Below are some of the highlights from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's 1999 State of the Chesapeake Report.
Wetlands 42 [-1 from 1998]
In 1998, wetlands covered about 43 percent of their acreage before European settlement. Thousands of wetland acres have been destroyed in Virginia since last fall as a result of a court ruling (the “Tulloch” decision) that reopened a loophole allowing the ditching and draining of wetlands. The ditching has erased encouraging restoration gains, reducing the index to 42.
Forested Buffers 53 [no change from 1998]
Riparian forests buffer 53 percent of the basin’s 110,000 miles of streams and shorelines. Although hundreds of miles of streamside buffers have been restored through the efforts of many groups, development continues to destroy existing buffers.
Underwater Grasses 12 [no change from 1998]
Although the Bay Program’s annual survey showed that underwater grasses covered about 11 percent of historical acreage in 1998 (down from 1997, with particular losses in Tangier Sound), that figure is tempered by field observations this summer that show strong grass increases in the Bay.
Resource Lands 33 [no change from 1998]
This index is based on the current development rate in the watershed, with “100” the value at John Smith’s time (no development) and “0” representing an almost unimaginably rapid rate of development of 135,000 acres per year (a rate that, if it had been going on since John Smith’s time, would have resulted in the entire 64,000 square mile watershed being developed by 1998). Currently, CBF estimates that the watershed loses 90,000 acres of farmland and open space annually, which accounts for an index value of 33.
Toxics 30 [no change from 1998]
The index of 30 indicates that the Bay is degraded, far from the toxics-free benchmark Bay. Although reported industrial toxic discharges have declined in recent years, studies indicate that toxic chemicals have the potential to affect large areas of the Bay. The CBF said that existing regulatory and monitoring programs regarding toxics are insufficient.
Phosphorus & Nitrogen 16 Apiece [both +1 from 1998]
Last year’s index was based on the estimate that nutrient loading to the Bay is currently seven times what it was in pre-colonial times. This year, ratings for both nitrogen and phosphorus improved slightly because the drought reduced runoff and stream flows, resulting in less nitrogen and phosphorus reaching the Bay. That improvement is likely to reverse when rains come and nutrients, now held in the dry soils, quickly enter the Bay.
Water Clarity 16 [+1 from 1998]
The index of 16, despite a drought-driven increase of 1 point, indicates poor water clarity. As an example of how far water clarity has declined, there are reliable reports of widespread underwater grasses that grew in 9 feet of water as recently as a century ago. Despite year-to-year variation, there is no trend toward improvement.
Dissolved Oxygen 15 [no change from 1998]
Today’s widespread areas of anoxia (no oxygen) and hypoxia (low oxygen) reflect both excessive nutrient inputs and consequences of river flows that were probably changed forever by land clearing.
Fish and Shellfish
Crabs 48 [-2 from 1998]
The Bay’s blue crab population is far below its pre-exploitation level for two reasons: extremely heavy fishing and extremely reduced levels of the underwater grass habitat critical to the crab’s life cycle. The excessive level of harvesting effort increases the risk of a poor production of young crabs; declines in underwater grasses also hinder the survival rate of juvenile crabs.
Rockfish 75 [+5 from 1998]
Rockfish (striped bass) numbers and spawning stock biomass are higher than they have been since the 1960s (the dawn of relatively good recordkeeping), and greater age diversity is primarily responsible for this year’s increased rating. But concerns remain. There are questions about changes in rockfish’s forage base because the number of menhaden, a main food source for rockfish, has decreased. Also, scientists gauging the age diversity of striped bass believe that greater numbers of older, larger fish are needed to maximize spawning potential. Pressure from recreational and commercial fishermen remains high.
Oysters 2 [+1 from 1998]
The Bay’s oyster population is less than 2 percent of its abundance in John Smith’s time. The oyster population continues to suffer from disease, irregular reproduction and a lack of suitable habitat. But in 1999, CBF and others made encouraging progress to restore oysters in Maryland and Virginia by growing and transplanting more than 10 million oysters onto reefs throughout the Bay.
Shad 3 [+1 from 1998]
The Bay’s shad population remains severely depleted, despite the small increase from last year’s rating. The index value of 3 indicates a population almost, but not quite, as depleted as oysters; for example, the current population of shad in the Susquehanna is only 3 percent of the restoration target for the river, let alone pre-exploitation levels. Encouraging, modest improvements in shad numbers in the upper Bay and York River contrast with historic lows in most other areas.