Trove to Treasure: Valuing the Chesapeake

Alex Zorach Wikimedia Commons

SOLOMONS, Md., January 31, 2014—To settle along shorelines is human; to systematically overexploit aquatic habitats is human legacy. The science is clear: limitless extraction of natural resources and waste discharge causes deterioration of ecosystems relied on for sustainability. The question looms: will the Chesapeake Bay first reach the turning point or the tipping point?

In 1607, Captain John Smith remarked on the Chesapeake “Heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation…” Common contemporary mindsets were captured by Garrett Hardin who in 1625 suggested “The extent of the ocean is in fact so great that it suffices for any possible use on the part of all peoples…” It is adequate to say the Chesapeake cache was once so rich and abundant it must have been unfathomable to imagine current conditions.

Today’s reality: abundant bay resources have promoted a regional population explosion from tens of thousands of Native Americans and European settlers in the 17th century to tens of millions of Americans today.

Every new mouth equals increased pressure on already burdened agriculture and fisheries systems. Each person enjoying the comforts of modern technology increases the need to run more loads of laundry or dishes, to flush the toilet more often, or to toss into landfill the three layers of packaging needed to ship and market a bowl of fortified sugar flake cereal.

Soil and nutrients erode from farmland during increasingly powerful storms ending up in our bay, choking benthic life and catalyzing deadly algae blooms. Discharge from home and business sewer systems bypasses treatment plants, flowing directly to bay tributaries during high storm flow events, as facilities become overwhelmed by the incoming volume. Tons of trash gets swept into coastal waters, washed from highways and byways or from illegal dumping down storm drains.

The onslaught seems to never cease though a glimmer of hope has flickered in recent decades.

Collectively, our society has come a long way in dealing with human-induced environmental problems. Science enables identification and sound regulation of point and non-point source pollution. Engineering is incorporated into farming strategies through creation of buffer zones and “smart” irrigation systems. Conservation of wild places offers refuge to displaced wildlife unable to cope with an urban existence. Management strategies are employed to limit catch and by-catch from our nation’s fisheries. Oyster leasing programs foster appreciation and responsibility that only comes with ownership, curtailing “Tragedy of Commons” type issues. Enhanced technology facilitates identification of poachers dredging oysters in the dead of night, allowing natural resources law enforcement to protect areas off limits to harvest.

An increasingly larger portion of elected officials hold high the banner of protecting this iconic estuary. In 2009, President Barrack Obama issued Executive Order 13508 calling the Chesapeake Bay “a national treasure” and directing federal agencies to lead collaborative efforts of government and non-government entities to reduce pollution, improve water quality, and restore bay functions. In 1983, the Chesapeake Executive Council was formed offering a forum for collective operations and programs between the six states and the district residing within the bay watershed. Together, agreements are reached on goals and policy direction while promoting accountability and tangible results.

It took a few hundred years to deplete the natural resources of the Chesapeake Bay.  Thanks to the bay’s resilience and to forward thinking leadership in the past few decades, there have been some reversals in trends.

It may take another hundred years of recovery and we may never own the benefits of a restored Chesapeake. But our children will.

The Calvert Marine Museum is currently renovating one of its three exhibitions. When it opens in fall 2014, “River to Bay: Reflections and Connections” will address these topics and more while offering an immersive and interactive experience for guests.  Learn more on our website (, and follow us on Facebook and twitter. This renovation has been made possible by grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and Maryland Heritage Area Authority, generous private donations, and direct funding by Calvert County, MD.

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