Commentary: The case for a ‘Chesapeake-style’ bay

By Tom Horton
Posted 3/28/22

The bay is dead. Long live the bay.

That declaration derives from 15th-century England — “The king is dead. Long live the king” — assuring the public an orderly succession. And reminding them that change is inevitable.

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Commentary: The case for a ‘Chesapeake-style’ bay

Posted

The bay is dead. Long live the bay.

That declaration derives from 15th-century England — “The king is dead. Long live the king” — assuring the public an orderly succession. And reminding them that change is inevitable.

My late and treasured friend, Tom Wisner, Chesapeake poet, singer and conscience of this estuary, wanted to invoke it some two decades ago.

Tom sought a grant for us to gather a team of 20 black mules, black plumes nodding from their harnesses. They would pull a black-painted buckboard wagon through the towns and cities of the six-state Chesapeake watershed, bearing a plain, black coffin made of native pine.

At every stop, we would grieve and celebrate the bay we had known, acknowledge much of it was gone, irretrievably; then, we would begin the healing, getting on with the best bay possible.

Tom, for all of his creative genius, was a master of unfundable proposals, and our funereal mule team never made it out of the gate.

But he was on to something, which brings me to Jerry Schubel’s new book, “The Future Chesapeake: Shaping the Future” (Archway Press, 2021). Schubel began his long and illustrious career in marine science at Johns Hopkins University, at the old Chesapeake Bay Institute, then he headed major institutions on Long Island Sound, Boston Harbor and the Pacific coast.

“The Future Chesapeake” elaborates on Tom’s vision, steeped in science but also informed by the author’s devotion to the humanities. Schubel’s earlier book of essays and photography, “The Living Chesapeake,” is required reading for my university classes.

Like this double-length Chesapeake Born column, Schubel’s “Future” is no more than a starting point for a long-needed conversation: a complete rethinking of the current bay-restoration effort, which increasingly is banging its head against the wall, at risk of losing credibility and support.

The bay of the future won’t resemble even its recent past. Schubel argues that despite decades of honest effort and billions of dollars, progress in restoring the bay to something like the health it displayed before the 1970s has produced only modest progress, graded by environmental groups mostly in the range of D’s and C’s.

Nor is our “student” likely to ever score B’s, let alone A’s, given the accelerating headwinds of climate change and a watershed population on its way to triple the 8 million who lived here when the bay was healthier, Schubel believes:

“Restoration may be a fine (goal) for old cars, for some endangered species and maybe whole ecosystems in a slowly changing world. But our world is changing more rapidly than any time in 200,000 years of modern human history. … We must try new ideas.”

“Restoration has not delivered … except to keep things better than if we’d done nothing, … but forces already set loose, principally climate change … are going to make the current trajectory less successful even as it gets more expensive,” he writes.

Solving a wicked problem

Satisfactorily resolving the fate of the Chesapeake Bay, Schubel says, is an example of what has come to be known as a “wicked” problem. Wicked problems are so complex, often dealing with ever-shifting conditions from politics to climate, that they can be difficult to even define. Think less in terms of any solution at all, Schubel advises. Think in terms of “containment” of the bay’s declines; think “minimizing regret.”

The book is not so gloomy as I’ve just made it sound. Gloomy would be pressing down the same old paths, continuing to miss deadline after deadline, falsely hoping every short-term positive trend turns out to be long-term.

Nor is Schubel saying we should stop treating our sewage or requiring cleaner air, or that we should stop encouraging forests and wetlands. But we’d be better off, he writes, “investing in creating the Chesapeake Bay for the future rather than in trying to return it to some previous condition. … Perhaps, we should pause, … reboot and affirm the qualities we want the Bay to have in the future that are in sync with the population we expect, and with the prevailing natural processes, including sea level rise and (warmer waters) that climate change will bring.”

If we do, he would “expect our aspirations and strategies … would be different from the strategies being pursued today.”

So what might such a future bay look like? What would it mean saying goodbye to what the “restoration” mind-set lets us cling to?

Picturing the future bay

Decades ago, newly promoted to the Baltimore Sun’s environmental beat, I understood I would have a front-row seat to a grand experiment: In the Chesapeake, we had taken a world-class natural resource, screwed it up royally — a world-class screw-up, if you will — and were mounting a world-class, literally unprecedented attempt to restore its health.

As the effort has dragged out, I confess reluctance to call an end to the experiment. But Schubel’s book came at a propitious time, for I’d been drafting an essay of my own, with the working title, “The Chesapeake Style Bay.”

The title came from my visit to Tilghman Island to catch up with Capt. Wadey Murphy aboard his oyster skipjack, Rebecca Ruark. I’d spent many a day with Wadey, “drudgin’” oysters from the Choptank under sail, as generations of Murphys before had done. A thousand craft like Rebecca were working the bay when she was launched in 1886. Now, she’s one of a handful left, and on the National Register of Historic Places.

Rebecca had never looked prettier, gleaming white decks lined with cushioned porch furniture, awaiting the day’s paying tourists. Wadey the oysterman had become Wadey the performer.

“I loved drudgin’ like … life,” he said. “But tourism’s comin’. Oysters are goin’. I do marryin's and buryin's — scatter your ashes — I do sunset cruises, special charters, whatever people want.”

As I left, he dug out an iconic Chesapeake photo by Aubrey Bodine that you may have seen on the walls of seafood restaurants or in hotel lobbies. It’s an old oysterman in his little skiff, using “nippers” — miniature tongs — to bring up individual oysters from the clear, calm shallows around Tilghman on a winter day in 1948.

Bodine, Wadey said, had asked Bill Page if he would move his skiff just a bit, no doubt to compose the scene more artfully. Bill complied reluctantly because there were no oysters below his new position. But the shot was a classic. “Bill was proud of that picture, and he showed it ’til the day he died,” Wadey said. “But he always told people, ‘Where he had me in that picture, there weren’t no oysters down there.’”

What Wadey was saying didn’t hit me until later that afternoon, as I sipped beer at a waterfront bar on Tilghman amid a crowd there for a rockfish tournament. I’d asked for a crab cake and decided to pass when the waitress said it would be “Chesapeake-style,” code for not local, a different species of crab, from Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia.

Suddenly, there was a rush to the deck railings, cameras snapping away, as Wadey and Rebecca drafted by on a freshening breeze under full sail, the bay sparkling in the lowering sun. I realized it didn’t matter now whether there were oysters (or oxygen) in the bay below them. Like the crab cake, oysters don’t have to come from the Chesapeake anymore, or they could come from aquaculture (as crabs soon may).

And those Chesapeake-style crab cakes? I’ve tried them, and they’re darn good. Restaurants can even mix a paste squeezed from local crabs’ inedible tissues to flavor them. And the beer is cold, and Rebecca and her captain are making a beautiful picture.

More and more of the fish in bayside restaurants fly here from waters around the globe. Mallard ducks by the millions “migrate” by truck, from Midwest game farms, to be hunted in regulated shooting preserves — Chesapeake-style waterfowling.

Chesapeake-style restoration of the bay has been heavy on technological solutions like advanced sewage treatment and stormwater controls — which allow us to avoid behavioral change, let us ignore climate change and the growing population. We have similar faith in oysters to cleanse the bay (too much faith, Schubel notes).

Chesapeake-style environmentalism performs all manner of genuinely good works, but it treats symptoms, never questioning the endless-growth economic model that ensures our unsustainability.

Who actually needs a fully functioning estuary? Perhaps only watermen like Wadey used to be. And there are fewer of them every year.

It’s not the bay we say we want, but it’s not so bad. Indeed, it’s all that perhaps a majority of the 18 million citizens of the watershed have known. It’s not trashy or smelly — a decent enough backdrop for our festivals and wade-ins and celebrations of all things Chesapeake. Perhaps it’s the bay we deserve.

Schubel thinks we can and must do better, as stresses from population and climate are guaranteed to build in coming decades, profoundly changing the bay both chemically and physically. Success with what’s essentially going to be a different animal won’t come from doubling down on the current federal-state restoration program, he says.

Thinking adaptively

A lot of hope, he thinks, lies in “adaptive management,” hardly a new idea to Chesapeake managers, but seldom employed, as it’s politically difficult and promotes thinking outside the box.

Adaptive management admits up front that we don’t know for sure how to proceed, that innovative new strategies may well fail or require sharp course corrections, with managers and regulators given lots of flexibility. It’s not “loosey-goosey.” It depends on rigorous science and carefully designed experiments, where one may learn much from “failure.”

He argues that while environmental science must inform our choices of the best bay future possible, it will be equally up to the social and behavioral sciences, as well as the arts and humanities, to arrive at goals.

While he wisely avoids specific prescriptions, Schubel makes some intriguing recommendations, like setting up a group of experts parallel and complementary to the existing Chesapeake Bay Program. They would have little or no attachment to, or even experience of, the Chesapeake. Guess what such a group might say if asked how much of the last 1% of our oysters we should harvest?

Rising sea levels will reset our notions of the bay’s extensive land-water edge from prime real estate to a zone of organized retreat. Sediment, which we think of only as a major bay pollutant, will become “a scarce resource,” as we seek to rebuild eroding marshes and shorelines. One could envision expanded access for some public uses and wildlife habitat from such a scenario.

More than most bay environmentalists, Schubel likes “geoengineering” and nuclear power solutions to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, but his arguments are sensible. The alternative is to continue haphazardly geoengineering the planet to be hotter and quirkier. And to make a real difference, solar and wind would take an appalling amount of space from farms and natural habitats.

He’d think about whether some form of governance at the watershed scale would work better; he’d also much more vigorously pursue “smart growth,” putting most development into the emptied-out Baltimores that are already built for it.

My own two cents: Reading between the lines of “The Future Chesapeake,” I can see learning to live with largish summertime “dead zones” and fewer seagrass meadows than current plans call for — even if that, along with a warmer bay, does not bode well for striped bass and oysters and crabs, or for the wild harvesters who remain.

And a lot of what we’re doing, from removing dams and planting forested buffers to promoting “beaver engineering,” we should continue and ramp up — big-time.

It’s a new world and a new bay we’re creating, like it or not (and I don’t). It’s no time to be shy about rejiggering the future.

My “great experiment” is dead. Long live the great experiment.

Tom Horton has written about the Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, Maryland, where he is also a professor of environmental studies at Salisbury University. This was first published by the Bay Journal.