Black Rail Bird Population Sinking Fast as Rising Sea Level Drowns its Habitat

Share

Getting to know the Eastern black rail has always been tough. The sparrow-size bird lives deep in marshes that are hard to access, and it is most active in the wee hours of the morning. Even then, it tends to scamper through dense vegetation, rather than fly — some call it a “feathered mouse.”

“We know almost nothing about this species,” says ornithologist Bryan Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology in Virginia. “It’s very tiny and incredibly secretive. Even most bird watchers have never seen this species before.”

Now, even hearing their call is unlikely. Its habitat, a delicately balanced zone deep within coastal marshes, is being flooded by the rising waters. And the Eastern black rail is disappearing fast — potentially becoming the first victim of sea level rise around the Chesapeake Bay and other areas of the East Coast.

Watts recently completed an exhaustive review of literature about the black rail, going back more than 100 years. His findings on the status and trends of the rail population were compiled in a 148-page report released in 2016.

“They are sort of evaporating around us,” Watts says.

The decline has been rapid and unexpected. Only 50 years ago, part of Dorchester County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore was a world-renowned hot spot for birders seeking a glimpse of the elusive black rail. Today, the black rails are gone from Elliott Island, and only a handful are left in the state. None have been seen in Virginia’s coastal marshes for a couple of years.

Their exact number doesn’t make much difference, Watts said, because the downward trend is so strong — Maryland numbers have fallen 90 percent in just 25 years.

“This species is not going to be sustainable in its landscape in the face of sea level rise,” he says. “It will be lost. Maybe in five years, maybe in 10 years. But it’s on the way out.”

David Brinker, an ornithologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, shares this assessment. He said that surveys for the state’s next Breeding Bird Atlas would start in 2022. “By which time,” he says, “we’ll be really lucky to find a black rail, unless some miracle happens.”

The bird is listed as endangered in both Maryland and Virginia, as well as several other states along the Atlantic Coast. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering protecting it through the federal Endangered Species Act and is expected to make a recommendation in September 2018.

Historically, the black rail has received little attention. Along with its deep marsh habitat and nocturnal activity, the black rail is quite small. Its body is about 6 inches long, with dark feathers and white speckles on its wings, back and abdomen. It has brilliant red eyes. But hardly anyone sees it — even among professional ornithologists. “I’ve seen one in my lifetime,” Brinker says.

The closest most birders — and scientists — come to the bird is hearing males call in the early morning hours of breeding season: “kickee-doo” or “kic-kic-ker.”

Biologists “look” for black rails by playing recordings of the call and listening for a response. Even that is difficult because the birds are most active between midnight and 4 a.m. Surveys sometimes require maneuvering boats in shallow-water marshes in the dark.

Black rails were once found from Texas up the East Coast as far as Massachusetts. Over time, they have suffered major habitat loss as marshes were buried to make way for urban growth. Places such as Cambridge, MA; Queens, NY; Atlantic City, NJ; and Baltimore once supported black rails. The historic ditching and draining of marshes eliminated more habitat.

But scientists believe the recent, rapid demise of black rails is linked to rising water.
Black rails live in high marshes that, with slightly higher elevation, typically escape the daily tidal over-wash. But the birds forage for invertebrates, such as water beetles, in areas that have wet soil or even a thin covering of water.

It’s a narrow band that Watts describes as a “hydrology tightrope.” With sea level rise, he said that he believes the nests are increasingly inundated by storms and unusually high tides. If a nest is ruined in a single year, the population can rebuild the next year. But if nests are drowned more frequently — and eggs along with them — the birds gradually disappear.

The birds can adjust by moving upslope but, because marshes are relatively flat, even a small amount of rising water can push them out of suitable habitat toward trees, roads or stands of invasive phragmites.

“If the water gets up 2 centimeters, it is not just inundating the edge of the marsh, it is inundating the entire marsh,” Watts said. “Once it hits that tipping point, you are effectively flooding the entire marsh.”

In the Saxis Wildlife Management Area on Accomack Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, black rails were last located at the tree line, and then they were gone.

The decline has been rapid. In 1991–92, a DNR survey in Maryland’s portion of the Bay recorded 180 black rails. “We found more than we expected,” Brinker says. “They were widespread. It was the third most frequently encountered rail in the marshes of the Chesapeake Bay.”

In 2007, the DNR and the Center for Conservation Biology, which is affiliated with both the College of William and Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University, collaborated on a Baywide survey. They found just 50 calling males in Maryland and Virginia combined. “That was the first indication that we had that the population was collapsing,” Watts says.

Birders had been reporting a decline, Brinker says, “but the magnitude of the change sort of hit us in the face.” A 2014 survey found just 10 individuals — eight in Maryland and two in Virginia.

The decline isn’t limited to the Bay. Black rails have largely disappeared at the northern edge of their range, with “catastrophic” rates of decline in New Jersey, Delaware and North Carolina, according to Watts’ status report, which was prepared for the upcoming federal endangered species review. South Carolina had a slower rate of decline, but still more than 4 percent each year.

According to Watts’ report, the total number of breeding pairs along the Atlantic Coast is between 455 and 1,315. Their status might be better in Florida and Texas, both of which have large amounts of potential habitat, but many of those areas have not been surveyed. In those two states, “we have a huge amount of uncertainty,” Watts says. Biologists, state and federal agencies are coordinating to conduct surveys in those and other areas in the next two years.

Historically, black rails were also found at some inland sites in the Eastern United States that simulated conditions found in high marshes, such as hayfields adjacent to river flood plains. But over time, most of those locations have also disappeared, largely because agricultural practices have intensified and altered the habitat, Watts said.

Black rails are also found in the Caribbean and in Central America, but little is known about their status.

Devising protection for black rails will be difficult. Creating special habitats for the birds is one possibility; they have, for instance, survived in impoundments built for waterfowl, where they are able to nest on the edge and forage on the flat, wet bottoms. But, Watts cautions, “the slightest rain will fill these impoundments up and flush the nests out.” Designs might be tweaked to accommodate the birds, but doing so at a scale that would secure the population’s survival could be costly. “You have to get it just perfect, or they won’t be there,” Brinker says.

Also, securing funds for a bird that most people never see could be difficult. “Black rails are nowhere near as charismatic as bald eagles and whooping cranes,” Brinker says.

While the immediate concern is for the black rail, steep declines have been seen in other species that use the same habitat, such as the sedge wren and saltmarsh sparrow, which ranges from Accomack County in Virginia to New England. The sedge wren has already largely disappeared from most coastal areas in the region, though it is still found inland. But the saltmarsh sparrow is declining at a rate that would make it extinct in less than 50 years, biologists say.

But the black rail, the reclusive “feathered mouse” that scampers through the high marsh in the dead of night, is the canary in the coal mine,” says Brinker. “It’s telling us that things are going on in our tidal wetlands, and they are not good things,” he says. “[The black rail] is just the first one to go, because its niche is so narrow and so precise.”

Karl Blankenship is editor of the Bay Journal and executive director of Chesapeake Media Service. He has served as editor of the Bay Journal since its inception in 1991

ESLC Climate Change/Sea Level Rise Half-Day Conference Set for April 1

Share

The Eastern Shore is the third most susceptible region to the effects of sea level rise in the country. The Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC), a progressive, environmentally-focused nonprofit organization headquartered in Easton, will host the half-day conference, Unsinkable Eastern Shore II: Rural America Responds to Climate Change, on Saturday, April 1st from 9am to 1pm. The event will be held at the Eastern Shore Conservation Center – the former McCord laundry facility which ESLC rehabilitated and has since occupied with several other conservation groups since 2015.

The event is $20 to attend and includes breakfast, two panel discussions, and presentations by two keynote speakers. Also included with admission is a copy of speaker John Englander’s book High Tide on Main Street, which Politico Magazine called “one of the 50 most important books to read in 2016.” Attendees may register online at eslc.org/events, but are encouraged to do so soon, as seating is limited.

The conference will be hosted by ESLC’s Coastal Resilience Manager, Brian Ambrette, who has been working with town and county government on the Mid and Upper Shore for more than two years, helping to bring awareness about the effects of climate change – most notably, sea level rise – as well as working to help implement sound planning in the form of mitigation strategies and town/county comprehensive plans.

“I hope our audience will learn how their communities and their neighbors are embracing change as an opportunity to innovate and make the systems we rely on stronger and greener”, notes Ambrette. “I am excited about the new ideas that our keynote speakers will inject into the conversation.”

While the conference panels boast a mix of knowledgeable educators and emergency management professionals, the inclusion of oceanographer, author, and consultant John Englander is perhaps the most impressive addition to the conference. As a leading expert on sea level rise, Englander’s broad marine science background coupled with explorations to Greenland and Antarctica has allowed him to see the big picture of sea level rise and its societal impacts. He has served as chief executive officer for such noteworthy organizations as The International SeaKeepers and The Cousteau Society. Interestingly enough, legendary Captain Jacques Cousteau tapped John to succeed him as CEO.

Please contact ESLC’s Communication Manager, David Ferraris, at dferraris@eslc.org or 410.690.4603 x165 for more information.

Bill may Ban Foam ‘to-go’ Carriers from Food Businesses in Maryland

Share

All expanded polystyrene products used for packaging food products, including foam carriers, could be banned from all Maryland food businesses if pending legislation is passed in the General Assembly this session.

The legislation, sponsored in the House by Delegate Brooke Lierman, D-Baltimore, will prohibit a person or business from selling or providing food in an expanded polystyrene food service product beginning Jan. 1, according to a Department of Legislative Services fiscal analysis. The bill, which has also been cross-filed in the state Senate, also bans the sale and use of loose fill packaging.

The fiscal analysis defines the banned material as “a product made of expanded polystyrene that is used for selling or providing food.” This means the bill would ban food containers, plates, hot and cold beverage cups, meat and vegetable trays and egg cartons made of expanded polystyrene.

“Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) is the generic industry name for the white rigid material made by expanding polystyrene beads with steam and pressure to bond the beads together to form blocks or to shape molds,” according to Universal Foam Products.

Styrofoam, a registered trademark and a type of expanded polystyrene, is not included in the bill, according to the Department of Legislative Services report. “Although foam coffee cups and plates are often referred to as ‘Styrofoam®,’ that terminology is incorrect,” the fiscal analysis said. Styrofoam is generally used in industrial settings for building materials and pipe insulation, according to the report.

Lierman said in a Feb. 15 House Environment and Transportation Committee hearing that this bill is an extension of a concept that has already been enacted in some areas. Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, the city of Gaithersburg and the city of Takoma Park have prohibitions on expanded polystyrene already in place.

Dr. Richard Bruno, a doctor of medicine who works at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, gave written testimony Feb. 15 in support of the bill, saying styrene, a chemical found in expanded polystyrene, is a threat to health, waterways and ecosystems.

Delegate Al Carr, D-Montgomery, said it is important to make this a statewide ban because it is a statewide issue and the ban has been successful locally.

“Businesses and government agencies have been able to adapt and have not seen an increase in their costs,” Carr said. “I have been receiving many emails from constituents in favor of the bill.”

“It is important to make it a statewide ban so that the prices of alternative products go down,” Lierman told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service. Lierman pointed to California, saying when businesses there made the transition to stock alternative recyclables the prices changed. “(Expanded polystyrene) is now more expensive than recyclable products in California,” Lierman said.

Restaurants, fast food restaurants, cafes, supermarkets or grocery stores, vending trucks or carts, movie theaters, and business or institutional cafeterias would all be food service businesses affected by this bill, according to the fiscal analysis.

“Enacting a statewide ban on polystyrene foodservice packaging will level the playing field for businesses across the state,” Nick Rudolph, President of Pigtown Main Street in Baltimore, said in his testimony to the House committee.

Dart Container Corp., a national company that manufactures cups, plates, containers, lids and straws made from such materials as expanded polystyrene foam, solid polystyrene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, paper and sugar cane, opposes the bill.

Dart employs 630 Marylanders with another 50 open positions in high-paying, rural manufacturing jobs, according Paul Poe, Government Affairs and the Environment Manager at Dart. Poe said Dart is also planning to open a third facility in the state, in Havre de Grace.

Poe specified in testimony that expanded polystyrene is recyclable and Dart has created a program to accept expanded polystyrene items and recycle them with drop-off and pick-up options.

Delegate Christopher Adams, R-Caroline, Dorchester, Talbot and Wicomico, said in the House committee meeting that Dart’s stance on the bill should be considered. Since the company creates jobs for Marylanders, the state should do no harm to the company, Adams said.

“This bill is our hope for a cleaner and healthier future, to neighborhoods with less toxic trash, air and water,” Claire Wayner, a high school junior at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in Baltimore County and founding member of Baltimore Beyond Plastic, an organization created to teach students the problems with plastics like polystyrene and elevate their reactions against it, said in her Feb. 15 testimony to the House Environment and Transportation Committee.

“At Baltimore City public schools, lunch is served on polystyrene trays, and as many students are economically disadvantaged, it’s not possible to refuse a lunch … when it may be your only food you’ll see that day,” Wayner said.

“Baltimore City schools serve daily lunch on EPS trays to 83,000 students a year,” according to a Baltimore Office of Sustainability Feb. 15 letter.

“Using compostable paper trays, plates, and other containers in place of EPS would make food recovery efforts much more feasible, because users can simply place their tray and all leftover food directly into a compost container, rather than having to separate out trash and compost,” the organization said in its letter.

“Around 1 percent of the trash properly disposed of and sent to landfills is expanded polystyrene, but up to 40 percent of litter found in and along water streams is expanded polystyrene,” according to Lierman. “That shows the disproportionate amount of (expanded polystyrene) that is recycled and littered.”

Prince George’s County Department of the Environment Director Adam Ortiz told the House committee it costs $60 per ton to process expanded polystyrene food products, but when they are able to compost the alternative recyclable products, they make money.

Baltimore City, Caroline, Howard and Washington counties accept polystyrene plastics for recycling, but the rest of the Maryland jurisdictions do not, according to the analysis.

“Growing up in neighborhoods that are full of trash, it’s hard to not self-identify with the image of trash,” Wayner said in her testimony.

“Forcing businesses to use alternative products does not reduce litter; it simply changes in composition,” Melvin Thompson, senior vice president of the Maryland Restaurant Association said in a Feb. 15 letter to the committee.

Lierman said that she understands people who litter with foam containers will probably continue to litter with alternatives, but the alternatives are better for the environment and easier to pick up than the expanded polystyrene products.

There are also health risks for consumers who use expanded polystyrene containers, according to Lierman. When expanded polystyrene is heated, it leaches styrene into the food or liquid that is in the containers, Lierman said.

“Styrene, the main ingredient in (expanded polystyrene), has been listed as a possible carcinogen by both the International Agency for Research on cancer and the National Toxicology Program since 2002,” Bruno wrote in his testimony.

“The general public is exposed to 20 mg of styrene annually,” according to Bruno. “This toxin has no place in our bodies, schools, restaurants or homes.”

But the American Chemistry Council referred to a 2013 study completed by the Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group in its Feb. 15 written testimony that said “current exposures to styrene from the use of polystyrene food contact products remain extremely low, with the estimated daily intake calculated at 6.6 micrograms per person per day.”

“This is more than 10,000 times below the safety limit set by the FDA,” the organization said. “The FDAs acceptable daily intake value of styrene is calculated to be 90,000 micrograms per person per day.”

The fiscal analysis said the effect on small businesses and the state will be minimal. There will be an increased cost to the state of $19,300 in the 2018 fiscal year in order to conduct the education and outreach campaign, but will decrease to zero after one year.

“County health departments must enforce the bill’s prohibitions and may impose a penalty of up to $250 on violators,” according to the fiscal analysis. Health departments must issue a written notice of the business’ or person’s violation and allow three months to correct the violation before a fine can be issued.

By Cara Newcomer

Horticulture Lecture Series

Share

Hort Series 2017 flyerThe Kent County Extension Office and the Kent County Public Library are pleased to announce the start of the 18th annual Horticulture Lecture Series. The series is meant for anyone who like to garden, both amateurs and professionals alike. The talks will focus on a wide array of gardening related topics. The purpose of the talks is to show the audience how to create beauty in your landscape while keeping the health of the environment and the Chesapeake Bay in mind. The programs will be held at the Kent County Public Library, 408 High Street, Chestertown, MD 21620.  All sessions run from 10 a.m. to about 11:30 a.m. This event is free of charge. For more information, please contact Sabine Harvey, 410-778-1661 or sharvey1@umd.edu

The schedule is as follows:

March 10: Plant Propagation: How to Multiply your Favorite Plants, Vic Priapi, Owner of Priapi Gardens

March 17: Beautify your Landscape and your Food with Aronia (Purple Chokeberry), Roy Mears, Owner of Chester River Aronia

March 24: Lawn Alternatives, Wanda MacLachlan, UMD Extension, Bay-Wise and Master Naturalist Coordinator

March 31: Caterpillars in the Landscape, Elizabeth Hill, UMD Extension, Entomologist

The University of Maryland, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources programs are open to all and will not discriminate against anyone because of race, age, sex, color, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, religion, ancestry, or national origin, marital status, genetic information, or political affiliation, or gender identity and expression.

Senator Ben Cardin Set to Visit ESLC Cambridge Project March 10

Share

Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) will be visiting Cambridge, Maryland on Friday, March 10, 2017 to join join representatives from the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC), Baltimore’s Cross Street Partners, and Preservation Maryland for a tour and media availability regarding The Packing House – a historic tax credit rehabilitation project.

In addition to addressing the media and answering questions immediately following the tour, Senator Cardin will spotlight his new legislation to improve the federal historic tax credit program, which will benefit rural communities and small towns across Maryland.

A partnership between ESLC, Cross Street Partners, and the City of Cambridge, The Packing House (ThePackingHouseCambridge.com) is an urban revitalization project that seeks to repurpose the historic, 60,000 square-foot Phillips Cannery building in Cambridge into an active, mixed-use plan for office and food-related innovation.

This structure is the last standing piece of the storied Phillips Packing Company empire, which employed thousands in Cambridge and served as the largest supplier of rations to American troops in World War II.

The project was recently awarded a $3M historic tax credit for revitalization of a structure located within an underserved community. Plans include an array of food-related uses that acknowledge and support local hunger and nutrition needs, building off of the Eastern Shore’s agricultural resources and a growing local food economy of growers, makers, distributors, retailers, and restaurants.

The ambitious vision to renovate and repurpose the former Phillips ‘Factory F’ is key to the continued revitalization of Cambridge, including Cannery Park – the adjacent 6.6 acres of land which includes the Cambridge Creek headwater area that will begin a stream restoration process this coming spring.

The event is free and open to interested members of the public, friends of ESLC, and the media. For members of the media planning to attend the grand opening of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center immediately afterwards, a bus will be held at the Hyatt Regency Cambridge so that they will be able to attend both events. Please contact ESLC’s Communication Manager, David Ferraris, at dferraris@eslc.org or 410.690.4603 x165 for more information.

LOCATION: Phillips Packing Plant, 411 Dorchester Avenue, Cambridge, MD 21613
AGENDA: Arrive at Packing House 11:15am; Tour the building; Press availability 11:40am; Depart Packing House at 12:00pm.

CBF Poll: MD Voters Overwhelmingly Support Oyster Sanctuaries

Share

An overwhelming majority of Maryland voters across party lines support maintaining existing Chesapeake Bay oyster sanctuaries, according to a poll by a bipartisan research team commissioned by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF).

“The state is considering a proposal to open up a net of nearly 1,000 acres of oyster sanctuaries to harvest. ‘Don’t you dare!’ Marylanders are saying loud and clear,” said Alison Prost, Maryland Executive Director of CBF. “Voters understand the value of leaving a quarter of the state’s reefs closed to harvest, so oysters can recover from decades of overharvest and disease.”

The results found 88 percent of Marylanders support existing sanctuaries, two-thirds of those voters “strongly.” The findings suggest strong support across party lines, with 91 percent of registered Democrats, 89 percent of Independents, and 82 percent of Republicans in support.

Public support for the sanctuaries actually increased after the survey summarized the oyster industry’s reasons for wanting the expanded harvesting. Industry representatives have argued at Maryland Oyster Advisory Commission (OAC) meetings that the state unfairly increased the sanctuaries in 2010. They say too much public money has been spent on restoring the oyster population of the Bay.

Understanding the industry’s position, voters were even more in favor of keeping sanctuaries intact, with support rising from 88 percent to 91 percent.

The poll found voters understand the value of undisturbed oyster beds. Fully 92 percent said that the ability of those sanctuary reefs to filter pollutants from the water, and to improve water quality was “extremely” or “very important” to them. And 88 percent of voters said they value the protection and habitat for fish, crabs, and other plants and wildlife that protected reefs provide.

The poll results come a little over a week after the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) compiled proposals submitted to date and presented a “strawman” proposal to the OAC to let the oyster industry harvest on 977 acres net of oyster reefs which currently are off-limits to harvesting. That proposal will be discussed by OAC members, and possibly adopted, changed or rejected in coming weeks.

A bill (HB 924) being considered in the Maryland General Assembly would require the state to hold off on any alterations of the oyster sanctuaries until a scientific assessment of the oyster stock is completed in 2018. That legislation will be heard today, Feb. 24, at 1 p.m. in the House Environment and Transportation Committee.

Sanctuaries are Maryland’s insurance policy for the future oyster population. By protecting a small portion of the state’s oyster bottom from harvesting, oysters on the sanctuaries can grow and reproduce. A DNR study published in July, 2016 found oysters thriving in much of the sanctuary system, but found scarce numbers of oysters elsewhere.

Three-quarters of Maryland’s oyster reefs are open to harvesting, under current regulations. The proposal before the OAC would shrink the sanctuary areas by 11 percent, and enlarge the harvest areas.

The poll was conducted by a bipartisan collaboration between Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates, a Democratic polling firm, and Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm.

“Marylanders understand we must take the long view managing our oysters. That’s why it’s vitally important we wait for scientists to finish their stock assessment. We wouldn’t spend money without knowing what’s in our bank account. We need science-based management for Maryland oysters just like we have for every other fishery. We must wait to see how many oysters are at the bottom of the Bay before we randomly increase the harvest,” Prost said.

Bay Grass Restoration Threatened by Warming, Scientists Say

Share

The Bay region is unlikely to meet its underwater grass restoration goals unless it clears up the Chesapeake’s water beyond what is now targeted, scientists warned in a recent journal article.

If more action is not taken, they warn that eelgrass — the primary underwater grass species found in high-salinity portions of the Bay — may face a “catastrophic” decline in the Chesapeake because of a combination of warming temperatures and murky water.

As a consequence, they predict populations of blue crabs and many other fish will also decline as areas with once-lush grass beds convert to muddy bottoms. They project that the resulting economic impacts from that loss of habitat could reach $1.5 billion to $2.5 billion annually.

Nor is it only a problem for the future, the scientists said in a paper published in the journal Global Change Biology in early February. Over the last half-century, eelgrass has been eliminated from nearly half the area it once occupied in the Bay. It rebounded slightly in the late 1980s, but since 1991 — a period when grass beds have come back in many other areas — eelgrass acreage has declined 29 percent.

“It is happening now, and it is happening rapidly,” warned Jonathan Lefcheck, a post-doctoral researcher at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and lead author of the paper.

Underwater grass beds are one of the most critical habitats found in the Bay. They provide shelter for juvenile crabs and fish, as well as food for waterfowl. They also protect shorelines from the erosive force of waves, and help filter sediment and nutrients out of the water.

Like all plants, underwater grasses need sunlight to survive. In the wake of Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972, grass beds suffered dramatic declines as the Bay filled with sediment and nutrient-fueled algae blooms, hitting a low point of 38,000 acres in 1983.

Since then, grass species in general have made a comeback in many places, reaching 92,315 acres throughout the Chesapeake and its tidal rivers in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available. That’s about half of the Baywide goal of 185,000 acres, which is based on observations made in the decades prior to Agnes.

Eelgrass, though, has declined. That’s a concern because unlike grass species that thrive in the low-salinity waters of the Upper Bay, eelgrass is the only seagrass that can survive in much of the lower, saltier Chesapeake. In most high-salinity areas of the Bay, there is nothing that can take its place. The paper pins eelgrass loss on two factors: loss of water clarity and warming water temperatures.

In many of the eelgrass-dominated areas, water clarity has generally worsened since 1997, the paper says. Eelgrass was once commonly found at depths of more than 1 meter, but murkier water means plants no longer get enough sunlight to survive at such depths.

Meanwhile, gradually warming water temperatures are adding stress to the plants, which are near the southern edge of their range in the Bay. Eelgrass does not tolerate hot temperatures and it suffered sharp diebacks after hot summers in 2005 and 2010.

In effect, scientists say, poor water clarity is squeezing eelgrass into shallower areas, but those are also warmer.

Further, there is not enough shallow water habitat available to restore historic levels of underwater grass in high salinity areas where eelgrass is the dominant — and typically only — species, says David Wilcox, a data analyst at VIMS who was a co-author of the paper.

“Unless we get the deep beds back, it would be hard to drive that up,” he says. “It is hard to imagine getting that deeper grass without the clarity that would support that.”

Scientists say they expect further decreases if past trends continue. The paper says that the impact of warming temperatures alone in the next 30 years would lead to a further 38 percent decline in eelgrass cover. Similarly, if water clarity trends in the Lower Bay remain unchanged, eelgrass would decline 84 percent. If both trends continue, 95 percent of eelgrass beds would be lost in the Chesapeake in 30 years, the paper says.

Such a loss would reverberate throughout the ecosystem, as there is no other species that would fill the void, resulting in declines of blue crabs, silver perch and a host of other species highly dependent on grass beds in the lower Bay.

“If you’re a guy who wants to take his son fishing on the weekend, you can expect a lot fewer fish out there,” Lefcheck said. “The eelgrass habitat is going away, so all these critters are going to have no place to live.”

Scientists also worry that a catastrophic loss may not be decades away. Eelgrass suffered huge diebacks in the aforementioned hot summers: 55 percent after 2005 and 41 percent after 2010.
In both cases, the beds rebounded, but scientists say that likely would not be the case if there are two consecutive hot years — the odds of which increase as average temperatures continue to rise.

The reason eelgrass might die back permanently with a prolonged hot spell stems from the method by which it reproduces. It has root-like structures called rhizomes, which produce new shoots that spread over the bottom, but if the plant is killed in late summer, when water temperatures are at their warmest, the rhizomes die too.

Eelgrass beds also produce seeds in the spring, which can still produce a recovery the following year even if the plants die during the summer. But if a plant-killing heat spell hits for a second year in a row, neither the seeds nor the rhizomes would be available to spur a comeback in the third year.

In fact, that appears to be what happened at an eelgrass restoration site in the Piankatank River during two consecutive hot growing seasons in the early 1990s, says Bob Orth, a longtime underwater grass researcher at VIMS and co-author of the paper.

“Because there were no seeds, in that third year there were no plants left in the Piankatank,” Orth says, noting that the eelgrass has been largely absent from the river since. “We had an open window into what could happen if we had significant Baywide heat events back-to-back.”

The paper has significant implications for Bay cleanup efforts. Chesapeake Bay water clarity standards are designed to return underwater grass abundances similar to those observed the mid-1900s throughout the Bay. Meeting those clarity requirements requires nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment reductions to ensure that enough light reaches grasses to allow their return.

But, scientists say, those clarity goals never accounted for the impact of warming temperatures on eelgrass.

Eelgrass can withstand “moderate increases in temperature,” the paper says, but only if water was clearer than in the past, so plants would not have to work as hard to get energy from the sun — thereby offsetting some of the stress on the plant caused by the heat.

“We’re pretty certain that if we want eelgrass to return to its previous habitat, you are going to have to get more clarity,” Orth says. “It is a physiological fact.”

Rich Batiuk, associate director for science with the EPA’s Bay Program Office, says that before water clarity standards can be changed, scientists need to determine just how much clearer water would need to be to support the eelgrass restoration in the face of warming temperatures. Then, he says, the state-federal Bay Program partnership would have to determine whether those goals are achievable.

“We may have to rethink what is possible in a Chesapeake that is going to have warmer summers in Virginia’s portion of the Bay,” Batiuk says.

That sets up a tough choice for the region, he added, because losing eelgrass in the Lower Bay would have consequences for the entire ecosystem. For instance, juvenile crabs that find shelter in eelgrass beds later spread throughout the Chesapeake.
“One change there can reverberate around the system, not just in Virginia itself, because it is such an integrated system,” Batiuk says.

Besides Lefcheck, Wilcox and Orth, other authors on the paper include Rebecca Murphy of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, and Scott Marion, of the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife.

By Karl Blankenship

Karl Blankenship is editor of the Bay Journal and executive director of Chesapeake Media Service. He has served as editor of the Bay Journal since its inception in 1991. 

Annapolis: Deforestation, Fracking Bills Spark Rallies before Hearing

Share
Support for forest protection and opposition to hydraulic fracturing sparked two different rallies Wednesday, just before the House Environment and Transportation Committee heard testimony on three related bills. 
 
Two of the bills would ban and criminalize hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The other would require developers to replant an acre of trees for every acre of forest they clear.
 
All three bills force lawmakers to confront issues that feature business interests on one side and environmental protection interests on the other. 
 
Activists organized a “Fight for the Forests” rally less than an hour before the committee’s Wednesday afternoon meeting. The rally attracted supporters from all over the state.
 
“Under the Forest Conservation Act currently, the way the replacement values work, it guarantees that development is going to operate at a net loss of forest,” Chesapeake Bay Foundation staff attorney Elaine Lutz told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service. “(Under the current regulations) developers are subject to minimal planting requirements … that essentially comes out to one acre replanted for every four acres cleared—if that.”
 
Maryland has lost 14,480 acres of forest over the last eight years, according to data provided by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
“The FCA does not cover all forest in Maryland,” Lutz said. “It typically covers the areas that are in our urban and suburban communities, and those are the forests that are the most susceptible to being lost to development without replacement.”
 
The majority of acres cleared and lost comes from the district of Delegate Anne Healey, D-Prince George’s, who is sponsoring the bill. In Prince George’s County alone, more than 9,000 acres were cleared and less than 2,000 were replanted during the same time span, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s data.
 
The committee also heard testimony on Wednesday from Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, Delegate David Fraser-Hidalgo, D-Montgomery, and numerous supporters and opponents of a pair of bills that would ban and criminalize the practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in Maryland.
 
A couple dozen supporters of legislation banning fracking congregated outside the House of Delegates office building Wednesday afternoon. They held signs and banners and waved at drivers passing by, many of whom waved and honked at them. 
 
A state moratorium on fracking is set to expire in October. With that deadline approaching, legislators in both Maryland’s House and the Senate have introduced bills that would permanently ban the practice in the state.
 
“This session is the last chance for Maryland legislators to step up and protect the health, environment and tourism economy from the dangers of fracking once and for all,” Jackie Filson, field communications officer for D.C.-based consumer rights group Food & Water Watch, told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service. “We’re looking to House delegates to act now and support (these bills) for a permanent, statewide fracking ban.”
 
Lawmakers and activists seek to not only ban fracking in the state, citing concerns about environmental effects, but criminalize the practice, for further deterrence, under a separate bill. 
 
“If you frack in Maryland, you will go to jail (under the bill). That’s a completely different message than (writing a check) to make the problem go away,” Fraser-Hidalgo said.
 
Some of the individuals who oppose a fracking ban say that the people against the process are people who by and large aren’t from the areas where hydraulic fracturing would take place.
 
“I represent exclusively the area where fracking would occur,” said Delegate Wendell Beitzel, R-Garrett and Allegany. “This country has been fracking since 1947, and it’s been a real game changer. Folks in the rest of the state (who are for a ban) don’t fully understand (the benefits). 
 
Beitzel said last week he feels the concerns over health and environmental risks are overblown, and that the regulations Maryland would impose on fracking businesses are more than enough to mitigate any potential hazards.
 
“The ban is overkill,” Beitzel continued. “The anti-fracking publicity in itself has hurt tourism to Western Maryland more than (actual drilling) could.”
 
By Jack Chavez

Op-Ed: The Case for a Fracking Ban by Paul Roberts and Mike Tidwell

Share

Next week, on Feb. 28, the Health, Education and Environmental Affairs Committee in the Maryland Senate will take up legislation dealing with shale-gas drilling (fracking). For public safety, economic, and environmental reasons, we believe the technology should not be allowed in Maryland.

Nearly three out of four senators have indicated a willingness to extend the current fracking moratorium, set to expire in October. This suggests they recognize that gas-drilling will not be the economic bonanza that supporters have claimed since 2011, when the mountains above Marcellus Shale deposits in Western Maryland were first targeted.

Two bills are pending. one bans fracking altogether, while the other extends the moratorium for two years—though it departs from the current moratorium by permitting fracking in counties that approve it by referendum. On the ban bill, 23 of the Senate’s 33 Democrats are co-sponsors; the moratorium bill has 24 co-sponsors, including several Republicans.

In the House of Delegates, leadership declared long ago that a frack-free Maryland was its preference. A ban bill is advancing, and there is no moratorium bill. After committee hearings, legislation may go to the floor of each chamber for further debate. If the House and Senate don’t pass the same bill, some sort of compromise is required before any legislation can be approved and sent to the governor for his consideration.

About three-fourths of Marylanders already live in a place where local elected officials have created anti-fracking laws or resolutions. But fracking is regulated by the state. So, for those who’ve worked for six legislative sessions on the issue, the “heavy lift” is in the Maryland Senate.

Unlike neighboring Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Maryland did not rush into fracking. Successive administrations studied the technology, then overhauled outdated regulations. Meanwhile, energy prices continued to fall. The industry allowed nearly all of its original sub-surface mineral leases purchased last decade to lapse.

Furthermore, Maryland lacks large-scale deposits, the pipeline and processing infrastructure, or interest from industry (in the form of leased mineral rights) to make large-scale fracking financially feasible today. Yet we can’t rule out a change of circumstances that drives up fossil fuel prices—setting set off a new round of leasing that leads to fracking in years ahead.

Meanwhile, mounting problems elsewhere show the technology cannot be effectively regulated. In Pennsylvania recently, investigators from Public Herald, an investigative journalism nonprofit, dug up previously undisclosed citizen complaints about water contamination from fracking. Their work took years. Far from regulators’ 280-odd citations against industry, Public Herald found some 4,100 complaint filings—all told, one official complaint for nearly every well drilled. There’s more. It appears that the vast majority were never investigated. Then unresolved original complaints were shredded. Hundreds of state law violations were documented, and Flint, Mich.-style government criminality is a possibility.

In recent weeks in Western Maryland, many residents were infuriated by the Senate president’s public remarks that “there are no jobs whatsoever” in that part of the state. In fact, the unemployment rate in Western Maryland in 2016 was almost identical to the state average, and lower than some counties. Long gone are the days that Mountain Maryland depended overly on extractive energy and assembly line work.

Tourism and vacation real estate provide about half of all jobs and two-thirds of Garrett County’s tax base. Some of the highest-value rural real estate in the eastern United States lines the shores of Deep Creek Lake—second only to Ocean City as a vacation destination for Marylanders. Generations have visited and created the magical memories that many families cherish forever.

To state the obvious, nowhere in the world do fracking and world-class tourism mix. That’s why in Florida right now, with Republicans in charge, the legislature is considering a fracking ban. Florida’s economy is Deep Creek’s, writ large.

Additionally, fracking is “anti-business”: While a few short-term jobs may be created, most Western Marylanders—like others in a state where the solar industry grew 40 percent in 2015—prefer small-business ownership, with sustainable economic investments in tourism, agriculture, and green energy.

Mountainside solar installations are burgeoning. Indeed, Western Marylanders want the same future as the rest of the state. Most polls show that a strong majority of Garrett and Allegany county residents want the fracking ban that Marylanders as a whole support.

Is this another “jobs versus environment” debate? Not at all. Nationally, less than 10 percent of jobs on a well-pad are unionized. Along with embalmers and theater projectionists, zero petroleum engineers belong to unions.

The Laborers International Union recently came out in support of fracking and staged a rally in Annapolis. In a union with a proud tradition of training workers in emerging industries, wouldn’t organizing solar-industry installers sustain and grow its membership?

Finally, there’s the matter of fracking’s effect on global climate change. Farmers statewide are already feeling the effects of erratic precipitation, unpredictable freezes and bigger storms. This year, the annual “Winterfest” festival in Oakland, Md. (the state’s “snowiest” town) was postponed due to spring-like weather.

Scientists agree that fossil fuel combustion is driving planetary warming. And new scientific analysis confirms that fracked gas is nearly as bad as coal for the atmosphere. That’s because, before it is burned at distant power plants or on your stovetop, natural gas (mostly methane) is constantly leaking from wellheads, pipelines and compressor stations. Estimates of leakage vary from about 2 percent of production to more than 10 percent. Overall, carbon dioxide is a more potent greenhouse gas, but in the short-term—measured in 20-year periods—methane is orders of magnitude more detrimental. So the life-cycle warming impact of gas rivals coal. To save our climate, we have to steadily move off of gas, not increase its use through reckless fracking.

For Maryland’s economy, health and environment, we need to ban fracking once and for all. This drilling method will never be safe. We have all of the data we need on that. Now we just need the political will of our leaders in Annapolis to finally do the right thing.

Paul Roberts served as a state commissioner on a special fracking study panel under former Gov. O’Malley, and is the board president of Citizen Shale in Western Maryland. Mike Tidwell is director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.