The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States with a multitude of environmental, economic, and aesthetic benefits. It absorbs flood waters, prevents erosion, filters polluted storm water runoff, provides a habitat for a large number highly productive organisms, houses two of the North Atlantic’s five major shipping ports, and supports educational and family activities such as boating, swimming, and bird-watching. As a kid I spent countless summer days on my grandfather’s old tobacco farm overlooking the beautiful Chesapeake Bay. Unfortunately I don’t look at this once picturesque place the same way anymore because of the poor water clarity and the lack of abundance in plant and animal life. So what is causing the Bay to become so unattractive? The answer is Dead Zones.
Dead Zones are low oxygen areas in the Bay that cannot support life. In the 1970s the Bay was discovered to contain one of the world’s first identified Dead Zones. Algal blooms, caused mainly by nitrogen and phosphorus runoff, create these low oxygen Dead Zones. The algae dies, sinks, and decomposes, a process that depletes the oxygen in the area.
Every year an estimated 75,000 tons of bottom dwellers such as clams and snails are killed due to Dead Zones. Although some of the larger marine animals, such as shrimp and fish, can escape these low oxygen areas, when their primary food source (the bottom dwellers) is killed survival is made very difficult. Jellyfish are the only organisms that thrive in the Bay’s Dead Zones because they do not require the dissolved oxygen in the water for survival. Submerged aquatic vegetation is also depleted because the algae prevents sunlight from reaching the floor of the Bay. So who is at fault for the nitrogen and phosphorus runoff that trigger these algal blooms and ultimately the Dead Zones? We are.
Maryland is home to 800 chicken farms that raise almost 570 million chickens. Sure these chickens produce eggs and meat, but they also produce lots and lots of poop, one billion pounds of it each year to be exact. Chicken manure contains high levels of not only nitrogen and phosphorus, but also other detrimental elements such as arsenic. The chicken farms do not dispose of this waste properly because waste management is expensive and overall less important to them than keeping their food prices low. Much of the waste ends up running off into the Chesapeake Bay, and most scientists agree that agricultural runoff is the single largest source of pollution in the Bay.
Efforts are being made to decrease the waste runoff into the Bay. For example, on January 12, 2009, Maryland enforced regulations on the amount of manure that is allowed to wash off of the farms. The farms are required to divert rainwater away from outdoor manure piles, and they are prohibited from storing it outdoors for more than 15 or 30 days. Also, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been initiating new federal rule-making since January 2010 to help control polluted runoff from cities, suburbs, and farmland to the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.
So what can you do to help the prevention of waste from running off in to the Bay? Buy food locally in order to reduce transportation related carbon emissions and keep local farmers in business, which is good for the Bay lands and water quality. Also, avoid purchasing poultry from large corporations, such as Perdue, that are located in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. For more information on how you can make a difference in the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay, visit www.cbf.org.