A Personal Ethic for the Chesapeake Bay: Uncertainty Outside of the Pursuit of Balance

Our exploration of the Chesapeake region, and all of its history, ecology, and political essence has officially begun and is already getting into full swing. We have done team-building exercises, immersed ourselves in landscapes and mindsets through physical activity, and have discussed or experienced all manner of issues and perspectives. That was only the orientation; it was only the beginning. As such, it is now time to use the experience of this first week of class, to start some contemplation of all this input we have been absorbing. What better way to do that, than to begin with an effort to determine what all of this input means to us despite the fact that in most cases, we are not grounded in it as much as the people or places we have been experiencing along the way.

I have lived in the Chesapeake watershed my whole life, yet I am not sure that I ever developed a specific ethic in relation to the bay before now. Of course, one is always conditioned to think that whatever byproducts of existence end up being produced by mankind can end up in the watershed, followed by the bay, and culminating in the ocean. For that reason, as we know in the back of our minds, it is important to make sure that we behave ourselves as much as possible, and make sure that we are doing as little damage as we can. That, however, is usually where things stop in my experience, given that we all are generally aware in some form of the importance of the bay, and its wellbeing now and into the future. Rarely, however, does anyone practice a consistent and focused ethic in relation to the Chesapeake Bay.

Therefore, even though it may be a bit of a cop-out, my experience with the Chesapeake thus far, which has been expanded by the short but fast-paced experience I have had in this program so far, has drawn me to the following conclusion. Not only do I not have a complete ethic as to the Chesapeake in this early part of the course, I also feel that it seems as if there can’t really be a fixed, tangible Chesapeake Ethic other than the pursuit of balance. My reasoning for this could start by citing our lecture just the other day, in which we were talking about the notion of context that Tom Horton presents to us by way of the Rockfish. For him, the essence of the Rockfish was tied not only to the ecological state of the area, but to the metaphorical web as well: his own memories, experiences, and cultural relationship with this region. As such, it is dangerous to confine such things too highly given that the Chesapeake Bay is a complicated and dynamic ecosystem that doesn’t make it easy to get the full context all the time. To go further than that though, in my thinking of how dynamic an ethical perspective on the Chesapeake has to be, I think right away of our time on the Deadrise in Tilghman Island with Captain Russell Dize. During that experience we discussed all kinds of situations where there was too much focus on bureaucratic regulation or economic value, and not enough on how much it effected the actual status of life in the bay for humans or for the resources that were sought to be preserved. For example, a redistricting of the zonation of the bay bottom under the O’Malley administration caused considerable strife for watermen like him because it not only limited the amount of the resources watermen could harvest, but it also meant that the resources, especially oysters, would suffer because their health would not be challenged by fishing. That, as a result, would cause greater problems with such issues as the diseases MSX and Dermo.

Also, we talked about a situation in which there was a fish, the Spiny Dog Fish, which exploded in population because of overfishing of commercial fish resources such as cod. The dogfish were eating the juvenile spawn of these prized fish, which are slower to reproduce. This is made even worse because of the fact that the dogfish are unmarketable themselves, so the ecosystem has been thrown drastically out of balance because of too much prioritization of economic resources, and not enough attention to the larger ecological picture.

To get to a bottom line here, the Chesapeake Bay is a complex, dynamic, ever-changing system. It is generally unlikely that we will ever have a full grasp on it at any given time, which suggests to me that the only way to head in the direction of an ethical perspective, is to leave no stone unturned. We must be cognizant of the ecological as well as societal and fiscal ramifications and possibilities of this unique region. Just like we talked about with Professor McCabe, I believe we must look at things both instrumentally and intrinsically. In order to shape our moral perception in the context of the Chesapeake Bay, we must begin with this broad perspective. To synthesize both Ruggiero and Moncrieff, in this way we can develop our obligations, ideals, and notions of how all of these could lead to causes and consequences. In closing, Horton ends Bay Country with such points as the following concerning bay ethics.

“ Changing course in the way we use the land and water across an immense watershed can take a generation or more. And during that time the causes of the problem continue to grow. It is one reason we end up “progressing” at William Hargis’s three knots against that unrelenting, five knot current” (Horton, 215).

Human nature, Horton seemed to find, is ever inclined to circle back and forth between progress and a relapse into exploitation, because we seek the best of both worlds: the ability to have our cake and eat it too. Therefore, in order to arrive at a much less rough ethic in regard to the Chesapeake Bay, I would need to know whether the pressures the bay faces are inevitable, and whether they could be addressed with ethics instead of panoramic cultural change. There are so many cultural interests that play into the region, and they all have their progressive and exploitative aspects. Although, it all just seems to be an infinitely swirling subject of contemplation, that just as Horton has told us has no cut and dry solution, I think one place to start with my personal ethic would be striving for balance in the face of the seemingly ubiquitous inevitability of irresolution characteristic of the Chesapeake Bay region. Human Society appears to be just as estuarine as the bay itself, which makes balance seem possible but impossible at the same time.

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