Volume 12, Issue 21 ~ May 20-26, 2004
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Chesapeake Outdoors
by C.D. Dollar

The Last Straw: Grass in Decline
It was enough to make you want to scream. But in an odd, microscopic way, the scene encapsulated the continuous and frustrating push and pull that marks both the rampant pollution the Bay continues to suffer and efforts to bring back its health.

To set the scene: an electrical worker (you’d recognize the truck) flicked his cigarette into the South River’s Duvall Creek, a mere 20 yards from where Annapolis-area school kids had just planted underwater grasses they’d grown from seed. The students were part of Maryland Department of Natural Resources and Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Bay Grasses in Classes program, trying to do their part and jump-start Bay grasses.

The guy’s callous act may have added insult to an already injured Bay, but it was merely a sad footnote to a day when the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program issued its report that revealed an “an unprecedented 30 percent decline in the abundance” of the Bay’s underwater grasses in 2003.

2002 was a banner year for Bay grasses, which most experts concede was a result of less pollution entering waterways. We got a glimpse of how grasses could grow given decent water quality. Mind you, this surge of grasses was not a result of anything people did, but rather of nature keeping pollutants in the soils.

In the Bay Program press release just out on 2003, Professor Robert Orth of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and project leader of the annual Bay grass survey said, “Nature continually reminds us that SAV (underwater grasses) is very sensitive to water quality. Acreage fluctuations over the past two years reinforce the message that SAV can rapidly rebound when conditions improve, but also decline just as rapidly when conditions worsen as they did in 2003.”

While it’s true that record rains throughout 2003, and the sediment that followed, contributed heavily to the poor acreage, even a modestly healthy Bay should be able to rebound from most of those natural cycles. By any reasonable standard, the Bay is anything but healthy. The cold, hard facts are that too much pollution — principally nitrogen and sediment — is suffocating our Chesapeake.

Here are the grass stats:
  • Overall, Bay grass acreage in 2003 was 64,709 acres, a record 30 percent decline from 2002. In Maryland, underwater grass acreage dropped 41 percent, from the 52,546 acres in 2002 to 30,990 acres in 2003.

    Abundant Bay grasses pump oxygen into the water, provide a cornucopia of forage for scores of
  • animal species and give shelter for yearling rockfish and small crabs. Grasses also reduce pollution by absorbing nutrients and trapping sediments.

I’m no scientist, but I do know that less grass means fewer crabs and fish; less grass means less dissolved oxygen and more bad water. And fewer crabs and fish. See the pattern?
If you don’t know or care about these troubling trends, you should — especially if you like to crab, fish and swim the Bay and its rivers. Smoking is a person’s choice; flinging the dying butt into the dying Bay is not acceptable.

Fish Are Biting
The trophy rockfish are all but headed out the Atlantic, and anglers have turned their tactics to light-tackle jigging and chumming. The Hill, the Dumping Grounds and the Diamonds are a few of the places worth ladling up ground bunker. If light tackle and fly gear is more your speed, start to work the shoreline; it’s been so hot the water inshore might be good for rockfish. Check regulations with DNR before you keep any species.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.
Last updated May 20, 2004 @ 12:47am.