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"Everything [in the Chesapeake Bay] is down, down, down. The only things going up are jet skis and mute swants."
— Michael Pelzcar

Special 30th Anniversary Issue
The Bay around Us


The Past Is Prologue

Biocompexity & the Bay

Thinking Deeply about
the Shallows

On the Threshold

Preparing for the Future

Witness to change, microbiologist Michael Pelczar has watched the Bay's decline for 60 years from his vantage at Avalon Farm on the Eastern Shore. As a university administrator he worked hard to bring the tools of science to bear on the Bay's problems.
Above photograph by
Erica Goldman.
Evolving Portrait of a Changing Bay

By Erica Goldman

At the end of a long driveway, flanked by fields of wheat-colored grass, Michael Pelczar walks towards the house and ushers two energetic Chesapeake Bay retrievers into a fenced yard. He moves slowly, using his cane to hold open the door as he carefully makes his way up the steps and enters a brightly lit farm kitchen that smells of freshly roasted coffee. When he first started coming to this family farm more than half a century ago, the kitchen still had a dirt floor.

Today a modern picture window in Pelczar's living room frames a garden ripe with peppers and tomatoes. An intricate array of duck decoys lines the windowsill. The window also frames the Bay, which sparkles an almost healthy shade of blue in the forgiving light of early autumn. Pelczar has lived on Avalon Farm on Kent Island full-time now since 1984, moving down soon after he retired from 31 years as a scientist and administrative leader at the University of Maryland. Now in his mid-90s, he's watched and contemplated the Bay from this spot for more than 60 years.

A lot has changed in the waters off Avalon Farm since the 1940s. Underwater grasses grew so thick then that they tangled the seine the Pelczars cast to catch fish. On any given day in the winter, upwards of 30 oyster boats would work the patch of the Chesapeake known as Crab Alley Bay, as rich then in oysters as it was in crabs.

The oystermen are gone. He hasn't seen a single boat in years. Only a few crab boats cruise Crab Alley. The invasive plant Phragmites has usurped the place of native cord grass. Once abundant diving ducks have all but disappeared. Just past the turnoff to Avalon Farm's long dirt driveway, cars pour down Route 50 in a steady stream and clusters of condos push up through the ground like mushrooms after a rain. Mute swans cruise the water under the Kent Narrows Bridge, indignant in their graceful, destructive beauty.

"Everything is down, down, down," says Pelczar. "The only things going up are jet skis and mute swans."

To Pelczar, the mute swan is a visible symptom of a sick Bay, of an ecosystem gone awry. This invasive species eats 10.5 million pounds of underwater grass each year, destroying habitat for waterfowl, fish, and shellfish. And underwater grass has a tough time bouncing back, with all the other problems in the Bay standing in the way — too much nitrogen, not enough oxygen, too much algae, not enough light. Burgeoning development, traffic, more sewage, more impervious surfaces, even more nitrogen. These are the harsh refrains of the Chesapeake's swan song.

Pelczar hears subtler sounds too, bringing the ear of his own scientific discipline of microbiology to his perspective on the Bay. He knows that many processes in the environment start with microbes — the tiniest of algae species, bacteria, single-celled protists, and even viruses. He knows that the Bay functions as an interconnected web spanning many orders of magnitude — from the tiniest microbe to the 27-lb mute swan and beyond. But he also knows that connecting the dots across scale and scientific discipline is no small matter.


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