Listening to the Bay Could Lead to Radical Changes in Life Around It


"Sometimes it is best to stop analyzing the bay and just listen to what its creatures have to tell us. . . .

If you have ever hooked a rockfish or a shad on a line and felt it tug for its freedom, or tried to pry apart an oyster's shells, or attempted to pick up a feisty jimmy (male) crab, then you know -- the bay vigorously, vitally, desperately wants to live. Given half a chance to survive, its inhabitants will not be shy grabbing it."

"Turning the Tide" Learning to listen to what Chesapeake Bay is telling us is a difficult lesson.

So often humans -- the bay's enemy and now its only hope for survival -- hears the cries for help from individual species but seems deaf to the collective groan of the system as it struggles to survive.

We see the oyster population diminish to 1 percent of its original level and worry about the loss of the skipjack sailing fleet and the industry that supports it. But we often don't see as clearly the loss of their crucial role in filtering the bay's waters of pollutants.

The bay should be understood as an organism. The land, the water, the air and the life in it are all interconnected in a complex system that we only partly understand.

When pieces of the system are lost, the bay's ability to restore itself -- it's chance to grab survival by a claw, a shell or a fin -- is diminished.

The idea is so simple.

But, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation charges in somewhat controversial report, "Turning the Tide," we too often forget that simple idea.

The 288-page report is the only comprehensive, recent assessment of just how the bay is faring since governments and citizens began a massive effort about a decade ago to resuscitate the nation's largest estuary.

The report's principal author and a former reporter for The Sun, Tom Horton, said we have seen some great successes in reviving a few rivers and a couple of species, but that the bottom line is the bay isn't coming back. He challenges government leaders to be far more forward-thinking in their approach.

There are few new ideas in the report, but some of the recommendations are quietly radical, or at the very least controversial, particularly because they are being proposed by a moderate environmental group.

For instance, the group considers such proposals as limiting the number of people who live in the states surrounding the bay. Virginia and Maryland have both recognized the need for growth management legislation as a way to limit the impact of people on the bay. But the bay foundation has taken the idea one step further, suggesting we may not be able to support more people and keep the bay clean.

More people will use up natural resources, such as farms and forests, and create more air pollution from cars, more chemical runoff from streets and more water pollution from sewage.

While foundation president William Baker isn't proposing a limit yet, he said, but "the time to figure out what a limit should be is long before you get to it."

Another foundation proposal, which drew headlines and immediate criticism when the report was released a week ago, is to ban oyster harvests in the bay.

But perhaps the most profound recommendation is for a change in outlook.

If we truly begin to think about the bay as a whole organism, we will change the way we go about regulating and treating the various parts of it.

It means that trees which filter pollutants on land and oysters which perform the same task in the water are as valuable as a sewage treatment plant.

"When we lose an acre of tidal wetlands from the bay, we are not just losing an acre. We are losing an acre of the fraction that still remains," the report said. Similarly, we are protecting the last half of the forest, the last 10 percent of underwater grasses and the last one percent of oysters.

And so the foundation concludes the three states should treat oysters, trees, wetlands and streams with much more care.

It would:

* Mandate no further loss of forests in the state. If a tree is cut down to build a road, it must be replaced elsewhere.

* Mandate no further loss in wetlands, without exceptions that now exist in the law.

* Set a limit on the amount of a stream's watershed that can be paved over.

The report also recommends much tighter controls on agriculture, in some cases calling for a farm to be regulated the same way an industrial polluter is. So far, controls on what runs off farms is all voluntary, and farmers have said they don't want to be regulated.

The foundation wants to see the governments that lead the bay cleanup movement begin planning for the 3 million more people who are expected to move into the region in the next few decades.

If there are 3 million more people doing what they are doing now, it would be difficult to reduce the amount of pollution going into the bay, he said.

Reaction to the report has been varied. Watermen and state officials have disagreed vehemently with the suggestion of a moratorium on oyster harvesting. However, many of the proposals are getting serious attention. David Carroll, who is Governor Schaefer's Chesapeake Bay coordinator, has read the book once and is going back for a second study.

But there is debate and criticism about the assessment of the state of the bay's health.

"I think it is time to stop beating ourselves up and congratulate ourselves," said Ted Erickson, head of the Environmental Protection Agency's regional office in Philadelphia.

"I consider not having lost the bay a major turning of the tide," said Mr. Carroll. If Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the federal government had not spent millions of dollars and focused so much attention on the issue, "I think we would be in serious trouble. . . . I think by the mid-1990s we would be watching the bay slip through our fingers."

Eugene Cronin, a well-respected bay scientist who watched the program develop for years, is much less pleased with progress.

The report "is a clear, vivid reminder that while we have given a lot of time, a lot of money and a lot of attention, we have not gotten the results," Dr. Cronin said. "What we now have accomplished is not enough." How fast the cleanup should go and how ambitious its goals should be may be a matter of how impatient the observer is. Mr. Baker admits he is an impatient man, more impatient than the governments that are playing the central role.

Some observers inside government who ask not to be named say they agree with Mr. Baker and also believe there is a lack of leadership among the governors, EPA chief William Reilly and other key players in the clean up.

But others, like Mr. Carroll, say the cleanup is just in the midst of growing pains. "We have essentially done the easy things, and we are beginning to deal with the hard questions," Mr. Carroll said. "It puts some new coals on the fire. It gets people talking."

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