No one had illusions that the work of the Chesapeake Bay Program, a massive federal-state restoration effort, begun in 1983 and unmatched anywhere in the world, would be quick or easy. But no one anticipated that 22 years later we'd still be struggling. Chesapeake Bay is not alone. From the Gulf of Mexico to Europe's Baltic and North Seas, from Hong Kong to Chile to Australia, dozens of coastal regions are showing similar declines. Not one has yet fully recovered.
"If the richest, most powerful nation on Earth can't clean up this mess on the very doorstep of the nation's capital, what message do we send for the future of the planet?" asks William C. Baker, president of the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF). Founded in 1967, and one of the largest regional environmental groups in the U.S., CBF is the voice of the Chesapeake; in its latest ecological report card CBF gave Chesapeake Bay a failing grade of 27 out of 100.
It's a time of soul-searching for people like Baugh and me, who have dedicated our careers to reversing the decline—I as a journalist, he as an environmental educator. I've known the bay for six decades, through its health and decline, blithely gloried in it as a young hunter, fisherman, and marsh mucker; worried professionally about it for 30 years as an environmental writer for the Baltimore Sun; and written about it "hanging in the balance" 12 years ago in this magazine.
During the past year I've been traveling the approximately 200-mile-long estuary by kayak, skiff, and back road. Call it a farewell to old haunts, or maybe a search for hope. Or maybe it's the bay writer at 60 trying to come to terms with what was supposed to happen on his watch, but may not; may never.
This thought weighed on me one June weekend in the fishing village of Tilghman Island on Maryland's Eastern Shore. The graceful old oyster skipjack Rebecca T. Ruark was ready to sail from Dogwood Harbor. I've spent cold, blowy winter days watching tons of muddy oysters being hauled aboard her battle-scarred decks. Now freshly painted, with lounge chairs on her deck, Rebecca never looked prettier—or more out of her element. In the decades after she was launched in 1886, a thousand wooden sailcraft worked the bay. Now she's a national historic landmark, one of a handful of surviving skipjacks largely relegated to use for recreational charters, museum exhibits, or sailing at festivals.