Bay still on critical list, despite gains, report says; Wetlands, blue crabs continue to decline


The health of the Chesapeake Bay is improving, with growing populations of oysters, shad and rockfish. But the estuary remains on the critical list, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Wetlands, which filter pollutants from the water, have declined since last year and could shrink further under a federal court decision that allows wetland development in Virginia. And the blue crab population continues to drop, the foundation said yesterday in its annual State of the Bay report.

The foundation gave the bay a score of 28 on a scale in which 100 is the pristine quality described by the English explorer Captain John Smith when he first sailed the Chesapeake in 1607. That's one point better than last year, but not good enough, said Will C. Baker, foundation president.

"The bay is getting better, but the progress is too slow and the bay is still a system out of balance. I had hoped for a 30, but the political will does not match the public appetite for saving the bay."

Baker said he realized the bay would never return to its condition in 1607, but the foundation would like to see it reach a score of 70.

The foundation president praised Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III for that state's oyster sanctuary program, but criticized him for not moving to preserve threatened wetlands.

Developers have drained some 2,000 acres of Virginia wetlands in the past year since a court ruling re-opened a loophole in federal wetlands law. Maryland and Pennsylvania have state laws closing the loophole, and the governors of North Carolina and Texas have issued executive orders closing the loophole. But Gilmore has not responded.

Gilmore announced recently he feared losing "an expensive lawsuit" if he acted. Yesterday, John Paul Woodley Jr., Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources, said the governor does not have the authority to contravene the court decision, but that does not mean the state is not committed to preserving wetlands.

"I have asked our Wetlands Advisory Committee what our response should be," he said. "We're concerned about the loss of wetlands, but that was a federal decision."

The bay foundation also challenged the Chesapeake Bay Program, the federal agency helping to draft an update of the bay's restoration plan, to adopt a series of ambitious goals to be reached by 2010, along with a specific plan to meet them.

"We want government agencies to set specific goals for things such as nutrient production and set specific years and to hold them accountable," Baker said.

For example, the foundation called for cutting in half the amount of toxics, nitrogen and phosphorus reaching the bay, increasing the amount of underwater grasses, reducing wetland losses and maintaining populations of rockfish.

Bay program staff members "haven't made up our minds on a lot of these things yet," said Bill Matuszeski, the program director. "But some of the things they are urging us to do are a bit bolder than we were going to be, and on a couple of things we are willing to go further."

The bay foundation sets a goal of restoring 225,000 acres of underwater grasses, which provide habitat for young crabs, while the bay program is discussing a goal of 114,000 acres, he said. And while the foundation calls for a 50 percent reduction in toxics, "we're discussing continuous improvement to zero discharge."

To determine its annual score, bay foundation scientists analyzed 13 factors they considered important in the health of the bay -- oysters, shad, underwater grasses, wetlands, forested buffers, toxics, water clarity, dissolved oxygen, striped bass, open lands, blue crab, phosphorus and nitrogen -- assigned numbers to them based on historical information and averaged them.

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