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Thinking Small To Solve Environmental Problems In The Chesapeake

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Scientists monitor oxygen levels in the Choptank River to see whether they become uninhabitable for wildlife.
Bryan Russo/WAMU
Scientists monitor oxygen levels in the Choptank River to see whether they become uninhabitable for wildlife.

On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, scientists and environmentalists are taking a somewhat new approach in their continued efforts to clean up the region’s rivers and streams that empty into the Chesapeake Bay.

The Choptank River starts in Delaware and stretches across Maryland’s Eastern Shore for 71 miles before it eventually empties into the bay. It’s also one of only two places in the country that have been designated as a Habitat Focus Area by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA.

Aboard a boat with the Choptank Riverkeeper and scientists from NOAA, we zip past million dollar homes, recreational boaters and the occasional crab and oyster fishermen. Eventually the boat stops next to a big yellow buoy-looking thing that Peyton Robertson, the director of NOAA’s Chesapeake bay office, tells me is a vertical profiler.

"The reason it's called a vertical profiler is it actually has a device that can go up and down from the surface and measure dissolved oxygen at the top and on the bottom," Robertson says.

During the summer months, levels of oxygen often drop to rock-bottom levels, which makes it difficult for wildlife that live at those depths. In this particular area, that includes the oyster population.

But water quality isn't the only thing that NOAA is focusing on here in the Choptank; they are also trying to help revitalize monitor a larger problem that faces the region.

“This part of the Chesapeake Bay area and particularly the Delmarva Peninsula is both subsiding and suffering from increased water levels and rising sea levels," he says.

Sammy Orlando is NOAA’s liaison for programs and partnerships. He says getting people engaged in the quest to solve grandiose problems like sea level rise and pollution in the Bay is often a hard sell.

“I think for a lot of people, the scope and scale of the bay is just so big, it’s just really hard to keep their interest for a long period of time or even for a short period of time," Orlando says.

But Orlando and Robertson believe this focused approach, seemingly one waterway and one yellow buoy at a time could yield quicker results that could keep the community energized for the larger effort of cleaning up the bay.

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