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Making Waves: Episode 55 (July 08, 2010)

You’re listening to the sound of four massive 2,000 gallon tanks filled with filtered water, and swimming around in circles in these tanks are about 100 striped bass from the Chesapeake Bay – some of them are over two feet long.

“Striped bass are opportunistic, so the Bay is kind of like their buffet. They’ll eat spot, menhaden, white perch, they’ll pull up blue crab, anything that’s out there…”

That’s Lonnie Gonsalves, a student from the University of Maryland who’s been studying these fish as part of his graduate work for the past two years. 

“I’m kind of the new guy here at Oxford. I’m a graduate student down at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. I came one with the graduate sciences program, it’s administered through NOAA’s Office of Education… ”

Lonnie is studying how diet affects the immune systems of the fish, and what role diet plays in the fish’s susceptibility to pathogens in the Bay. Once he finishes his work with NOAA’s graduate sciences program, he’s set to become a full-time NOAA employee at the Cooperative Oxford Lab. And that’s where we are today, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay.

Lonnie’s study is one small example of the kind of work that going on at the lab -- and the research that’s done here is about much, much more than just striped bass.

We’re joined today by Dr. Bob Wood, the director of the Cooperative Oxford Lab, to find out how this small research facility helps to keep the ecosystem of the Chesapeake Bay healthy and in balance. And as you’ll find out,  what’s learned here can help us better take care of not only the Chesapeake, but all of our estuaries and coastal areas around the nation ... and around the world.

It's Thursday, July 8, 2010, and this is Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service.

(Cooperative Oxford Lab)
Ok, we’re going to head inside the Cooperative Oxford Lab for the rest of the episode to sit down with Dr. Bob Wood.  Bob has served as director of the 50-member lab for the past six years. We began by asking him why it’s called a ‘cooperative’ lab.

“We’re called the Cooperative Oxford Lab because we’re a unique blend of two parts of NOAA -- the National Marine Fisheries Service and the National Ocean Service.”

But that’s not the most unique part, he said. In addition to the federal researchers from NOAA, the lab is also home to state employees from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources:

“They actually own the resources in the Chesapeake Bay because they’re state waters, and they can better help us tune what we do and how we do it to meet the needs of real managers that go out every day to try and restore and protect the Chesapeake Bay and other coastal zones across the nation.”

So you may ask yourself why studying the Chesapeake Bay watershed area is so important that it warrants this special federal-state laboratory. Bob said it’s because the Bay provides for a great learning environment and study area to understand and develop a strategy for confronting the stressors that are deteriorating our coastlines around the nation and around the globe. And it’s not just another estuary. It’s the most productive estuary in the world and it’s the largest estuary in
the United States.

“It also was one of the first colonized by Europeans, and therefore what we come to think of more modern land practices like land clearing, development, now paving land surfaces with impervious surfaces ... just more people, eating more food, providing for more waste streams into the Bay. Those ills are being felt in coastal ecosystems throughout the world. If we can understand how to best confront them through management practices, policies, and restoration activities in the Chesapeake Bay, then we can transfer those technologies and those insights through the country and indeed throughout the world.”

Today, the mission of the Cooperative Oxford Lab is quite different from when it first began operations 50 years ago. In the past, it was more about stopping the spread of specific diseases that affected oysters and shellfish and fish like the striped bass. While these activities are still important to the lab, Bob said that the research today is more about the big picture -- of providing a broader context for studying an entire environment and ecosystem, and weighing that against human uses.

“So what we try to do is take a more holistic approach.  We look at different watersheds within the Chesapeake Bay and we choose those watersheds very strategically so that we compare watersheds that have mainly agricultural usage to watersheds that have mainly urbanized uses, to those that are more mixed, or you might say more balanced. We look primarily at water quality and seafood issues. We also look at diseases that harm both humans and fish and shellfish resources. And when we do that, we go in and say well, what is the big picture? And how is it different from watershed land use to watershed land use. That provides us with the ability to help contextualize decisions that politicians, managers, and actually individual taxpayers must make.”

The idea that drives the research at the lab is that ecosystems - not just the Chesapeake, but nearly all ecosystems on Earth - are asked to provide services to humans. So to understand how to manage these complicated systems -- to keep them healthy -- we need to look at more than just one stressor at time -- more than just, say, how one fish is being affected.

“Nearly every ecosystem you can name, if it isn’t inhabited by humans, it’s visited often by humans, and we’re doing that for a purpose -- we’re asking something of that ecosystem. Whether it’s as in the export of our waste streams, or whether it’s tourism, or whether it’s fisheries resources and food, waterskiing, transportation corridors for things like natural gas in the case of Chesapeake Bay and other areas -- we’re asking something of that ecosystem. Unfortunately, we tend to ask address each environmental situation, each stressor, one a one-by-one basis.”

The Cooperative Oxford Lab is trying to change that focus as they study the Bay. Bob said that it’s one thing to provide science and advice to decision makers along the Bay about what needs protected, or where it’s OK to develop, but what’s really needed is to attach dollar values to this science and advice because that’s just how the world works.

“We could hit one by and one and say ‘that area is just too pristine. We like it for some reason. But this area can be developed. At the end of the day, though, what we really need know is: what will it cost you? What will you gain by developing in terms of tax dollars now, but what will you lose on the other hand. Will you lose a pristine crab nursery area? Will your striped bass start to have lesions in an area that was otherwise a very fertile fishery ground for both recreational and commercial fisherman. And once those stresses start to be seen, you’re also starting to lose tourism dollars. So we try to go into these watersheds, in fact into the whole Bay, studying watershed by watershed to give people ‘not in my backyard’ context. Do you want a new development there? You understand why it’s good for you. Do you also understand what you may have to sacrifice? And can we at the end of the day balance dollar by dollar and decide what is the right decision here?”

So that’s what the lab is trying to do through many channels, from the Chesapeake Eco-check program, an annual report card developed in partnership with the University of Maryland:

“to our scientific studies that look at diseases in the water like a crime lab would, to disease in fish, which uses cultures like, you know, when you go to the doctor to see if you have strep throat, to just sampling the fish -- how many are there, what’s the diversity. And we take a look at all those indicators, and we package them up in the context of the different watershed land use comparisons. And we’re working now with partners to try and get economists involved to start to put a dollar value on ‘what does it mean to be an agricultural area vs. a developed area vs. a more balanced area. We hope in that context, we can be more than scientists. We can actually help provide science as a service, that actually gets used by policy makers in a way that benefits the economy and taxpayers.”

But if the Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the nation, how do they do it? How do they know what to look at in the Bay to get that big picture of overall ecosystem health?

“We try to find things that are appropriately indicative of stresses that we’re concerned about, and of the reduction in services we’re also concerned about on the other end. So, we’re limited because the Bay has very different salinity regimes from place to place. We have to try and pick the right fish or shellfish species that tolerate those various salinities with the places we go, so we compare apples with apples. So, for example, one species that’s ubiquitous is the mummychog. It’s a small fish. A lot of people use it for bait. It’s well known in studies of disease as indicators, and it tolerates a wide range of salinities. So we use species like the mummychog, like spot, like white perch and striped bass appropriately. So striped bass would not be a good indicator species in some cases because it moves around quite a bit. But when they’re young, they stay in one place. We might pick that as an indicator at a certain life stage of the organism. And striped bass, of course, we’re all concerned about how they’re doing because we like to know our top predator in the Bay is healthy as a population, but we also like to eat our top predator in the Bay. And so, for both those reasons, it’s a good indicator and we try to squeeze it in, even if you can only use one life stage.”

Shellfish like the oyster are also commonly used as an indicator of estuary health because they’re sedentary filter feeders. That makes them sort of like living water-sampling devices for a given location over their life span. Lab researchers also test for different types of diseases in the Bay.

“The molecular tools that we use now are very precise and surgical. We can go in and look at a particular disease organism as an indicator. And we choose that because of its ramifications. Disease is thought to respond to warmer temperatures and to more nutrients, two of the concerns we have with the Bay in terms of global warming and what we call eutrophication, or over-enrichment of nutrients in the Bay. So we can pick out specific diseases -- things called vibrio. Things called mycobacteriosis. And we can actually measure them in the water. These things are natural to the environment. It’s when things come out of balance to stresses on the ecosystem that allow them to, if you will, bloom to levels that are dangerous to humans and dangerous to fish and shellfish. That’s what we want to know about. And we want to know about that before it really becomes a big problem in the Bay.”

As Bob just said, it’s when things come out of balance because of stressors on the environment that we start to see problems, things like blooms of certain diseases. But on a larger scale, the management of the entire ecosystem of the Bay can be seen as a question of balance, too: striking the right balance that keeps the Bay healthy while still allowing us humans to enjoy what Bob called ‘ecosystem services,’ everything from wastewater management, to fishing, to tourism. So how well is the Bay balanced now?

“I think you appropriately say things are out of balance when notice a change, especially for the worse, and since the 1970s, in some ways the Bay has gotten better. But in some ways it’s gotten worse, too. We’ve lost a lot of sea grasses since the 70s. Nutrients have generally gotten better or stayed the same. Some of our species like striped bass seem to be doing much, much better. They’re officially restored. And other species have actually declined. I think it’s our job to stay on top of status of the Chesapeake Bay, that’s one reason we help issue a report card here -- the Eco-Check program with the University of Maryland. We want to know what the Bay is like in ways that matter to human beings. And we want to listen to what people say in response to the grades their part of the Bay receives, and the questions they ask about what does that mean for me?”

And we’d like to thank Dr. Bob Wood, the director of the Cooperative Oxford Lab in Oxford, Maryland, for taking the time to speak with us. And we wish the Cooperative Oxford Lab a happy anniversary. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the facility. Now let’s leave Bob with the last word:

“Human change every environment they enter. Some people look at that as the natural course of things. Some people see that as an evil that we want to try and avoid. So you have to put that in some sort of context. It’s really not for us as scientists or scientists working for work as service at NOAA to make those decisions. It’s for us to try to put them into context. Where are things going? What are the roots of the stressors that people might be concerned about? Are those stressors coming from manageable human activities? If they are, you have to look at the other side of it. Are the stresses resulting from things we want to keep doing in Chesapeake Bay? Can we reduce their impact? Can we change the number or the rate at which those stressors are being felt? Those are all the kinds of questions we have to answer.”

That’s all for this episode. If you have any questions about this week’s podcast, about the National Ocean Service, or about our ocean, send us an email at

Let’s bring in the ocean....

This is Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service.