Former Maryland Gov. Harry R. Hughes, who launched  the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort, died Wednesday at his home on the Eastern Shore. He was 92.

Two-term governor made Chesapeake Bay restoration a lasting touchstone of Maryland politics and policy. (1987 photo by Dave Harp)The state’s 57th governor, in office from 1979 to 1987, forged the federal-state partnership that for the last 35 years has labored to reverse the decline of North America’s largest estuary.

An Eastern Shore native, Hughes made saving the Bay a lasting touchstone of Maryland politics and policy, taking steps that might seem radical even today. He pushed through a landmark law limiting development along the Bay shore, for one, and braved the ire of watermen and other Shore politicians to impose a moratorium on striped bass, a popular sport and commercial catch, to save it from overfishing.

News of his death drew public tributes from Maryland politicians and environmentalists. Gov. Larry Hogan issued a statement calling him a “Maryland legend” and ordered flags flown at half-staff.

Ann Swanson, long-time executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, called Hughes a “trail blazer” who “used science as his guidepost and common sense as his tactic” in tackling the Bay’s problems.

“He was a great leader and inspiration for all of us,” she added.

John Griffin, a former secretary of natural resources who served as Hughes’ environmental aide, recalled that he had not been elected on a platform of saving the Bay. But Hughes resolved to act after being briefed on the results of a five-year, $27 million federal study concluding that the Chesapeake was suffering  from worsening nutrient pollution, toxic contamination in places and loss of underwater grasses.

His initiative came amid a public outpouring of concern: He recalled in an interview years later how people called out to him to “save the Bay” as he rode in local Fourth of July parades.

Hughes directed his staff to come up with a plan to address the Bay’s problems, Griffin said, and then reached out to the governors of Virginia and Pennsylvania and the mayor of the District of Columbia to join with Maryland in a regional effort.

That diplomacy culminated in a summit conference on the Bay at George Mason University in Northern Virginia in December 1983. There, Hughes and the other elected executives, along with the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, signed the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement. It was a simple, four-paragraph document pledging to “fully address the extent and sources of pollutants entering the Bay,” and launching the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program to assist and coordinate their efforts.

“So much of the subsequent progress we have made on restoring the Bay in the last three decades traces to this foundational document,” said U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-MD, who was speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates at the time and has since become a champion of the Chesapeake in Congress.

Shortly after the agreement was signed, Hughes pushed through an ambitious legislative agenda, including major increases in state staff and spending to upgrade sewage treatment plants and deal with other pollution sources. He also won legislative approval of the Critical Area Act, a pioneering law that regulates development within 1,000 feet of the Bay and the tidal reaches of its tributaries. 

The legislation was highly controversial, Griffin recalled, and only passed after being watered down to accommodate those concerned about the state involving itself in land use decisions traditionally left to local governments. In an interview more than 20 years after its passage, Hughes said he doubted the bill could have passed later. It’s been criticized since by some as interfering with property rights and by others as being too weak, but it has survived legal and political challenges.

In 1985, Hughes overcame opposition from national detergent manufacturers to push through a statewide ban on the sale of laundry soap containing phosphate, a chemical compound implicated in causing algae blooms and dead zones in the Bay. Other states later followed suit.

On the regulatory front, Hughes was similarly resolute. Amid worrisome declines in the catch of striped bass, the state fish also known as rockfish, scientists warned that the migratory Atlantic Coast species was on the verge of collapse. Hughes’ aides urged him to go beyond just limiting their harvest to impose a moratorium on catching the most valuable finfish inthe Bay. The move was expected to be highly unpopular among watermen, for whom rockfish represented a significant source of their livelihood.

“He listened intently,” Griffin said, “and he said OK … go do it, I’ll back you up.”

Shore lawmakers criticized the move, and some went further.

“We had watermen calling death threats and all,” Griffin said. “It was a pretty brutal time, but Harry never wavered.”

The 1985 moratorium withstood legal and legislative challenges, and Virginia followed suit, with tight catch limits also imposed up and down the Atlantic Coast in the rest of the species’ range. After five years, the population had recovered enough to ease the moratorium.

Upon leaving office, Hughes continued to help with the Bay restoration effort in various volunteer roles. 

One involved chairing a politically charged commission appointed by one of his successors, Gov. Parris Glendening. It had the task of recommending ways to prevent outbreaks of a toxic microbe, Pfiesteria, which was blamed at the time for fish kills and even some health problems of people exposed to the infested waters. Subsequent research suggested another microorganism could be the culprit for the fish kills,  but scientists told the commission that nutrient pollution was a factor in triggering toxic algae blooms generally, and that phosphorus-laden runoff from farm fields fertilized with poultry manure was a significant source. The commission’s findings prompted Glendening to introduce legislation in 1998 requiring farmers to manage their manure and fertilizer more carefully. Though watered down to overcome farmers’ resistance, the measure passed and remains on the books today.

Hughes also helped launch and lead the University of Maryland’s Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology, a research facility subsequently named in his honor that seeks to apply science to maintaining farming and forestry while also protecting the environment.