By Timothy B. Wheeler, Jeremy Cox & Karl Blankenship, BayJournal.com
Efforts to rebuild shad populations in the Chesapeake Bay watershed took a beating. Water quality went unchecked for the longest time in more than three decades. State and local governments face huge budget gaps that could impact Bay restoration for years to come.
The impacts of the novel coronavirus that has killed more than 100,000 people nationwide continues to ripple through the Bay region — sometimes in unexpected ways — and will continue to do so. Environmental restoration efforts have already been hit and the impacts are just beginning to play out.
With the Bay cleanup deadline about five years away, many pollution control actions were delayed while state and county governments and conservation districts struggled with staffing cuts and curtailed field work.
“In our county conservation districts, we’ve seen some furloughs and some reduced capacity,” said Pat McDonnell, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. “We obviously lost at least part of the construction season.”
For now, state and federal officials say they intend to meet Bay cleanup goals. “We are committed to the 2025 timeframe,” said Ben Grumbles, Maryland secretary of the environment. “We are continuing to make real progress despite the last couple of months.”
But, he added, “it is fair to say this is a challenge for all of us.”
Lost tax revenue stemming from springtime shutdowns has left state and local governments facing billions of dollars of shortfalls, though officials say it will be weeks or months before they know exactly how that will affect conservation programs.
A Bay Journal survey of 18 local governments found that more than half deemed it “highly likely” that their environmental programs would experience budget cuts. Many said on-the-ground projects have been delayed, and some said stormwater inspection and maintenance programs have already been affected.
In Virginia, funding for farmers to install conservation practices was slashed about 10% this spring as Gov. Ralph Northam sought to trim the state’s expenses.
“Compared to other agencies and programs, we feel quite fortunate,” said Darryl Glover, head of the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s soil and water conservation program.
Maryland officials have made only limited spending cuts so far, but more are likely.
“We don’t know where we are as far as the budget,” Hans Schmidt, assistant secretary of agriculture, recently told members of the state’s Soil Conservation Commission. “We’re kind of at a wait-and-see moment.’’
Shad restoration stymied
One of the most unlikely victims of the pandemic restrictions were American shad. Once one of the Bay’s most valuable fisheries, shad are now at historic lows. Bringing them back has been a goal of the Chesapeake restoration effort for decades.
But when the governors of Maryland and Pennsylvania ordered shutdowns of all nonessential activities, operators of Conowingo, Holtwood and Safe Harbor dams on the lower Susquehanna River decided not to operate the lifts that usually start lifting migrating fish over the hydroelectric facilities around April 1 each spring.
That sparked objections from environmentalists, who contended that the utilities were compelled by their federal licenses to operate the lifts to help get fish to upstream spawning grounds. Federal regulators appeared to concur.
Exelon Corp., which operates Conowingo Dam — the largest and also the first hydroelectric facility encountered by migrating fish — sought and obtained approval from Maryland on May 12 to start lifting fish, and the two upriver dams followed suit.
That lasted less than four days. The lift moved 485 American shad upriver — 10% of last year’s total. But lift operators also saw 35 invasive northern snakeheads passing upriver. They managed to net 14, but 21 got through. Two were later caught farther upstream. It marked the first documented occurrence of snakeheads above the dam.
Concerned that more snakeheads would get through, and with the typical shad spawning season mostly over, fishery biologists recommended shutting down the lifts. By that time, just 21 American shad had made it past Holtwood, and only one got lifted over Safe Harbor.
Efforts to rear shad in hatcheries fared even worse, as biologists were unable to safely gather shad eggs for hatchery operations in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware.
“It’s hard to do the work and practice social distancing,” said Josh Tryninewski, a biologist with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
Typically, hatcheries along Bay tributaries stock millions of young shad each year. This is the first time since 1977 that none will be released.
Crabs grab record prices
The seafood industry has been hard hit by restaurant closures. But seafood markets, grocery stores and restaurants offering carryout service have struggled to meet the demand for crabs as the harvest continues to lag behind its performance from last spring.
The combination of low supply and high demand created a perverse sort of “price war,” according to Jason Ruth, owner of Harris Seafood Co. in Grasonville, MD. He estimates that the prices paid at the dock — which reached $220 per bushel in May, according to industry sources — are 60% higher than at any point in the company’s history.
Before the pandemic restrictions, restaurants accounted for nearly three-quarters of his sales, Ruth said. But that has been at least partially offset by a rise in people buying whole crabs off the shelf and going through the painstaking process of steaming them at home.
“One of the precursors to having crabs at home is you have to have a lot of time,” Ruth said. “Well, people have a lot more time right now.”
Robert Newberry, executive director of the Delmarva Fisheries Association, was flabbergasted by the prices.
“I can’t believe it,” he said. “I’ve never seen crab prices this high in my life — ever. If they’re $200 [a bushel] coming off the boat, they need a Brinks truck to be delivering these crabs.” Retail prices ran much higher.
But the high prices have put seafood processors in even more of a pinch, Newberry said, because they can’t sell the meat they pick to consumers for as much as it costs for them to buy the crabs from watermen.
Watermen say they don’t expect the high prices to persist through the season. As the weather warms, they expect crabs will become more active and start filling watermen’s pots in bigger numbers.
Seafood disaster funds
Overall, though, the seafood industry is suffering. As part of the $2 trillion economic stimulus bill passed in late March, Congress provided $300 million in aid for fisheries hurt by the pandemic as their restaurant markets dried up.
On May 7, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced that Maryland fisheries would be aided by $4.1 million and Virginia by $4.5 million.
Matthew Strickler, Virginia’s natural resources secretary, said state officials were “greatly disappointed” by that amount, saying it falls “woefully short” of compensating the state’s seafood businesses for their losses. But federal officials said the allocations were based on a five-year average of revenues reported by affected operations.
The funds are meant for commercial watermen, charter fishing captains, oyster and clam farmers and seafood wholesalers and processors who’ve seen their business or markets hurt by the pandemic. To qualify, applicants for aid must show that they’ve suffered at least a 35% loss from COVID-19 relative to previous years.
Because of the difficulty in practicing social distancing and taking other safety precautions on research boats, scientists in Virginia halted their monthly Bay water quality surveys in March. Maryland did the same after February.
Although surveys in both states resumed the last week in May, it was the longest gap in data collection since the Baywide water quality monitoring program began in 1985.
Bruce Michael, who oversees the water-monitoring program at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said the overall impact should be minor, as the program’s 35-year history has allowed observations in a wide range of conditions over time.
Still, he said, this year’s warm winter followed by a long, cool spring was an unusual weather pattern for the Bay. The absence of monitoring means scientists will gain little information about how that may have impacted water quality or aquatic life.
“Every year is an unusual year in the Chesapeake Bay in some way,” he said. “This year, it’s been a very unusual spring, and that’s one of the things we missed a little bit, characterizing that.”
Monitoring of nutrient concentrations in many rivers and streams around the watershed was also missed this spring.
But the U.S. Geological Survey, which measures the amount of nutrients entering the Bay from each of its largest nine tributaries, was able to maintain that effort through the spring, said Scott Phillips, USGS Chesapeake Bay Coordinator.
State officials said they expect to resume monitoring soon, as are sampling programs by riverkeepers and other groups around the region.
Research on hold
Scientific research and routine surveys have been largely shut down since March, with scientists teleworking and focusing on data analysis, modeling and other projects that can be done remotely. University research vessels throughout the Bay were idled until protocols can be worked out for crewing them safely.
Most impacted were researchers studying time-sensitive natural processes, according to Peter Goodwin, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
“If it’s a seasonal effort and you’ve missed this year’s window, those programs will have a significant delay,” Goodwin said.
Mark Luckenbach, associate dean of research and advisory services at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, said the need for social distancing required cutting back lab work and working remotely as much as possible. Field work that was not time-sensitive was put off.
The pandemic punched a hole in VIMS’ longest-running fisheries survey. Every spring since 1955, researchers have regularly trawled the Bay to sample the abundance and diversity of juvenile finfish. This year’s trawls were canceled, Luckenbach said, and June’s cruise is uncertain. Given the lengthy data record, he said, a gap of a few months isn’t critical.
Still, some field work has gotten done. VIMS’ arrangement with local watermen to sample and tag striped bass carried on — but instead of going out on the boat, the VIMS staff met the watermen at the dock and dealt with the fish there.
One of the biggest worries VIMS and other research institutions face, Luckenbach noted, is the unknown impact the pandemic will have on government funding for their work. Budget cuts are coming, he predicted, but the details likely won’t be known until later this year or next.
Luckenbach said expenditures on government research grants already were down in April by 20% compared with outlays in the previous two months.
As states begin to ease stay-at-home orders, researchers expect to get back to the lab and into the field more often, though still with social distancing and other precautions.
Air pollution declines
One thing that benefited as activity in the region ground to a halt was air quality.
Researchers at NASA in Greenbelt, MD, have been tracking atmospheric nitrogen dioxide since 2005. Analysis shows that March set a record for the lowest levels of the pollutant for that month during 20 years of tracking. The amount was 30% lower than the typical March reading from 2015–19 along the Interstate 95 corridor from Washington, DC, to Boston.
Air pollution has been trending downward for years, “but this is a step-change down because of the emissions reductions we’re seeing now,” said Ryan Stauffer, a NASA research scientist who studies the atmosphere. “This is like a grand, unintended experiment in atmospheric chemistry.”
Ground-level sensors tell a similar story. The District of Columbia metro area saw a string of healthy air days stretching from March 20 to May 12, according to monitors that detect ozone and particulate matter. That 54-day streak shattered the region’s previous record of 22 consecutive days, Stauffer said.
About a quarter of the nitrogen reaching the Bay stems from air pollution. About half of that is nitrogen oxides emitted from cars, power plants and other sources that burn fossil fuels. The rest is ammonia, which largely comes from agriculture.
Scientists are anxious to see if the emission reductions translate into less nitrogen in the region’s waterways.
“The emissions have got to be dropping considerably,” said the DNR’s Bruce Michael. “If we can detect that in our water quality monitoring, that would be awesome.”
Scientists don’t expect the air quality gains to be permanent. By late May, traffic was already returning to prepandemic levels in some parts of Virginia.
Farming is hard hit
The pandemic has upended the region’s farming sector.
Agriculture is the single largest contributor of nutrients and sediment to the Bay, and reduced production could mean a temporary reduction in polluted runoff. But it comes at a tremendous cost to the region’s farmers, and some warn that cash-strapped farmers will have difficulty participating in conservation programs.
During the pandemic, corporations such as Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms have slowed production because of worker shortages at processing plants. The close quarters inside the facilities have led some to become hot spots for infections. At two plants on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, for example, nearly one out of five workers tested positive for COVID-19, according to local health officials.
The processing bottleneck left some farmers with nowhere to send their market-ready chickens. In Maryland and Delaware, nearly 2 million chickens were destroyed on their farms instead of entering the food supply.
“When the processing plants aren’t able to process and run those chickens through, then that backs up what is out on the farm,” said Holly Porter, executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Industry trade group. “Our chickens are only able to get to a certain size, and you start to have some animal welfare issues.”
To keep plants from getting overwhelmed, poultry companies have been delivering fewer chicks for farmers to raise or extending the amount of time in between flocks. In Delaware and Maryland, the number of chicks delivered between April 11 and May 2 dropped by 28% and 45% respectively.
The reduced production is taking a toll on farmers. Virgil Shockley’s two chicken houses sat empty in late May. He didn’t expect to get a shipment of birds until June 1, or 49 days after his last chickens departed. Typically, the “layout,” between flocks is no more than 24 days.
Any time not spent raising birds is time not spent making money, the Eastern Shore farmer said.
Dairy farmers who had already been struggling in recent years have been further slammed by the pandemic.
The closure of schools and restaurants sharply reduced demand for milk across the country, said Lindsay Reames, director of sustainability and external relations for the Maryland and Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association.
Cows must be milked twice a day, and that milk must get to market within about 48 hours. Some dairy farmers had no choice but to dump their milk down drains or onto fields.
“For a lot of farms, this was going to be the recovery year,” said Liam Migdail, communications director for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau. “They’ve been treading water for the last couple of years, waiting to get by for that good year when they could pay down their debts and get back on solid ground to go into the future, and this pandemic just pulled the rug back on all of that.”