Bill Burton on the Bay
Vol. 9, No. 22
May 31-June 6, 2001
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Where Have All the Grasses Gone?

Look now how mortals are blaming the gods but in fact they themselves have woes beyond their share because of their own follies.

-Homer: circa 700bc

Homer, look now. More than two and a half thousand years past your time, your words still ring of the truth. Also, might I add that in your time the environment was much more friendly to you and your fellow beings - and all of you were much more friendly to your environment.

This comes to mind as I note a press release from the Department of Natural Resources, an announcement informing us that aquatic grass acreage - in Maryland and Virginia combined - increased by the magnificent total of one percent in 2000. In Maryland, the hike on the Bay was four percent, some 1,472 acres, but at the same time our submerged aquatic vegetation declined six percent in our coastal back bays.

This prompted Tidewater Ecosystem Assessment Director Robert Magnien to comment, "While we still have a long way to go in restoring the Chesapeake and coastal bays, the more recent findings show some positive trends." And, sadly, in a way he might be right. If one stretches the meaning of positive a bit.

At least we didn't lose more acreage of vital grasses in the Bay. In '00, we gained 1,472 acres, which according to Magnien puts our vegetated Bay acre count at 35,671. But as I check the records of yore, I find that some 600,000 acres of submerged grasses once flourished in the Chesapeake, though I found no clue how it was divvied up between Maryland and Virginia.

However, it's fairly obvious the entire Bay has at this time only a small percentage of the bay grasses once growing under the surface to enrich the ecosystem of the mighty Chesapeake. We look around to find someone to blame, dear Homer, when as the comic strip Pogo said decades ago, we have found the enemy and it is us.

'Us,' in this instance meaning those of us who manage, use or live on or near the mighty Chesapeake. But we don't want to hear it, so we use weasel words, the biggest three of which are Tropical Storm Agnes.

That Awful Aggie

One doesn't have to be very old to recall Aggie. She struck in '72, washing in torrents down the Chesapeake an unbelievable volume of fresh water and sediments with concentrations of nitrogen compounds. She was the storm of a century, probably centuries.

The physical damage she wreaked on our Bay was the worst on record - possibly the worst ever - because she came as declines in the ecology of the Bay were already of great concern. She struck when the Chesapeake was vulnerable, had little resiliency. Years earlier, the Bay could have weathered the storm better, bounded back promptly.

Agnes kicked the Bay when it was down, and since, it has had a tough time getting up. But the second worst thing about Agnes is that she was the scapegoat needed by those - and I hate to be repetitious but think it appropriate - who manage, use or live on or near the mighty Chesapeake.

Agnes, in the eyes of many, gave us the opportunity to plead innocent of misuse of the Chesapeake. You know: 'Hey Agnes caused all of this mess, not us.' Yet the truth is, she rained hell on us for a day or two, washed more ruin and gunk down the Bay for another few weeks - and was gone.

Excuses, Excuses

We have done our foul deeds over decades upon decades, relentlessly, and we still continue to do so. We're still far short of restoring the targeted 114,000 acres of underwater grass by the 2002. We should blush, better still hang our heads in shame.

Not only was Agnes the storm of a century, she was the scapegoat of a century. Everybody blames her to this day. Many talk of the oysters and clams she wiped out: They couldn't move, couldn't relocate in more hospitable locales, so they just stayed put, and many were buried in silt and contaminates and died.

Equally vulnerable - and unable to flee to safer havens as crabs and rockfish can - were the submerged aquatic plants. What's more, Agnes came at the worst possible time for aquatic growth: at the peak of the growing season. Add to that the grasses of the Bay were already in trouble - put there by humans, who incidentally haven't done much since then to heal either the damage done by Agnes or ourselves.

We have a curious situation indeed. Even those who realize that Agnes - though she was deadly - isn't solely or even primarily responsible for the ongoing dilemma of the Bay have to blame something or someone, certainly not their own follies.

People in the city blame the farmers and their run-off; farmers blame the people in the city and their sewage systems. As they dump their wastes overboard, boaters blame sea gulls and geese for dropping their wastes in the Bay. Clam and oyster dredgers get blamed for stirring up the bottom. For relocating possibly (probably) toxic spoils, the Port of Baltimore is blamed by marina operators, who plead for permits to do their own dredging for access to their mini-ports not more than a long cast from submerged aquatic vegetation. And we haven't even mentioned those who cut trees that protect the Bay so they can have a better view of its waters.

Round and round it goes.

The only thing sure is there is much blame to go around, as both Homer and Pogo have reminded us. But the cycle of blame continues because, as often with humans, everyone wants everyone else to make the sacrifices, to clean up their acts.

The Good Grasses Do

In the meantime, destruction continues. Crucial to the ecological system of the Chesapeake are the Bay grasses: eelgrass, redhead grass, coontail, widgeon grass, southern naiad, horned pondweed, wild celery and others.

They filter the water, help keep it clean and clear. They buffer shorelines to retard and oft times thwart erosion. They absorb nutrients, suspend sediments, slow currents. They produce oxygen. They stabilize.

And that's not all. They provide food for fish and fowl while also offering habitat for many marine species. Without them, where can small crabs hide, or larger ones when molting? They are a haven for small fish who can secret themselves within their patches to elude larger hungry fish.

But how can grasses do their job while we continue to retard their growth or, worse still, kill them by the voluminous nutrient and sediment run-off we send their way in the Bay proper or in the tributaries? If you know the answer, it's not a question.

The sediments and gunk we disperse block the light so important for the growth and survival of SAV. In some areas - primarily the upper Eastern Shore (Elk, Sassafras, Bohemia rivers) the upper Western Shore (Susquehanna Flats, Gunpowder and Bush rivers), also the mid-Potomac, Pocomoke Sound, Mattawoman and Piscataway creeks, the Honga and Manokin - there is a comeback of varying degrees.

But in the Little Choptank, lower Chester, lower Choptank, South, Severn, lower Potomac and upper Patuxent declines are noted. Moreover, there remains the question of the quality of the grasses coming back and their diversity.

Diversity is important. Different grasses grow best at different times, with different needs and different tolerances. Diversity can mean that when sudden or longer term disaster strikes, there is a better chance for survival - among at least some species.

Most sad of all is that most who gripe about the woes of the Chesapeake are more interested in the grasses and plants on their lawns than those submerged in the waters of the Bay. Where are Homer and Pogo when we need them? Enough said.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly