This has hung on our wall for 34 years. I think it was a wedding gift, and it is so fitting.
Britt Slattery, NPS
I take my husband’s antics in stride. He’s been quite repetitive over these last 34 years of wedded bliss. Why dampen his fun, when I get to enjoy the fruits of his near-constant endeavors? Only last night, he returned from a successful deer hunt, and this morning he’s off on the river to pluck something tasty from the water. My waistline is challenged, but my palate is always pleased. Today, it’s my fault he’s in a slightly obsessed pursuit. I told him about my walk yesterday in the crisp fall weather, ending at the river where I happened to witness an episode of crazy bird action above the water, likely signaling a striped bass feeding frenzy. The concentrated cluster of whirling, diving, squawking gulls and terns is a common sight for those who know to look and recognize it as a sign of fish activity below. Well into the fall, the birds and rockfish are all after the same snack of baitfish. Seasons for us are not only tied to changing weather. The rhythms of hunting season, fishing season (and repeat) are a big driver for our household’s schedule, peppered with hiking and other means to feed our souls through nature.
“Please do tell me again,” said no neighbor of ours ever, “how taking care of my yard affects my chances of catching rockfish.” After decades of hard work and never-ending challenges in this field of environmental conservation and education, we hope we have helped to make a difference. Overall we are able to report that things are going relatively well when asked by friends at parties, “so, how IS the Bay doing?” They grow glassy-eyed if one of us (I won’t call anyone out, but y’all know who I mean) gets long-winded in the weeds of science. All they really want to know is if they can catch a fish or whether the crab prices will keep going up.
As an educator, I’ll keep working until the day that every person has a clear and constant knowledge and awareness of their environment that sustains them, how all things are connected and why their actions matter. Imagine how different things would be if we all inherently understood and lived in willing concert with what’s good for our planet! I’m inspired by Indigenous cultures that honor nature as a way of knowing, crucial to survival. I yearn for that to be embraced more widely.
“We are all beings on the same earth, and … we all need the same things to flourish. …What’s good for life is good for all life… human flourishing and fish flourishing must be mutually reinforcing, or we wouldn’t both still be here, right?”
– Robin Wall Kimmerer1
Strategic efforts and programs to assess and build stewardship among individuals and communities exist through multiple channels, including all levels of government, non-government entities and the Chesapeake Bay Program partnership. We will write about those another day. Meanwhile, at home, I will continue to do what I can to explain to the neighbors and hope that there’s an eventual snowball effect as neighbors share with others across fences and social media alike.
We want to have local fish to eat for a long time to come, so I try to find opportunities to share these friendly, relevant and compelling stories about the factors that influence our fish to exemplify their importance. Here’s what I want my fellow watershed inhabitants to know:
The food web matters — Rockfish often feed on swirling schools of menhaden, my favorite fish to watch as their little silver bodies glimmer together, open-mouthed, scooping tiny plant and animal organisms (phyto- and zooplankton) from the water column. These microorganisms feed the filter feeders, such as menhaden, who feed the predators who feed the higher-order omnivores…you get the idea. Habitat for all of these critters is affected by interconnected factors, such as water and air temperatures, the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water, and salinity. Bodies of water are intimately connected to the land and can be harmed by what washes off of and is done to the land. It’s important to consider the entire ecosystem and how pulling on (i.e., stressing) one thread of the web can cause changes to each trophic level (from plants on up through humans).
Trees are critical to water quality — We had a gorgeous oak in our yard that was at least 250 years old, an iconic community remnant of local history. We were devastated when it became diseased beyond intervention and had to be removed. The drainage in the yard was dramatically changed until we planted native trees, shrubs and grasses in its place. I feel better knowing that the soil isn’t running off of my yard and eventually into nearby waterways. While all plants with deeper roots help hold soil in place, trees are our best natural defense against a multitude of ills. They stabilize the soil, soak up water, and trap and store pollutants; provide habitat for insects, birds, mammals and other organisms; clean the air; and shade the water, helping to keep it cool. Their shade also helps keep our communities cooler, aiding human health while treating stormwater and cutting costs in the built environment. Want to make a difference? Protect existing trees/forests and plant more!
Yes, yard care makes a difference — Whatever the rain hits on the house, driveway, sidewalk and yard can all be washed away. If you have kids, have them watch where water is exiting your property, put an orange peel in the flow, and follow its trajectory. Where does it go? Likely, your neighborhood drainage eventually dumps out into a local waterway. Anything you’ve sprayed on your lawn or garden, de-icer on your pavement or chemicals from your roof, as well as trash and other debris are all draining with the rainwater. Every spot where a raindrop hits matters, as the runoff compounds where the water collects — potentially polluting the water you drink or where your dinner is swimming.
Hard surfaces make it hotter — One day during the heatwave this summer, I visited our daughter at her rowhouse in Baltimore. It was 10 degrees hotter in the city than at home in the suburbs. Her neighbors were out on their stoops getting a little air, kids playing on the sidewalk with a sprinkler, adults chatting and trying not to wilt. My dad grew up just a few blocks from there, and when he was young (nearly 100 years ago), families would sleep in the nearby park when it was too hot in the house. Asphalt and other hard surfaces absorb heat and increase runoff, raising both air and water temperatures. Water warmed from the runoff breeds poor conditions for fish and for the people fishing for and eating them. Urban areas tend to have fewer trees, especially in low income neighborhoods. We need more trees and green spaces in urban areas to keep us all cooler and healthier. And, everywhere possible, we should choose to retain permeable ground instead of pavement so the rain can sink into the soil.
Climate change is a game-changer — The climate change scenario is overwhelming to many people. Understanding can begin with a basic explanation: burning fossil fuels (gasoline, coal, etc.) puts gases (especially too much carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere that act as a blanket, trapping heat close to the earth. Consequently, our planet’s energy is out of balance. The climate and weather are warming, bringing more frequent and intense storms, flooding, drought and fires; species are declining and their ranges shifting; sea level is rising, our coastal communities are more vulnerable… Acting to curtail climate change is urgent. Drive less. Buy local. Choose alternative energy sources. Protect land. Plant trees. Because climate surrounds and affects us all, it will take all of us, relying on science as well as social and policy structures, to make good decisions and put practical solutions in place to adapt and mitigate.
Live lightly — Every positive choice individuals make is helpful; larger scale, collective efforts reduce our footprint the most. Benefits can stack up quickly with whole community programs and incentives enabling everyone to participate. Think about the difference between two people carpooling occasionally and several whole busloads of people foregoing driving their own cars routinely because it’s convenient, easy, and saves them money and effort. Many cities are piloting various incentive programs for reducing emissions.
“You know, if one person, just one person, does it, they may think he’s really sick… And if three people do it! Can you imagine three people walkin’ in, singin’ a bar of ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ and walkin’ out? They may think it’s an organization! And can you imagine fifty people a day…? Friends, they may think it’s a movement!”
– Arlo Guthrie (legendary folk singer)
These factors and many more play into whether or not we can pull dinner from the Chesapeake. We are forever grateful for having the skills and opportunity to take sustenance from the land and water to feed our family. We hope to give back by helping to nurture awareness and willingness to live sustainably, “loving and respecting the earth, living by the rules of gratitude and reciprocity.”2
While the fish are biting, it is a good time to consider all of the pieces necessary to keep our plates full into the future.
My favorite rockfish dish: cornmeal crusted fish over a bed of roasted local silver queen corn, with homemade salsa verde. The fisherman is also quite a chef.
Keeping the water clean, swimmable and fishable is everyone’s job.
Britt Slattery is the National Park Service Chesapeake’s coordinator for the Chesapeake Bay Program Fostering Chesapeake Stewardship Goal Implementation Team. Her husband Mike Slattery works for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Science Applications Program, with the Delaware Bay and Chesapeake Bay Programs. No matrimonial bonds were harmed in the development or sharing of this piece.
Photo credits: Storm drain image from USDA; all others by Britt Slattery.
- Where there are a lot of crazy birds, there are biting fish!
- Mike Slattery with a “keeper” striped bass (aka rockfish) in the Severn River. Much larger trophy-sized fish can be caught in coastal areas.
- A swirl of menhaden feeding near shore.
- Stewardship efforts remind people of their connection to local waterways. Photo: USDA.
Don’t forget to send us your 2020 land conservation success stories as they develop. They’ll land in the new and growing collection at success.chesapeakeconservation.org, a tool we can all use to show collective impact. See the checklist below for easy-to-follow, simple guidelines.