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Drought gets credit for resurgence in bay's underwater grasses; 8% increase overall, 22% in Maryland waters


Underwater grasses, vital to the health of the Chesapeake Bay, increased last year by 8 percent overall and 22 percent in Maryland, offsetting the losses of 1998.

The largest of the increases -- 61 percent -- announced yesterday at a news conference on the Severn River came in Tangier Sound on the lower Eastern Shore, where grasses had been declining for the past six years.

Grasses declined slightly in the upper bay, according to the report from the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program.

Bay scientists attribute much of the increase of 4,635 acres, as well as the decline in the upper bay, to last summer's drought.

The lack of rain washing nutrients from farm fields, lawns and golf courses kept the nutrients that harm the grasses out of the water. But it also produced higher salinity in the northern part of the bay, where the grasses cannot tolerate salt water.

Grass beds provide shelter for fish and crabs, and food for water fowl. They help clean the water by absorbing nutrients and holding down erosion. They are so important that federal and state officials have promised to restore 114,000 acres by 2005.

The 13 different species of grass, which scientists believe once covered 600,000 acres of bay bottom from the Virginia Capes to Havre de Grace, had been declining at least since the 1950s.

The increases may seem modest, but "we'll take what we can get," said Kent Mountford, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Program.

Officials at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation warned that the results of the annual aerial survey should not be taken as a sign of "sustained" recovery because of the effects of the drought.

In Tangier Sound, an important nursery for blue crabs and many species of fish, grasses increased from 6,610 acres in 1998 to 10,618 acres in 1999.

The increase probably "is a result of improved water quality" because of the lack of runoff last year, said Naylor, who is chairman of the bay program's submerged aquatic vegetation work group.

The survey also showed increases in grass beds in the Elk and Sassafras rivers, Eastern Bay and the Manokin, Honga and Big Annemessex rivers on the Eastern Shore and in the main stem of the bay.

Grass beds declined in the Bohemia, the Gunpowder, the South and the Potomac rivers on the western shore and in the Choptank on the Eastern Shore.

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