A powerful stench was in the air Saturday at the Inner Harbor as 12-year-olds Alison Chase and Marissa Westerbeke hunched over the water's edge, studying tiny crabs floating to the surface.
The girls were in town from Connecticut for a relaxing annual vacation with Alison's family, but the pervasive smell of dead fish and rotting plant matter — caused by a massive algae bloom — had them totally grossed out.
"It's, like, sad and disgusting," said Marissa.
"It's gross. It makes everything smell terrible, like garbage," Alison added.
Tourists and residents flocked to Central Maryland's waterfront areas to kick off Memorial Day Weekend, while fish died and other animals swam to the surface to avoid suffocation. The spectacle — and the aroma — made for a telling display of some of the most difficult environmental problems in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
The bay is a boon to the state's economy, said Laurie Schwartz, executive director of the nonprofit Waterfront Partnership, and without a healthy harbor Maryland would suffer.
"I hope that people will recognize that these kinds of problems can be prevented if we all work together to change our behavior that impacts the harbor and the bay," Schwartz said. "It's really a sad reflection of how our region is treating one of its greatest assets."
The region has struggled for years to stop pollutants from running into the bay, such as runoff from fertilizer, along with animal and human waste. That pollution feeds algae, which, decomposing, sucks oxygen from the water. Marine life, such as fish, crabs and eels, need the oxygen in the water to breathe. The rotting carcasses contribute to the odor, but the decomposing algae is the main culprit
Lorraine Lebo of Etters, Pa., cringed at the environmental consequences of the pollution. The water was dotted with chunks of floating algae, dead fish and a fair amount of garbage.
"I've never seen it this bad before," Lebo said. "The smell is bad. It's not nice to look at. It's a shame."
Lebo was visiting Saturday with her husband, Denny, and their 10-year-old granddaughter, Emily Martin. The couple visits Baltimore at least once a year.
Despite the odor, managers at waterfront hotels and restaurants said business was strong over the holiday weekend.
Rick Sawyer, director of hotel operations for the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel, said the establishment was sold out Saturday night. He hadn't heard any gripes from guests about the smell wafting off the water.
"Baltimore and the Inner Harbor attractions on the water are a great alternative [to beaches] to experience Memorial Day weekend," Sawyer said.
Bryson Keens, managing partner at Roy's in Harbor East, said the stink outside was inescapable, but once inside the restaurant, guests could dine in peace. Business was as strong Saturday as it has been for past Memorial Day weekends, he said.
People come to the harbor for the view and because it's safe, convenient and offers a lot to see and do. The recent odor isn't enough to keep them away, Keens said.
"It's been great," he said.
Felicia Johnson and partner Teressa Gaines of Pikesville grew up in Baltimore, but said they haven't been back to the harbor in years. The smell didn't bother them too much, but Johnson said she could see why people might want to move on quickly, rather than wander around the city's biggest attraction.
"This is the worst I've smelled it," Johnson said.
Algae blooms are common this time of year, but experts say this year's growth is abnormally large.
The plants feed on nutrients, mainly nitrogen and phosphorus, deposited in the water from pollution both in the air and in water that flows into the bay. Environmentalists also point to a recent break in a Baltimore County sewer line that spilled an estimated 50 million gallons of untreated sewage into the Patapsco River.
Some worry that recent harbor dredging could also worsen the situation, but Schwartz said preliminary research indicates that the port deepening is not primarily responsible for the mass fish die-off, although it could contribute.
Jay Apperson, spokesman for the state Department of the Environment, said the algae bloom has killed some 100,000 fish in Maryland waterways, including the Patapsco River and the Marley, Furnace, Curtisand Bullneck creeks.
"We do have fish kills, year in and year out," Apperson said. "It doesn't have to be that way."
He said the state is doing its best to control pollution that stems from agricultural practices, wastewater treatment plants, septic systems, storm water and other factors. The bay and tributaries are the heart of the state, culturally and economically, Apperson said.
"It's absolutely critical that we address the issue," he said. "There are great economic stakes at hand."