Every summer, the food web in Chesapeake Bay gets jostled around as two plankton-eating predators jockey for power: comb jellies and jellyfish. Most smaller species don’t have a stake in the battle—both predators eat zooplankton and fish eggs, after all. But for young oyster larvae, the victor could make the difference between being protected civilians or collateral damage.
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By Sarah Hansen
“Is the net like a Spongebob jellyfish net?” student Cristal Sandoval asked. Alison Cawood, citizen science coordinator at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), used another analogy to explain: “It’s like a bowl with holes in it for pasta.” Light bulbs came on around the room and a knowing, “Oh,” escaped the lips of at least a dozen students.
by Melissa Pastore, biology graduate student at Villanova University
What if we could create a giant sponge capable of soaking up nitrogen pollution? It turns out that the Chesapeake Bay, which has experienced a rapid increase in nitrogen pollution from municipal and agricultural sources over the last few decades, already contains a natural version of this sponge: marshes fringing the Bay. But global change—and the nitrogen pollution itself—could change how this natural sponge operates.
By Sarah Hansen
Underwater plants like sea grasses provide habitat and feeding areas for a wide range of aquatic life. They also help filter the water and put the brakes on erosion. But in Chesapeake Bay, the coverage of underwater plants, or submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), has been low for decades, and restoration attempts have had mixed results. That’s why this summer, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center intern Bridget Smith is grappling with 28 years of data to explore which of a host of factors affects SAV in the Bay and how.
by Sarah Hansen
Nitrogen pollution in the Chesapeake Bay became a serious concern in the mid-20th century after the advent of nitrogen-rich chemical fertilizers. Bay restoration efforts have reduced nitrogen pollution somewhat, but achieving healthy nitrogen levels in the Bay is still a long way off. Croplands remain an important source of the nitrogen that pollutes Chesapeake Bay.
Don Weller, senior scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, and his colleague Matthew Baker, associate professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, report in a new study that just over half the nitrogen from croplands might never reach the Bay—if all crop fields were protected by streamside forests and wetlands.
by Kristen Minogue
It’s been a difficult century for the submerged flora of Chesapeake Bay.
In the 1930s, wasting disease nearly wiped out the eelgrasses of the North Atlantic. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, they faced onslaughts from invasive grasses like water chestnut and Eurasian milfoil. Finally, in the summer of 1972, Hurricane Agnes pummeled underwater plants to the lowest levels ever reported in the Bay. This April, they received news that, at first glance, seemed positive: Submerged grasses rose 24 percent between 2012 and 2013, according to aerial surveys of the Chesapeake Bay Program.
But those increases were largely limited to a single species: widgeon grass, a plant known for wild fluctuations. At 60,000 acres total, submerged plants still didn’t come near a recent mini-peak in 2002, they’re a far cry from the ultimate goal of 185,000 acres across the Bay. What is holding them back? And—more importantly—how we can we help ensure the latest expansion isn’t just a blip?
by Kristen Minogue
There are places in the U.S. so polluted, eating fish or crabs from their waters isn’t just unhealthy—it can be illegal. The Environmental Protection Agency calls sites like that “Superfund sites,” a label for abandoned or neglected sites that became dumping grounds for hazardous waste. Some of the highest levels of mercury contamination in the U.S. exist in Superfund sites. Cynthia Gilmour knows this first-hand. As a microbial ecologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, she has worked in several. But short of digging up the polluted sediments and dumping them elsewhere (an expensive and ecologically risky proposition), not many methods exist to get rid of the problem.
“If we use the traditional technologies of removing that and putting it in a landfill, we don’t have a wetland anymore,” says Upal Ghosh, an environmental engineer from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who works with Gilmour.
This fall, Gilmour and Ghosh explored a new technique: using charcoal to trap it in the soil.
by Kristen Minogue
It’s “the largest, coolest marine biological project on Earth,” according to its new director, Emmett Duffy. On Sept. 16 Duffy came on board the Tennenbaum Marine Observatories Network, a.k.a. MarineGEO–the Smithsonian’s global network to monitor the oceans. So far it has five stations tracking the ocean’s chemistry and biology, from SERC in Maryland to STRI in Panama. They plan to add at least 10 more in the next decade. Now, after two months on the job, Duffy shares his vision in this edited Q&A.
What’s the main purpose of MarineGEO?
The overall goal really is a very ambitious one. In my mind, it’s to understand what’s at the heart of how marine ecosystems work…and that is biodiversity. The living web from microbes to large predators that are responsible for ecosystem processes like fish production and habitat creation. So basically what we want to do is map marine biodiversity and what it’s doing across the globe.
By Katie Sinclair
The nutrient lab is still plagued by the mystery of the missing nitrogen. More nitrogen enters the watershed than exits it, and the question remains: Why?
How much nitrogen makes it to the bay can have huge impacts on the water quality and bay health. The Choptank watershed, in a farm-heavy area, has much lower levels of nitrogen in stream water than expected. As farmers add fertilizer to their crops, some nitrogen gets taken up by the plants, and the rest washes away into the watershed , eventually reaching the Chesapeake Bay. Of the nitrogen that is added as fertilizer, only 20 to 30 percent of it is accounted for.
In a narrow, slow-moving stream in the Choptank watershed, fondly nicknamed “Pizza Branch” (due to its proximity to a lone pizza joint puzzlingly located in this predominantly farming area), researchers working under Tom Jordan, Principal investigator of the nutrient lab at SERC, are using different methods to help determine what’s happening to the nitrogen. The project is a joint effort between SERC and Tom Fisher’s lab at the Horn Point Laboratory of the University of Maryland.
Researchers brave high heat, humidity, and voracious mosquitoes to take water samples, a process that can take all day. While taking water from a stream may seem like a straightforward undertaking, the true complexity comes through in the lab, where analysis of microscopic dissolved compounds can reveal the secrets of a watershed.
“It’s a fun challenge to go all over a stream and take samples and bring them back to the lab, to discover things you can’t see with your eyes,” said Jordan.
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by Katrina Lohan
We had very little trouble finding two of the oyster species we needed at three different places. But with only three days left in our trip, we had yet to find Ostrea sp. at more than one location. With our hopes high, we headed toward Portobelo to see if we could find a saline river-like environment that had Ostrea sp. in high enough abundance for us to sample. The drive was gorgeous! We drove along the Atlantic Coast of Panama and stopped at five separate “rivers”, though most of them were pretty small and should probably be called streams instead. We also briefly drove into Portobelo so that we could drive past the old Spanish forts in the city.
We only found Ostrea sp. at one of the rivers, and we didn’t find enough to sample there. Our final stop on our way back to Naos was the French Canal. We had borrowed an inflatable canoe from Mark Torchin, which took us about 20 minutes to pump up. Once we did, we were able to get the canoe into the water and used it to more closely investigate what oysters were growing on the bridge pilings. We had our fingers crossed that it would be Ostrea sp. but, alas, it was Crassostrea sp. instead. Well, I can’t be too upset. While we didn’t get the ideal sampling we were hoping for, it was still a very successful trip!
Next month we head to Merida, Mexico to continue our sampling adventures. Stay tuned!