he fisheries of the Chesapeake give identity
to the region, and maintaining them in the
face of various stresses remains our biggest
obligation and challenge. Loss of habitat,
degraded water quality, and overharvest
have been vexing to sort out and address,
and climate change potentially shifts the
As a temperate estuary, the Chesapeake
faces change regularly. Water temperature
can change 50 degrees over a year. Salinity,
a key determinant of where fish can live,
ranges from zero (freshwater) at the head of
the Bay to ocean saltiness at its mouth.
From year to year this “salinity gradient”
can shift dramatically depending on the
amount of rainfall in the watershed.
Certain species have adapted well to this
changing environment. These are the ones
the early settlers found in unbelievable
numbers. And these “resilient” species are
the ones that have supported our valuable
fisheries: blue crabs, oysters, and rockfish.
The abundance of life in the Bay seemed
limitless early in our history, but with hind-
sight we have learned there are limits to
what we can take out sustainably. Add to
that the historically reckless attitude
toward the environment including denud-
ing the land and damming the rivers, and
the Bay’s living resources faced new
changes to which they were not adapted.
American shad and oysters are two good
examples. Both were harvested relentlessly,
and both lost habitat quantity and quality.
Now climate change is adding a new layer
of complication to this picture. Increasing
temperature, rising sea level, and more
variable precipitation present new challenges for Bay life. Species at the southern
end of their range, like soft-shelled clams
and eelgrass, already seem to be retreating
northward up the Atlantic Coast. Atlantic
menhaden haven’t produced strong year
classes in the Bay in twenty years. Might
this be due to climate-related shifts in
ocean currents interrupting their life cycle?
Rockfish (striped bass) prefer young men-
haden as food but may be shifting more to
blue crabs as a result and suffering nutri-
tional consequences. And crabs may also
be facing new predators like red drum,
which are expanding their range north-
ward into the Bay.
There are no simple answers to addressing climate change or any of the other
changes facing the Chesapeake Bay.
Monitoring Bay conditions and adapting
our strategies, much like fish and shellfish have to do, is the basic response.
Managing our fisheries sustainably also
requires being attentive and nimble.
Ensuring there are enough fish to spawn
and sufficient habitat for them to survive
are fundamental principles. Science provides the basis for these assessments.
Most importantly, when the science is
incomplete, err on the side of the
resource. Being conservative is the best
course for both fish and fisherman in
the face of change.
CBF Fisheries Director Bill
Goldsborough grew up on the
Eastern Shore and got his
inspiration from fishing the Bay
for rockfish with his father.