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Delaware Bay Update

January 26, 2009

A decade ago the Delaware Bay was a mess of pollution despite the tightening of laws and an increased public awareness of the importance of preserving our natural resources. Predictions of the death of the commercial fishing and shellfish industries were widely accepted. Articles like http://www.delawareriverkeeper.org/factsheets/delaware.html had a decidedly pessimistic tone.

 

Over the past several years there have been signs of improvement. In the late 1990s the osprey numbers began to increase in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware in strong numbers. Environmentalists believed that DDT in the water supply had weakened the eggs of the predatory birds, causing them to break before hatching. A number of projects were started to encourage osprey to return to the area waterways. Now it seems that every available man-made and natural perch has an active osprey nest. Osprey sightings – once an occasional event – are now a common daily event.

 

American bald eagles have also returned and the residents of most shore communities report seeing them from time to time. The pair of birds that hunted in my neighborhood last year has not been spotted this spring, but I am optimistic that more will return.

 

Commercial fishermen report that the crab population is the greatest in over 20 years (last year being the 2nd largest) and they believe that the cycle will likely run for a few more years. The market for crabs is strong; the fishermen are enjoying a profitable business and are happy. The trucks and trailers loaded with crabs that leave local docks each day look as if they could not fit another basket without losing the load to a bump on the road.

 

Oystering seems to remain in question. The experiments with the introduction of Asian oysters were called off after finding that the Asian oysters took over and wiped out the American species in the testing beds. The 2005 Oyster Shell-Planting Revitalization Project reported surprisingly strong results (see http://pollution.net/environmental_blogs/node/view/40) . Oyster harvests have increased each year from 2006 through 2008 at my hometown but I do not know if these results are widespread.

 

A proposed measure by DuPont chemical to dump DX gas (a residue of nerve gas destruction) into the Delaware Bay was abandoned last year. The dredging of the river channel to allow larger tankers access to Philadelphia remains a strong concern among environmentalists. Dredging the channel will kick up the levels of toxins in the water that had settled in the muck over decades, creating a new wave of pollution the same as if the toxins had just been dumped now.

 

An oil spill in 2006 near Philadelphia made news headlines, but was apparently pretty well contained. There were no signs of an oil slick on the shores of Cumberland County to the south despite published reports to the contrary (http://www.delawareriverkeeper.org/newsresources/pressrelease.asp?ID=4) . The DEP reopened affected oyster beds for harvesting shortly after completing testing in the aftermath of the spill.

 To our south, the Chesapeake Bay continues to suffer from the effects of nitrogen pollution from agricultural businesses. The Delaware Bay escapes this fate only because the amount of agriculture in its estuary has declined. It would be useful to see some statistics on the tend level of heavy metals and PCBs in fish and shellfish over the past decade. As far as I know, currently published reports are based on aging data and may not reflect changes over the past five years or so.

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