the most heavily forested tracts in the county continued to be carved up.

“When there’s intact forest ecology, that’s basically the most important kind of forest, and that’s the forest the [law] is doing the least to benefit,” said Elaine Lutz, a staff attorney with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Last year, advocates pushed a bill that would have required one-for-one replacement of every acre of woodland mowed down for development. But it ran into fierce opposition from local officials and real estate interests, and failed to get out of committee. This year, green groups are crafting a more targeted bill that would tighten protections just on those woodland tracts deemed most ecologically important.

Lutz said the current law is “wishy-washy” on defining what types of forestland are most important to preserve and what kind of protection they should get. She and other activists want to see greater emphasis in the law on keeping those tracts untouched, rather than letting them be cut down in favor of trees being planted elsewhere.

“An existing mature forest is a lot more ecologically valuable than saplings in the ground,” she pointed out. Forests in the Bay’s watershed soak up nutrients in the air and in runoff from rainfall, and the Bay states have agreed that it’s critical to the restoration effort to maintain and expand forestlands.

Local government officials remain wary of tightening the law, but say they’d like to have more flexibility in where trees must be replanted and how they can spend funds paid by developers in lieu of replanting removed trees. But real estate interests argue the law is working and does not need a major overhaul.

“The Forest Conservation Act was never meant to be a no-net-loss policy,” said Lori Graf, chief executive officer of the Maryland Building Industry Association. The law is just one of several laws and programs aimed at halting the loss of the state’s forestland, she said, and recent data indicate the goal of maintaining the state’s overall forest acreage is being met.

While minor tweaks might be warranted to provide more flexibility for replanting, Graf concluded, “We feel like there are better ways to save the Bay.”

Renewable Energy: Last year, the legislature’s Democratic majority overrode Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of the Clean Energy Jobs Act, which increased Maryland’s renewable energy goal to 25 percent by 2020. This year, advocates hope to ratchet up the goal even more, with competing bills that would require 50 percent renewables by 2030, or even 100 percent by 2035. “It’s ambitious, but we think, especially given the federal climate right now, that the states really have to step up,” said Karla Raettig, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.

Environmentalists also want to stop treating “dirty” energy generators, such as those that burn municipal waste, as “clean” energy under the state’s law.
Rural Air Quality: Another returnee is the Community Healthy Air Act, a bill that would study whether rural Marylanders’ health is threatened by air emissions from the large-scale poultry growing operations concentrated on the Eastern Shore.

Chicken waste emits ammonia, which is currently unregulated, and it adds nitrogen pollution in the Bay when rainfall washes it from the air. The bill would require the Maryland Department of the Environment to collect and report data on chicken house emissions. The poultry industry successfully opposed the bill last year, arguing it should be left to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has been studying it without action for more than a dozen years.

VIRGINIA

Environmental groups focused on Bay priorities have an uncharted political landscape to navigate in Virginia’s general assembly this session. Democratic victories in the November election chipped away at the House of Delegates’ once invulnerable Republican majority and — following the surprising outcome of a late-December recount, and ultimately a name pulled from a hat — leaving Republicans with the slimmest majority possible: 51-49.

“With the recent elections, lots of things changed,” said Pat Calvert, a policy and campaigns manager for the Virginia Conservation Network, which represents the conservation interests of 120 partner organizations.

Budget: Near the top of environmentalists’ wish lists this year is funding to help the state meet its water quality goals. Outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe included in his proposed budget, released in December, $42.5 million over two years to help farmers implement nutrient control systems and practices. That falls short of the $62 million that Bay groups would like to see from the state. At the completion of a year-long study by a legislative committee, advocates expect a bill to be presented that would help stabilize future funding for agricultural conservation practices.

“We really need to focus on ensuring that cleaning up polluting farms, and getting them to the level of our best operating farms, is a priority,” Calvert said.

McAuliffe also left out funding for a second straight year for the state’s Stormwater Local Assistance Fund, which helps localities fund projects to reduce polluted stormwater runoff. Environmental groups are asking legislators to add $50 million for those programs into future versions of the budget.

Sewer Overflows: The city of Alexandria is seeking state funding to help pay for costly wastewater system upgrades to curtail overflows of raw sewage whenever it rains — an effort the legislature declared last year was not moving quickly enough. McAuliffe’s proposed budget includes $20 million for the Northern Virginia city.

Coal Ash: The permanent disposal of coal ash is likely to be the subject of another bill this session. To comply with a 2017 bill, Dominion Energy presented an 800-page report in December defending its plans for keeping the ash, a byproduct of burning coal for power, in covered pits at four of the company’s power plants near Chesapeake Bay tributaries. Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) said he’ll present a bill that would encourage the company to consider excavating or recycling the coal ash into concrete and other products, as North Carolina legislators have required.

PENNSYLVANIA

Funding bills loom as the commonwealth’s year-round legislature reconvenes in January, but there’s also a measure to regulate lawn fertilizer that would bring the state in line with others in the Bay watershed.

Bay Cleanup: The Senate was expected to vote on the Clean Water Procurement bill on Jan. 2, the lawmakers’ first day back. The bill would establish a $50 million annual fund with contributions from the state’s many municipalities that are required to reduce polluted runoff from their streets and parking lots. Instead of investing in costly taxpayer-funded stormwater remediation projects, proponents say, municipalities can meet their nutrient reduction obligations in a more cost-efficient way — by paying to help farmers deal with their animal manure, an even larger source of nutrient pollution.

In return, the local governments would be absolved from their mandates, according to the bill. The financing would be awarded to private industry to build large manure-processing systems. Municipal associations and some environmental groups are opposed to the bill, partially because it was written and promoted heavily by Bion Environmental Technologies, whose subsidiary BionPA1 is in default of a $7.8 million state loan on a pilot manure-to-energy project.

Harrisburg has seen several iterations of the bill pitched in the last four years. The measure has yet to be addressed in the House.

Lawn Fertilizer: Lawmakers will be asked again to approve a bill requiring lawn care and landscaping companies in Pennsylvania to train and certify employees before they can apply fertilizer to turf grass. The bill, introduced by Sen. Richard Alloway (R-Adams), also limits application rates to reduce the likelihood of fertilizer washing off and polluting nearby streams and the Bay with unused nutrients for grass. The bill is a priority of the interstate Chesapeake Bay Commission, which has succeeded in getting similar legislation passed in Maryland and Virginia.

Water Fee: A study report is expected on a bill that’s been stalled in a House committee since last May, which would raise about $250 million a year for water-related programs. The bill, introduced by Rep. Michael Sturla (D-Lancaster), one of five Pennsylvania lawmakers on the Bay Commission, would levy a 0.01 cent per gallon fee on commercial and industrial water withdrawals of more than 10,000 gallons.

Timothy B. Wheeler is managing editor and project writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for The Baltimore Sun and other media outlets. Whitney Pipkin writes at the intersection of food, agriculture and the environment from her home base in Northern Virginia. Her work for the Bay Journal often focuses on the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, and she is a fellow of the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources. Donna Morelli, based in Harrisburg, PA., is a staff writer for the Bay Journal. She’s the former director of the Pennsylvania office of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

Bay Oysters increasingly Resistant to Diseases

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Oysters come to the Cooperative Oxford Laboratory for a checkup. But they never go home, even if they’re in peak health. They’ve sacrificed their goopy gray bodies to science.

The federal-state lab in the former fishing village of Oxford on Maryland’s Eastern Shore is where government scientists examine oysters and other fish for parasites, diseases and any other maladies that may be afflicting populations in the wild.

The low brick building was built in 1960, on the heels of a major oyster die-off in the Chesapeake Bay attributed in large part to a mysterious new disease called MSX. Since then, the lab has been engaged in a long-running effort in both Maryland and Virginia to track and understand MSX and another disease, Dermo.

Both are single-celled parasites that target oysters, but uncharacteristically can kill their hosts — in a matter of weeks in the worst cases. Dermo was first detected in the Bay in 1949, though it may have been here long before that. MSX first popped up in Delaware Bay in 1957 and in the southern Chesapeake two years later. Precisely how it’s transmitted remains unknown.

Both diseases have repeatedly ravaged Chesapeake oysters over the last five decades, and remain a major concern for the future of the estuary’s keystone shellfish. It is not only a source of income for watermen, but also a prolific water filterer and a builder of reef habitat for other fish and aquatic creatures.

Hundreds of oysters collected by Maryland Department of Natural Resources biologists during their annual reef survey are brought to the Oxford lab every fall. Once there, tissue samples are taken and processed, with cross-sections of the animal sliced thinner than a human hair, then stained purple, pink and blue-black and studied under a microscope.

“You see this pink coloration?” pathologist Carol McCollough asked as she pointed to one slide showing the cross section of an oyster’s internal organs magnified on a screen. The small blot in the oyster’s intestinal tract indicated that its blood cells were responding to something foreign, she explained. “There’s MSX in that area.”

That’s a much less frequent sight in the oysters examined these days at Oxford —and at its counterpart at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point. Once a scourge of the Bay, especially its saltier waters, MSX has receded, and though still found infecting some oysters in some places — 11 percent on average in Maryland last year — it’s nothing like it used to be.

Dermo, on the other hand, remains widespread — nearly two-thirds of the oysters collected from Maryland’s Bay waters in the fall of 2016 had it. But Dermo doesn’t appear to be as lethal as it was in the past, either.

“The trend that we’re really seeing is that the mortality consequences of those disease pressures seem to be fairly consistently less than they were in previous years,” said Chris Dungan, a DNR research scientist who oversees the Oxford lab’s oyster evaluations.

Although there’s no direct evidence, Dungan said he and others think that the decline in dead oysters found in surveys “reflects increasing resistance to those diseases . . . by the process of natural selection.”

Ryan Carnegie, Dungan’s counterpart at the Virginia lab, said that, although it’s largely circumstantial, he also sees evidence that oysters have developed resistance to becoming infected by MSX. And there are indications, he added, that they’ve developed an ability to tolerate Dermo without succumbing to it.

MSX was once rampant among oysters in the saltier Bay waters in Virginia, but now, Carnegie said, “we do not see much MSX at all . . . which suggests they are resisting the parasite from colonizing their tissues.”

Dermo levels seen by Virginia’s fall survey so far appear to be normal, Carnegie said, though it’s a relatively new normal. Disease levels the last decade or so, he noted, have been higher than they were in the 1990s, the last time there was a major outbreak.

“The baseline for Dermo levels in the Bay has increased,” Carnegie said, “yet the oysters are doing better and better. . . . They’re not allowing themselves to be completely overrun by the parasite.”

That’s a big deal, he added, because at its peak, MSX was killing 90 percent of the oysters it infected in the Bay, and Dermo was killing 70 percent of those it infected — every year.

One of Carnegie’s graduate students, Lauren Huey, is looking into another phenomenon that may be a byproduct of oysters’ growing ability to tolerate Dermo: even though they’re infected, they’re ramping up their ability to reproduce.

Since 2003, around the time of the last major Dermo outbreak in the Bay, Carnegie said that research shows infected oysters have been able to increase their egg production.

“We don’t fully understand how they’re doing it,” he said, but it’s clear that oysters are living longer in the Bay than they used to. As a result of that longevity, they’re reaching bigger sizes and producing more eggs.

Carnegie cautioned that the Bay’s oysters aren’t going to be free of the specter of disease anytime soon. “It’s still a dominant factor influencing oysters,” he said, “but the oysters are starting to regain control of the situation and they’re doing much better.

“This has taken decades, and it’s a long race,” he concluded. The key to continued progress may lie, he suggested, in protecting the continued survival of those oysters that apparently have the right genes to fend off or tolerate the diseases.

For Bay scientists and managers, Carnegie said, “It’s a matter of promoting policies that are going to help the oyster help itself as it fights these parasites.”

To some, that may sound like leaving a significant number of bigger, older oysters unharvested so they can produce offspring — the intent behind establishing sanctuaries.

Timothy B. Wheeler is managing editor and project writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for the Baltimore Sun and other media outlets.

The Virtue of Slow By Tom Horton

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My bike has but one speed, unfashionable in a high-geared, tech-fueled world that now affords cyclists push-button shifting through a range of gears sufficient to conquer the Alps and pass Porsches.

Single-speeding is limiting — but also liberating. It makes you respect the lay of the land, seek the gentler slopes that meander alongside the hills, value the wooded corridors that block headwinds. Your pedaling becomes more efficient, your legs stronger. There is more to the joy of bicycling than more gears, more mileage, higher speeds.

The virtues of slow are especially relevant now to saving the Chesapeake Bay and the larger environment, as Congress debates major tax reforms based on a single, awful premise: We must grow the economy faster and bigger than ever.

“We face a crushing burden of debt which will take down our economy,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said. But his tax plan will add an acknowledged $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion to national indebtedness. It’s the only way “to get faster economic growth,” Ryan said. And “faster economic growth is necessary for us to get our debt under control.”

Never mind the circularity of that argument, or the fact that economists across the political spectrum think the level of growth Republicans are counting on is unachievable. The real dirty secret is that virtually no one on either side of the political aisle thinks that roaring faith-based growth would be undesirable; just unrealistic.

But environmentally, such growth would be disastrous, as will be Congress’s all-out, desperate attempts to achieve it if the tax package passes with its present, pedal-to-the-metal economic expansionism — think repeal of regulations, fast-tracking fossil fuel energy projects, suppressing troublesome climate science.

And what’s bad for the planet is bad for the Chesapeake, where a warming climate and sea level rise threaten wetlands, water quality and habitat. Plus, even under the best of circumstances we’re going to be hard-pressed to meet air and water quality goals by 2025.

And, environmental success is linked to economics as surely as my rear wheel is chained to my pedals.

The day may come when we achieve the inspiring vision articulated by green architect and designer William McDonough: “Imagine they announce a major new mall and your reaction is, ‘great’ that will mean cleaner air and water and more habitat for wildlife.”

In the meantime, despite progress in greening our economy, we still can’t grow without a negative impact on air and water, without depleting the habitats and natural resources we share with a shrinking array of other species, without adding to climate change.

And we scarcely even know how to hold a meaningful conversation about the broad implications of economic growth and environmental quality. Nor how to talk about the very real alternatives to high growth, and the benefits of steady-state economies that put no premium on growth at all.

An economy not devoted to growth is usually disparaged in grow-or-die terms, but it is more about quality over quantity. It emphasizes moderation of the rampant depletion of natural resources or filling the air and water with wastes like carbon dioxide. Education, innovation, community, time to ride a bicycle — all these can still grow. Population would not need to.

We need such conversations — not just because of growth’s environmental impacts — but because uncritically chasing after high growth as the path to greater national well-being is a dead-end strategy.

Consider the 4- to 6-percent annual economic growth projections spouted wishfully by supporters of current tax reforms — the way Congress pledges to atone for all the loss of revenue.

There were several decades where growth did come at least near the current, wild projections, writes economist Robert J. Gordon in his epic, The Rise and Fall of American Growth (2016; Princeton University Press).

But that ended by the 1970s, and was fueled by truly fundamental innovations, such as the automobile, the electrification of the United States and antibiotics, as well as the kind of world-shaking events we always capitalize: World War II and the New Deal that followed the Great Depression.

That period is not repeatable, Gordon and others argue, and the modest economic growth of recent decades bears him out. Productivity, or output per unit of labor and capital, is key to real growth, and it has been comparatively sluggish for decades.

But Congress persists in chasing high growth like an old dog that in puppyhood found something gloriously stinky to roll in, then revisits the spot daily with undiminished expectation.

An old dog may be indulged, but the crew in the U.S. Capitol would profoundly change our economy, environment be damned, addicted to growth that can’t happen.

Let them ride single-speeds.

Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, MD, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University.

Op-Ed: The Dumbing Down of Smart Growth will Fail to Preserve MD Landscape by Tom Horton

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If you’re not yet worried about Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s abandonment of Smart Growth, you might want to read a new study on how Dumb Growth could cost Frederick County taxpayers some half a billion bucks.

First, a brief Smart Growth primer (which was once available on the Maryland Department of Planning’s website — until the website and department became a joke under Hogan): Smart Growth is the antithesis of sprawl, which is development outside areas planned and built for growth. Sprawl gobbles open space, increases air and water pollution, and costs more in new services than it ever offsets with taxes from new residents.

Sprawl, or Dumb Growth, can work politically, though, at least for a while. You just call it Economic Growth, or just Growth, which sounds fine to many people, especially bankers and developers and pavers and homebuilders — all of whom are good at electing candidates who’ll butter their bread.

That’s the way it worked in Frederick County for several years, until a more progressive slate of county officials took over in 2015 and began toting up the cost of “progress” under the former regime.

An August 2017 report done for Jan Gardner, the county executive, examined developments in the pipeline that will create 21,000 new housing units in the county, adding 50,000 new residents, 10,000 of them school age.

The fiscal bottom line: Taxpayers will fork out $340 million for roads and another $167 million for schools beyond anything that was planned or budgeted for, the county spokesman said.

A number of these developments also lock the county into agreements for up to 25 years, so that even if zoning gets stricter or developer fees are raised, the presently approved growth remains exempt.

The Frederick experience illustrates the perils of poorly planned residential growth, as well as the fallacy of believing it generates enough new revenue in property taxes to outweigh the demands it makes on government services.

This was one of the reasons that Maryland, under Gov. Parris Glendening in the 1990s, became a pioneer in pushing Smart Growth. Martin O’Malley, who preceded Hogan as governor, added teeth to Smart Growth in 2012 with a landmark law sharply limiting new development in areas that are predominantly farm and forest.
That law did not literally usurp traditional county power over land use; rather it dramatically curtailed, across rural landscapes, the use of septic tanks, on which sprawl development depends.

The law in recent years has begun to make a difference, and a major reason was the vigilance and “jawboning” of the Department of Planning, combined with the assistance it provided to counties in complying.

That threatens to unravel under Hogan, who announced in August to the Maryland Association of Counties that “Plan Maryland,” as O’Malley’s version of Smart Growth was called, “is off the books.” He was putting land use “back into the hands of local authorities,” Hogan said to applause.

The governor has also made it easier to develop using septic tanks again and given Cecil County a pass on complying with the 2012 anti-sprawl law.

He has not overtly tried to repeal the law itself, but in addition to Cecil, at least three more of Maryland’s 23 counties — Wicomico, Allegany and Queen Anne’s — have adopted plans or are pushing developments counter to the law.

But nothing is stopping any county whose citizens want to grow smartly. Charles County in Southern Maryland is a shining example after a six-year campaign to overturn a ruinous development plan.

As of 2016, Charles finalized a plan that stopped an estimated 339 major subdivisions on septic across 88,000 acres of open space. It also stopped about 123 new subdivisions in watersheds designated high water quality.

The new plan finally protects Mattawoman Creek, one of the Chesapeake’s best fish habitats; saves an estimated $2 billion on new roads; and cuts projected population growth in the next 30 years from 75,000 to 37,000.

Several Maryland counties have excellent compliance with the anti-sprawl law, while several others remain a mixed bag. For information on your county, contact 1000 Friends of Maryland, a statewide environmental land use group.

Rating Gov. Hogan environmentally is complicated by the reality that he is a tree hugger compared with national Republicans and the Trump administration, which set the lowest of bars.

He’s been good by any measure in important areas like Program Open Space, the state’s premier land preservation effort, and in aspects of air quality, such as greenhouse gas reductions. His transportation programs, though, remain far too road-improvement oriented, as opposed to pushing mass transit and mobility.

His environmental secretary, Ben Grumbles, gets high marks from environmentalists. His natural resources secretary, Mark Belton, might be good if nastier Hogan appointees would butt out of managing Bay fisheries.

The governor got a “needs improvement” grade on his 2017 report card from the Maryland League of Conservation voters; that’s the next to lowest of five ratings the group gives.

Hogan remains popular and has a good shot at re-election in 2018. But if the housing economy picks up, I fear a return to major sprawl development. In his re-election bid, the governor will face tougher questions about Smart Growth than he’s gotten so far.

Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal.

Bay Ecosystem: Tangier Teen Ponders, Documents his Vanishing Island Home

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Like most high school seniors, Cameron Evans is at the edge of change. He’s anxious about whether to major in photography or politics, annoyed about having to go to the dentist, animated when talking about the Yankees, his favorite team.
But most seniors don’t worry if they’ll be able to go home after leaving for college; or if they’ll have a home at all after the next hurricane. Evans does; he lives on Tangier Island, or what’s left of it, in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay.

Cameron Evans enjoying his pastime — exploring Tangier in his skiff and taking pictures. (Dave Harp)

With no organized after-school sports to play at the Virginia island’s small combined school, and no girls to date because he’s known them all since kindergarten, Evans heads out most afternoons in a small skiff toward what remains of the Uppards, part of the Tangier settlement that was abandoned in the 1920s.

He has to stride carefully, over broken glass and severed tree limbs, pieces of hunting trailers and mud-crusted oysters. He uses his camera, a 16th birthday present, to document what has been lost.
On a recent visit, he found a headstone in the encroaching water: “Polly Parks, “Born 1876, died 1913.” He wiped the mud off Parks’ marker, as he has done before, and again placed it on higher ground, at least higher for now.
“If we don’t get help, this is what is going to happen to us. Our houses could wash away. Our graves could wash away,” Evans said as he laid the headstone in marsh grass. “And then there will be nothing to remember us by.”
Tangier and its surrounding archipelago of islands are washing away at a rate of 15 feet a year. In what Evans calls his “small lifetime,” he has seen more than 40 feet of high ground wash away on the Uppards alone. Along with that, the islanders have lost hunting trailers, possessions and even the buried skulls and bones of those who once made their home here.
Politician after politician has promised to help build a seawall on the east side of the island to protect its business district and harbor, where island men set out to work the water and their wives help tend the crab shedding tanks. And yet, there is no wall, no protection. Every storm takes more. Soon, there won’t be more to give.
The threat to Tangier’s future has been well-documented in recent years, as scientists and journalists declared the 400 islanders “climate refugees.” Reports from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and others project their remaining time in years, not decades.

Exploring the Uppards, Cameron Evans finds a gravestone that has broken in half. He moves it to higher ground and tries to put it back together. (Dave Harp)

But it made national news again last spring, when President Donald Trump called the island town’s mayor, James “Ooker” Eskridge, after he appeared on CNN and declared he loved Trump like a brother and said the island could use a strong leader to build the wall. Trump, who has called climate change a hoax and whose administration is rolling back federal policies aimed at mitigating it, told Eskridge he needn’t worry about rising sea level. “Your island has been there for hundreds of years,” Trump said on the phone, according to Eskridge, “and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more.”
The Trump phone call focused national attention on the island’s predicament — Eskridge later debated former Vice President Al Gore on CNN. But what it hasn’t brought is a wall, much to the frustration of old-timers as well as students like Evans, who ponder their futures.
Eskridge said that, for the sake of future generations, he tries to remain optimistic. “Don’t lose hope,” he tells the youth. But it’s difficult, especially when Smith Island, just to the north in Maryland, has received more than $20 million in funding to shield it from erosion and rising waters — including $11 million to rebuild a marshy wildlife refuge.
Tangier’s seawall was once budgeted at $4 million; now, though, the Corps is talking about a more expensive project, likely $50 million, to armor the entire island. Eskridge doesn’t object to that. He just doubts there’s time, given the speed at which the Corps moves. The agency must wait for Congress to authorize the project and then appropriate the money to carry it out. The state committed $1.2 million for the $4.2 million wall in 2012, but the federal match never materialized. Despite lobbying from Virginia officials of both parties, Congress has never funded the project.
“We have families here. This is a thriving community,” Eskridge said. “They spend all this money to protect habitat for birds on Smith . . . and all the while, we’ve been trying to get this piece of seawall. If you’re going to do it, do it. But if not, stop talking about it.”
Tangier Island was home to American Indians long before the English explorer John Smith “discovered” the cluster of islands. In the early 1700s, three families from Cornwall settled there — Crockett, Pruitt and Parks. Their descendants remain, as does the accent, a mix of Cornwall and a Virginia twang.
Once, the island had more than 1,000 people in eight towns, with livestock and even an opera house. Today, three towns remain, clustered on one fishhook-shaped strip of land one mile wide and three miles long. Marshland hems in the island roads that connect the villages; the asphalt is barely wide enough for vehicles. Residents favor scooters, golf carts and bikes.
The island had a major moment in the War of 1812. The British had a large base there with a camp for 12,000 troops. Tangierman Joshua Thomas, an itinerant Methodist minister known as the “parson of the islands,” took them to task right after they burned Washington, DC, and were headed for Baltimore. He told the British they would lose. Thomas’s prophecy came true, and the surviving British troops passed back through Tangier in defeat to tell him so.
In 1821, a hurricane destroyed the British fort. Subsequent storms, including Isabel in 2003, have left their mark; even a high tide can bring flooding to yards and roads.
For the island’s high school seniors, the seawall is a concern that intrudes on their more typical teen cares about who’s taking whom to prom or what they’ll do after graduation. Taylor Pruitt, a friend of Cameron Evans, said she sometimes discusses the topic with her father, a longtime waterman, but her mother always changes the subject. For another friend, Isiah Creedy, the topic isn’t taboo, but the answer is the always the same: God has a plan. Pruitt plans to leave the island and study forensic science; she will move to a big city, she said, “somewhere where everybody doesn’t know everything about you.” Creedy plans to stay, taking a job working on the water in some capacity.
Evans is in between, sure to leave for college in the Virginia Beach area — he’s choosing between two — but figuring he’ll come back.

A view of Tangier from the air shows how fragile the island is, and how exposed it remains during storms. (Dave Harp)

That doesn’t surprise his mother, Hope, a Tangier native who went away to college in Delaware. She returned to marry her high school sweetheart, Norwood, who grew up on neighboring Smith Island. In addition to Cameron, they have a seven-yeaer-old daughter, Lacee. For years, Norwood crabbed and Hope tended to his shedding shanty, where they supervised crabs about to shed their shells to become soft crabs, an expensive delicacy regionally. Now, Norwood is a lineman with the electric utility.

“I couldn’t wait to leave, but I went away to school and found it wasn’t for me,” she said. “I just wanted to be on the island. . . . Cameron doesn’t want to go too far from home. He loves Tangier. He wants to come back as much as he can.”
The seawall comes up in class at the island’s combined K–12 school. Principal Nina Pruitt said that she and the teachers are truthful with their 60 students about all sides of the conversation on climate change. Duane Crockett, who teaches civics and government, said that in exploring with his students what governments do for local communities, he has to add a rueful note to the textbook: The government hasn’t helped Tangier.
“We have wasted so much time discussing the causes that we are ignoring the effects,” said Crockett, who has his eighth graders write letters to all of their state and federal representatives asking for a wall.
Many respond, including Rep. Scott Taylor, a Republican whose district includes Tangier, who said he was doing all he could. “I save them all,” Crockett said of the letters. Pointing to the back of his small classroom, he said, “I have a lot of promises in that cabinet.”
Cameron Evans, with his sandy-brown hair and bright blue eyes, is an “old soul,” his principal said, tied in with Tangier’s natural rhythms in a way she has seen rarely in her more than 30 years with the school.
Evans is an avid waterfowl hunter; there are 22 different species on the island. He’s also been selling some of his wildlife photos to tourists. The teen knows he has had a childhood like few others. And not just because he knows everyone on the island of 400 — their pets, vehicles, habits, boat names and family history.
“There are not many places like this that have a natural disaster occurring every day,” he said. “All that land is just gone, and it could have been avoided.”
On his way from the Uppards back to Tangier, he steered his skiff away from a Corps barge dredging the channel to keep it navigable. He cut the motor and drifted through open water, 40 or 50 feet across. Five years ago, he said, a storm broke through and created this channel. A seawall, he said, would have prevented it. And, it could prevent more loss.
Asked about climate change and sea level rise, he initially responds the way many skeptics do, saying, “I’m not a scientist.” But like Eskridge, he doesn’t dismiss the idea entirely; he just thinks erosion is the bigger problem.
In a way, Evans and Eskridge are not wrong. The erosion is noticeable, while the sea level rise is almost imperceptible. In the Bay, it will add 2 feet or more to everyday tides by around 2050. But erosion changes Tangier daily.
Evans talks about the melting glaciers near the poles, which scientists say are making the seas expand and rise. It makes sense, climate change, the senior mused recently. But the actions the world needs to take to reduce global warming are slow in coming, if at all, and will be too late to help Tangier, he reasoned. If every house put in solar panels, the island would still need a wall.
The teen is on a first-name basis with his congressman, and he’s shown his photos to Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine during the Democrat’s visit earlier this summer. He tells them all the same thing: He doesn’t want his future to be a guessing game. He wants more years, hundreds of them, for the island. He hasn’t given up hope.
“I’ll never leave this place,” he said of Tangier, “and I hope this place will never leave me.”
By Rona Kobell
Bay Journal staff writer Rona Kobell is a former Baltimore Sun reporter.

Bay’s Oyster Aquaculture Harvest Closing in on Wild Fishery

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More than a century after the first oysters were planted on a Virginia bar, aquaculture has firmly taken hold in the Chesapeake Bay. The value of Virginia’s oyster farms production has eclipsed the public fishery, and many oyster experts believe Maryland is heading in the same direction.

As of last year, 173 Maryland oyster farmers have leased more than 6,000 acres of the Bay and its tributaries, all of which are actively producing oysters. Harvest from those leases yielded almost 65,000 bushels in 2016 — an increase of 1,000 percent since 2012. In the meantime, Maryland’s public oyster harvest, suffering from mediocre to poor reproduction since 2010, saw its harvest drop 42 percent in 2016 to about 224,000 bushels.

“Each year for the past five, lease numbers and acreage have risen along with aquaculture harvest, while public harvest numbers declined,” said Donald Webster, a University of Maryland aquaculture specialist. “This year and next will be very difficult for the public fishery and, frankly, I doubt it will ever recover to amount to anything again.”

Oyster aquaculture in Maryland wasn’t always destined for success. Jon Farrington has been growing oysters in Southern Maryland for about 10 years and has experienced changes in the state’s permitting process, as well as methods for oyster production, that have moved the state’s aquaculture industry past its rocky start.

Farrington left his aerospace engineering job in 2006 to try growing oysters in a Calvert County cove. One of only six oyster farmers in the state at that time, Farrington was battle-tested with the various bureaucracies that needed to sign off on permits to grow shellfish. When the state changed its laws in 2009 to allow oyster farming in every county, Farrington was first in line to apply for his second lease. He was hoping the new law would mean quicker approvals, more encouragement for watermen to enter the field and less resistance from shoreline property owners who don’t want cages and floats disrupting their view.

The law helped, and so have changes in the oyster farming process. But those changes took years. Now, nearly a decade later, Maryland has a $5 million aquaculture industry that has created close to 500 jobs in coastal areas, according to state figures, and shows little signs of slowing down.

Oyster aquaculture in Virginia is still far ahead, with $18.5 million in oyster sales in 2016. But Maryland aquaculture has definitely gotten its sea legs.

“I kind of thought maybe it would happen a little bit faster than it has,” said Farrington, who sells his oysters directly to restaurants. He also has a hatchery operation, selling “seed” oysters to fellow farmers. “On the other hand, the market has developed a lot more strongly than I had probably expected back then. All in all, I’d say, Maryland’s done a pretty good job.”

Several factors propelled aquaculture forward in Maryland after more than a century of resistance to the idea. First, more oyster farmers are raising “triploids,” sterile oysters bred from the Bay’s native species, Crassostrea virginica. Because they don’t expend energy on reproduction, triploids can grow to market size twice as fast as wild oysters — 18 months in Maryland waters, as opposed to three years for traditional oysters. In Virginia’s saltier water, they grow even faster.

Also, new techniques and equipment have made it more efficient: floating up-weller systems, which help seed oysters feed on plankton and grow more quickly, and a pulley system from Australia that rotates cages to reduce fouling and labor.

Many oyster farmers also find themselves in the equipment business; they can’t locate a cage or float that works in their location, so they make their own, and then other farmers want it. For years, Farrington sold a device called the Revelation that rotated oysters. Another oyster farmer, Johnny Shockley in Dorchester County, sells systems for cleaning and shaping oysters.

The state tackled bureaucratic hurdles for lease applicants. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources now coordinates the review process, sparing applicants the complexities of what used to be a multi-agency gamut.

At the federal level, oyster farmers complained that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which required a separate permit, put them through duplicative reviews, so there too the processed was streamlined. Leases generally take six months to be issued now, instead of a year or more, said Karl Roscher, the DNR’s aquaculture manager.

Roscher’s office has added staff to speed application processing, which is helpful, as his office has received more than 50 new applications in recent months. Also crucial, according to fisheries director David Blazer, is an online mapping tool that allows an oyster farmer to see if there are potential obstacles to getting a lease in a particular location. For example, if the proposed lease is on top of a public oyster bar or a well-worked clamming area, the state won’t approve it.

Money and training have helped, too. About 80 percent of the leases are worked by a spat-on-shell method, where watermen let larvae set on natural oyster shell and reach a certain size before moving them to bags or containers on the bottom. Webster, with help from University of Maryland Sea Grant, has been training watermen how to set oysters. The number of prospective oyster farmers seeking training has grown from six in 2011 to 45 last year.

Since 2011, the Maryland Agricultural and Resource-Based Industry Development Corp. has approved $3 million in shellfish aquaculture loans to help growers acquire the needed equipment. The fund, known as MARBIDCO, originally prioritized loans to traditional watermen who were new to aquaculture. But MARBIDCO has since helped plenty of non-watermen, like Farrington and fellow Southern Maryland oyster farmer Patrick Hudson. The loans are low-interest and, if the borrower makes all of the payments, MARBIDCO forgives 25 percent of the principal.

Hudson, who was on his way to law school when he made a U-turn into the oyster business, said the MARBIDCO loan was critical. Banks, he said, aren’t inclined to lend tens of thousands of dollars for a start-up oyster enterprise.

“You have to buy cages and oysters before you sell anything. You need at least a million seed. And then you sit on it for a year and a half,” Hudson said. “Being able to pay just a couple hundred dollars a month was critical. Otherwise, you’re just leaving oyster aquaculture to the really rich people.”

For decades, that’s what watermen feared: that large seafood companies would gobble the leases, while the workers struggled. That has not come to pass. In several cases, watermen have become equity partners in oyster farms. Eric Wisner, a waterman, has about 500 acres under lease in the Nanticoke River. Ted Cooney, who owns Madhouse Oysters on Hoopers Island, has two watermen partners.

Cooney, who came to oyster farming after a career in healthcare financial services, said he’s pleased that the state is encouraging aquaculture. But the process still has problems. Almost three years ago, he applied for two leases in the Honga River; the state recently told him he couldn’t have one because it’s too close to a hunting blind.

“I was out of the swing of the gun, as far as I could tell, [but] two and a half years later, they tell me no. They should have told me 60 days after I applied,” he said. “In that time, I could have applied and already gotten another lease.”

Roscher said the goose blind didn’t show up on the state’s siting tool, so staff had to take measurements in the field.

Tension still occurs between user groups. While public oyster areas are generally established, clam beds and pound net locations are more intermittent. A few years ago, an Eastern Shore delegate introduced a bill in the legislature that would have made farming in clamming areas more difficult; the bill didn’t pass, so clammers and oyster farmers compromised, and the state promised to delineate clamming areas so farmers could avoid them.

Some influential property owners are still flexing their muscles, but Roscher noted that many of those efforts fail. Dialogue, he said, is far preferable to long lawsuits or boutique legislation. Last year, influential property owners in St. Mary’s County persuaded a state delegate to introduce a bill restricting oyster farms at historic sites; that bill, which was specific to the viewshed at Sotterley Plantation and Historic St. Mary’s City, died.

Roscher said that the public relations and bureaucratic problems are surmountable. What worries him is a shell shortage. The state and University of Maryland have grown oysters on alternative substrates built from granite and concrete, but they’re much harder to harvest from.

“There are a lot of different ways to grow an oyster,” Farrington said. “People are still trying to figure out what works best for their application, but as they do, we’re really going to see some production grow in the next couple of years. It’s still a relatively young industry, and people are really dialed in.”

Bay Journal staff writer Rona Kobell is a former Baltimore Sun reporter.

Opinion: Tangier Island needs Help no Matter how you Define its Woes by Tom Horton

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When I began a documentary film this year about climate change and the Chesapeake, I knew that even though local residents were affected by it, I’d never be able to record most of them talking about sea level rise.

They know what they see. And around Dorchester — Maryland’s lowest-lying county and the focus of our film — residents see erosion of the shoreline, high tides that seem to come more often and forests dying along the marsh edges.

It’s easy to talk past one another, we who are comfortable with the lingo and concepts of climate science, and those who are not — even while all talking about the same thing.

This was on my mind recently when my friend, James “Ooker” Eskridge, the mayor of Tangier Island, VA, appeared on a CNN Town Hall with former Vice President Al Gore, one of the world’s foremost proponents of how humans are warming the planet.

Eskridge, who’s not convinced that this is really happening, was invited on the cable TV show because of a phone call he got earlier this summer that brought him in early from fishing his crab pots.

The caller was President Donald Trump. He’d heard about Tangier’s plight: battered by erosion that will soon spell its demise if it can’t find an estimated $25 million to $30 million to bulwark its Bay shore with rock. He’d also heard that the island of some 400 residents, with a culture harking back to 17th century England, had voted nearly 90 percent for him last November.

Ooker heard Gore out, but maintained: “I’ve lived there 65 years and I just don’t see it (sea level rise).”

I talked about the disjunct between the two men with Michael Scott, a colleague at Salisbury University and a professor of geography whose specialty is environmental hazards.

He and I are both in Gore’s camp on climate; but Scott has as good a feel as any scientist I know for explaining the nuances and complexities of such global, long-term phenomena at the level of the average citizen.

“I was upset that CNN portrayed (Eskridge) as this sort of pro-Trump nut job,” Scott said. Eskridge is not wrong at all when he says Tangier’s problem is erosion, the professor said, adding that it’s happening very quickly and is very noticeable.

“But there are really two processes going on and they are not separate,” Scott added.

The second process he refers to is sea level rise, propelled by a warmer climate that is melting glaciers. That’s exacerbated by land around the Bay sinking back to its original contours after being pushed upward by the glaciers that extended into Pennsylvania during the last Ice Age.

Add to that the thermal expansion of the oceans as they warm and the potential slowing of the Gulf Stream that could back up more seawater in the Chesapeake.

Rising sea levels make erosion worse. But Scott’s not at all surprised that Tangier’s mayor said that he “didn’t see it (sea level rise).”

Sea level rise at this point, unlike erosion, “is happening very slowly,” coming up mere inches throughout Eskridge’s lifetime on the Chesapeake.

“It’s been slight enough up to now that it’s actually very difficult to measure unless you’re taking very precise scientific measurements,” Scott said.

But the overwhelming scientific consensus, he continued, is that the Earth’s temperatures have reached the point where a measurable acceleration in sea level is under way. In the Bay, it will add 2 feet or more to everyday tides by around 2050.

The forecasts for 2100 are less certain because we can’t tell how fast the massive ice sheets of Antarctica will melt. But estimates foresee everyday tides 5.5 feet above present levels, “and that’s probably on the low end . . . every time we look at it, it seems our estimates are too low,” Scott said.

A couple wrinkles disguise the coming impact further, he said.

First, it is quite possible for waters locally to shallow up as seas rise. In our filming, we’ve found examples of this in Dorchester County. The sediment eroding from shorelines and disintegrating marshes has to go somewhere, and it may fill in channels and other places where currents carry it.

The larger complication, Scott said, “is that sea level rise is not linear.” In other words, it isn’t going to happen steadily, inch by inch, over the years. That would be relatively easy to predict and respond to.

Unfortunately, the path to 2, 3, 5 or more feet of daily tide around the Bay is going to resemble a curve that steepens as average high tide levels rise.

“The trouble with an increasing curve is that for a while, things will seem as if they’re OK, but then the rate’s going to really increase and you’re going to lose the ability to adjust to it,” Scott said.

Helping localities around the Chesapeake adjust is where Scott’s passion lies; and he said we’re still at a point on the curve where we can act reasonably and cost-effectively.

“This (Delmarva) Peninsula is very precious to me and to my family . . . we want to preserve it for our children and we can do that if we are honest with what’s happening and with how we can try to respond,” he said.

He finds most people don’t care too much about why the tides and the erosion are getting worse, or about the politics of climate change.

“They want to know what is going to happen to them and what they can do about it,” Scott said. For many, the real threat won’t come in their lifetimes, and they aren’t likely to pay tens of thousands of dollars to jack up their houses.

The key he said, is to honestly acknowledge the threat and install public policies that over time guide “the way that development takes place, rearrange the way people build their homes, the way roads are maintained.

“And as we lose marshes we are going to need spaces on the landward edge for them to move into. . . . We’re going to need to buy the development rights to such places from the people who own them now . . . a very appropriate response.”

In low-lying places like Dorchester County, he said he thinks that “if we can get a hold of this in the next five to seven years, we have time to fix it that way. If we wait, then we will be in crisis mode, and things are going to happen in a very shocking and upsetting way.”

As for Tangier Island, it won’t make much difference now whether Mayor Eskridge and his townspeople vote yea or nay on closing coal-fired plants to reduce the long-term buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Tangier needs rock, pretty soon, and no change in energy policies is going to change that.

Even the best seawall at Tangier is not the same as a dike, which would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and realistically isn’t going to happen. Even less likely are Trump’s assurances to Eskridge that his island would persist for “hundreds more years.”

But a seawall would buy time for another generation or two of Tangier residents to continue the island’s unique culture and heritage, time enough for hundreds of thousands of us to visit and enjoy that — a reasonable investment in my opinion.

Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal.