Maryland and Virginia officials, alarmed about impacts on grass beds, have both moved in the past two years to regulate fishing and other activities that harm the Bay’s “underwater meadows.”
Now, they are acting to regulate Bay grass restoration activities as well.
The reason: Officials are worried that — if not done right — the increasing number of grass restoration efforts throughout the Bay may do as much harm as good.
“We want to make sure that we know what is going on out there,” said Jay Woodward, an environmental engineer with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
New permit programs are being developed by the VMRC, as well as by Maryland agencies, so officials can monitor where grass replanting operations are taking place — and whether they are successful.
Right now, officials admit, they don’t even know how many restoration projects are under way.
“The whole idea of this system is to be able to track projects before it gets out of hand,” said Bob Orth, a seagrass expert with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science who is helping to develop the Virginia regulations. “There is a new level of interest that we haven’t seen before.”
Grass beds are increasingly recognized as one of the most important parts of the Bay ecosystem. They help to filter water and reduce erosion, while providing important food and habitat for waterfowl, juvenile fish, blue crabs and other species.
Decades of pollution have taken a toll on grass beds as sun-blocking sediment and algae blooms have caused huge Baywide losses. The Bay today has less than 70,000 acres of grass beds; some believe it may have once had 600,000 acres. Making the Bay clean enough to support grass beds is one of the key elements of the new Chesapeake 2000 Agreement.
To help jump-start the comeback, interest has mushroomed in transplanting grasses from healthy beds to areas that have none. That has raised concern about impacts on “donor” beds.
Right now, there is no evidence that selectively taking plants from healthy beds is harmful. “There are a number of peer-reviewed, published papers that say a properly conducted harvest of plants does not affect donor beds in the least,” said Mike Naylor, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
On the other hand, he and others worry that if done recklessly by well-intentioned people, beds may be hurt. Also, unless projects are coordinated, several projects could unknowingly take plants from the same donor beds, Naylor said. “Having every group going forward, doing their own thing with no coordination, doesn’t make any sense,” he said.
Perhaps more important, though, is that officials want to make sure grass-planting operations are preceded by monitoring that shows water quality is adequate to support grasses, and by follow-up work to see whether the grasses survive. “If 99 percent of the transplants are failing, we may want to rethink what we are doing,” Naylor said.
In some cases, digging up grass beds can be avoided. Interest in restoration has spurred many efforts to grow grasses for transplanting in nurseries — even schools.
But not all grasses can be easily grown. Eelgrass, the species that dominates high salinity areas of Virginia, the Potomac, and southern Maryland, is extremely difficult to rear, making the use of donor beds essential.
Officials in both states say that, technically, permits for grass bed transplants had been needed all along, although the issue was not enforced.
In Virginia, for example, the VMRC requires a permit for any removal of state-owned bottom grounds — something that would include digging up underwater grasses for transplanting.
Likewise, in Maryland, any activities that disrupt the sediment environment require a tidal wetland permit from the state Department of the Environment. But that requirement has generally been neglected.
The issue came to a head in both states with the replacement of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac River outside Washington. Both the Maryland Department of the Environment and Virginia Department of Environmental Quality required the replacement of grass beds that would be lost because of the project.
When the Virginia Department of Transportation sought a permit in Virginia though, it discovered that a formal policy for grass transplantation was still under development.
In Maryland, the state Department of Transportation planned to remove grasses from beds in the Coastal Bays and bring them to the Potomac. It became the first to apply for a permit — only to raise a storm of controversy, mainly because Coastal Bay residents were irked about having plants taken from their grass beds.
“To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time anyone has tried to do it legally and properly,” Naylor said. “In the past, a lot of transplant activities have sort of ignored the review requirement altogether.”
To ensure that other efforts get permits in the future, the Department of Natural Resources and Department of the Environment are working to develop a streamlined permit system, which could be handled through the internet.
In Virginia, all transplants must be approved by scientists at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science — the only organization authorized to remove and transplant grasses — until a formal policy is developed.
Orth said the permit programs should not discourage grass restoration projects because they are valuable public education tools. Planting small beds is very labor intensive. And, taken together, all the grass beds planted in the Bay are tiny compared to the natural year-to-year fluctuations of grass beds.
The message people should get, Orth said, is that it is easier to bring back grasses by cleaning up the Bay and its tributaries than it is through transplants. “If you improve water quality in general, sooner or later these places will be having plants growing in there,” he said.