Annual 'Bay Barometer' shows improvement in the Chesapeake

An annual Chesapeake Bay report card indicates ongoing restoration efforts are paying off, as animal and plant populations are up.

The Chesapeake Bay Program, an organizing body for federal, state and local environmental advocates, released its annual Bay Barometer, a report measuring progress in cleaning up the bay and restoring native species and habitats. Of a number of sustainability goals set to achieve by 2025, the bay met marks for blue crab abundance and fish passage.

There are now 215 million female blue crabs in the bay, a 31 percent increase from the 2016 population and the most recorded by the state-conducted blue crab winter dredge survey. The crab population is stable, according to the report, and fishermen are not depleting the population nor are the crabs overcrowding.

Fish have reestablished migration routes as well, from 817 passage miles in 2015 to 1,126 in 2016, surpassing the program’s 1,000-mile benchmark.

Oyster restoration is underway in six tributaries including the Little Choptank River, Harris Creek and Tred Avon River in Maryland.

Despite hitting benchmarks elsewhere, the biggest success story of the past two years has been the growth of underwater grasses, said Jim Edward, acting director of the Chesapeake Bay Program.

The program tracks submerged aquatic vegetation, which sustain aquatic life and oxygenate the water. The Chesapeake now contains 97,433 acres of grasses, up from 92,315 acres in 2016 and more than halfway to the program’s 185,000 benchmark.

“The fact that we’re seeing more of them in all corners of the bay indicates significant progress,” he said.

But there are still obstacles.

Only 39 percent of the bay and its tidal tributaries met federal water quality standards between 2014 and 2016. Between 2015 and 2016, phosphorous, nitrogen and sediment, considered unwanted pollutants, increased from the previous year due to increased riverflow. Eighty percent of the bay and its tributaries were partially or completely affected by toxic contaminants in 2014, according to the report.

“Agricultural and suburban and urban runoff continue to be problems,” Edward said, as well as climate change which contributes to increased precipitation and, subsequently, riverflow.

For the first year, the program measured bay stewardship among surrounding communities. It surveyed the adoption rate of 19 environmentally friendly actions, as well as volunteerism and civic engagement. The baywide community scored 24 out of 100, with 100 meaning every person was doing everything they could to ensure the health of the bay. Maryland scored 24 out of 100 as well. Anne Arundel County scored slightly higher — 28 out of 100.

The program and its partners emphasized the role of individual bay stewardship, especially in a fraught federal climate. The Environmental Protection Agency has been supportive of the program and other efforts to heal the ailing Chesapeake, but previous proposals for President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget specifically targeted the program for cuts.

In times of uncertainty, bay-area residents need to get civically involved, said Kate Fritz, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay executive director.

“It goes back to the power of the individual,” she said.

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