Experts speak from experience Gathering: Top researchers who for decades have shaped understanding of the Chesapeake Bay got together for a 'dialogue across generations' to address young scientists and students.

On The Bay

November 27, 1998|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

SO ESTIMABLE WAS the small group assembled for a morning of conversation last week at Washington College, it may be odd to compare them to oysters -- but they'll understand.

Most of them, oysterlike, settled here and stuck for the bulk of their careers. Like bivalves filtering the bay's water, their work left the estuary better off. It also gave us a taste for the Chesapeake that will linger as long as people care to protect the marvelous resource they have inherited.

The gathering was conceived as an "across the generations dialogue" by its organizers, several private and government organizations involved in bay restoration.

The idea was to gather, maybe for the last time in some cases, top scientists and administrators who shaped our understanding the bay during careers that spanned the past 60 years.

They addressed an audience of young scientists and science students, invited from colleges and laboratories throughout the bay's watershed.

Three of them, Bill Hargis, Gene Cronin and Donald Pritchard, literally were bay science when I began covering environmental matters about 25 years ago.

Hargis, a Virginia native whose mother was a Tangier Islander, between 1959 and 1981 built a tiny fisheries laboratory into the internationally regarded Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Early on, he said, "I really believed our charter that said, 'Research the bay's problems and give information to decision-makers.' " He was soon told, he said, he need make himself available only if asked.

VIMS today is harder to ignore, though Hargis said he is greatly frustrated "that science is not playing the role it should in the future of Chesapeake Bay."

Cronin, an Aberdeen native, directed Maryland's Chesapeake Bay research for 20 years. No scientist in history has been more tireless or effective in educating the public to understand and appreciate the Chesapeake Bay.

Cronin also has devoted himself to studying the blue crab for the past 58 years, and often cautions how much we still don't understand about the crustacean.

Both Cronin and Hargis said the most fundamental leap in bay science, however, came from their colleague, Pritchard. An oceanographer originally from California, he directed the Johns Hopkins University's former Chesapeake Bay Institute.

Using crude, laboriously deployed current meters that he virtually had to invent, Pritchard "changed the way we see and manage Chesapeake Bay and other estuaries," Cronin said.

It was Pritchard who documented the classic two-layered flow of the bay. Lighter freshwater from the rivers is constantly flowing seaward, while heavy, salty ocean water moves up the bay along its bottom. From this has come our understanding of everything from oxygen in the bay's depths to the movements of larval oysters and fish.

Pritchard said one of the seminal revelations about the bay came from Grace Brush, the only woman scientist on last week's panel. She is a researcher at Johns Hopkins.

Brush spent frustrating years convincing colleagues and environmental agencies that she could reliably extract, in plugs of sediment from the bay's bottom, volumes of historic and prehistoric information.

She was able to identify and date the preserved pollens of aquatic and terrestrial plants, going back more than a thousand years.

Besides revealing changes in the land of the bay's watershed, her work proved that the disappearance of the estuary's submerged grass beds in the 1970s was no natural cycle, but something new and ominous.

Brush's experience led to wisdom for the students, heartily endorsed by all the "old gurus":

"Timing is all," said M. Gordon "Reds" Wolman, a longtime scientist at Hopkins and for 20 years chairman of its department of geography and environmental engineering.

"Your responsibility is to hang in there, do your research, and to be prepared to take advantage of those windows when they open, when you may be of some help," Wolman said.

A recent example of how that happens, often for unexpected reasons, was the legislature's passage of a bill last year to control nitrogen and phosphorus in farm runoff.

They should have done it years ago, based on careful research by dozens of scientists proving conclusively that those substances were polluting the Chesapeake Bay.

But they did it because of surprise outbreaks of Pfiesteria, which is probably -- but not conclusively -- linked to nutrients. It was one of those "windows" where more progress was made in months than in the past decade.

Aside from their perseverance through good times and bad, one is struck by how actively engaged the elder scientists remain.

Cronin, in failing health, is editing thousands of papers on blue crabs into what should be a definitive volume. Hargis is busily at work putting out "the truth" about the status of the bay's oysters.

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