Migratory fish have more rivers in the Bay to swim, and underwater grass beds are growing, but streamside forest plantings and wetland restoration have lagged badly in recent years, a new report from the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program shows.
Its Bay Barometer, an annual assessment of the Chesapeake region’s pollution reduction and habitat restoration efforts, found uneven progress toward meeting the 11 goals set in the Bay Watershed Agreement adopted in 2014.
While much of the information has already been publicly released, the report compiles it to offer an overview of restoration efforts.
“This year, it appears we are moving in a positive direction on a number of indicators,” said Nick DiPasquale, director of the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program Office, during a media briefing. He said restoration efforts have begun to switch from developing plans to meet watershed agreement goals toward increased action.
“We are starting to see the results of those efforts being reflected positively in these in indicators,” he said.
Water quality monitoring shows that the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment entering the Bay has been below the long-term average for the last three years, the report noted. And 17 percent more of the Bay met water quality standards than it had in the prior three years.
Still, only 34 percent of the Bay reached the water quality goals that are driving the nutrient and sediment reduction efforts, the report said.
One of the pollution reduction goals is to improve water clarity so underwater grasses can grow, providing habitat for juvenile fish, crabs and waterfowl.
Grass beds have expanded greatly in recent years, gaining more than 16,000 acres between 2013 and 2014, the report said. The Baywide total has reached 75,835 acres.
“That’s a lot of grass,” said Bob Orth, of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who oversees an annual aerial survey of the grass beds. And, he said, preliminary data from 2015 — when much of the Bay saw greatly improved clarity — bodes well for more gains. “That trend seems to be continuing,” he said.
Meanwhile, the number of adult female blue crabs in the Bay increased to 101 million in 2015, from 68.5 million the previous year — though still less than the 215 million target.
“There is still work to do, but we are moving in the right direction,” said Bruce Vogt, ecosystem science and synthesis manager with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Chesapeake Bay Office.
Also improving, at least in places, were American shad, the migratory fish that once thronged the Chesapeake every spring. Between 2010 and 2014, the number of spawning shad returning to the Bay increased sharply, the report noted, though the surge happened mainly in the Potomac River and, to a lesser extent, the Rappahannock.
Baywide, the rebound has been limited by the Susquehanna and James rivers, which Vogt said “really haven’t seen the increases that we would like to see in terms of shad abundance.”
Migratory species such as shad can benefit from removing dams or building fish passages. Since 2012, 817 miles of rivers have been opened for fish, the report said, which is close to meeting the Bay agreement’s goal of opening 1,000 miles by 2025.
Opportunities for human contact with the Bay also have improved, the report noted, with 86 new public access sites opened in the watershed between 2010 and 2014. That is 29 percent of the way toward the goal of establishing 300 new sites by 2025.
Not all the news was good.
Only 114 miles of riparian forest buffers were planted from 2013 to 2014, the report said. That was the lowest rate of streamside tree planting in the last 15 years and falls far short of the annual goal of 900 miles. Scientists deem forest buffers one of the most effective ways to reduce nutrient and sediment runoff, and a boon to stream health and aquatic habitat.
Similarly, only 6,191 acres of wetlands were created or re-established between 2010 and 2014, far off the trajectory needed to attain the 2025 goal of 85,000 acres.
The full report is available at http://www.chesapeakebay.net/documents/2014-2015_Bay_Barometer_FINAL_02.02.2016.pdf