Nanticoke faces threat to the life it supports


September 22, 1996|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

The Nanticoke is one of those Eastern Shore rivers that most people pass quickly on the way to or from the beach, an often-murky waterway that seems to offer little of interest when passing over the Route 50 bridge at Vienna at a mile-a-minute.

But the Nanticoke and many of the other rivers on the lower shore, their tributaries and wetlands are vibrant -- and, according to a recent report by the World Wildlife Fund, they are threatened by global warming and rising sea levels.

To a layman, such a threat seems remote.

On a recent fishing trip out of Sharptown, the Nanticoke and its creeks and marsh guts teemed with fish -- largemouth bass, rockfish, pickerel and yellow perch.

Red-winged blackbirds patrolled the marsh tops. Muskrat runs crisscrossed the hummocks. Herons stalked the shallows.

A bald eagle swept down from its aerie, lighted on a mud bank on the edge of the marsh, and cocked its head to inspect a piece of carrion.

Satisfied, it ripped briefly at the flesh with its beak, rose with its meal clutched in its talons and swept away over the wetlands.

But according to the WWF, an international conservation organization, rising sea levels and changes in the timing of the seasons already are damaging breeding grounds for migratory birds and affecting food sources.

According to Stephen P. Leatherman of the University of Maryland's Laboratory for Coastal Research, in the past 50 years about 33 percent of the marshes at Blackwater National Wildlife Reserve in Dorchester County have been lost to erosion and rising water levels.

The Department of Natural Resources also has been concerned about saltwater intrusion into the labyrinthine Dorchester marshes. An increase in salinity may have an adverse impact on freshwater species that inhabit the marshland.

According to WWF, the wetlands of Delaware Bay and Chesapeake Bay are among 15 areas whose migratory bird habitat already is threatened -- and no one knows how to solve the problem.

In a nutshell, the WWF said, earlier springs and longer summers in the Arctic are responsible for higher sea levels, which have been rising since the end of the last Ice Age.

Rising steadily enough over 15 or 20 milleniums to flood out the channel of the Susquehanna River and form the Chesapeake Bay, which formed the wetlands.

But modern man apparently has accelerated the process.

According to WWF, the use of fossil fuels is in large part responsible for the greenhouse effect, which causes warmer and longer Arctic summers and more extensive ice melt.

The concern of the WWF is that if habitat changes too quickly, wildlife will not adapt fast enough to outlast the changes.

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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