Chesapeake Bay Shoreline -- Voice of America
The Hail Cove Living Shoreline Project, at Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge in Kent County, Maryland, demonstrates an alternative to traditional shoreline protection revetment practices that nearly eliminate important shallow water habitat.
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Chesapeake Bay Restoration
The Algonquians who first settled the Mid-Atlantic called the bay adjacent to their village, “Chesapeake.” The meaning of the word is somewhat in dispute, but is believed to have two English translations: “village on the great river” and “great shellfish bay.” While the direct translation is up for debate, the Chesapeake Bay’s significance is inarguable. Thousands of years after it was first settled, the bay currently supports dozens of cities and towns nestled against its banks and a complex ecosystem of fish and wildlife all of whom depend on a healthy Chesapeake Bay for their very survival.
The largest estuary in North America, the waters of the Chesapeake Bay provide food and habitat for an abundance of fish and wildlife. The bay and the vast watershed that feeds it also function as an economic and recreational lynchpin for the 16 million people who live within it.
But the Chesapeake Bay is in trouble. In recent years the Chesapeake has become less able to support the fish and wildlife it once did. Increasing amounts of nutrients, sediments, and toxic substances are causing serious ecological problems in the bay. Studies show alarming declines in populations of fish and wildlife and in the habitat available to them.
The Chesapeake Bay coastline also faces the prospect of rising sea levels due to climate change that threatens to transform both coastal and inland habitats. Moreover, some local areas, like Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, are experiencing land subsidence – the slow sinking of coastal land thought to be related to the geological history of the area. All of these factors combine to create an ecosystem on the brink of collapse.
On May 12, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Chesapeake Bay Protection and Restoration Executive Order, establishing a Federal Leadership Committee that will guide restoration in the watershed. The Executive Order recognizes the Chesapeake Bay as a national treasure and calls on the federal government to lead a renewed effort to restore and protect the nation's largest estuary and its watershed. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is one of several federal agencies leading this endeavor.
“The Executive Order underscores the importance of the bay,” said Suzanne Baird, refuge manager of the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex that includes four refuges along the bay’s coast. “We’re committed to long-term solutions that produce a healthy, vibrant Chesapeake Bay for both wildlife and the public.”
In partnership with state, local and federal agencies as well as NGOs, non-profit organizations and corporate sponsors, the Service has recently embarked on several restoration projects aimed at rebuilding some of the bay’s most at risk areas.
“While we may not be able to stop sea level rise or land subsidence, we can try to mitigate the impact through successful restoration projects,” said Baird.
Barren Island, part of Blackwater NWR in the lower Chesapeake Bay, has been the site of a major wetland restoration effort in recent years conducted by the Service in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Aquarium, Maryland Conservation Corp, and others. Isolated from the mainland, Barren Island offers prime wintering, breeding, and nesting habitat for migratory waterfowl and birds, including bald eagles and opreys. The island also protects submerged aquatic vegetation beds and shallow water habitats that support a variety of fish and wildlife species between Barren Island and the mainland portion of Dorchester County.
The island was experiencing severe wind and wave erosion – 15 feet per year. Over the past several years, more than 1,000 volunteers have restored and replanted 22 acres of coastal wetland. Using dredge material from a local navigation channel, about 1,300 feet of shoreline and 20 acres have been added to the island, reducing shoreline erosion and creating new low marsh wetlands.
“Without the island, it’s likely the wind and wave erosion that is currently eroding Barren would then erode the mainland Dorchester County, especially during storms events that are expected to increase in frequency and intensity due to climate change,” said Baird.
Another alternative approach has been successfully implemented at Hail Cove, located within Eastern Neck NWR on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay, Hail Cove is one of the top five waterfowl habitats in Maryland and protects Hail Creek from the Chester River. But like much of the Chesapeake Bay, Hail Cove is threatened by damaging erosion from wind and wave action and rising sea levels.
Here, scientists created a living shoreline to reduce erosion by supplementing the existing shoreline with sand and new grasses. In addition, partners strategically placed headland breakwaters along the mouth of the cove while keeping crucial shallow water habitats intact. The Service, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, non-profit organizations and corporate partners constructed this project to protect the head of Hail Creek and reduce sedimentation into the Chesapeake Bay. The living shoreline project, which recently received the Coastal America Partnership Award, will also reduce shore erosion and create marsh and reef habitat for Chesapeake Bay wildlife such as blue crabs, diamondback terrapins, fish, oysters and mussels.
In addition to these projects, the Service is identifying coastal areas most vulnerable to rising sea levels and the effects of a changing climate.
“Climate models predict that rising sea levels will cause wetlands loss and in some cases they may be able to migrate further inland,” said Baird. “There is a great deal of research being conducted at Blackwater NWR on marsh loss, its relationship to climate change and how we can facilitate habitat migration in the future.”
The Chesapeake Bay’s natural resources are among the most remarkable in North America and around the world. Likewise, the threats facing the bay are formidable. The Service is committed to confronting these challenges so the millions of people and thousands of species of fish and wildlife that call the Chesapeake Bay home can continue to do so in the future.
Story by Intern Bill Butcher, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Northeast Region, Office of External Affairs