Conserving Wildlife, Delaware Bay, Expeditions and Travels

Two Bays Two Worlds Same Fate


Two Bays Two Worlds

Most see the Delaware Bay as the poor and sad relation to the more prosperous and vibrant Chesapeake Bay. There is no doubt the Chesapeake bay is far wealthier than it’s sister bay only a few miles to the east. With cities like Annapolis or towns like St Michaels, the Chesapeake attracts millions to its shores each year, and this propels a vibrant economy. The Delaware Bay remains mired in an economic funk, one could argue started over three decades ago.

Wildlife conservationists would see it differently however.  The Chesapeake sports a persistent oxygen-free dead zone throughout the summer that covers a large area of the bay in some years. Most of the fisheries are in decline or closed. Although groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation see improvements in the Chesapeake condition, they ominously warn the Bay is in grave danger. Most alarming is chemical and waste runoff from runaway industrial farming and outdated municipal wastewater systems going into a water body that hardly drains especially in the middle and upper reaches.  The waste from an overflowing or flooded waste water system can remain in a river system for days because of the anemic tidal regime of only 2 feet between high and low tide.


map of oxygen free zone in Chesapeake Bay

Chesapeake Bay Foundation map of the Chesapeake dead zone in 2003. The zone has not decrease significantly since.


Almost by accident the Delaware Bay suffers less from these vital problems. In part because it is poor, it lacks powerful agribusiness and development pressures that  fuel the problems. The primary difference between the two bays, however, is the Delaware Bay’s enormous tidal flow.  Twice each day the bay drains and fills with 6 to 7 feet of tidal water that moves nutrients, good or bad, out to the Atlantic. Moreover an extensive water cleansing marsh surrounds Delaware Bay almost from it mouth at the Atlantic ocean to its upper reaches near the Delaware Memorial Bridge. Unfortunately this is not enough.


tidal flat on Delaware Bay

Delaware Bay Shore near Reeds Beach at low tide. The tidal range here is about 7 feet on a spring lunar tide.

Two Bays One Fate

According to recent reports by the Delaware River Keeper and other groups the Delaware River, the main source of freshwater going into the bay, is among the worst polluted waterways in the nation. As Tracy Carlucci of the Delaware River Keeper Network puts its “The Delaware River goes from a wild and scenic river with exceptional water quality upstream to the fifth worst in the nation in terms of toxic discharges as it flows downstream,”.  The Delaware Bay simultaneously suffers two distinctly different threats. The first is the discharges from industries who dump  million  pounds of toxins each year with the blessing of NJ DEP.  At the same time the Delaware Bay’s many small waterways in DE and NJ are horribly contaminated with agricultural runoff, overflowing septics and oddly enough pet poo.

Alike in their collective abuse – untamed industrial waste, agricultural runoff and human and pet waste – the bays are two different worlds ecologically. The relative abundance of marsh and shallow water allows the Delaware Bay to produce biomass like a growing child.   Shallow tidal creeks drain thousands of acres of marsh and mud flats of newly born fish, small invertebrate and nutrients that anchor the bay’s robust sea life. The relatively senile Chesapeake Bay estuary produces far less biomass/area for the very reason it attracts so many people. Languid waterways snake deep into rich farmland, deep water to the edge of the gently rising land. In many places there is no littoral zone. Marsh does exists in the Chesapeake but in patches mostly in the lower bay in places like BlackWater Fish and Wildlife  Refuge. This mighty and historic bay produces life but at much different rates and quantity as the Delaware bay.

Evening on the Tred Avon River near the town of Oxford Md. Here the tide range is about 2 feet and the water is deep enough for boats almost to the shoreline.

Evening on the Tred Avon River near the town of Oxford Md. Here the tide range is about 2 feet and the water is deep enough for boats almost to the shoreline.


The two bays are like two children of dysfunctional parents. Separate they represent the diversity in any family, together they suffer the abuse of their caretaker’s unwillingness to look towards the future. Few, save ambitious watermen and even fewer ecologists see the parallel abuses.

Two Bays in One Trip

Thus was the setting of a Christmas time trip from Chesapeake bay to Delaware Bay with my wife Mandy Dey. This blogs author is both a wildlife biologist and captain ( with a small c) of  our small but lovable Cape Dory Sailboat.   We have sailed both bays for decades gradually learning their considerable biological and cultural wealth.

Just after the shorebirds left the Delaware Bay in June this year, we sailed our boat from it’s home port on the Cohansey River at Greenwich Boatworks, up the bay past the Salem Nuclear Plant, onto the 14 mile-long Chesapeake Delaware Canal and than down the Chesapeake, past Baltimore, past the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and up the Choptank River to Oxford Md. This Christmas we sailed her back again.


Our 26 ft Cape Dory Sailboat in Oxford, MD

The chill of late December and short days made the journey potentially hazardous, especially on the upper Delaware Bay.  There tankers and barges moved past our boat in rapid succession.  Up against these behemoths our tiny sailboat looked like a toy in a bathtub.  Darkness on either bay in winter was especially scary.   Despite all this the trip inspires both awe at the immensity and power of these two bays, and sadness at their continuing ecological decline.

Industry – fishery, agricultural, manufacturing- has worn away much of their ecological shine.  At one time the fight, to honor these places with the protection and management they deserve,looked promising.  This was back in the heady days after the passage of the clean water act and the legislation that followed.  The time when recreational fishermen could bring home a catch worth the cost of the trip.  A time when commercial fishermen could make a decent living.  But in the last 15 years the force to consume both bay’s natural wealth has gotten the upper hand. Industrial and recreational fisheries ripped on technological steroids, have stripped both bays of everything from iconic blue claw crabs and stripers to sturgeon. Every year industrial agriculture drenches the soil in chemicals or shits millions of tons of animal waste ultimately making it’s way to the water.  The manufacturing industry releases tons of deadly toxin with legal permission from the very agencies with the power to stop it.  Our legislators kneel down to these industrial concerns and those who love wildlife stand by and worry more about their spotting scopes or guns than wildlife.

One can only find solace in the fact that the deadest part of the Chesapeake surrounds Washington DC. To bad our legislators won’t drink the water.