Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Chesapeake Bay - Part 2

I remember, as a child, riding the ferry across the Chesapeake Bay on our way to Chincoteague.  When I was born, my father was in the US Navy, and we were stationed at Oceana, Virginia; then at Millington, Tennessee, then Corpus Christi, Texas.  Dad retired from the Navy on my fifth birthday, and we moved to Gainesville, Florida.  Anytime we visited Mom's home town, which was usually once or twice each year, we took the ferry from Norfolk to Cape Charles, Virginia.  That happened until 1964, when I was 8 years old; in April of that year, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel opened.  I was astonished that you could drive both over and under Chesapeake Bay and did not have to take the ferry.  I can even tell you that we crossed the Bridge-Tunnel in my Uncle's brand new Jeep Wagoneer - my sister, Mom, and I in the back seat, and Aunt Ruth in the front passenger seat, with Uncle Claude driving.  I remember seagulls flying alongside the car, and how scared I was when we entered the first of two tunnels.  Now, 52 years later, I enjoy the scents of the salt water and the rhythmic beat of the tires across the joined slabs of the road bed - as well as the sight of the gulls flying beside the car.  For me, the Chesapeake Bay has always meant that I was almost home...
    The Chesapeake Bay is home to many fauna that either migrate to the area, or live there year round.  There are over 300 species of fish and many shellfish and crab species. Some of these creatures include the Atlantic menhaden, the striped bass, the American eel, the eastern oyster, and the blue crab.  Birds include ospreys, great blue herons, bald eagles, and peregrine falcons; the last two listed were threatened with extinction by DDT: their numbers plummeted, but have risen in recent years.  The piping plover is a threatened species which inhabits the wetlands around the Bay.
    Larger fish, like the Atlantic sturgeon, as well as several varieties of sharks, and stingrays visit the Chesapeake.  The waters of Chesapeake Bay have long been regarded as one of the most important nursery areas for sharks along the east coast.  Megafaunas  like bull sharks, tiger sharks, scalloped hammerhead sharks, basking sharks, and manta rays are also known visitors.  Bottlenose dolphins are also found in the Bay.  The unconfirmed sightings of humpback whales seem to be proven, as four dead humpbacks have washed up recently along the Eastern Shore.  The endangered North Atlantic right whale, as well as fin, minke, and sei whales have also been seen within and near the mouth of the Chesapeake.  Loggerhead turtles are also known visitors in the Chesapeake.
    The Bay is mostly known for its seafood production - especially blue crabs, clams and oysters.  In the middle of the 20th century, the Bay supported 9,000 full-time watermen and their families.  Today the Chesapeake is less productive than it used to be .  This is due to runoff from urban areas along the western shore of the Bay, runoff from farms on the Eastern Shore and from the Susquehanna River watershed, over-harvesting of marine life, and the invasion of foreign species into the waters.
    In the 19th century, the plentiful oyster harvests in the Chesapeake led to the development of the skipjack, the state boat of Maryland, which is the only remaining working boat type in the United States that is still under sail power.  Other characteristic bay-area work boats include sail-powered boats such as the log canoe, the pungy, the bugeye, and the motorized Chesapeake Bay deadrise, the state boat of Virginia.
    In contrast to harvesting the wild oyster, oyster farming is a growing industry in the Chesapeake Bay that helps maintain the estuary's productivity, as well as a natural effort for filtering the impurities, such as excess nutrients, from the water in an effort to reduce the effects of man-made pollution.  The Chesapeake Bay Program is using oysters to reduce the amount of nitrogen compounds entering the Bay's waters.  Oysters are hermaphroditic and will change gender at least once during their lifetime; they often begin life as a male, and end life as a female.  There are numerous ways to cook and eat them (besides raw on the half-shell), as well as many recipes and sauces to accompany oyster dishes.  According to Kendra Bailey Morris, of the National Public Radio in 2007, "The Chesapeake oyster - sometimes called Chesapeake white gold - has a flavor and texture that begs connoisseurs to come back and shuck just a few more."
    The Chesapeake is also famous for its rockfish, a regional name for striped bass.  Once on the verge of extinction, rockfish have made a significant comeback because of legislative action that placed a moratorium on rockfishing, which allowed the species to re-populate.  Rockfish are now allowed to fished again, but only in strictly controlled and limited quantities.

    Chincoteague Island, my maternal family home, was long famous for its oysters and clams.  For many years, Campbell's Soup Company had an exclusive contract for the oysters and clams caught, or raised, in and around the island.  For quite a few years only Chincoteague oysters and clams were used in Campbell's soup.....  The island had problems with pollution, and our shellfish production took a huge dive.  The waters are now cleaner, and our oysters and clams are being noticed again.

No comments: