A significant aspect of the deltaic habitats is the salinity gradient that exists between the river and the sea. Fresh water marshes yield to salt marshes over many miles, providing a range of habitats that supports the region's biodiversity.
In the State Arboretum, near Lafayette, Laura inspects skink eggs in a freshwater marsh. We also saw upland forests in this wonderful preserve.
Cypress is one of the hallmark species of the area. Many old growth stands of cypress have been lost, and with them species dependant on this habitat, most notably the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, once a hallmark species in the area.
A swamp tour from Houma took us from fresh into brackish marsh. During the tour, we met a fisherman who had caught a saltwater fish (redfish) in an area that had been a pasture during the memory of our guide...startling testimony to the related problems of subsidence and saltwater incursion in the area.
We had a chance to see the Gulf of Mexico from Grand Island, one of Louisiana's barrier islands. The water was chocolate colored from suspended sediment. We could count over a dozen off shore oil rigs on the horizon, testifying to the economic importance of this area.
Restoration of the Bay is easy to talk about, hard to accomplish. A major point of our trip was to talk to people working toward this goal. Their efforts range from scientific research to public education and political action. Overall, we were impressed with the effort, the level of public awareness and resources being brought to bear on the problems besetting the bay.
Understanding the complexity of biological, physical and social factors that affect the Bay is the first step to saving the bay. We spent a fascinating day at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) near Annapolis. This world-class research center hosts a wide range of studies relevant to the Bay and broader issues as well. Above left. we are looking at a long-term study of the effects of elevated CO2 levels on carbon cycling in a salt marsh environment. A SERC scientist discusses his research in marine biology with one of our students.
The National Aquarium in Baltimore hosts research, public education, and bay restoration projects. In addition to the behind the scenes tour seen on the left, we enjoyed a session on the aquarium's educational program, and an afternoon of unstructured time in the aquarium and Baltimore's inner harbor area.
Our time at the Bay culminated with a visit to the Phillip Merril Center, headquarters of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The building is the first to receive the U.S. Green Building Council's Platinum rating for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The Foundation hosts an impressive number of restoration efforts, including public education in its many protected areas and work with policy makers to encourage public action. It was a fitting place to end our visit to the Bay.
We spent several days exploring the Bay and the surrounding communities. Coastal habitats and fisheries were the focus of our time there
The highlight of our time on the bay was a day-long cruise on the historic skipjack Stanley Norman operated by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. On the left, we prepare to cross under the Bridge.
Above, the crewman demonstrates shucking oysters. Oyster production has fallen to a small fraction of its historic levels. Invasive diseases, over-production, and pollution all probably share the blame for this.
The Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge protects a large area of salt marsh habitat on Maryland's Eastern shore. Here we saw numerous osprey and bald eagles. We also say research efforts aimed at controlling Nutria, an invasive species of rodent that is destructive to the marsh. The refuge gave us a sense what the pre-colonial bay was like.
Though not part of the Bay, we crossed over the Delmarva Peninsula to visit Maryland' Atlantic Coast. On the left, Dr. Dean McCurdy, Albion College biologist, shows students invertebrates in a salt marsh on Assateaque Island. Above right, Ocean City, due north of Assateaque, shows the over-development of a similar habitat.
How can you appreciate the seafood for which the Bay is famous without sampling it? We spent a lively evening in an eastern shore "crab shack". Our server was a fourth generation waterman, who spent her spare time helping students see the issues from commercial fisherman's point of view. Sadly, the crabs we were served came from Louisiana.
As we drove to and from the Bay, we had opportunities to see many of the issues in the watershed that affect the bay. We were able to compare unspoiled portions of the watershed to areas affected by acid mine drainage, poor agricultural practices, urbanization, and dams.
In the Allegheny National forest, Alumnus Kirk Johnson showed us unspoiled reaches of stream that his organization, Pennsylvania Wild, is working to protect as wilderness. Originally, most of the Chesapeake watershed was forested. The forest soils led to a balanced release of water and nutrients to the streams and the Bay. Loss of forest cover, much of which occurred in colonial times, was the first major cause of the Bay's decline.
Acid drainage from abandoned coal mines is a concern in western Pennsylvania. We saw a stark contrast between untreated water flowing directly into streams (above right) from some sites and the treatment (above left) that a more responsible operator, Duquesne Power and Light, uses to restore water to a level that allows trout rearing in their holding ponds.
Farming practices also affect water quality. Overgrazing and allowing stock into the stream have destroyed this Lancaster County stream's banks, clearly contributing to the sediment load and turbidity of the water.
Dams have had a serious impact on migratory fish, blocking their path up the stream. Students are talking with fishermen on a dam on the Susquehanna. This dam has been equipped with a fish elevator in hopes of reestablishing shad and other fish runs on the river.
Many are working to restore the watershed. Here Albion Alumnus, Matt Berris describes his work with the Potomac River Conservancy. this organization works with landowners along the river to engage in best practices to control sediment and nutrient loads.