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This Farm Bill-funded program boosts habitat and addresses a watershed-wide problem
The 2019 planting year was historic—but unfortunately not in the way that many American farmers would like to remember. Unseasonably wet conditions prevented planting on nearly 20 million acres of corn, soybean, and wheat crops, among others, doubling the previous record of 9.6 million acres in 2011. The yearly average is typically between 3-4 million acres.
Last spring’s deluge caused at least $3 billion in damages to the heartland and brought shipping on the Mississippi to a halt. The resulting erosion, sediment loss and nutrient runoff carried ecological impacts stretching across thousands of miles. As rain continued to fall in the Missouri and Mississippi River basins, rising waters eroded soils and washed downstream millions of tons of nutrient fertilizer and organic matter from agriculturally productive land. Locally, the depletion of these substances results in reduced crop yields, and when this material reaches the ocean it can be devastating to marine health.
But thanks to the Farm Bill, there’s a new initiative that will aid in addressing this challenge while both improving water quality and establishing healthy habitat for the birds and game animals that hunters love to chase.
Each year, nutrient runoff in the midwestern United States flows downstream and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico. The sudden but predictable heightened levels of nitrates and phosphorus result in algae blooms which then decompose and deoxygenate the water table, killing phytoplankton and fish at the base of the aquatic food-chain. The Gulf of Mexico hypoxia or “dead” zone is not the only one in the United States, but it is one of the largest recurring in the world. In 2019, the Gulf dead zone covered 6,952 square miles off the coasts of Louisiana and Texas—the eighth largest on record. Each year, the dead zone dissipates as air and water temperatures drop but swells again in spring.
The Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force (HTF) is comprised of tribal, state and federal officials that coordinate nutrient reduction efforts from both point (wastewater) and non-point (agricultural) sources up and down the Mississippi River basin. The task force is working towards an ambitious goal of reducing the average size of the Gulf dead zone to 1,800 square miles by the year 2035. A problem of such significant scope does not offer a silver bullet solution, and meeting reduction targets requires a full state and federal toolkit.
One key mechanism to address non-point source nutrient loading was codified in the 2018 Farm Bill. The Clean Lakes, Estuaries and Rivers (CLEAR) initiative builds on the existing continuous–Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to target nutrient and sediment runoff and improve the water quality benefits of existing conservation practices. The CRP incentivizes landowners to retire marginal cropland for a period of 10-15 years and establish vegetative covers that offer a benefit to soil, water, and wildlife habitat—premium for deer, upland bird, and waterfowl hunting. The 2018 bill further required that 40% of continuous-CRP acreage be enrolled via CLEAR, and in order to track the long-term benefit of such practices established a pilot program (CLEAR 30) offering 30-year CLEAR contracts.
Former USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack oversaw the creation of CLEAR by the USDA in 2016. According to Vilsack, the installation of CLEAR practices such as duck nesting habitat, riparian buffers, contour grasses, and prairie strips can reduce nitrate runoff by up to 40% more than traditional conservation practices. Since its establishment in 1985, the CRP has grown to be one of the USDA’s most powerful tools in curbing nutrient loss, reducing nitrogen and phosphorus runoff by a combined 650 million pounds in Fiscal Year 2014 alone. CLEAR has potential to demonstrably increase that benefit.
As the USDA Farm Service Agency moves ahead with implementing the 2018 bill, the TRCP and our partner organizations are actively engaged in providing feedback to ensure that programs like CLEAR are implemented to achieve the greatest benefit to wildlife. The sum of these efforts will be critical in addressing some of our greatest conservation challenges like the Gulf’s dead zone.
For more information on the Conservation Reserve Program, visit crpworks.org.
Top photo: Jeff Weese via Flickr
Support for this legislation is a critical step forward for hunters and anglers in America’s largest estuary
The U.S. House of Representatives today passed legislation that preserves the economic and recreational value of the Chesapeake Bay.
The bipartisan Chesapeake Bay Program Reauthorization Act (H.R. 1620) fully funds the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program by authorizing $455 million over the next five years. This program hasn’t been formally authorized since 2005, so this legislation will provide much-needed certainty to state, federal, and nonprofit partners working to restore the water quality of the Bay and its tributaries.
“The Chesapeake Bay is the iconic home to incredible fisheries, migrating waterfowl, and powerful economic opportunity, and some of the best hunting and fishing around,” said Steve Kline, chief policy officer of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Sportsmen and women want to thank Congresswoman Elaine Luria and the cosponsors of this legislation for their work ensuring that Bay watershed states can keep working together to brighten the future of the Chesapeake.”
The Chesapeake Bay Program Reauthorization Act is also part of the America’s Conservation Enhancement Act (ACE Act) which was passed by the Senate unanimously in January. In addition to the Bay provisions, the ACE Act includes a host of fish and wildlife conservation priorities and House floor passage of the ACE Act represents the clearest way for these key legislative efforts to get to the President’s desk. We urge the House to pass the ACE Act, which also:
An effort by the Angler Action Foundation and the state of Florida to restore essential fish habitat in southwest Florida will pay dividends for the health of its coast and the Everglades
Every coastal angler worth his or her salt is familiar with the importance of sea grass beds. Sea grass meadows are great places to target species like speckled sea trout from spring through fall. Up to 70% of the species desired by anglers, including tarpon, grouper, redfish, and many more, spend some part of their life cycle in this habitat.
It is estimated that healthy sea grass beds contribute more than $20 billion a year to the Florida economy by providing habitat for commercial and sport fisheries, reducing erosion and impacts of storm events, while also sequestering carbon at a rate of 1,200 lbs/year. By any measure, healthy sea grass meadows play an critical ecological and economic role in Florida and around the world. No surprise then, that the significant loss of sea grass beds in coastal Florida has been a serious concern for many.
The Caloosahatchee Estuary on Florida’s southwest coast has suffered from poor water quality. In addition, increased salinity levels followed by rapid fluctuations in salinity over sustained periods resulted in the loss of up to 1,200 acres of sea grass beds. Major losses occurred some 15 years ago from which the sea grass has been unable to recover on its own.
An ambitious project began in 2018 under the direction of the Angler Action Foundation. AAF’s mission is to improve angler access, fisheries science, and marine habitat through collaborative research, education, and conservation programs. Funding for the first phase of the work was provided by Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, and the leadership of State Senator Kathleen Passidomo and State Representative Heather Fitzenhagen were key to seeing the project receive the necessary support.
Restoration specialists at Sea and Shoreline based in Ruskin, Florida, have led the effort and a third-party ecological assessment of the project is being managed by Johnson Engineering in Fort Meyers and Florida Gulf Coast University.
In late 2018, approximately 20 acres of tape grass and widgeon grass were planted in areas that had been decimated by excessive freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee. Widgeon grass was selected for its ability to pioneer new habitat and tolerate a wide range of salinity. Tape grass, also known as eelgrass or wild celery, is more tolerant of freshwater than other grasses. Planting these two species will provide some insurance that sea grass beds will establish themselves and remain intact under widely varying salinity levels.
Sea grass plantings were protected by wire-mesh exclosures to protect them form turtles and manatees, thus allowing the plants to take root. Initial surveys indicate very high survival rate, with up to 95% of the plantings thriving and producing seeds and rhizomes that will disperse and hopefully establish themselves in adjacent areas, resulting in a self sustaining sea grass meadow.
Future plans are to expand the footprint of the planted areas and continue to monitor the project’s progress. It is hoped the same methods can be used in other parts of Florida such as the Indian River Lagoon, which has also suffered devastating losses of sea grass habitat.
All in all, the Caloosahatchee planting project promises to reverse one of the more serious threats to Florida’s coastal health and is a key part of restoring the Everglades. Anglers should be encouraged that returning sea grass meadows will ensure that sea trout, tarpon, and redfish populations remain strong for future generations of sportsmen and women.
All photos courtesy of Sea and Shoreline
Eight major recreational fishing and boating groups are asking the Virginia General Assembly to advance legislation that transfers management authority of Atlantic menhaden, a key food source for striped bass and other recreational fish, to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, American Sportfishing Association, BoatU.S., Center for Sportfishing Policy, Coastal Conservation Association, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, Marine Retailers Association of the Americas, and National Marine Manufacturers Association are banding together in support of House Bill 1448 and Senate Bill 791, which shifts management authority to the Commission. Currently menhaden are the only finfish in Virginia not under the Commission’s purview.
The legislation would bring Virginia back into compliance with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) after the Commonwealth was found in violation of ASMFC’s fishery management plan for failing to enforce the Chesapeake Bay harvest cap. This finding was the result of industrial fishing giant Omega Protein exceeding the cap by approximately 30 percent last year. The groups are raising concerns because when the menhaden population declines, it impacts striped bass, cobia, bluefish, and summer flounder.
“These valuable recreational fisheries are major contributors to America’s economy and support many fishing-dependent businesses within Virginia and across our industry,” the groups wrote. “In Virginia alone, the annual value of striped bass has declined from $240 million to $120 million in the past decade while associated jobs have declined from 3,950 to 1,830 in the same time period.”
The groups called on the General Assembly to pass the legislation, saying it’s important because it gives full time fisheries managers the authority to manage menhaden.
“Your support will demonstrate clear leadership to the thousands of Bay anglers and the hundreds of businesses they support and bring the Commonwealth of Virginia back into compliance,” the groups added.
Over 50 local businesses, including charter boat operators have also thrown their support behind the legislation.
The coalition’s letter of support can be found HERE.
In the last two years, policymakers have committed to significant investments in conservation, infrastructure, and reversing climate change. Hunters and anglers continue to be vocal about the opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations. Support solutions now.Learn More