The name Chesapeake comes from the Algonquin word K'che-sepi-ack, "country on a great river." In fact, Chesapeake Bay is a tidal estuary where fresh water from the land meets salt water from the sea. Estuaries are unbelievably rich in life, and Chesapeake Bay is the largest and most valuable estuary in the United States. But it is something else, too—acre for acre the most productive body of water in the world. Lefty Kreh, who is the outdoor columnist for the Baltimore Sun and a leading angling authority, says, "Last summer charter boats carrying four men, fishing no more than five hours in the bay, regularly returned with 500 to 600 pounds of bluefish."
The Chesapeake yields an average of 125 pounds of seafood per acre per year to sports and commercial fishermen. Its closest rival, the Sea of Azov in southern Russia—the estuary of the River Don—once produced 71 pounds of seafood per acre per year, but that was before part of the flow of the Don was diverted for irrigation in the 1950s. To biologists, the Chesapeake is "the queen of estuaries." There is no king.
The Chesapeake drains a watershed of 74,000 square miles—parts of New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Delaware and all of Maryland. Almost two dozen major rivers empty into it, one being the Susquehanna, the biggest river on the East Coast of the U.S. Running south from the mouth of the Susquehanna to the Atlantic Ocean at Cape Henry, Va., the bay is 180 miles long and from five to 30 miles wide. Its surface covers 4,300 square miles, but its average depth is only 27.6 feet. The shoreline, which zigs and zags and zigs again, is 4,500 miles long. Its astounding length and shallowness result from the fact that the Chesapeake is a drowned river.
When you grow up near a large body of water like the bay, life for a young boy is not the same as it is in a place where there is none. For the water speaks of passage, of exotic distance, the darkness of exploration, all of which are difficult to hear behind a jackass and a plow engulfed by miles and miles of confining land; something else might be heard, or felt, but it is not the call of water in back of your door. Even so, great leaps of imagination could not obscure the fact that the shabbiest part of the bay lapped up against those Baltimore streets: sick-brown water with a surface of slime and malodor; steel mills and shipyards, nightmarish castles of noise and deadly ritual standing on its banks; the endless trail of long barges moving like legless roaches, and the freighters without the sparkle that the open sea would give them. It was not much, this perspective of the bay, but now it seems to have been better than none at all.
July 20, 1975
The true wonders of this water seemed far away; there were only the words and the still lifes that attested to their existence: fresh fish from the regal blue to the lowly cod resting in giant bins of ice at the fish market; bushels of squirming crabs ready for the steaming pot, the sea grass still twisted in their claws; ducks and geese, just downed, hanging in the windows of the corner stores; and the constant talk of men, sitting on their steps next to pails of draft beer, telling of past and future expeditions to secret places.
And then there was the weather of the bay, perfect for murder, with its winters of fog and dampness, dispiriting in the summer caught in the vise of cement and row houses. Summers dropped on the psyche and body like heavy, wet rope, beginning with the first glare of morning. The sidewalk trees seemed to beg for a wind, portending what the day would be for the aaa-rabs who yelled their way through the twisting alleys with their horses and wagons filled with everything from watermelons to corn on the cob, for the stevedores who would stagger back from the docks like weary fighters looking for their corners. If you were young, there were several exits from the heat: go to the end of a pier and try to catch a breeze, all the while thinking of the cold chill of Norway as one of its merchant ships coasted by; scratch enough pennies together to buy a cold watermelon, and then split it against a fire hydrant before burying your face in its cold red heart; or go visit the sailmaker up in his loft, with the hope of an odd job.
He was a tenacious man and surely one of the last of his kind. The loft was quiet and cool, with a wooden floor that was shiny and smooth from the years of having massive canvas pulled across it. He had always done most of his work by hand with waxed thread and needles. But now he had a good sewing machine, the thought of which brought a wry smile to his face, because he knew that soon his trade would be useless in the face of progress. Men like him would only be needed to equip the oyster boats, which by law still operated under sail. Since the decline of sailing ships, business had been bad, but now the loft was merely a place in which to dream and fiddle about. "Won't be here next week," he finally said one day, his eyes moving over the walls covered with pictures of ships for which he had made sails, of sketches and sail plans of vessels he had sent into wind. Long after he was gone, the smell of clean sail lingered on that street, the flash of long, quick fingers would oddly jump through the mind, and even now these things seem so real as one tries to re-create a young and faraway perspective of a body of water that holds so many.
Fifteen thousand years ago, Chesapeake Bay did not exist. There were no great stands of marsh lush with Spartina grass. There were no tide flats with clams, no reefs or oysters. Instead, a mighty, prehistoric Susquehanna River roared to the Atlantic through a bleak valley. Glaciers stood near to the north. With much of the continent covered by mile-high slabs of ice, the level of the Atlantic was 100 feet lower than now and the sea was 100 miles farther out from the present shoreline. As the glaciers melted and retreated 11,000 years ago, the ocean level rose, and salt water began to flood the continental shelf and surge into the valley. The tide now covers every corner of the bay and reaches well up into many tributaries, and still the level of the ocean continues to rise. In the last 50 years it has risen 8.5 inches in Chesapeake Bay, and the evidence is visible. Toppled trees, their roots undercut, fall into the bay as the tide eats into the shore with each rise and fall. The site of the original fort built at Jamestown in 1607, the first permanent English settlement in North America, slumped into the tidal James River in the 1890s, and the remains of the rest of the colony, visited now by tourists and schoolchildren, would be eroded were it not for a rock seawall erected by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.
Erosion from tidal action, storms and river runoff make the Chesapeake murky. Maryland waters toward the head are darkest, but visibility is limited even in Virginia waters, where a diver enters a gloomy and foreboding realm. Swimmers accustomed to clearer depths are sometimes put off by the muddiness of the bay. Jellyfish are also a problem. Around the Chesapeake, people tend to speak softly of the jellyfish, as they might of some ne'er-do-well relative they wish would go away. But the jellyfish stay, and in the summer months they are so abundant that a cove might look as though it were covered with thick mucilage. The most bothersome of the sea nettles, Chrysaora quinquercirrha is a bell-shaped pulsing body of milky white that has hundreds of stinging cells on trailing tentacles up to four feet long.
The Chesapeake is probably the most studied estuary in the world. A couple of years ago the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory-Natural Resources Institute of the University of Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay Institute of Johns Hopkins University, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the Smithsonian Institution all joined in a research consortium, and a special supplement of Chesapeake Science, a quarterly journal, was devoted to the state of knowledge and condition of the plants and animals in the bay. Specialists wrote on such subjects as the local fungi, the reptiles (including the rainbow snake which, it was noted, "feeds almost exclusively on the common eel") and waterfowl. The Chesapeake is the largest wintering ground in North America for Canada geese—there are three-quarters of a million of them—and often attracts the largest concentration of whistling swans, black duck and canvasback. For most waterfowl an important food is the bay's widgeon grass, Ruppia maritima.
Nothing strokes the nervous system as much as looking at birds, especially if you do not know anything about them. They have a hypnotic effect, and usually after an hour or so there is a great feeling of inward calm, and so much of the world seems silly. Even the mangy starlings in the backyard of a row house, forever flitting about the garbage cans, could fascinate. And for a long time they were the only birds, until an introduction came to the birds of the bay. The bay is an ornithological paradise.
No sight, for instance, is more spectacular than the long streamers of ducks and geese and whistling swans that weave brilliant mosaics in the autumn skies as they shoot down the Atlantic funnel. These are the stars of the Chesapeake, survivors of the carnage wrought by the old market gunners; doughty resisters of wrong-headed progress, they are the residue of a time when colonial horizons were made dark by their presence, when the air quivered from their symphonic gabble. They have endured—the prince of them, the canvasback, just barely. And hardly to be found is the king, the bald eagle, once incontestable on this water.
The eagle was a common sight on the bay if you were with someone who knew where they could be found, who knew their ways. Beholding an eagle for the first time left you stunned by sheer power. It was enough to see one nodding indifferently in a pine, the stillness of the afternoon roaring over you, but to see one in action, to see an eagle, first only a speck in the sky, shoot toward a raft of ducks like an arrow, wings flattened, white head and tail flashing, to see it once and maybe never again, was to know the feel of power forever. They are mostly gone now. Their absence leaves a painful rent; the bay is diminished.
A favorite, though, is the great blue heron, who disdains us all with a narcissism that appears immune to the crash of technology, the push of greed; he evokes an ancient poet or prophet who insists on staying about to keep the journal, to view the final evolutionary turn toward God only knows where. The job seems to bore him, but he will remain, always retaining a dignity that spreads out from him like a soft light. Herons ornament the whole of the bay. They are deliberate in their motions, above time, as they go about striking attitudes on curving beaches or water-lily beds fit for a painter's brush, a sculptor's hands. In a sense, they are a symbol of the bay. No other bird better projects the mood of the region, and to see them in the dead calm of summer evening, still against green reeds or posed on white driftwood, is like listening to a Chopin nocturne; they are more than picturesque, they are brooding poetry.
And there are the times when they move like ghosts in the moonlight, coming down only to march delicately along the beaches or marshes, listening always for the sound that does not fit; and if they hear it, their weird bodies become marble, and like a piece of a dream they are one with the night skies, for they are stoic and patient and know how to wait for their food. This, too, about the herons: observe them for a while and the mind begins to ponder all that has gone and all that will go, begins to synchronize with their contemplation, which seems to say, "I am watching you—are you watching yourself in me?" For they are the mystics of the bay.
According to Andrew J. McErlean and Catherine Kerby, the biologists who wrote the introduction to the Chesapeake Science supplement, the bay contains at least 2,650 species of plants and animals. In an effort to show the complexity of ecological relationships, they tried to calculate the "interactive potential" among the 2,650 species. If, as it does, eel grass affects the setting of hard clams, and the number of striped bass depends on the number of croakers, how many interactions are there if the 2,650 species impinge in, say, 45 ways? Forty-five is a conservative number; still, the answer is staggering: 6.38 x 10, arithmetic shorthand for 638 followed by 95 zeroes.
This astounding figure is not meant to indicate that the workings of the Chesapeake are inscrutable to scientists or even to everyday fishermen. Exactly how the bay "works" and why it produces such an abundance of life are understood in broad outline and sometimes in very telling detail.
Basically, the Chesapeake is a super-productive protein factory. It is so designed on a giant scale as a result of the reaction that occurs when fresh water emptying into the bay encounters salt water moving up from the Atlantic. When the fresh and salt water meet, they mix and become brackish, and turbulence occurs much like the churning inside a washing machine. Some biologists have started calling this area the "critical zone."
Depending on the time of year, the brackish critical zone, which in the Chesapeake may extend in length as much as 60 miles, moves up and down the bay. In the spring, when the Susquehanna River flow is at a peak, the lower limit of the critical zone is pushed down near the Maryland-Virginia line. As the river flow diminishes in summer, the critical zone slowly advances up the bay and by late fall the lower edge is just north of Annapolis. A similar interaction between fresh water and salt water involves other rivers feeding into the bay, creating critical zones throughout the river systems as well as in the bay itself.
For almost all fish, the important time is the spring. As vast schools of striped bass, blueback herring, alewives, shad and other species seek out river spawning grounds, the fresh water flowing into the bay carries enormous amounts of raw materials in the form of silt, decaying vegetation and other detritus. "It's all flushed into the bay," says William Dovel, who spent a dozen years studying fish eggs and larvae at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, "and this material remains there because it gets caught up in the natural washing machine. At the same time, the sun's energy combines with the nutrients that have been trapped to produce algae. The algae isn't going anywhere either, but staying right in the critical zone. For small crustaceans such as copepods, algae and organic detritus are the greatest food source. Meanwhile, the larvae from fish eggs spawned up above are carried down, and the larvae become juvenile fish. For many small fish, copepods are the greatest food source, and everything is right there together, getting churned around in the upper bay. In the spring the critical zone is supersaturated with raw materials and organisms. In the fall, when sunlight diminishes and the water temperature drops, there is a depletion of energy, but from then until spring, the river system will begin to accumulate raw materials and nutrients and stockpile them for the next year. It is a tremendous synchronization of biology and time."
Marshes embrace the intricate life beat of the bay, and the activity within them is as complex as that going on out in the open water. Years ago a chance came to spend 24 hours camping close to a marsh. An elderly man, an amateur naturalist, was the bestower of what he called a "gift of place," meaning to be somewhere at a certain moment when something sublime could be perceived. From the first break of light, he was beside himself. Each sound, each new discovery, say of threading rails, was recorded on his face as well as in his notebook. "This is the greatest art gallery in the world," he said.
The comment was lost on his companion. It had been just a long day and night by a swamp. The guide understood, saying, "Maybe you absorbed things here that you won't become aware of for a time. Things have a way of working like that, you know." He was, of course, right. It was not until one came across the lines of Gilbert Klingel years later that the marsh, that day, began to unravel into strands of sense.
"The division of the day," wrote Klingel, "into the hours of the events of the swamp is a much more meaningful method of keeping time than our mathematical chronology. The Chinese have long used this poetical technique in the designation of the years and the seasons." The year of the Dragon or of the Tiger, he said, is a far more entrancing time to have existed in than, say, 1943. Quite unscientific, he agreed, "but to attempt to describe the passing of a day in a Chesapeake marsh by cataloguing the arithmetical hours is an uninspiring business." He thought it much better to speak of the Dark Hour of the First Voice, the Time of the Wakening of the Birds, the Interval of the Rising Tide, or the Hour of the Littorina. The creatures of the swamp, he said, do not live by arithmetic. "They are moved by events, are actuated by sun and tide, by light and darkness, by heat and cold, by hunger and fullness, and by the movements of the life about them."
Klingel's portrait of a marsh is not an assemblage of water and soil and vegetation, which may be coldly defined and catalogued. "It is the drone and whine of mosquitoes in the gloom. It is the red, black and yellow bodies of painted turtles sunning themselves on half-submerged logs; the V-shaped ripples that denote the heads of serpents gliding across a channel to seek frogs on the other side. It is the clustering of a glistening mass of dewdrops on a strand of marsh grass, and the patterned cracks of mud drying in the sun."
Visual. Aural. Sensory.
A gift of place.
William Dovel spent several years collecting in the Maryland waters of the bay and in the Patuxent River, the Potomac, the Magothy River and the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, and he netted the grand total of 5,148,596 fish eggs and larvae, noting water temperatures and salinity values for each collection. All the eggs and larvae were identified by genus if not species, and all the data were fed into a computer. Tabulations revealed that just about all the eggs and larvae were found in the critical zone. To be exact, 50% of the eggs and larvae came from water with only three parts per 1,000 of salt, and 95% from water with just 11 parts per 1,000 of salt or less—about a third the salinity of seawater.
In addition to all the fish coming down from freshwater, the young of many invertebrates and marine fish move up into the bay. Small blue crabs born near the mouth move up to feed, as do juvenile bluefish, weakfish, spot, menhaden and other species. Oceanic in origin, they could not exist if they could not enter the estuary at this stage in their life cycles. Predators follow—adult bluefish, channel bass, cobia and sharks—because the bay is nature's greatest buffet.
Dovel, who is now studying sturgeon in the Hudson, got his start under the late Dr. Romeo J. Mansueti, one of the most inquisitive biologists who ever worked on estuaries. The son of a Baltimore steelworker, Dr. Mansueti founded Chesapeake Science, and he was into every aspect of the bay with zest. Like the Chesapeake itself, his productivity was enormous. He wrote leaflets for the general public, he co-authored a review of the shad fisheries of North America that remains the standard in its field, and he did two extensive and detailed studies of the white perch. Investigating this fish in the Patuxent River, Mansueti found that the species had marked seasonal movements and used different zones in the river for spawning, nursery feeding and wintering. He found no perch in the nontidal upper river, and he discovered that only rarely did the fish leave the Patuxent for the bay. The white perch population in the river was essentially self-contained, and a number of separate populations existed in the bay area. On a practical level, for anglers, he noted that white perch did not live beyond the age of 10, at which time the fish that remained were females measuring 11 inches long and weighing 16½ ounces. The mean life expectancy was only a year and a half. He recommended that the eight-inch size limit be lifted because many of the fish would die anyway, and besides, white perch spawned at so small a size that this would discourage fishermen from taking them.
Above all, Mansueti was imaginative, adept at seeing the general in the particular. One paper that stirred considerable thought and bore the long title, "Effects of Civilization on Striped Bass and Other Estuarine Biota in Chesapeake Bay and Tributaries," noted that the growth of human population had produced "increasing loads of silt, wastes, and fertilizers in the estuary, creating many adverse effects in the upper estuarine spawning areas of fish." Although various species that lay their eggs on or near the bottom, such as shad and herrings, had declined in numbers as a result, striped bass had undergone an unusual increase. Some observers have taken that to mean that the more gunk in an estuary, the more striped bass, but Mansueti warned that uncontrolled pollutants could be dangerous.
Despite the size and productivity of the Chesapeake, changes for the worse have not been that difficult to note. They have occurred, clearly, on some tributaries, particularly on the western side of the bay. (The eastern shore, celebrated for a traditional and gracious way of life, is generally in excellent condition.) For example, the James River has not produced good hatches of striped bass and white perch since the late 1960s. The reasons are unknown, although the upper James has been subjected to radical stream channelizing programs that were supposed to reduce flooding but have in fact increased flooding and siltation. Moreover, a nuclear power plant downriver at Hog Island sits squarely in the critical zone, in a position to suck up and destroy fish eggs, larvae and juveniles.
In the Potomac, pollution from Washington has forced striped bass to spawn further downstream, placing the free-floating eggs dangerously near bay water with too high a salt content for successful hatching.
The mouth of the Susquehanna, long thought to be the major spawning ground for striped bass in the bay, is no longer used by stripers. Whether driven off by upriver dams, or pollution from cities and industries, they have apparently switched to spawning in the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, the only man-made spawning ground on record. "The C&D looks like a muddy ditch," says Dovel, "but drag a plankton net through it and the net's thick with striper and herring eggs and larvae. In fact, the greatest concentration of striped bass eggs found anywhere so far is in the C&D Canal, 36 to a cubic meter of water." Now, however, the Corps of Engineers is considering deepening and widening the canal. This may increase the water flow away from the critical zone in the bay, sweeping eggs and larvae into the acrid waters of the Delaware.
On the bay itself, there is concern about the potential impact of a nuclear power plant at Calvert Cliffs, Md., and the construction firm of Brown & Root proposes to build a 1,800-acre heavy-industry complex at Cape Charles, Va.
Natural catastrophes, of course, are uncontrollable. In June of 1972, just as biologists and students at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science were about to embark on their annual summer cruises, Hurricane Agnes struck. Described as a "one-in-every-200 storm," Agnes poured an average of six inches of rain over the entire 74,000-square-mile Chesapeake watershed and up to 18 inches in some localities. Severe floods devastated central New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia, and fresh water surged into the bay as never before. The biologists immediately went out to see just what was happening.
During the peak of the runoff, 6.5 million fish larvae, mainly anchovies and gobies, were washed out of the Rappahannock every hour. The Susquehanna discharged 31 million tons of sediment in just 10 days, possibly 60 times the amount discharged in a normal year. The influx of fresh water drove salt water farther and farther down until the bay from the Susquehanna to Annapolis contained only river water.
Initially, there was talk of calamity. Agnes had wiped out 90% of the soft-shell clams and caused massive mortality among oysters. But not long ago Michael Castagna, a marine biologist at VIMS, said, "Agnes was good for the bay. For years people had been saying what we needed was a really good hurricane to wash out the bay. We were concerned about the effects of creeping pollution and a buildup of salinity levels over the years. The bay needed a flushing, and Agnes did just that. Looking back, it seems that Agnes was the best thing that could have happened to the Chesapeake."
To some people, the science of the bay is a flat subject, and it does not stir them. Painful and costly research seems to take decades to seep into the popular consciousness. Unlike the wolf, the mountain lion or other glamour topics in "environment," the bay and its future attract little emotion. Who would be so un-chic as to talk of erosion at cocktail time in lush Talbot County? Who would try to explain some hard scientific truth to a waterman on a dock at Crisfield?
Two ways of life characterize the eastern shore, that body of land that slithers alongside the bay. To the north are the elegantly sedentary, the "fawners," the trespassers who live in big, old homes encapsulated in a genteel, social life; ambassadors from Washington often buy or rent homes on the upper shore. It is quiet country, open to swinger and recluse. For most, life is idyllic, far from the existence implied by the hard, creviced faces of the watermen.
There are some watermen to the north, but most are concentrated in the south, or on small islands like Tangier and Smith, where tombstones stick out in front yards; when the heavy rains come, coffins shoot up out of the earth like strange flowers because of the high water tables. The waterman pays no mind to those he calls "fawners," can barely abide the law or any kind of work on land, and he is positive that the "Devil 'imself" has cast his shroud over the western shore. For more than a century the Virginia and Maryland sides have feuded, first in blood and now by perpetual accusation over who is doing what to oyster and crab harvests. Watermen are solitary people who socialize with their own, are given to flash violence if crowded, are perplexed by those who submit so easily to a society of digits and laws that do more damage than good.
One of the last of the independent spirits in the nation, the waterman sees nothing romantic in his life; only a fool, he will tell you, likes to work hard, likes to freeze in winter, fingers aching from the cold, or likes to burn in the summer, the salt from baits working on cut and nicked hands. But for all the discomforts, it is his own choice, and that is what a man should insist upon in his life. Varley Lang, one of their own who had gone "bad" and become an educator, only to return to the water for a living, says of them, "They have an invincible prejudice for doing what they want to do. They are leery of the word cooperation."
Science is not much of a word to a waterman, either. Science impedes, it beclouds a way of life that is remarkable for its simplicity, it means more snooping people, more laws to be ignored or interpreted in such a way as to help stay an extinction that will surely come, not by his own hand, but by the progress of a world he so distrusts. Until then, he must live desperately with the present—with the next storm, the next catch, the next unspeakable act of a neighbor. For the waterman knows only this of the future: one day man and all his empty works will be gone, but Chesapeake Bay will remain, for it is from the ocean, and the ocean goes on forever. Sing him a death tune, and he will dance a jig.