The Chesapeake Bay Skipjacks pictured represent what's left of a fleet that numbered in the hundreds 75 years ago. Sadly, there are only a half-dozen or so of these iconic sailing oyster dredgers in service today and the harvest of oysters is only one percent of what it was a century ago. According to Rod Fujita, author of Heal the Ocean, "The excessive harvest of oysters over the decades appears to have interfered with the ability of estuaries like the Chesapeake to cleanse themselves--oysters were once capable of filtering the entire volume of the Bay every three days, but no more." Throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed the forces of environmental exploitation have despoiled the landscape at an alarming rate. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the bay has been reduced to a system "dangerously out of balance," and functions at "barely more than one-fourth of its potential because water pollution, primarily from excess nitrogen and phosphorous, inhibits overall improvements to the system."
"The Chesapeake Bay from Kent Island to Virginia's James River was recently declared a "dead zone" by the Environmental Protection Agency, and a lot of disenchanted folks in these parts will tell you that culturally and aesthetically, the landscape surrounding the nation's largest estuary has been dead for years. Unbridled growth is the reason and there appears to be no end in sight. As of 2020, 18.2 million people inhabit the Bay region and experts predict those numbers will exceed 21 million by 2040, accelerating the rate of industrial pollution, chemical run-off from farms, and toxic contamination from sewage treatment plants--all putting increased stress on this once bountiful fishery.
Despite some improvement over the past twenty years, the Chesapeake Bay remains on the EPA's list of impaired waters. Single-use housing subdivisions are having an especially bad impact, creating sprawl and other destructive land-use patterns that generate pollution. Unfortunately, federal and state governments subsidize sprawl by creating tax incentives that make it cheaper for developers to build on farms and open spaces rather than near established town centers. As a result, cars and roadways dominate the region in a sprawling nowhere land of office parks, commercial highway strips, ugly urban subdivisions, and squalid suburbs that, as James Howard Kunstler points out, have "become so atrocious in the postwar decades that the Disney Corporation was able to create an artificial substitute for it and successfully sell it as a commodity."
One of the ironies in all this confusion is that people actually prefer traditional neighborhoods common before the second World War to today's suburban paradigm. According to Fannie Mae, Americans favor a house in a close-knit neighborhood to one in a tract development by a margin of three to one. Unfortunately, low-density zoning laws that favor sprawl are a boon to developers out to make quick profits, so small, mixed-use towns rarely get built. According to Tom Horton, author of Bay Country, "In the twelve-year period for which statistics are available, development for houses and shopping malls in the five-county Baltimore metropolitan region claimed another 130,000 acres of farmland. All told, the changes in the region produced the most drastic rate of deforestation in the northeastern United States and reduced the forest which covered virtually 100 percent of Maryland when the colonists arrived, to 40 percent by the year 2000."
This drastic loss of wild woodland has perilous implications for the future. The forest not only provides habitat for wildlife; as Horton points out, it is also a key to water quality. "The silt from farm and developed land runs into the Bay at a rate fifty times than from woodland," he writes. "Phosphorus, another prime pollutant, comes eighty times as much from cropland as from forest, and forty times as much from residential areas. For nitrogen and toxic chemicals, the story is similar." The bottom line is that more roads and more housing developments mean less pristine wilderness to filter rainwater and that spells trouble for small creeks and streams as well. "The quantity of aquatic life in a given stream declines in direct proportion to how much its watershed gets paved over," Horton says. Another sad consequence of sprawl around the Bay area is the increase of sediment build-up that destroys Bay grasses, which have declined from nearly a quarter million-acres in Colonial times to less than 40,000 acres today.
News update: The Guardian August 11, 2021 U.S. Edition online reported that "Groundwater on military bases along the Chesapeake Bay is contaminated with toxic PFAS 'forever chemicals' at levels many times above the level some regulators say is safe for dinking and they are likely ending up in blue crabs, oysters and other marine life that are consumed by humans.
"The compounds are linked to cancer, birth defects, liver disease, thyroid disease, decreased immunity, hormone disruption, and a range of other serious health problems."