Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 9, No. 45
November 8-14, 2001 
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Our Bay’s Sick and Getting Sicker

Some experts believe that if proper treatment is applied now, the Chesapeake Bay’s very life can be saved — even if it means amputation of some of the free uses that industry and local governments make of the Bay.
—“The Chesapeake at Bay,” a 12-part series in the Evening Sun, 1969

The Chesapeake is still around, though the Evening Sun perished Sept. 9, 1996. At the time the Baltimore newspaper’s series ran, the Annapolis-based Chesapeake Bay Foundation was but two years old. Since ’69, Chesapeake Bay Foundation has become not only a watchdog of the Bay but also the conscience of its users.

In some ways, the Bay is in better shape than it was in ’69; in other ways probably not, but no one can argue that it is still in trouble. Yet if proper treatment is applied now, our team of three journalists stated back then, its very life can be saved.

Pollution and sprawl continue, prompting William C. Baker, Foundation president, to say in the organization’s annual “State of the Bay Report” issued Oct. 23: “The most alarming trend in this year’s report is not what has changed, but what hasn’t.”

Many of the woes of the Chesapeake outlined in the Evening Sun more than three decades ago still persist. Baker summed it up last month: “Water pollution — primarily from excess nitrogen and phosphorus — has mired the Bay’s health in the 20 percent range.”

And, he added, “We need to cut this pollution in half before underwater grasses, crabs, oysters and other life will thrive and restore the Bay system.”

That, of course, is obvious. But one wonders whether such warnings are sinking in. The Bay Foundation’s “State of the Bay” report for 2001 shows the first time in recent years that the Bay’s health has declined from the previous year.

What a Difference a Point Makes
The score was 27; last year it was 28, which might prompt some to comment “only a point, so what’s the problem?”

To which I respond: Even holding our own is not good enough. The score is based on 100 being the shape of the Bay when European settlers arrived, and a score of 40 is needed by 2010 for the Chesapeake to be removed from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s list of impaired waters.

A combination of pollution, sprawl and crab troubles can be blamed for that one-point decline. They offset modest improvement in forest buffers and the resurgence of shad and rockfish. Incidentally, the index has been as low as 23. A 70 is needed to indicate a saved Bay.

So much for numbers; let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. Following is the gist of the individual Foundation assessments of conditions within the Bay that add up to the ominous numbers. First, let’s look to the short list of gains: We need an uplift before digesting the bad news.

A Few Gains

  • Shad: Improvement is noted, partially because of a new fish ladder at York Haven Dam last year. Over the past century, shad runs declined dramatically, and we’re just now turning things around. Score shad a 6 out of 100 (up one point). Significant recovery may take years, but now more shad are spawning in their historic grounds. Dams and other blockages had closed 98 percent of the spawning grounds.

  • Forested buffers: Shores lined by trees and shrubs showed a one-point increase thanks to much restoration work throughout the watershed. However, the Bay has barely more than 50 percent of its historic levels of forestry buffers, and land development continues to eliminate more. Score vital forested buffers at 54.

Those are the only gains. Following is the not-so-good and downright bad news.

More Losses

  • Blue crabs: The biggest decline in the latest report involves crabs, which are the Bay’s most valuable commercial catch and a cultural icon. Decades of habitat loss — primarily underwater grasses — and intensive commercial and recreational pressure are responsible. The decline was four points. Thus crabs score a 42.

  • Rockfish: A vibrant Chesapeake fishery is offset by continuing concerns that there are too few big fish. In addition, it is increasingly apparent that the population is kept down by limited abundance of its food supply, particularly menhaden.

    In its observations, the Foundation reported “Rockfish numbers in the Bay continue to be high [the second biggest hatch on record was announced this year by DNR], but the population still lacks sufficient numbers of large, old fish. In addition, concerns persist that the Bay’s food web is out of balance, with too few menhaden and other small fish available for the rockfish to eat. While the coastal management plan for rockfish needs to build the numbers of older fish and maintain overall abundance, fisheries managers need to focus even greater attention on managing the species upon which rockfish depend.”

    Rockfish got a score of 75, no change from 2000.

  • Oysters: Here’s the way CBF put it. “Although the rating for oysters did not change, last year held many positive developments for this keystone species. Spurred by Chesapeake 2000 commitment to increase oyster populations tenfold by 2010, significant additional funding was secured from federal, state and private sources. Major new sanctuary reef projects are underway, and more citizens than ever are committed to growing oysters and returning them to reefs.”
    In addition, CBF started its own aquaculture operation in Virginia, which is raising more than one million oysters each year “to jump-start the state’s reef construction program.” Yet the rating for oysters is an abysmal 2.

  • Resource lands: A decline of three points in this category. Updated estimates on the annual rate of losses in farms, fields, forests and open spaces indicate the estimated 90,000 acres is too low. The U.S. Department of Agriculture now pegs it at 128,000. It’s probably somewhere in between. But the overall score is listed at 30.

  • Water pollution: No real improvement. Excess nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution are responsible for low levels of water clarity that inhibit sunlight from reaching underwater grasses, choke fish and smother shellfish. Pollution also contributes to low levels of dissolved oxygen, creating “dead zones” in large parts of the Chesapeake. The overall score: 27 points.

  • Wetlands: Despite a new law and regulations governing wetlands in Virginia, losses continue, offsetting promising gains from increasingly widespread restoration projects. A score of 42, the same as last year.

  • Underwater grasses: Submerged aquatic vegetation showed no substantial improvement Baywide, with increases in some areas, decreases in others. Improvement was noted in the upper Bay and Tangier Sound, and some recovery from last year’s losses was noted mid-Bay. SAVs are vital for crab populations. Like last year, the score is 12.

  • Water clarity: Studies reflect widespread poor water clarity, worsening in many tributaries. A dismal 15 points, the same as in 2000.
    A few other ratings — and remember, a score of 100 is what the bay was once like: Toxics, 30; phosphorus, 15; nitrogen, 15; dissolved oxygen, 15.

If You Know the Answer
So, Bay watchers, there you have it. The State of the Bay — despite all the talk we’ve been hearing — remains ominous. We’re fed a diet of planning, long- and short-range, but still the picture is gloomy. Meanwhile, things pretty much stay the same — pretty much the same as in 1969.

Are you satisfied? Are we getting anywhere in our pledge to Save the Bay?

If you know the answer, it’s not a question. Enough said …

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly