by Lydia Fowler
The Chesapeake Bay is one of many large bodies of water that is negatively impacted by human activity. Many people enjoy the fun the water can bring. They go boating, swimming, fishing, and some people just like being by the water enjoying the view. The bay surrounds populated cities and countrysides, both of which produce different types of runoff and trash that harm the ecosystem.
Microplastics are a big part of the trash problem. As plastic sits in the water it can break down into tiny little pieces as small as five millimeters long. Birds and other animals can mistake these pieces for food. Microbeads are even smaller and were found in many health and beauty products until they were banned in 2015.
Between the businesses along the water and the various activities that occur on or near the water, a lot of trash ends up either directly in the bay or into a smaller body of water that runs into the bay. Many of the common items found include food wrappers, plastic bags or straws, and cigarette butts. Baltimore Inner Harbor has a water wheel they call “Mr. Trash Wheel” that collected 165 tons of trash throughout 2016.
Because of the surrounding farmland and cities, there is a lot of chemical runoff going into the bay or contributing bodies of water. According to data found by the EPA in 2014, 80% of the bay’s tidal segments are either partially or fully harmed by toxins. Pesticides, metals, and other contaminants can be harmful to the growth and reproduction of fish and other wildlife. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were banned in the U.S. in 1979, but are still causing major issues. PCBs can still be found in old machinery or equipment, paints, plastics, and other materials. They are still making their way into the environment through leaks and improper disposal. Rainwater that flows into feeding streams or rivers can pick up hazardous materials such as pet waste, automotive fluids, trash, and any chemicals that are improperly disposed of. The EPA says that urban and suburban stormwater leads to about 15% of all nitrogen in the bay. It’s also the only source that is still increasing and it’s one major reason the Chesapeake is on the EPA’s “dirty waters” list. Forests help soak up many of the nutrients that are released, but there is a shortage of forests and grassy areas due to urbanization. The more housing developments, factories, and shopping centers that are built, the more polluted runoff there will be.
Aquatic life in the bay can confuse larger pieces of trash such as plastic bags for food. The different oils and chemicals found in the water aren’t safe for fish to be breathing in and consuming. Small pieces of trash can easily make their way into a fish’s system and harm it. Sediments and bacteria cover the surface of the water and block the sunlight from reaching aquatic plants. The excess nutrients also cause algae blooms. Many fish rely on those plants for food to survive. Other species such as crabs and oysters need oxygen to survive, but it gets blocked by the large amount of algae. The decrease in fish can also impact the birds and other animals that eat fish.
Animals aren’t the only ones that can be negatively impacted by the dangerous pollutants in the Chesapeake. Many people who live around the bay rely on it for survival. The bay supplies drinking water and even with proper filtration, not all pollution can be filtered out. Many people also enjoy the values of aquatic life such as oysters and crabs. They are very common for the locals and many people live off of the money earned from catching and selling them.
There are many things residents can easily do at home to help. Most ways to aid the cleanup involve a change in lifestyle. This doesn’t mean life is going to get harder, it’s just a change that may take some getting used to. Less use of plastics such as straws or grocery bags would cut back on the amount of plastic in the bay. The bags tend to be the most popular and publicly known issue for sea turtles and it tends to catch more attention so try using cloth reusable bags. Many food businesses are already moving away from straws. Popular coffee chain Starbucks has been advertising their switch from straws to newly designed lids for their cold beverages. Plastic water bottles have also been taking over.
In 2017, 106,880 plastic water bottles were collected by the trash wheel in Baltimore, Maryland. Switch to using reusable water bottles instead of buying and throwing out new ones. Something to always remember that we learn early in life, reduce, reuse, and recycle!
It’s important to remember that the Chesapeake Bay isn’t the only place that has this issue. It even isn’t limited to water, pollution and litter is also an ongoing problem on land and in the air we breathe. No matter where you are there is always a way you can help, no matter how small the deed. If you don’t know where to start, search for local cleanup days that may be happening at a park or beach near you. Start going for hikes or light walks and bring a trash bag and see how quickly it will fill up, you could be surprised.