KENT NARROWS -- After the clams in the Chesapeake Bay turned scarce last year, waterman Clarence Thomas stored his gear and started crabbing, using lines with the cheapest bait he could find -- chicken necks.
But after pulling up yard after yard of crab-less lines, the 56-year-old Chestertown waterman, who started fishing at 14, wondered why there was so little life in the bay.
"The catch keeps getting worse every year," he says. "It isn't my bait. I tried bull lips and eels, and the crabs bit better on chicken necks. . . . I don't know if it is the water quality or what."
While weather and overfishing have hurt catches, there is evidence that Mr. Thomas is at least partly right. And one reason for the bay's poor water quality was staring him in the face. It was the inexpensive chicken dangling from his line.
Chesapeake pollution comes from many sources. But one of the biggest problems can be traced up the streams of the Eastern Shore to the poultry farms that supply giant, well-known companies -- Tyson, Perdue, ConAgra.
The problem is chicken manure.
Last year, about 2,700 Eastern Shore growers raised 548 million chickens, making the shore the most concentrated chicken-producing area in the nation. And those chickens produced about 658,000 tons of manure -- enough to lay a yard-wide, foot-high swath from Salisbury to Salt Lake City. It's a vast amount of fertilizer, even in a region where nearly half the land is devoted to agriculture.
All the big processing companies contract with farmers to raise the chickens, but the companies take no responsibility for the manure. They call it a "resource" that growers are allowed to -- or must, depending on your point of view -- keep.
With chicken prices and profits at low levels, farmers say they don't have the money to do anything but keep spreading the stuff on an ever-shrinking number of farmed acres. But studies show that nitrogen from manure and other fertilizers leaches into ground water, which then slowly seeps into shallow wells and the bay.
A five-year study by the U.S. Geological Survey, released last year, found widespread nitrate contamination of ground water in the Delmarva Peninsula. And 15 percent of the sampled wells had unhealthful levels of nitrogen compounds.
The fertilizer pollution poses some risk for Shore families who drink from shallow wells. But the impact on the bay is major and direct: The force-feeding of nitrogen and other nutrients causes the wrong kind of growth. Algae gobble up the nutrients and bloom, blocking sunlight needed by underwater grasses. Then the algae die and sink to the bottom, where their decay uses up oxygen needed by crabs, fish and shellfish.
Poultry manure also yields the nutrient phosphorus, which reaches the bay mainly in runoff from farm fields.
If farmers on the Shore stopped spreading chicken manure tomorrow, it could take years or decades to see cleaner streams, because the peninsula's ground water is so full of nitrogen.
Five years of crops also might be needed to use up the soil's phosphorus, says Herbert Brodie, a waste management engineer for the University of Maryland's county extension service.
"We are exceeding all levels we thought were appropriate," he says. "And the Shore's soils used to be deficient in phosphorus."
A significant amount of the bay's nutrient pollution comes from thestreams and ground water on the Eastern Shore. That is how scientists tracking the pollution started working up the Pocomoke, Choptank and Chester rivers to find farmers like John D. East, who owns 200 acres and two chicken houses near Snow Hill.
Every summer, Mr. East cleans out his chicken houses and spreads the manure on his corn and soybean crops. He knows that the soybeans, for example, don't really need the manure's nitrogen -- they get all they need from the air. But the 38,000 chicks he raises into roasters every 10 weeks generate about 46 tons of manure annually, and he has to do something with it.
Some of the nutrients are absorbed by the crops, but, he concedes, "I'm sure a percentage of it gets by" and winds up in nearby streams.
Still, Mr. East says he doesn't have any choice. Like all chicken growers, he has signed a contract in which he agrees not only to raise chicks belonging to a processor but also to accept responsibility for the wastes: the manure and dead chickens.
Mr. East has taken advantage of a state grant program that helps farmers build sheds to protect their manure from rain, even though he had to borrow $2,000 to finish it. But the shed alone will not do much if he keeps fertilizing his crops with animal waste.
Mr. East doesn't mention his complaints to company inspectors who visit now and then. He's afraid the company will stop sending him chicks to raise.
Chicken processors deny that the manure is a problem, and say the farmers would fight any attempt to take it away.
"There are a lot of folks out there who are using every bit of it. . . . They certainly aren't going to want to give up that product," says Larry Winslow, who heads grower operations for Perdue in Salisbury.
He concedes that some farmers don't have enough cropland to use all the manure and says Perdue is investigating options. But he doesn't think Perdue should take responsibility for the waste.
And the company doesn't want anybody but the growers to clear out the manure, because others could bring in germs that could wipe out entire flocks.
For example, because of an avian flu epidemic that struck Pennsylvania recently, chicken companies have had to destroy thousands of birds.
But Mr. Brodie, a member of a state task force examining the chicken manure problem, says that in many ways the companies are best suited to solve it. Individual farmers don't have the capital or economy of scale needed to process it into a safe and salable fertilizer, he notes.
One solution, he says, is to change the law: Whoever owns the chicken also owns the waste. "If you made Frank Perdue totally responsible for the manure, we'd see someone processing the manure real quick," says Mr. Brodie.
But neither Maryland nor any other chicken state will make that change for fear of pricing local chickens out of the market, he says. And that is why nothing has been done to make the poultry companies -- the foundation of the Eastern Shore economy -- responsible for the nutrient pollution, environmentalists say.
Michael Heller, an agricultural specialist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, says environmentalists see little point in asking the state for such reforms.
"These big [poultry] corporations need to be more responsible," he says, but no one is insisting on it because the companies "have a whole lot of influence. It is incredible."