By Linda Cicoira
Five of 13 health index indicators were given failing marks in the annual State of the Bay report released this week by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Nitrogen, phosphorus, and water quality grades were down from 2016 in the pollution category. Underwater grass-es and resource lands improved by one point in the habitat category. And oysters and shad in the fisheries received an F.
“More significant rainstorms could be the new normal and that means more pollution running off farm fields and city streets into the bay,” the report stated. “That is what happened in the summer of 2018. Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution increased significantly because of record rainfall. Water clarity was disrupted by sediment runoff and algal blooms fed by the additional nutrients.”
Despite all that, “There are signs the bay is more resilient and better able to cope with extreme weather,” the report continued. Scientists observed underwater grass beds on the Susquehanna flats had remained “robust and dense.”
Rockfish and crab populations remained stable. “Populations are considered sustainable, thanks to wise management policies from the state and coastwide management partners … American shad remained at alltime lows,” the report continued. “Oyster populations remained at low levels, and wild fishery harvests were down dramatically, but oyster aquaculture continues to thrive.”
“The steady growth of underwater grasses and the shrinking of low oxygen dead zones should help the crab population in coming years,” the foundation concluded. “Shad could be helped by dam removals and better management of offshore fisheries, but hurt by budget cuts for stocking programs.”
In 2017, adult female blue crabs reached a record high of 254 million, juvenile numbers dropped dramatically, and adult males dipped slightly. In 2018, the population displayed some resilience despite the cold winter with adult male and female crabs declining, but the number of juvenile crabs increasing. Overall, the crab population remains stable and not over fished, but there is room for improvement.
The bay’s dead zone in 2017 was the second smallest on record. In 2018, the dead zone was considered average. A study indicated the “bay is responding to pollution reduction efforts by starting to help itself. Scientists detected a change in a feedback loop in the Bay’s bottom waters that results in less fuel for algae and oxygen consuming bacteria, and therefore more oxygen in bottom waters.”
Planting trees along streams is a cost effective way to improve watershed quality. “Forested buffers trap and remove pollution from runoff, and their deep roots absorb nitrogen in shallow groundwater,” the report stated. “A recent study estimated that buffers provide more than $10,000 per acre in value.” The trees also help prevent floods, provide recreational opportunities, and improve air quality, the report stated.
Planting of buffers “continues to be far off track from goals established in the states’ pollution reduction plans,” the foundation said. “Only 344 acres were reported planted between 2016 and 2017.” The need is 14,000 acres per year.
The importance of wetlands was noted. “They provide valuable wildlife habitat and act as natural filters that improve water quality by trapping and treating polluted runoff. They also can help mitigate the impacts of climate change by reducing flooding and minimizing storm surge.” But, the report complained, “Progress toward the region’s wetland goal has nearly come to a halt.” The 2014 Chesapeake Watershed Agreement was a goal for creating or reestablishing 85,000 acres of tidal and non-tidal wetlands to the watershed by 2025. “At the current rate of implementation, it will take 67 years to achieve this goal,” the report added.
The Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) mapped an estimated 104,843 acres of grasses in the bay and its tidal rivers in 2017. It was the highest ever recorded and marked the third consecutive year that grasses increased bay wide. A recent study linked underwater grass recovery to long term reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.
The Chesapeake Bay Blueprint is working and must be continued,” the report stated. “State and federal funding for the VIMS survey must also be continued. … Grasses in many areas remained robust; unfortunately, torrential rains in late July through September wreaked havoc on water clarity. Raising concerns about survival of grasses … as grasses become healthier and more resilient, they are better able to withstand the vagaries of mother nature. We should learn more from the 2019 VIMS survey,” the report stated.
By Linda Cicoira