Overture for a New Estuary
A generation changes the Chesapeake
Oceanographer Bill Boicourt and research assistant Tom Wazniak lower a sampling device called a ScanFish. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham
Oceanographer Bill Boicourt and research assistant Tom Wazniak lower a sampling device called a ScanFish into the water where it will undulate through the Bay, measuring temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll, and plankton. Technologies like the ScanFish and high-resolution satellites have dramatically expanded data gathering during recent decades. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham

LIFE HAS LATELY TURNED MORE HECTIC for lab directors on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay. At this key moment in the multi-state campaign to restore the estuary, they have a new problem on their hands: a lot of well-known scientists were leaving.

On the western shore, Tom Miller was losing two of the Bay's best-known scientists from the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory (CBL), the historic, 92-year-old research center stationed at the mouth of the Patuxent River. Biologist Ed Houde was retiring after 37 years studying the Chesapeake's fisheries, and Walter Boynton was finishing up 42 years of research in systems ecology.

But even more scientists were retiring on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where Mike Roman is director for the Horn Point Laboratory (HPL), a 40-year old research center located along the Choptank River. On May 5th, 2017, Roman and his staff threw a party to mark the departures of not one but seven well-known researchers. The exiting scientists were Bill Boicourt, Mike Kemp, Vic Kennedy, Laura Murray, Roger Newell, Court Stevenson, and Diane Stoecker. In the last two years, says Roman, "Thirty percent of our faculty retired."

Both labs are part of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES), and in August its president, Don Boesch, also retired after 27 years coordinating these research labs and advising state agencies on the benefits of science-based management.

Diane Stoecker. Photograph, Rona Kobell
Biological oceanographer Diane Stoecker studied harmful algal blooms in the Chesapeake such as Pfiesteria piscicida, a dinoflagellate linked with fish kills and human sickness and Pseudo-nitzschia, a diatom genus containing some species capable of producing a neurortoxin associated with amnesic shellfish poisoning. Photograph, Rona Kobell

That makes ten scientists from two labs in just two years. If you do the math, the Bay restoration effort was losing a total of 330 years of science expertise in fields as diverse as marine biology, natural history, quantitative ecology, fisheries science, systems ecology, wetlands ecology, plankton ecology, and physical and estuarine oceanography.

Other Bay labs are seeing a similar surge of retirements. In the next three years the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) on the Rhode River will watch 33 percent of their principal scientists retire. And down at the southern end of the Chesapeake, lab director John Wells says the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) will lose 25 percent of its faculty in a four-year period. "If we look over the last decade," says Wells, "it's been about 40 percent."

A generation of Bay scientists is leaving. What defines them as a generation is their arrival almost en masse during the mid-1970s and their departure en masse some 40 years later. "It's just the actuarial nature of this thing," says Boesch. Scientists arrive, time passes, they retire. And in the normal flow of science, of course, new researchers arrive to replace the retirees.

But this current wave of departures is not a normal flow — for the marine labs in the Chesapeake, this looks like the largest turnover in research talent they've ever experienced.

Turnovers can be times of evolution. In looking for new hires, lab directors have the chance to recruit scientists in emerging fields such as molecular biology, advanced statistics, and coastal synthesis science. And these new researchers will have their chance to apply their approaches to solving issues now facing the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.

But those issues will not be the same ones scientists faced 40 years ago. The starting point for these incoming scientists will build on the foundational work of those outgoing scientists.

Chesapeake Bay 2.0

So what did the work of that departing generation achieve?

The short answer: a new estuary. Not a restored estuary, but a restorable estuary.

Grace Brush with Angie Arnold and Holly Bowers. Photograph, Skip Brown
Walter Boynton. Photograph, Skip Brown
Mike Kemp. Photograph, Debbie Hinkle
Pioneering work in the fields of paleoecology and system ecology helped change our understanding of the Chesapeake. Paleoecologist Grace Brush (top with Angie Arnold and Holly Bowers) was able to uncover alterations in the Bay ecosystem caused by historic changes in land use like colonization, deforestation and large-scale farming. And systems ecologists Walter Boynton (bottom left) and Mike Kemp (bottom right) teamed up with Virginia scientists to identify nutrient and sediment inputs as the major threats to ecosystem health. Photographs, Skip Brown (top and bottom left) and Debbie Hinkle (bottom right)

The longer answer: the last 40 years of research — with its discoveries and debates and occasional dead ends — helped create a new way of thinking about the Bay, a new narrative of the Chesapeake.

To anyone paying attention, the Chesapeake Bay of 1977 looked like an ecosystem in decline: the waters were growing murky, the bottom of the estuary was losing seagrasses and oyster reefs, the deeper waters seemed to be showing more zones and larger zones of low oxygen, striped bass reproduction was dropping, and blue crab harvests were wildly and mysteriously erratic.

To help people pay attention, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation was sounding the warning with its terse slogan, "Save the Bay," a call to action that sounded simultaneously hopeful and fearful. Was the Chesapeake already a lost cause? Newspapers were even more alarmist, with headlines asking bluntly "Is the Bay Dying?"

What was behind all these problems? In the case of oysters, the causes seemed clear: overfishing and disease. But with nearly every other stress symptom, the causes seemed as murky as the darkening waters of the estuary. And nobody had a road map for restoration.

Forty years later the Chesapeake Bay of 2017 faces a different future. There's a moderate but growing optimism about restoration among many key players, including scientists and citizens and environmentalists. That optimism is based in part on a shared perception that scientists have been able to discover many of the causes for declines, that they are figuring out how the ecosystem works, that they are outlining options for restoration. And state and federal agencies, as a result, seem to be trying more often than in the past to apply science-based policies to address the Bay's problems.

The year 2017 could even be called "the Year of Bay Optimism," says Tuck Hines, lab director at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. The Chesapeake by now seemed to be an estuary that could be understood — not completely, but in greater depth and detail than ever before. And an understandable estuary could be a restorable estuary.

After all, science-based recovery seems to be working in other ecosystems, according to Hines. If recovery can happen in places such as Monterey Bay in California and the Willamette watershed around Portland, Oregon, then it can happen in the Chesapeake, says Hines. "It can be done."

Learning to Love the Chesapeake

The scientists who helped spur this optimism about restoration did not come here to save the Chesapeake Bay. Arriving in the mid-1970s most of them came with graduate degrees acquired elsewhere and brought little personal connection with the estuary and little historical background about the problems facing this ecosystem. "My sense of scientists being concerned about the health of the Bay — that didn't occur until very late," says Bill Boicourt, one of the few scientists of this generation who had already spent years working on the Bay as a student and scientist at the Johns Hopkins Chesapeake Bay Institute.

Most of the new scientists came for other reasons: to get a job and to try out their advanced training on the country's largest estuary. Those fresh out of graduate school were primarily interested in exploring questions deemed interesting or important during their graduate-school training. In a speech several years ago, Mike Kemp, a systems ecologist trained in Florida, spelled out a typical mindset. The Chesapeake Bay with its beauty and bounty certainly struck him as "a cool place," but what attracted researchers to the region was something else. "There are all kinds of interesting problems," he said. "A question, a big question to try to solve and resolve. That's what's exciting."

And the most exciting question to be answered — what was happening to the health of the estuary — was a question that had seldom been publicly acknowledged by the previous generation of Bay scientists. The methodological reason: earlier scientists tended to study Bay conditions as they found them. They worked with very little long-term data about Bay conditions in the past.

The political reason: speaking out about an estuary in decline was not a good career move for a young scientist. When plankton specialist Don Heinle dug up earlier records showing long-term declines in water clarity and oxygen levels in the Patuxent River, he spoke up publicly about his findings. Worse yet, he also allied himself with a local environmental leader who was pushing a campaign to clean up the river. The result: state officials were soon calling for his dismissal from CBL. And the lab later denied his promotion request.

Mike Roman. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham
Mike Roman, a biological oceanographer, readies a deep-water sampling net to track the offshore migrations of blue crab larvae. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham

As a result, it was mostly private citizens — not state-paid scientists — who began raising the alarm about the health of the Bay. In 1973 U.S. Senator Charles "Mac" Mathias organized a "fact-finding" tour of the Maryland part of the Chesapeake, and he spent most of his time listening to local environmental leaders, commercial watermen and sports fishermen, bird hunters, and Bayshore residents. From them he heard eyewitness accounts of darkening waters, disappearing seagrasses, and declining numbers of waterfowl and oysters and striped bass.

The senator also spoke with a number of scientists, only to discover "there was really no one," he later said, "who had any total solution to the problems." After listening to so many citizen complaints, Mathias pushed through a federal funding bill that directed the EPA to organize a five-year scientific study of this damaged estuary.

The study began in 1977 when the EPA — with its new funding — asked scientists to investigate the question that was troubling so many citizens: was the health of the Bay in decline? The question, however, seemed to surprise many in the established science community, according to Boicourt, then a researcher at Johns Hopkins University. "I think EPA was the shocker," he says. "They came to town and said the Bay was dying."

A Restorable Estuary?

How then did an incoming generation, arriving from elsewhere, begin to rewrite this "dying Bay" narrative?

By uncovering the key causes of ecosystem decline. When researchers in Maryland and Virginia, working with EPA funding, investigated the causes of the great seagrass die-off, their unexpected findings began to revise popular and scientific thinking about the estuary's pollution problems. They pinpointed nutrient inputs and sediment runoff as the most damaging, system-wide threats to the health of the Bay.

By discarding or reworking faulty paradigms. On several issues, says Boesch, "scientists were just flat wrong." It wasn't farm chemicals that were killing off seagrasses. It wasn't acid rain that was depressing striped bass recruitments.

By speaking out about science findings. In the late 1970s, four university scientists from CBL and Rita Colwell from Maryland Sea Grant signed on a historic environmental lawsuit brought against the EPA and against their employer, the state of Maryland. Court-orders would lead to reduced sewage discharges into the Patuxent River and new requirements that treatment plants begin removing nitrogen from wastewater.

By engaging with stakeholder groups. Researchers worked with the Patuxent Charette that set a water quality plan for the river, the Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee that set harvest targets for the fishery, and with the Oyster Advisory Commission that revived oyster aquaculture in Maryland. UMCES president Don Boesch served as science adviser for the Governor's Bay Panel.

By focusing research on the Bay's watershed. "We realized that what happens on the land affects the Bay," says Mike Roman of HPL. Out of their research would come ongoing efforts to revamp farming practices, waste-water treatment, construction methods, and stormwater runoff.

By learning to work in teams. In contemporary research "individual scientists hardly ever make an impact," says fish biologist Ed Houde. Influential science that addresses complex ecosystem issues usually emerges from group projects that combine specialists from different disciplines. "It's definitely a team sport," says Roman.

By redrawing our picture of the underwater estuary. Oceanographers turned up new discoveries and details about features such as the stratification events that amplify dead zones, the wind mixing that dissipates them, the estuarine turbidity maximum that forms in the upper Bay, the cyclonic eddy that occurs in the lower Bay, the biological hot spots that form near river mouths, and the estuary's hydraulic control point that operates at the juncture of the Deep Trench and the Rappahannock Shallows.

By spurring revivals of key fisheries. When fisheries biologists developed a more detailed understanding of the critical life stages of blue crabs, of Bay spawners like striped bass and perch, of ocean spawners like spot and croaker and menhaden, their discoveries led to new fisheries policies for rebuilding these populations to sustainable levels.

By creating new options for oyster aquaculture. Disease-free oyster larvae, remote setting tanks, and fast-growing triploid oysters helped recreate an oyster farming industry in Maryland and expand one in Virginia.

By sparking an oyster restoration movement. The ongoing effort to rebuild oyster reefs in the Chesapeake, a project with wide public support, grew out of science findings about the ecological roles that oysters play in filtering Bay water and in creating bottom habitat for fish and crabs.

By developing a theoretical framework for forecasting the pace and potential of Bay restoration. Biologists want to be physicists, says Mike Kemp, and systems ecologists want to be philosophers. Working with in-the-field findings about sediment memory and feedback loops, Kemp and his colleagues began examining and testing ideas about thresholds, equilibria, hysteresis, regime shifts, and resilience — concepts that may explain how ecosystem recovery could already be happening here in the Chesapeake.

This still-emerging paradigm describes how an ecosystem can "plateau" in a degraded state despite years of restoration projects. But those efforts can eventually accumulate, raising the ecosystem to a required threshold state. At that point, a change in the system (perhaps less rainfall and less run-off) can create a tipping point that unleashes a series of reinforcing feedback loops: water clarity, for example, helps seagrass recovery, and seagrass recovery helps water clarity. As feedbacks interconnect and coalesce, recoveries can accelerate.

A Threshold Generation

These and dozens of other discoveries achieved by this departing generation were due mostly to their good work — but also to their good luck.

Their first good fortune was getting hired during the mid-1970s, a decade that brought expanded federal funding for marine and environmental science. The National Science Foundation (NSF) was a traditional funding source, but now Chesapeake Bay scientists could also approach two new federal sources: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Both were created in 1970 during the administration of President Richard Nixon, and both would play important roles in Bay science: EPA with the Chesapeake Bay Program and NOAA with Sea Grant College programs in Maryland and Virginia.

Ed Houde. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham
Fisheries biologist Ed Houde leads a cruise to track fish migrations and populations along the Choptank River. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham

In hopes of landing some of this new funding, research institutions with a Bay focus went to work reorganizing and expanding their programs. The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), previously a field station for local researchers, was able to hire its first full-time scientists. The University of Maryland got busy reorganizing its field labs under the direction of the new UMCES. And it opened a new research site, now the Horn Point Laboratory (HPL) along the Choptank River on the Eastern Shore.

All this activity turned 1977 into a watershed year for starting new research on the Chesapeake Bay. At HPL, this barely started and barely staffed lab had an expansive master plan that called for hiring 75 new faculty researchers over the next decade. The EPA began funding its five-year, 25-million-dollar study focused on the Chesapeake Bay. In College Park, NOAA launched the Maryland Sea Grant Program under the leadership of marine microbiologist Rita Colwell who began funding research on water quality, fisheries, and ecosystem functions.

For Bay labs the key to landing these new funds would be well-credentialed scientists who could craft strong grant proposals. In the lab-funding structure that was then evolving, faculty scientists had to raise most of their salaries through these competitive proposals. And they had to find the money for the research technicians essential to most field and lab research. The labs would collect an overhead surcharge (usually around 50 percent) on each funded project and use that income to support buildings and grounds and buy research equipment.

It was a good time for well-prepared PhDs to be looking for a job — and not just in the Chesapeake. "In those days you could find a job relatively easy if you were a grad student," says Ed Houde, who studied at Cornell. In 1970, he typed out five job application letters and got four offers. "The timing of it all," says Don Boesch, "was that a lot of people got into the field when it was growing and became part of that next generation."

It was also a good time for PhDs to build careers at university labs. With the rising concern about the environment, more graduate students were pursuing advanced degrees at marine labs, creating a stream of talented assistants and collaborators that PhD scientists could rely on while building their reputations.

The scientists of this threshold generation were also lucky in their leaving. Careers that began in an era of increased funding seem to be ending in an era of reduced funding. The federal support for marine science that began under President Nixon is now threatened with dramatic cutbacks. For 2018, this current administration sent budgets to Congress that explicitly called for closing down the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program and NOAA's network of Sea Grant programs — two essential sources for funding Bay science.

Congress has yet to act on these and other suggestions by this administration, but according to lab director Mike Roman, HPL is already seeing reduced overhead income as a result of fewer research grants. And the lab, he says, is now home to fewer graduate students who are choosing to pursue advanced degrees in estuarine and environmental science.

Hauling up a dredge on a crab boat. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham

Maryland Sea Grant has long supported both fundamental and applied research — studies on basic ecosystem processes, for one example, or tests of fishery forecast models for another. But our underlying assumption is that both forms of research eventually pay off with practical results as a deeper understanding of the ecosystem can drive more precise and appropriate decisoin making about resource management issues.  more. . . .

A Threshold Estuary?

Mass retirements, however, also bring opportunities. New scientists at HPL and other Bay laboratories are being recruited to bring different skills to address a different estuary, an estuary altered by natural events and by science-based efforts to restore the ecosystem. The estuary has changed and science has evolved, says Roman, and "new expertise is required to meet the environmental challenges facing the Chesapeake."

The incoming scientists are already applying their expertise: they are investigating how methane and other greenhouse gasses escape from Bay marshes, how coastal habitats respond to sea level rise, how flood modeling can improve storm-surge forecasting, how molecular biology can address the problems and unleash the potential of aquaculture, biofilms, and waste management.

They may, if they are lucky, find themselves applying expertise to another kind of challenge: the task of responding to an estuary in active recovery. Recent years have turned up new evidence for optimism, strong signs that Bay restoration could be approaching a threshold. Nutrient inputs, especially from air pollution and sewage treatment, are down. Seagrasses in certain places in certain years are up dramatically. Striped bass and blue crab fisheries are rebounding. Oyster reefs are being rebuilt. Oyster farming is rising.

Call it progress.

Or call it proof of concept. The concept that says science-based restoration can work for the Chesapeake Bay.

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