During the 1980s, I became an environmental activist in fighting to protect the Atlantic striped bass. A combination of fishing pressure and pollution in their primary spawning grounds of the Chesapeake Bay had seen the fish’s population plummet to near-oblivion. Finally, after Congress intervened while Maryland declared a five-year fishing moratorium and other states along the migratory path took similar action, the striper’s comeback came to be considered an unparalleled success story, proving the resilience of our coastal waters if a species is given half a chance.
Now, if the Trump administration has its way, it will all be for naught. In what I consider a criminal act, funding for the federal government’s Chesapeake Bay Program would be slashed by 93 percent – from $73 million a year to $5 million. That’s not a budget cut, that’s a killing.
The Chesapeake is the largest estuary in North America. Its vast watershed covers parts of six states – Maryland,Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York as well as the District of Columbia. Besides striped bass, its vaunted creatures include bluefish, oysters, blue crabs, and much more.
Back in 1983, the EPA established the Chesapeake Bay Program as a regional partnership, overseeing and coordinating cleanup and monitoring efforts in what had become a severely polluted region. As a result of agriculture, development and urban sprawl, marine life was being decimated by wastewater, nutrients and sediment overload. Every summer, toxic algal blooms and “dead zones” with little or no oxygen had become a tragic reality.
The EPA’s role is crucial because the various bay states have no authority over each other but have willingly participated in the compact. It took years, but since the EPA intervened in 2010 and placed the states on a regulatory “pollution diet,” the waters are finally getting healthier. Crab populations, underwater grass acreage and water clarity are at their best levels in decades.
But the striped bass population is in decline again, partly because of the high prevalence in the Bay of a flesh-eating disease called mycobacteriosis. Findings of a Maryland study in 2015 showed that the disease increases as levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution rise. So it’s absolutely vital that the Bay’s waters continue to improve.
“It would be wrong and incredibly shortsighted,” says Virginia Senator Jack Warner, “to backtrack on all the progress that’s been made so far.” Other Bay advocates say the Trump budget proposal would not only be “devastating” for aquatic life but also for the residents and businesses that depend on the bay.
Eric Schaeffer, a former EPA enforcement director, says of the Trump plan: “When you drop down to that level, I don’t know what you are left with. Basically, security guards or something guarding an empty building.”
The Chesapeake is the region closest to my own heart, but hardly the only estuary threatened. Similar murder is projected for programs in Puget Sound and San Francisco Bay. But it’s not a done deal. The EPA and other agencies are required to work with the White House and the Office of Management Budget on the spending proposal that will be presented to Congress in May.
Fishermen and anybody who cares about protecting our oceans and estuaries need to start making their voices heard NOW, loud and clear and angry!