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Environment

Helping the Chesapeake Bay from way upstream in Virginia

WESTOVER, Va. — The Atlantic eel that Ken Slazyk pulled from the pot in the James River, 8 miles downstream from Hopewell, was a green, 18-inch-long juvenile that had, in one of the greatest mysteries of modern biology, swum up the river where its parents had spent their early days, fattening on the James’ baby crabs, tiny shiners and insects.

So this eel could, like its mother, turn gray and white, grow as thick as Slazyk’s forearm and swim out to the mid-Atlantic’s wide Sargasso Sea, mate and, in the spring, see its tiny “elvers” or glass eels, make their way back to the James — just as eels that swam to the Sargasso over the winter from the Delaware, the Hudson, the Connecticut and a dozen European rivers from Norway to the Mediterranean will return unerringly to their parents’ spring and summer feeding grounds.

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If, that is, this eel manages to escape the eel pots of a growing Chesapeake Bay fishery, said Slazyk, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Virginia senior field manager for education.

Eels are a popular food fish in Europe and Asia, and one this size could easily bring a fisherman $2 or $3; smaller ones are popular for bait.

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A short boat trip down the James from Hopewell, where from 1966 to 1974, Allied Chemical dumped the insecticide Kepone, a poison that shut down crabbing and oystering in the rich waters off Newport News where the James flows into the Chesapeake for more than a decade, Slazyk had also pulled some fat male blue crabs — Jimmys. Nobody is quite sure why some male blue crabs like to hang out this far up the river, while mature females, after spawning, head for the saltier middle of the bay itself.

Daily Press archives An undated archive photo shows a container of kepone. Workers at a chemical plant in Hopewell began secretly and illegally dumping the toxic pesticide into the James River in the 1960s.

But one key issue for a just-launched stock assessment will be finding out more about male crabs, said Chris Moore, a foundation senior scientist involved in the assessment, the first since 2011.

Virginia and Maryland manage their blue crab fishery by watching female and juvenile crab numbers, but Moore said scientists are beginning to wonder whether there are enough males around. The assessment will also see what new data about rainfall, water temperature and predators suggest about ways to manage blue crab numbers.

After returning the eel to the James, Slazyk would shortly drag a small trawl net through the river’s Herring Creek tributary, and bring up baby crabs, some barely as big as the first knuckle of a finger, tiny freshwater shiners, small shad and a flounder-like “hog choker” — so called because when colonists tried to feed them to their pigs, the animals would gag if the fish were fed tail first, said foundation senior scientist Chris Moore.

And a surprise:

“A spot, 80 miles from the bay,” said Slazyk, holding a 4-inch-long specimen of Leiostomus xanthurus, a small short-lived saltwater fish that anglers routinely pull from the Chesapeake as they chase such popular gamefish as striped bass, cobia and drum.

The water here is barely salt — roughly the equivalent of slipping one grain of salt into a quart of water — but even this far up, the same tides that make the bay rise and fall 3 feet make the river’s waters at Hopewell ebb and flow as well.

“Kepone was really a turning point in Virginia,” said Peggy Sanner, the foundation’s Virginia executive director, as the foundation’s Baywatcher set out from its berth by the Benjamin Harrison Bridge outside Hopewell for the trip down to Herring Creek.

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“People realized we had a big problem.”

But these days, Hopewell is a leader in tackling one major challenge for the bay. After cleaning up its act with Kepone, the small city at the confluence of the Appomattox and James rivers has been focused on keeping runoff from rainstorms from flowing into those streams.

Stormwater runoff is a major source of the nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that pollutes the bay, feeding the algae that create summer’s oxygen-starved dead zones and smothering the underwater grasses and tiny creatures, from juvenile crabs to baby striped bass, that shelter there.

Sanner said one priority for the next General Assembly is boosting the state’s Stormwater Local Assistance Fund, which provides matching grants to local governments for the planning, design and implementation of stormwater best management practices, such as retention ponds and wetlands or stream restoration projects.

The Kepone disaster, meanwhile, prompted formation of the Virginia Environmental Endowment, the $41 million fund that makes grants for projects around the state — including the agricultural best practices program that Moore helps run up near the headwaters of the James in the Shenandoah Valley, in addition to his day job of monitoring trends in crab, oyster and fish populations in the bay.

The push up there is to persuade farmers to plant trees along stream banks to slow erosion and the movement of groundwater carrying nitrogen and phosphorus remnants of fertilizer and animal waste into waters that eventually reach the bay itself. Moore also urges farmers to install fencing to keep cattle out of streams and to think about shifting cattle from field to field more frequently to reduce erosion.

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These days, as the foundation launches a new effort to plant threatened freshwater mussels in the upper reaches of the watershed — including some just raised at Herring Creek’s Harrison Lake National Fish Hatchery that are to be planted in the James by the southern Albemarle County town of Scottsville — Moore makes a point of reminding farmers that their efforts to cut pollutants flowing into the bay have a big payoff locally as well.

Clearer streams are good for trout; preventing erosion preserves fertile fields; buffers attract deer for hunters; and keeping cattle out of streams means they are less exposed to bacteria and less likely to get stuck in mud and risk broken limbs, he makes of point of telling farmers — an argument that cattleman Robert N. Whitescarver, a foundation trustee from Augusta County in the Shenandoah Valley, also makes.

Agricultural runoff is perhaps the biggest source of pollutants still to be tackled if Virginia is to hit 2025 bay cleanup goals, Sanner said. While Virginia farmers are interested and the General Assembly has boosted cost-sharing funds to help them with these efforts, she plans to ask the assembly to authorize still more help in the form of an incentive program.

Agriculture and stormwater runoff are tough challenges because there are so many individual sources of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment, unlike the wastewater treatment plants where Virginia’s investments since 2010 have made a significant impact.

Stormwater is a particular concern because the amount of pollutants flowing into the bay from city and suburban streets is actually on the rise, the one area where that’s the case, she said.

At the same time, the state’s overworked environmental regulators have fallen behind reviewing stormwater permits and have simply extended expired ones without demanding updated pollution reduction standards.

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Another area of growing concern is the aging septic systems in rural coastal counties, Sanner said.

Rising sea level and failing systems mean the foundation will ask the assembly to find ways to help people on the Middle Peninsula, Northern Neck and Eastern Shore install the costlier new systems that can cope with higher water tables, she said.

On the Baywatcher, chugging along far upstream from the bay itself, Sanner said it’s important to remember that cleaning the bay has to involve more than just those who live on its shores.

The foundation’s boat, for instance, has a mission to take Richmond-area students on the river for environmental education field trips.

And a favorite way to make a point about the connection of upstream with the bay is the run from the bridge to Ducking Stool Point, named for the Colonial-era test for witches, where on this trip came a chance to spot a darting blue kingfisher and a giant bald eagle making its way back to its nest in a tall loblolly pine.


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