This image from NASA shows sediment runoff into the Chesapeake Bay in the wake of a tropical storm in September 2011.
The Chesapeake Bay stretches two hundred miles, from Havre de Grace, Maryland, to Norfolk, Virginia. It's fed by some 50 rivers and streams, all of which pick up gasoline and sediment washed off city streets, along with fertilizer from rural farmland and gunk from wastewater facilities and industrial plants. All that stuff gets dropped into the bay.
Fifty years ago, a group of Baltimore businessmen got together and eventually formed a non-governmental organization that would help "Save the Bay." That slogan became the rallying cry for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which over the years has become a major player in the struggle to clean up the Chesapeake.
We met up this week with the Foundation's President, Will Baker, on a pier overlooking the bay, to talk about what's been done — and what still needs to be done — to make the bay a healthier place for humans and animals alike.
The Big Picture
“It's very hard for the average citizen reading and listening to media to get a sense of how this huge system is doing in the long term,” says Baker. News reports often highlight the health of a specific species, such as the iconic blue crab, but Baker says those reports don’t always give a clear picture of the bay’s health.
“The blue crab is one species that you don't want to look at on a year-to-year basis. They have very short lifespans to grow to market size, and their populations are affected very often by what happens in the ocean. So you get these… very, very big swings.”
“One species that was the greatest in terms of market share in the Chesapeake Bay for decades, if not centuries, was the oyster,” says Baker.
“Ten years ago, 40,000 bushels [of oysters] were harvested. In 2013, 750,000 bushels were harvested. The oyster has not been as healthy in the Chesapeake since the early 1980s, and I believe that in 2014, we may well see over a million bushels of oysters come out of the Chesapeake Bay. That doesn't say everything is fine. Far from it, but we can show good news and we can show continuing challenges. And nothing represents that better than the crab, which is currently hurting, and the oyster, which is coming back strong.”
Saving the Bay, Then and Now
Baker was hired by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation as an intern back in 1976, and became the organization’s president in the early 1980s.
“Back in 1982, we thought [protecting the bay] was going to be a lot easier,” he says.
“I mean really, seventeen million people now [live] in the bay watershed. We've certainly cut the per capita impact on the bay dramatically, but the numbers of us keep growing. Did we think we'd be further? Sure. Do we get discouraged? Absolutely not. We want to be the first to really show that you can turn around a complex system."
"And I might go further than that, I might say that if you can't do it here on Chesapeake Bay, with Washington, D.C. at the heart of the watershed, with all of the political interest, if we can't save Chesapeake Bay, what real hope do we have for any water body on the planet? This is where we have to show success, and this is where were determined to show success.”
Music: "Over the Ocean" by Low from The Curtain Hits the Cast