Bay grasses won new protection from the Maryland legislature, which banned all clam dredging in beds in the Chesapeake and in the state's coastal bays.

Scientists had raised concern in recent months that clam dredging was damaging hundreds of acres of grass beds. The scars appeared as spaghetti-like trails through the grass beds in  photos taken during an annual aerial survey conducted by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

The legislation, which passed unanimously in both the House and Senate, prohibits all hydraulic clam dredging within grass beds, and says the Maryland Department of Natural Resources can take "additional measures" to protect the beds. It will be up to the DNR to determine exactly what constitutes a grass bed.

"It's a very important step in the right direction," said Bob Orth, the VIMS scientist who conducts the annual aerial surveys. "I know from the perspective of a number of us, we would have liked to have seen other areas that have had grasses in the recent past included, but I'm a pragmatist and I know we're going to have to work in steps on this issue." The final bill did not include a buffer zone around grass beds, as did earlier versions of the legislation. But it did prohibit all hydraulic clam dredging, while the earlier bill prohibited only soft shell clam dredging.

Grass beds, or submerged aquatic vegetation, have increasingly been recognized as important habitat for many aquatic species, such as blue crabs and juvenile fish. In fact, the legislation had to some extent pitted crabbers - who wanted the valuable habitat protected - against clammers.

The Bay is thought to have once had more than 600,000 acres of grass beds, but has only about 64,000 acres today. The Bay Program has a goal of restoring 114,000 acres of grass beds by 2005.

Orth and other scientists had raised concerns that the clam dredging was not only destroying grasses at a time the Bay states are committed to restoring them, but that the dredging may cause long-term damage to the bottom that would hinder future recovery.

In January, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission set aside 14 square miles of underwater grass beds in Chincoteague Bay where dredging damage had also taken place.

In addition, the Virginia General Assembly directed the Virginia Delegation to the Chesapeake Bay Commission to study other potential measures that would protect grass beds and report back by next year's session.