despite the fact that corn ethanol requires
more energy to make than it delivers.
Dead zones blight the Chesapeake, too.
They result from urban runoff, septic-tank
leakage into groundwater, lawn fertilizers,
combined sewer/stormwater overflow, and
sewage-treatment plants. But most of the
damage is from farming.
As I write I am looking at sonar photos sent
me by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. In
one, taken in summer, dense schools of
stripers and baitfish (predominantly menhaden) are jammed together near the surface
over a 40-foot-deep hole. This is dangerous
behavior, because the crowding and warm
water facilitates disease transmission. And
it’s unnatural behavior, because the cool
water is near the bottom. But the fish have
no choice; there’s not enough oxygen in the
cool water to sustain them. The low oxygen
in the zone where they’re holding is stressful
but survivable— 2. 5 milligrams per liter
(mg/l). Below 18 feet, oxygen falls off to a
lethal 1.7 mg/l. This is because algae, proliferating on polluted runoff, have died and are
rotting on the bottom, burning oxygen in
You’re right. This is not the Chesapeake Bay. But if we don’t clean up the Chesapeake, scenes like this at Montauk Point on New York’s Long Island could be at risk.
The stress, heat, and crowding (coupled with
nutritional deficiencies from diminished
stocks of menhaden and bay anchovies) promote mycobacteriosis, especially in stripers.
The disease causes scale loss, skin ulcers,
severe weight loss, and lesions on the head,
spleen, kidney, liver, heart, and gonads.
Approximately 75 percent of all East Coast
stripers spend their first three to seven years
in the Chesapeake. Of the ones that stay at
least five years (mostly males), about 95 percent are infected. In humans mycobacteriosis
is called “fish handler’s disease,” and it manifests itself with lymph-node swelling, Lyme-disease-like joint stiffness, bumps under the
skin and dead skin. Believe me, you don’t
want it. I write from experience.
Three quarters of the Bay’s aquatic grasses,
vital to fish and crabs, have been killed by
algae blooms and silt. And in warm weather
the blooms elicit public health advisories
against swimming. In the headwaters, algae
die-offs eradicate entire year classes of juvenile yellow perch and render otherwise fertile
salt ponds unfit for white perch and crabs.
In the early 1600s Captain John Smith
reported that Bay oysters “lay as thick as
stones” and that there were more sturgeon
“than could be devoured by dog or man.”
Today the sturgeon are gone, and oysters are
down by an estimated 99 percent.
“We need to get our live bottom back,” says
the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Senior
Naturalist, John Page Williams. “Critters like
worms, small crustaceans, and mollusks that
live in the mud in deep water can’t live there
now. They used to sustain crabs and larger
fish. So dead zones are not just taking water
volume from fish and crabs; they’re taking
part of the food web.”
In summer at least 80 percent of the Bay’s
water violates Clean Water Act standards.
Of this, dead zones account for as much as
The lawsuit from the Farm Bureau, et al. is
especially discouraging because the
Chesapeake has finally started to heal. While
it’s not even close to qualifying as unimpaired, clean-up efforts have produced
results that prove Bay health is salvageable.
Eelgrass (at the southern edge of its range
here) is much diminished, but other grasses
are coming back. For instance, at the mouth