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Conserving the Choptank River

By Michelle Magliocca, Annapolis Field Office, Habitat Conservation Division

Rivers are lifelines. For thousands of years, we have relied on rivers for drinking water, irrigation, transportation, and food. They provide diverse habitats for crustaceans, waterfowl, and migrating fish. Their power has been harnessed to generate electricity and they are a great source of recreation and beauty.

But the same water used to irrigate crops can carry fertilizers and pesticides back to the river we swim in.  A dam built to provide electricity or control water flow can prevent striped bass from reaching their spawning grounds. And houses built to enjoy the waterfront view can increase erosion and sediment loads, which in turn can affect shellfish that are important to fishermen. 

It is not easy to balance all of these competing uses, but NOAA is trying to do just that. We are taking a multi-pronged approach on the Choptank River, which we have designated as a “Habitat Focus Area.” Our goal is to connect with the Choptank community and use pooled resources to address multiple stressors in this watershed.

There are 18 rivers and many more tributaries running through the Delmarva Peninsula. The largest of these rivers is the Choptank. Starting in the middle of Delaware, the Choptank River winds its way through Maryland’s Eastern Shore before reaching the Chesapeake Bay – the largest estuary in the United States. Seventy-one miles of shoreline sit adjacent to agricultural fields, forested wetlands, and residential developments. The river provides important habitat for native oysters – a staple of the Chesapeake Bay area – and spawning fish such as striped bass, shad, and herring. Residents have historically relied on a healthy and productive watershed to support farming and fishing.

But the Choptank is not what it used to be. Like many other rivers, increased nutrients, sediment, and bacterial contamination have taken a toll on the water quality. Urban growth and development have reduced the amount of wetlands available for wildlife habitat. Seafood harvests have declined, along with the incomes they bring in.

To help tackle some of these challenges, NOAA has made a commitment to help restore and conserve wetlands and submerged habitat along the river. This should improve the water quality and hopefully aid in the recovery of fisheries and oyster reefs. In order to find long-term solutions for keeping the river healthy, we are engaging the local communities that rely so heavily on this environment. The Greater Atlantic Region’s Habitat Conservation Division is an integral part of the Choptank Habitat Focus Area team. Our role is focused particularly on improving the quality of fish habitat within the Choptank River. We want to study how fish use certain habitats in this river and particularly how techniques such as “living shorelines” play a role. We will also be providing technical advice and recommendations for lessening the impacts of coastal development. Stay tuned as we focus our attention on this lifeline of the mid-Atlantic.