Downpours and the ensuing debris in the Chesapeake Bay have kept about a third of the 100 crabbing boats that supply Lindy’s Seafood off the water in the past week or so.
It’s already been a challenging year for Maryland crabs. Now, a nagging concern for Aubrey Vincent, whose family owns the crab house in Woolford on the Eastern Shore, is what they’ll find when they pull up their pots.
“Are we going to be able to get the product, one, and two, are people going want to buy them?” Vincent wondered Thursday. “Are they going to be concerned about the quality?”
Giant fields of debris littering the Chesapeake Bay from the record July rainfall in the region pose the biggest risks to boats, but the polluted muck clouding the water has raised additional concerns about the effect on its ecological health.
Phosphorous- and nitrogen-laden sediment from the Susquehanna River’s 27,500-square-mile watershed was released last week when Exelon opened 20 of the Conowingo Dam’s crest gates to prevent the dam, which the company operates, from being overwhelmed.
The influx of pollution is likely to feed algae blooms and dead zones in the bay, which cut off oxygen and result in fish kills and depletion, said Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake, a coalition focused on making the water swimmable and fishable.
The torrent of murky rainwater may also have damaged underwater grasses, which had been rebounding recently and are considered a major indicator of the bay’s health, she said.
“The water right now is so muddy with sediment and debris you can’t really see what’s going on,” Nicholas said.
It’s already been a difficult summer for the crab industry, because of a new lottery system for migrant workers’ visas that deprived Eastern Shore crab-picking houses of an estimated 35 percent of their seasonal workforce.
Crabbers are now chasing the scarce crustaceans south, said Bill Sieling, executive vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association. The association represents about 80 processors, dealers, wholesalers and restaurants.
The polluted rainwater has lowered the salinity in the upper bay, driving a migration of crabs and fish with the tide, toward saltier waters, Sieling said.
“Crabs aren’t stupid,” he said. “They’ve moved down the bay, and the crabbers follow them.”
They’ll need to fish their pots more frequently to make sure the crabs haven’t died from decreased oxygen levels, Sieling said. And they may pull up smaller crabs, since bigger ones tend to be caught in the fresher water in the upper bay.
“The further south, the saltier the water, the smaller the crabs,” Sieling said.
The debris on and near the surface has made navigating the upper bay “akin to walking through a minefield,” according to the Maryland Fishing Report released by the Department of Natural Resources Wednesday.
Cooler water from the rain was one bright spot for those casting lines for rockfish. “The striped bass in the upper bay got a break with cooler temperatures and mixing of oxygenated water,” the report said.
The rush of rainwater has brought bigger crabs down the bay to the hundreds of pots Ryan Mould fishes from the South River to Deale. He’s seen them swimming near the surface, unusual for bottom-dwellers — and an indicator they’re starved for oxygen.
But it’s unclear if they’re here to stay, or if they’ll keep migrating south, said Mould, 28, a crabber who lives in Shady Side and serves on the state’s Blue Crab Advisory Committee.
“They came down from up above because of all the pollution and stuff,” he said. “Our catch has increased for now. … Tomorrow we might go out there and find these crabs keep going down the bay.”
The effects of the Conowingo’s release could be worse on oysters, which can’t grow in too much fresh water — and can’t walk or swim to saltier waters, Mould said.
“The oysters are stuck,” he said.
Sieling has faith in the resilience of the Chesapeake. He doesn’t think the water or its inhabitants will experience long-term problems from last week’s events.
“This is all going to reverse itself,” he said. “It won’t take long for the bay to get back to its normal routine.”
The weather is a wild card. Late summer is often when the worst storms make their way up the East Coast from the tropics, said Nicholas, of the Waterkeepers Chesapeake.
“We’re just at the beginning of hurricane season,” she added. “It could get a lot worse.”
There’s no telling whether Maryland could be hit with a hurricane later in the summer, but this weekend should offer a reprieve to rain-weary region, according to Kyle Pallozzi, a National Weather Service meteorologist.
Sunny weather and temperatures in the high 80s are in the forecast for the weekend and early next week.
“There should be some sunshine,” Pallozzi said, “probably a fair amount.”
That doesn’t mean you should go swimming.
The Anne Arundel County Department of Health issued no-swimming warnings Thursday because of high bacteria levels in water samples taken at Atlantic Marina Resort, Bay Ridge Beach at Bay Drive, Beverly Beach and Chesapeake Bay Foundation Beach.
Contamination was found in the water at Sandy Point State Park, which had already been closed to swimming, along with Fort Smallwood Park Swimming Beach, due to debris.
“Four posted at the same time is not what we typically see,” said Sally Levine, a county health department sanitarian. “But then again, this is not a typical summer.”