My Chesapeake Ethic Revisited: Who’s Responsible for the Bay?

At the beginning of this semester, I felt that my Chesapeake Ethic was underdeveloped due to my limited perspective and experience with the Bay. Now, I feel much more confident in what I believe, which is that the Chesapeake Bay is rapidly degrading, and everyone in the watershed is responsible for ensuring its health and restoration. I express this belief with a more complete understanding of what this commitment entails, and economic and cultural sacrifices that accompany it. I think specifically of the changes we need to make in regard to food and the Chesapeake Bay. Farmers and watermen are the two groups of people I feel I learned most about throughout the course of the semester, and in developing my ethic I had to think through the role that those industries play in defining the culture and economy of the region. I have concluded that it is irresponsible for us to continue to unsustainably exploit and pollute the Bay when we possess a comprehensive understanding of the ramifications of continued degradation.

Agriculture contributes 8.25 billion dollars to Maryland’s economy annually, giving the industry a lot of lobbying power and protection from strict environmental legislation. Historically, decisions to control polluted run-off have been voluntary and largely ineffective. In his book, Bay Country, Tom Horton explains why the impacts of agricultural pollution went overlooked and unlegislated for so long, “…in a sense our ignorance was not so surprising [in] a society uncoupled from the land, an agriculture divorced from the soil…” (29). I do not advocate for the elimination of farming on the eastern shore, but rather for a sense of accountability for the pollution that is discharged. On Journey 4, we explored the question of whether or not farmers should be environmentalists—and if environmentalism is even possible in large-scale agriculture. I think that these two questions have different but related answers: farmers do not have to be environmentalists to exercise environmental responsibility. With government aid, more sustainable farming practices are possible, and the excuse that the money isn’t there is simply untrue. We know this from the decades of unsuccessful voluntary programs, where best management practices were incentivized but not employed. Most farmers chose not to opt in to these programs, primarily because it wasn’t very convenient.

I would argue that convenience is irrelevant in light of what we know about the impacts of pollution on the Bay. In Aldo Leopold’s “The Land Ethic” he writes, “the land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it” (Leopold). The land, though ours to live on, is not ours to destroy. Production without concern for environmental consequences taps into the essence of what I believe about the Bay: environmentally unsustainable practices need to stop. It is not about disregarding the economic needs and contributions of farmers, it is about facing the reality of environmental degradation and the long-lasting impacts it will have on future generations. This brings me to the watermen.

The trouble with watermen, from both an ethical and practical perspective, is that heavily regulating their industry is complicated by historical, cultural, and political factors. Watermen have defined the culture of the Chesapeake Bay and sustained many fishing communities in the watershed for centuries. As other states have moved away from wild harvests of species such as the oyster, which are at 1% of historic numbers, watermen have dug their heels into the industry. The Maryland Watermen’s Association fights tooth-and-nail to prevent regulations that would harm watermen, or even ruin the industry. But I would say that the industry is completely unsustainable, and continuing wild harvests in the Bay is environmentally (and ultimately socially) irresponsible. We are reluctant to strip away history, culture, and livelihood—and rightly, so. I acknowledge the controversial nature and associated problems of my stance, but ultimately believe that decimating the Bay’s natural resources and consuming all of its fish is not a viable path to continue on. There are alternatives to wild harvests, such as aquaculture, and we should be promoting a shift in the industry to be both productive and sustainable.

That is not to say, however, that my Chesapeake Ethic places all the blame on the people who work the land. I think everyone has a collective responsibility to conserve the Bay, and it is equally important for those of us who consume the food and resources of the region to change our own behavior to reflect the shifts we want to see. Additionally, I do not ignore the impacts of other sources of pollution, such as urban run-off, on the Bay. Coming from Baltimore, and identifying strongly with the city, I feel a sense of personal responsibility to work on curbing urban pollution. Throughout the semester we have explored the concept of “responsible citizenship.” This means something different for everyone, but if each person in the watershed committed to defending the Bay and demanded sustainability, real change could be accomplished.


Horton, T. (1987). Bay Country. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Leopold, A. (1948). A Sand County Almanac. 1948.




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