Despite progress on shad restoration and promising habitat restoration efforts, the Bay ecosystem has not gotten better in the past year largely because of declines in water quality and growing concerns about blue crabs.
That was the verdict in the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s latest “State of the Bay” report, which scored the Bay’s health at 28 out of a possible 100. The score is based on an average of 13 indicators covering the areas of habitat, pollution and the health of fish and shellfish.
Last year, the CBF also rated the Bay at 28, but that was 1 point better than the score it gave the Bay in 1998, the first year of the report. Last year’s improvements were driven largely by better water quality; the drought that lasted much of 1999 flushed fewer nutrients and sediments into the Bay.
This year, rainfall washed away most of that improvement, according to the CBF, and key water quality indicators declined.
“We’re disappointed that we didn’t see improvements,” said Mike Hirshfield, CBF vice president for resource protection. “We were worried last year that the improvements in grasses and clarity and reductions in nutrient loadings were going to be transitory, and it sure looks like they were.”
The CBF rated nitrogen and phosphorus each at 15, a one-point loss from last year. Water clarity, also affected by runoff, declined by a point. Besides water quality, the report card expressed concern about blue crabs, which are facing increased harvest pressure. The group recognized that efforts are under way to set new harvest targets to restore a healthy crab stock, but said it was too early to say whether states will act on those recommendations.
The only improved score was for shad, which was nudged up 2 points from last year based on stocking efforts and the opening of fish passages around the Bay. This year, a fish ladder at the York Haven Dam in Pennsylvania reopened the Chesapeake’s largest tributary to shad for the first time in a century.
The group also said promising restoration efforts were under way for wetlands and oysters. Although those areas did not get increased scores this year, the report said that could change in the near future.
In issuing the report, the group reasserted its support for key provisions of the Bay Program’s Chesapeake 2000 Agreement signed in June. The agreement called for achieving a clean Bay by 2010, a tenfold increase in oysters, curbing the rate of sprawl 30 percent and permanently preserving 20 percent of the watershed as open space, among other commitments.
“Dramatic improvement will result if the political will to implement the new Chesapeake Bay agreement is exercised over the next decade,” said CBF President William Baker. “All of us who love the Bay must demand nothing less.”
To come up with its score, the CBF compares the current status of 13 indicators with what their condition is thought to have been nearly 400 years ago, when Capt. John Smith explored the Chesapeake. A score of 100 reflects what Smith may have seen. Oysters rank 2 because they are at about 2 percent of historic populations, while grasses score 12 because they are estimated to cover about 12 percent of their historic acreage.
Because John Smith and his comrades didn’t collect comprehensive information, the CBF admits the index is subjective — especially in such areas as toxics, which is hard to evaluate, and even with nutrients. Overall, the CBF says the scores reflect the best professional judgment of its scientists.
The CBF, acknowledging that attaining 100 is impossible because of permanent development in the watershed, has said the Bay could eventually reach about 70. The group calls for hitting 50 by the end of the decade. It estimates the Bay bottomed out in the early 1980s, when it would have rated a 23.
Highlights of CBF's 2000 State of the Chesapeake Report
Wetlands 42 [no change from 1999]
In the last two years, thousands of acres of Virginia wetlands were ditched and drained, offsetting encouraging restoration gains made in 1999. As a result, the index remains at 42. Virginia’s new comprehensive nontidal wetlands protection program this year closed the “Tulloch Rule,” a loophole which allowed the ditching. In Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, additional funding is available to increase restoration projects, but these initiatives will take some time before they reverse the damage done under the Tulloch Rule.
Forested Buffers 53 [no change from 1999]
CBF estimates that riparian forests buffer only 53 percent of the watershed’s 110,000 miles of streams and shorelines. Although more than 600 miles of buffers have been replanted, restoration continues to be undermined by losses to development.
Underwater Grasses 12 [no change from 1999]
Encouraging gains in some areas of the Chesapeake Bay watershed were offset by losses in other areas. The net result is that underwater grasses still remain at 12 percent of their historic levels.
Resource Lands 33 [no change from 1999]
This index is based on the current development rate in the watershed, with “100” the value at John Smith’s time and “0” representing an almost unimaginably rapid rate of development of 135,000 acres per year. CBF estimates that the watershed currently loses 90,000 acres of farmland and open space annually, which accounts for an index value of 33. In the new Chesapeake 2000 Agreement, the states agreed to reduce the annual loss of forest and farmland by 30 percent. They now need to develop and carry out the programs to accomplish this.
Water Clarity 15 [-1 from 1999]
Last year’s drought-driven increase of 1 point has been reversed as this year’s rains washed sediments and algae-producing nutrients into the Bay system. A rating of 15 indicates turbid water. Without clear water, sunlight cannot penetrate strongly enough to give underwater grasses the energy they need to grow.
Phosphorus & Nitrogen 15 [both -1 from 1999]
Last year, the Foundation’s ratings for both nitrogen and phosphorus improved slightly because the drought reduced runoff and stream flows, which in turn resulted in less of these nutrients reaching the Chesapeake Bay. This gain was short-lived, though, as normal rainfall returned this year, washing large quantities of nutrients into the Chesapeake Bay and driving the index back to 15.
Toxics 30 [no change from 1999]
There has not been a substantial reduction in the amount of toxics that enter the Bay watershed. Therefore, the index remains at 30, which indicates a degraded Bay. The Chesapeake 2000 Agreement took a step forward with commitments to strive for “zero discharge” of toxics and to eliminate by 2010 the use of dilution in dealing with toxic discharges. These commitments and others must be taken seriously by government and industry if the ultimate goal of a toxics-free Bay is ever to be met.
Dissolved Oxygen 15 [no change from 1999]
Several areas of the Bay suffered from episodes of anoxia (no oxygen) and hypoxia (low oxygen) again this year. Primarily a result of algae blooms driven by nutrient pollution, low dissolved oxygen levels are also influence by river flows, which were probably changed forever by the destruction of forests.
Fish & Shellfish
Crabs 46 [-2 from 1999]
Intense fishing pressure, poor harvest, and extremely low levels of the underwater grass habitat, especially in areas critical to the crab’s life cycle, drop the crab health index 2 points. The Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee has made progress in its efforts to develop a comprehensive plan to manage crabs more effectively, including the adoption of a sanctuary in Virginia for spawning crabs. Yet the committee faces the challenge of setting harvest targets that result in healthy crab populations, and ensuring that the states achieve the targets.
Rockfish 75 [no change from 1999]
A vibrant Chesapeake Bay fishery and the potential of an upcoming new management plan are offset by concerns there are too few large, old fish, which keeps the rockfish (striped bass) index at 75. Other concerns include a worry that the food web is out of balance, with too few menhaden and other small fish available for the fish to eat, in addition to only average reproduction rates.
Oysters 2 [no change from 1999]
Although gaining ground, restoration efforts have not yet boosted oysters beyond about 2 percent of their abundance in John Smith’s time. Potential funding for restoration and research projects hold promise and may spur an increase in the index next year. But optimism is tempered by the tremendous effort needed to improve habitat and understand how disease affects oysters.
Shad 5 [+2 from 1999]
The reopening of the Susquehanna River to fish migration for the first time in 100 years is the principal factor that led to an increase of two points. The opening of the new fish ladder at the York Haven Dam on that river and the continuation of the five-year plan to phase out the ocean fishery represent real progress. However, the Bay’s shad population remains at only a fraction of its pre-colonial level.