The Ecology Pioneer’s Chesapeake Writing

by Jody Argo Schroath
photos by Rex Schmidt , U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Somewhere in the shallow coastal waters, or perhaps far out on the slopes of the continental shelf, there is at this very moment a stir of activity as the sea prepares to pay its annual tribute to the epicures of the Chesapeake Bay country. With the coming of the March thaws, Father Neptune will send into the broad estuaries of tidewater Virginia and Maryland thousands of shad, to the end that local connoisseurs of the art of good living may enjoy their customary spring delicacy of planked shad fresh from the Chesapeake, garnished with its own roe and bacon.

Thus begins Rachel Carson’s debut article for the Baltimore Sun, “It’ll be Shad-Time Soon.” It was March 1, 1936, 15 years before her best-selling book The Sea Around Us found its way into millions of homes across the country and a full three decades before her book Silent Spring rocked the world with a condemnation of wholesale pesticide spraying. It was the book that inspired the modern environmental movement and led, indirectly, to legislation regulating pesticides. But in 1936, all that was ahead of her. Here on the Chesapeake Bay, Carson was finding her way as a writer and a scientist. Here her ideas were being shaped by visits to the Bay’s research centers and nature preserves, talks with Bay watermen and commercial fishermen, and by outings with the Audubon Society of Washington D.C. Here her writing often reflected Bay-specific issues. And here we come to the purpose of this series of two articles: to rediscover these largely forgotten writings—limited in their distribution and overshadowed by her later popular works. In this issue, we’ll look primarily at Carson’s articles for the Baltimore Sun; in the next, we’ll look at her writing as an employee of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Born in 1907 into a poor family in Springdale, Pa., a small town outside Pittsburgh, Carson fell in love with the natural world and dreamed of becoming a writer. At school at the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University), she was attracted to science and on graduation came to Baltimore to study at Johns Hopkins University. Always struggling financially, she managed to earn her Master’s degree in zoology and intended to go on for her Ph.D., but the death of her father in 1935 forced her to leave school for work, to support her family. She landed a job as a junior aquatic biologist for the Bureau of Fisheries (later encompassed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service). At about the same time, she began a series of twelve articles for the Baltimore Sunday Sun, and was able to use the latest field research that came across her desk at the Bueau of Fisheries to explore various topics of interest to Baltimore readers. For Carson’s part, her writing for the Sun served to distill two loves, writing and the sea. Carson biographer Linda Lear put it this way in her 1998 collection of Carson’s writings, Lost Woods: “Carson’s brief but successful journalistic career with the Baltimore Sun was an important apprenticeship in writing science for the public. It established her identity as a writer who had discovered what she wanted to write about.”

Her writing for the Sun was literate, full of the latest research and already urgent with the need for action to preserve the wildlife that man seemed bent on destroying—by overfishing, by pollution, by destruction of habitat. In that first article, “It’ll Be Shad-Time Soon,” Carson discussed three reasons for the decimation of the Atlantic 
shad population. 

Overfishing: Such evidences of the prodigality of nature fostered in the colonists the naïve belief transmitted to their children’s children, that the resources of the waters were inexhaustible. With a will they set about reaping the harvest at their doors. The primitive brush weir of the Indians furnished the inspiration for the pound net of the white man, and other devices for large-scale fishing were imported. . . . The largest seine in the world was the one operated for shad and alewives on the Potomac at Stony Point, Virginia. A bulletin of the Bureau of Fisheries for 1908 describes it: “The net proper was 9,600 feet in length, and the hauling ropes at the ends were 22,400 feet long, giving 32,000 feet as the total sweep of the seine. . . . It was hauled by steam power and the labor of eighty men, and was drawn twice daily, at ebb tide, throughout the season. As many as 3,600 shad were taken at one haul, and 126,000 in one season.” Eventually, the effects of depletion were apparent, and the account concludes: “Recently the season’s yield fell to 3,000, and the fishery was discontinued in 1905 after having been carried on for a century.” [Currently] the maze of nets in the lower bay and at the mouths of the rivers now takes so heavy a toll that virtually no shad ascend far into the fresh-water streams.

Pollution: The Potomac and its tributaries receive most of the 125,000,000 gallons of sewage discharged daily into the fresh-water streams of Maryland, as well as a considerable quantity of wastes from Maryland industries. Within the last decade, the division of fish culture of the Bureau of Fisheries called attention to the fact that shad no longer spawn in the strongly polluted waters of the Potomac between Washington and [Mount Vernon].

Destruction of habitat: The havoc begun by the Clark’s Ferry dam on the Susquehanna was completed by the erection of the Conowingo dam. This giant of steel and concrete marks the journey’s end for all migrating fish. Because of the prohibitive expense of their construction in a structure of this size, the State of Maryland accepts, in lieu of fishways, the sum of $4,000 annually from the operators of the dam.

. . . If this favorite of the Chesapeake Bay region is to hold its own against the forces of destruction, regulations must be imposed which consider the welfare of the fish as well as that of the fisherman.

Two months later, Carson moved from the subject of the Chesapeake shad fishery to that of mackerel. Here is how she combines fishery science with poetry in the opening of her May 24, 1936, Sun article, “Numbering the Fish of the Sea”:

The mackerel folk have taken to the road again and, like Masefield’s, theirs is a “wet road . . . wild with seagulls’ cries.” The first [mackerel] appear suddenly off the Virginia coasts in April, and others swarm later in the offshore waters from Maryland and Delaware to Nova Scotia as the spring calls them (from more and more northerly parts of their wintering grounds off the edge of the continental shelf) to forsake deep waters and journey shoreward.

The chief spawning area, the objective of this vernal wandering, lies between Cape Cod and Delaware Bay some fifty to one hundred miles offshore. After shedding their eggs in the surface waters, the mackerel spend their summer in leisurely feeding. With the coming of autumn they vanish abruptly into the obscurity which cloaks their winter existence.

After discussing the dramatic fluctuations in the size of the mackerel catch from year to year and the methods used by the “mackerel folks” to catch them, Carson describes the work of the Bureau of Fisheries in discovering the cause, bringing to bear her own first-hand knowledge of the detective work.

It was the task of the bureau’s investigators to determine whether the mackerel fishery was undergoing depletion due to over-fishing, or whether the erratic comings and goings of the fish were in some way bound up with its biology, and independent of the acts of man. The answer to the question, when found, not only solved this problem but provided a means of looking into the future and predicting the abundance in advance of the season.

The story of the methods used by the fishery scientists in uncovering the secrets of the mackerel folk reads like a chapter from detective fiction.

Tracing the wanderings of a troupe of human gypsies would be child’s play compared with shadowing these wanderers of the ocean. Without fins and gills as part of his physical equipment, it is obviously impossible for the ichthyological detective to follow the fish in the sea, and he must resort to devious methods to discover such simple but necessary facts as the ages of the fish making up a population of mackerel, what proportion are youngsters and how many mature citizens, the number of young added to the population each year and the percentage of natural mortality.

The scientists decide to begin at the principal mackerel ports, Cape May, N.J., New York, Boston and Gloucester, Mass., collecting statistical data on daily landings of each vessel of the fleet, the age of the mackerel and the proportion of the age groups.

Unlike those members of the human race who are able to conceal their ages successfully, the mackerel has no means of keeping the number of its days a secret. Every scale on its body is a sort of birth certificate on which is inscribed the year when this particular fish hatched from a small egg somewhere in the surface waters of the Atlantic. . . . Groups of concentric rings on the scales indicate the age of the fish.

So, for each mackerel examined, the ichthyological detective slips a few scales into an envelope, and from such samples obtains a complete picture of the age composition of the catch. By such simple means, far-reaching results have been obtained.

The result of this research is that some years are missing entirely from the mackerel catch, leading to the conclusion that the young of the year for some years simply did not survive. Why that is, Carson concludes, needs further study, but goes far enough to account for the dramatic variation in the mackerel catch from year to year. But, she writes in closing, research will prevail.

From immemorial times, the field of production in the fisheries has been fraught with uncertainties, and the fishermen have entered upon the season without knowledge of whether it was to bring them profitable returns or economic disaster. Today, fishery biology gives convincing proof of its practical value, by looking into the future and foreseeing the harvest of the nets.

We cannot help but be struck with the echoes all of this has in modern fishery science, in the counting of any number of now carefully regulated species, including crabs, flounder and rockfish. Carson was an early and keen advocate of just such research and regulation to the benefit of both the fisherman and the fish. These themes appeared again in her next two Sun articles, “The Northern Trawlers Move South” (January 3, 1937) and “Farming Under the Chesapeake” (January 24, 1937). While the latter, in the first of two articles on oysters, predicted that the future of oystering lay in the farming of leased oyster bottoms, the former was a veiled jeremiad that the future of the Chesapeake’s saltwater fish population could be threatened by the recent appearance of large-haul winter trawlers off the mouth of the Chesapeake.

A new and lucrative industry has come into being off the mouth of the Chesapeake. The January horizon southeast of Maryland’s seacoast is penciled with the smoke of a hundred or more oceangoing fishing craft of a type strange to local waters. Squat New England schooners moving methodically over the gray seascape are symbols of something relatively new under the fisherman’s sun—winter trawling for saltwater fish off the shores of Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. . . . [In the past] fishing operations have been confined largely to the spring and winter months. This restraint was dictated by an excellent reason, for with the coming of autumn, marine fisheries such as the croaker, the sea trout, the flounder and the scup disappear from shallow waters where they have spent the summer. Wherever their winter bivouac, it formed a secure refuge from the nets of fishermen, for its location remained throughout the years one of [the] ocean’s mysteries.

Partly by accident and in part through persistent sleuthing, it has been learned that many of these shore fishes establish their winter quarters in the deep, warm waters off the Virginia and North Carolina capes. From this sanctuary they are now being taken in commercial numbers, and species formerly regarded as “summer fish” appear in the markets throughout the year.

Carson goes on explain how the fish are taken by otter trawls, in which 16,000 pounds of fish have been taken in a single tow, “enough, by a hasty estimate, to form a finned procession that would take from nine in the morning until half past three in the afternoon to pass a reviewing stand at the rate of twenty fish a minute.”

Carson then describes how fishermen finally discovered the wintering ground. She describes its geography and why that particular location provides the right environment for temperature sensitive fish. She then explains first the Bay fishermen’s anger at the winter trawl—which violates a traditionally closed season for restocking—and second the argument for the winter trawl, which brings fresh fish to the market at reasonable prices year round. Who’s right? Once again, she concludes, scientific research will determine the answer.

Within a few seasons, winter trawling has established its place as an important branch of the fishing industry. With its development, the last sanctuary of the fish that are summer visitors to the Maryland and Virginia coasts and the Chesapeake has been invaded. Can man devise protective measures that will offset the year-round toll now taken? Upon the answer to that question depends the future of the new fishery.

Carson returned to oysters in the August 21,1938, article, “Walrus and Carpenter Not Oyster’s Only Foe.” Here she gives a robust explanation of the bivalve’s offseason enemies’ modus operandi. 

The traditional ban on oysters in the “R-less” months to the contrary, several million dollars worth of oyster dinners are being consumed this summer, and every summer, between May and September. Far from being a time of inactivity on the oyster beds, summer is the time when hordes of underwater gourmets (chiefly starfish and seagoing snails known as oyster drills) go to work on the oysters with zest.

For these depredations the oyster industry pays a surprising price. In the Chesapeake, for example, as much as two-thirds of the annual crop of seed oysters may be destroyed by drills; indeed, in some seasons the entire set of young oysters goes into the mouths of hungry sea snails. Adult oysters are eaten as well. The total destruction is pretty well summed up in the estimate of experts that the value of the oyster dinners enjoyed by drills is at least as great as the value of the crop harvested by the oystermen, or about $6,000,000.

. . . To dine on his victims the drill must do a hard day’s work with a muscular, tonguelike organ, or “radula,” set with razor-sharp teeth of microscopic size. By diligent rasping the drill sinks a shaft through the hard oyster shell to the tender meat below. If this sounds easy, consider that a day’s work on an old oyster may produce a hole only a fiftieth of an inch deep.

After the passageway has been opened the drill uses his radula on the soft tissues with much better effect, as much as a cubic inch of oyster meat being consumed in a day. Being eaten alive in this fashion is naturally distressing to the oyster and causes it to relax the muscles which control the shells. This opens wide the door for other drills to enjoy the feast which they have by no means earned, and several of them may creep between the shells of the dying oyster to banquet uninvited.

. . . As an oyster shucker, the starfish has a unique and effective method. Its success depends on the fact that the oyster, in order to eat or breathe, must open its shell slightly to let the water stream in and out. Creeping upon its intended victim, the starfish wraps its five arms around the shells, securing its grip by means of scores of suction disks. Even though the oyster closes its shells at once, the starfish has only to wait until the unwary mollusk, having no means of knowing whether its attacker has gone, opens the shell a little. Try as it may, the oyster cannot close it again for the starfish pulls slowly and with dogged persistence until the oyster, from sheer fatigue, relaxes the muscle in surrender. . . . The shell opened, the amazing starfish proceeds to turn its own stomach wrong side out, insert it within the shells, and by means of digestive ferments convert the oyster meat into liquid which may then be absorbed.

Now we come to the last Sun article we’ll look at here, this one appearing in October 9, 1938. It is in this article that Carson’s writing sparkles with the lyricism that made her so much more than just another writer explaining scientific subjects aimed toward the common reader. The subject is eels, not a fish dear to the Western heart, and indeed one that gives many people the creeps. But to Carson—and through her to her readers—the subject of eels is a source of endless fascination and not a little mystery. For the story of the eel is unlike any other, and in the hands of Rachel Carson, it is unforgettable. Here are some excerpts from the Sun article, her first foray into the subject, and one to which she would soon  after return.

From every river and stream along the whole Atlantic Coast, eels are hurrying to the sea. Reaching salt water, they will strike out south and east to the Sargasso, there to mingle with other eel hordes which have made the longer westward crossing from Europe. From Greenland, Labrador, the United States, Mexico, and the West Indies; from Scandinavia, Germany, Belgium, France and the British Isles, eels go at spawning time to those mid-oceanic meadows of brown sargassum weed.

So the most remarkable of all Chesapeake Bay fishes is born in alien waters. Before it is half as long or as thick as a man’s thumb it makes a journey across 1,000 miles of strange, wild waters without benefit of chart or compass, finding the shores from which its parents came a year and a half before. In bays, rivers and streams it feeds and grows for ten years, perhaps fifteen or twenty. At last, obeying an instinct as old as the tribe of eels, it sets out on the return journey to the Sargasso to produce its young and itself to die. This is the life cycle of the eel completed.

Here Carson describes a Chesapeake Bay eel’s the spawning journey:

Other autumns to the number of ten, fifteen or twenty have come and gone, but our eel has never before felt the desire to leave the familiar mud banks dotted with crayfish burrows, the marshy banks where small fowl or water rats could now and then be seized, the forests of water weeds where hunting was good for minnows, sunfish and perch.

Now physical maturity has attuned her to the call of seaward hurrying water. One dark night, when wind ruffles the surface of the river and clouds hide the moon, she slips away downstream on a journey which she will never retrace. Hiding by day, drifting with the currents by night, she finds the river ever widening, the channels deepening, the water bringing unfamiliar tastes to her keen senses.

She is not alone; more and more eels have joined the caravan. Probably as their numbers increase and the strange, bitter tang of salt grows stronger in the water, the excitement of the eels grows, they travel faster, rest less often.

. . . Gradually the river garb of olive brown is changed for a coat of glistening black with under parts of silver. This is the dress worn only by eels about to undertake the far journey to the Sargasso. The snouts become high and compressed, probably owing to some sharpening of the sense of smell; the eyes become twice their former size, as though in preparation for the descent along darkening sea lanes.

Here we break away from the Sun articles to make an interesting comparison. Carson used an expanded and somewhat altered version of this article in her first book, Under the Sea-Wind, which was published in 1941, only three years after the Sun article. The story is essentially the same, but the writing is even richer and more lyrical. We pick up the story, now quoting the book, as the eels wait to pass into the sea.

The next night a strong southeast wind blew in from the sea, and when the tide began to rise the wind was behind the water, pushing it into the bay and out into the marshes. That night the bitterness of brine was tasted by fish, birds, crabs, shellfish and all the other water creatures of the marsh. The eels lay deep under water, savoring the salt that grew stronger hour by hour as the wind-driven wall of sea water advanced into the bay. The salt was of the sea. The eels were ready for the sea—for the deep sea and all it held for them. Their years of river life were ended.

The wind was stronger than the forces of moon and sun, and, when the tide turned an hour after midnight, the salt water continued to pile up in the marsh, being blown upstream in a deep surface layer while the underlying water ebbed to the sea.

Soon after the tide turn, the seaward movement of the eels began. In the large and strange rhythms of a great water which each had known in the beginning of life, but each had long since forgotten, the eels at first moved hesitantly in the ebbing tide. The water carried them through an inlet between two islands. It took them under a fleet of oyster boats riding at anchor, waiting for daybreak. When morning came, the eels would be far away. It carried them past leaning spar buoys that marked the inlet channel and past several whistle and bell buoys anchored on shoals of sand or rock.

The eels struggled through the line of breakers, where foam seething over black water caught the beam of the lighthouse beacon and frothed whitely. Once beyond the wind-driven breakers they found the sea gentler, as they followed out over the shelving sand they sank into deeper water, unrocked by violence of wind and wave.

As long as the tide ebbed, eels were leaving the marshes and running out to sea. Thousands passed the lighthouse that night, on the first lap of a far sea journey . . . and as they passed through the surf and out to sea, so also they passed from human sight and almost from human knowledge.

 [12.12 issue]