My dear friend carried a poster with the message “Make Earth Great Again” at the Women’s March Jan. 21. It was an apt response to the red baseball caps manufactured in China or another Southeast Asian country emblazoned with “Make America Great Again.” The red hats somehow brought to mind the baby flounders (and perch and striped bass) I saw flapping in the shallows of the Potomac River in the Northern Neck in the early 1960s. They were trying to stay alive during oxygen-depleting algal blooms called “red tides” that were becoming frequent in the late ’50s and early ’60s. My father happily hand netted the oxygen starved and dying fish, which we ate. We should have been worried about the toxicity of the Potomac, but we were uninformed.
The late 1950s to the early 1970s marked the peak of pollution in the mighty Potomac. The Washington, D.C. metropolitan area’s wastewater and storm water inputs resulted in large migratory fish kills in the early 1960s. In 1962, thousands of striped bass and white perch died in the Potomac. In September 1965 an estimated 3 million-plus menhaden died and formed a huge decomposing mat on the Anacostia, a Potomac tributary. That same year Lyndon Johnson declared the Potomac River a “national disgrace” and an embarrassment. The attention focused on the waterway resulted in the enactment of the Clean Water Act to regulate pollutant discharges into the “waters of the United States” in 1972.
By then the shad fishery in the Potomac was collapsing because of pollution, overharvesting and the blocking of spawning habitat with dam construction.
Shad had been the Potomac’s most abundant and economically important fish from colonial times.
The American shad is an anadromous fish, and like salmon, mature anadramous fish migrate from salt water to spawn in the freshwaters where they hatched. Every spring the shad, “the fish that fed the nation’s founders” was harvested from our East Coast rivers from Nova Scotia to Florida. Barrels of salted shad are credited with saving the Continental Army from starvation at Valley Forge. In the early 20th century, 17.5 million pounds of shad were harvested annually from the Potomac. In the early 1970s the harvest fell to less than 2 million pounds. In 1980 Maryland closed the fishery. By 1982 the entire Potomac watershed was closed to shad harvesting. A moratorium in all the other rivers in Virginia was in place by 1993.
Like salmon, shad is a “keystone” species. A keystone species is one that is “crucial and unique” to the function of its particular ecosystem. The annual spring spawning of shad was the energy source that provided food for bald eagles, osprey and black bear. Shad roe was a favorite food of catfish, striped bass and minnows. Blue crabs dined on shad that died of “spawning stress.”
It became clear that American shad had to be restored to the Chesapeake Bay watershed. A coalition of federal, state, regional, and local agencies and nonprofits initiated shad restoration in the Potomac in 1995. Over a couple of decades water quality in the highly polluted Potomac had improved. As part of the restocking effort, dams were breached and/or fish ladders were provided. Sixteen million shad fry were stocked in the Potomac at Great Falls by 2002. Today the shad population is rebounding and populations are approaching those of the 1940s and early 1950s. Restocking efforts with Potomac shad fry have moved on to the Rappahannock River. The American shad story illustrates how people working together and changing their habits can re-enliven an ecosystem.
Currently the Chesapeake Bay watershed is endangered/stressed/not right. Because ecosystem organisms are interconnected, the trajectory of the shad story may change.
Currently, fish killing red tides, or harmful algal blooms (HAB’s) as they are now called, are increasing along U.S. coastal waters, including the lower Chesapeake. In fact, they are occurring with frequency in freshwaters. Note the blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) bloom that wreaked havoc in Lake Erie in summer 2014 and the three-day “Do Not Drink” water advisory for Toledo and suburbs. Blue-green algae blooms increased from 13 per year in the 1990s to 23 per year in the 2000s in the Bay watershed.
Algal blooms in the Bay are the result of nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) overload. Increases in population in the Washington-Baltimore corridor and concurrent increases in sewage/wastewater and lawn fertilizer runoff contribute to nutrient overload. Forty percent of the nitrogen and 50 percent of the phosphorus entering the Bay and its tributaries is from agricultural runoff from crop land and factory farms.Vehicle exhaust and power plants contribute one-third of the nitrogen.
Algal blooms themselves deplete oxygen. They also cloud waters, blocking sunlight to underwater grasses. When these die and decompose, more oxygen is depleted. Dead zones of low or no oxygen stress or kill fish and shellfish. Increased HAB’s are more likely to occur in summer when water temperatures are higher. Rising water temperature is a result of rising air temperature: i.e. climate change and global warming. The Bay has lost 98 percent of its underwater grasses, 80 percent of its oysters and 50 percent of forest buffer. The James River and the Rivanna are in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Getting back to the red hats, it is unfortunate that they support an administration that denies that the climate is warming and that it is the result of myriad human activities that could be controlled and reversed. It is disheartening that Sonny Perdue, friend of agribusiness and industrialized food systems, has been named Secretary of Agriculture. It is unlikely that there will be efforts by the Trump administration to back away from a pesticide-laden agricultural system that generates increasing amounts of CO2 and nitrous oxide. Regenerative agricultural practices, food labeling, and denying new GMO’s with ever more toxic herbicides to which they are resistant apparently aren’t on the Trump agenda.
The slogan “Make America Great Again” denies the interconnectedness of humans of all nationalities within all ecosystems of planet Earth at this juncture in human history. Perhaps that is why my mind bounced from red hats to flapping flounders. We are all in this together. We have to work hard to restore our planet or….