“That’s a shark!” Jesse yelled.
I wasn’t paying much attention to Jesse. His constant worries about a bull shark in Morris Bay are something of a running joke at Anderson’s Neck Oyster Company and I was in the back of the boat fiddling with a floating oyster cage over the side.
“Whatever, man,” I said. “Can you grab the long line?”
“No, I’m serious. Look!” he said.
I got up and looked, saw nothing and got back to worrying about the cages. “Keep looking,” he said, pointing off the port quarter of the boat.
So I indulged, patiently. And was shocked to see the two fins gliding through the water, then ducking back under, then gliding through the water again. “This is the freakin’ York River,” I thought, “Not the Chesapeake Bay or the Virginia Capes. There are no sharks, the salinity isn’t high enough.”
“It’s probably a dolphin,” I said. We had seen a pod of dolphins in the York the day before. Unusual, yes, but a little more believable than Jaws hanging out near our Oysterplex.
Jesse argued that dolphins were usually in pods and not lone rangers hanging around the bay. And this thing didn’t move like a dolphin. It had a real sharky way about it, if I’ve learned anything from years of Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week.”
We saw it several more times that morning and I became convinced. So Jesse wasn’t crazy after all: there are sharks in the York.
This guy was probably between three and four feet long, if I had to guess. Not the 500-pound monster of Jesse’s nightmares but still enough to make a quick lunch of a hand or a foot if the need seemed pressing.
Suddenly putting the helical anchors in the bay to hold the floating cages in place just got a little more hazardous.
It should be said that Michael Hild – the boss – is still somewhat skeptical of our shark sighting. He tends to believe it was a ray with its fins up. Jesse and I are not convinced.
But it stands to reason that sharks would make their way up stream. Because rising sea levels are pushing increasingly salty water up the watershed, the rivers are becoming a suitable habitat for all manner of sea life, sharks and dolphins included.
Just last month a fisherman near The Neck caught a loggerhead turtle, a species that rarely strays from the sea and salt marshes directly bordering the ocean.
But you don’t need to pull up a giant turtle on your fishing line or see a shark in Morris Bay (By the way, even Michael will concede that Jesse’s bogeyman bull shark has been found in the Potomac River on occasion) to know that rising sea levels are both real and impacting the environment.
Little islands called hummocks can be found up and down the Chesapeake Watershed. These islands used to be verdant with trees and vegetation but are now largely marked by dead and dying plant life because the increased salinity and water levels are killing them.
Chesapeake Bay conservationists have labeled them “Ghost Hummocks.”
If you were to take a tour of The Neck, you would absolutely see the impact that rising sea water is having on the terrain. Dead trees speckle the shore line and the small islands on all sides of the property and on the water leases. Those trees are vital to maintaining the bald eagles that gave our oysters the name “Eagle Flats.”
In a recent Richmond Times Dispatch article, Scott Hardaway of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science said the hummocks were one of the clearest signs of global warming visible in the Mid-Atlantic.
“We can show tide-gauge data till we’re blue in the face, and sometimes that doesn’t work” to convince skeptics, Hardaway said in the article.
“Up north in the Arctic, we have visible signs of climate change with the loss of Arctic ice,” Watts said. “Here in the Mid-Atlantic, we don’t have any glaciers, but we do have hummocks…Many of these hummocks are being lost on a scale of years, not decades or centuries.”
But it’s clearly not just bald eagle habitats that are threatened by rising sea levels. Our homes, cities and centers of commerce are all under threat.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy – which last year churned up towering waves that devastated New England, New York City and New Jersey shorelines – a humble species began getting some attention as a safeguard against the worst of what sea levels can dish out: The oyster.
Healthy oyster reefs, long since depleted and extinct in New York Harbor, could have absorbed the worst effects of the towering waves before they flooded lower Manhattan. Landscape designer Kate Orff , quoted in a recent New York Times article, is proposing constructing artificial reefs in the harbor that would act as “natural wave attenuators.”
The article reads: “The Bay Ridge Flats, a stretch of water that sits off the coast of the Brooklyn Army Terminal, was once home to a small archipelago of islands that protected the Brooklyn coastline. The islands have long since disappeared because of dredging, and Ms. Orff would replace them with her oyster-studded barriers, which, over time, would form a sort of “ecological glue” and mitigate onrushing tides, she said.”
We at Anderson’s Neck heartily agree with the idea of building up the oyster reefs. After all, contributing to the growth of natural oyster reefs is one of the ideas that gave birth to the company.
That’s why we collect the shells from the oysters you order at Dutch & Co., Saison, The Magpie, Rowland and the other great restaurants that carry our oysters. Those go back in the water to promote the growth of natural reefs.
So keep eating oysters and we’ll keep growing them, doing our part for the environment. That is, if we don’t all get eaten by an eight-foot bull shark.