Nutrients washing into tidal waters from poultry farms and agricultural land are degrading Maryland's coastal bays, particularly those near the Delaware border, according to a new report.

Maryland's Coastal Bays Program looked at data from research done on the bays separating Ocean City and Assateague Island from the mainland and found higher levels of habitat loss and other environmental impacts in bays north of the Ocean City Inlet.

Southern bays, such as Sinepuxent, Chincoteague and Johnson, where there has been less development, appeared healthier with more abundant sea grasses, but officials with the program worry that future development could cause problems there as well.

"They (the northern bays) may serve as an example of where our bays are headed," said David Goshorn, a researcher with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources who worked on the report.

The report comes nearly a year after the program was announced to look at the condition of Maryland's coastal bays and come up with recommendations within three years. The report was needed to help environmental officials figure out which direction they should take when drawing up recommendations. It relied solely on past research and mingled the results of other studies.

Projections suggest the population in and around Ocean City could double in 30 years' time - a rate of growth certain to have an impact on the bays. "We all face the same problem," said program director Steve Taylor, "the delicate balance between man and nature."

According to the report, the process of eutrophication - in which excess nutrients run into local waters - is the single largest environmental concern in the area, particularly in the northern bays such as Little Assawoman, Assawoman and Isle of Wight, and their tributaries.

In many cases, those nutrients enter the water after fertilizers seep into farmland and run off into bays, Goshorn said. He did acknowledge that much of the research was done before local farmers began using more environmentally sensitive practices. Some of the run-off also comes from industrial sites and sprawling residential communities, officials said.

The report also blamed the poor condition of some of the coastal bays on animal and vegetation habitat loss caused by development, as well as chemical contamination coming from agricultural operations and growth.