When people think about species important to the health of the Bay, hellbenders are not typically one that comes to mind. The giant salamander can reach lengths of more than 2 feet, but hardly anyone sees one because it is nocturnal and lives under large rocks on the bottom of streams and small rivers.
It also requires clean, clear water-something that makes it a good indicator of stream health.
So, they-along with brook trout, American eels, the Louisiana waterthrush, black ducks, eelgrass, blue crabs and about three dozen other species-are listed as "critical living resources" in a report responding to a call in President Barack Obama's executive order for coordinated habitat and research activities that protect flora and fauna, as well as water quality, throughout the Bay and its watershed.
A key part of that is identifying important species and their habitats which, if protected, should also protect areas for most other species.
The goal is to increase the focus on habitats to ensure that they are restored along with the Bay's water quality, said Jennifer Greiner, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Chesapeake Bay Coordination Office.
"We are trying to return to the root of the restoration effort, which is really about living resources," she said. "It is about more than just water quality. It is about more than delisting the Bay. It is about the return of sustainable numbers of species the Chesapeake is known for, and that means restoring and protecting the habitats that they depend on."
Cleaning up the water, while important, does not automatically guarantee species will thrive. Improved water quality does little for migratory fish such as shad and eels if dams block their migration.
Similarly, cerulean warblers, need large tracts of mature forest. The Louisiana waterthrush prefers riparian hemlock forests. In the Bay, 90 percent of the historic oyster reef habitat is gone. The Atlantic sturgeon, which requires good water quality, also needs other habitat features-such as solid substrates for spawning.
The identification of critical species-a list likely to be revised before a final report is released next spring-is a starting point for restoring and protecting habitats.
The Bay and its watershed have more than 3,600 migratory and resident species that depend on habitats they find here-a number that makes prioritization nearly impossible. Narrowing that to a handful of species such as hellbenders, bog turtles and black ducks, which represent diverse habitat types, makes the task more manageable.
To further improve coordination, the strategy calls for unifying watershedwide mapping programs, many of which have been undertaken by state and federal agencies, to identify areas that are important for both critical species and water quality.
With that information, emphasis would be placed on using existing programs and funding sources to protect important habitats, from remote Chesapeake Bay islands to remnant old growth forests in the headwaters.
The report called for engaging state agencies and conservation groups in the effort. "We hope to be able to agree on a common piece of music that we are all working toward in terms of the living resource priorities," Greiner said.
The report also said agencies should consider federal authorities not currently used in the Bay and its watershed to further habitat objectives, such as establishing a network of marine sanctuaries, or the designation of tributaries as part of the National Wild and Scenic River system.
And, it said some existing authorities need to be strengthened to protect habitats, including the enforcement of wetland permits and efforts to prevent the introduction of nonnative species.
Beyond protecting habitats, the effort would help identify areas for restoration that could benefit both water quality and habitats. For instance, a riparian forest buffer that also provides a corridor between large woodlots provides added habitat benefits.
Ramped-up efforts would be made to promote large-scale oyster restoration, plantings of large underwater grass beds, living shorelines, and in some cases, all three of these in a single project. Federal agencies could help fund, and provide technical assistance, to such efforts.
Projects would be coupled with improved research and monitoring efforts so scientists could better understand what works, and doesn't, so future projects can take advantage of lessons learned.
The report said stable funding sources were needed for programs aimed at removing barriers, or building passages at barriers, to fish migration. Removals should be targeted at blockages that prevent fish from reaching high-quality habitats, it said.
In what is sure to be a controversial suggestion, the report called for the consideration of a new, Baywide regulatory body made up of state and federal representatives to manage interjurisdictional fisheries.
That would help lead to a more coordinated monitoring of fish stocks and their habitats to better inform management decisions. It may also lead to new management approaches such as individual transferable quotas, management systems and sanctuaries, as well as ecosystem-based management, which incorporates things like habitat quality into decisions.
It may have the most ambitious agenda of any of the seven reports responding to the executive order. While improving the Bay's water quality is a task that has eluded success for nearly three decades, it has a set goal and end date-2025. In contrast, restoring habitat that has been degraded over the past four centuries and is under continued threats daily from development, exotic species and pollution, is even more daunting.
"Given all the stressors, we are never going to be able to say we've 'finished' the job for living resources," Greiner said. "But we can set science-based goals for the watershed's priority species and work strategically and collaboratively to achieve them."