Gerald Winegrad: The Chesapeake Bay restoration is in deep trouble

This spring’s mahogany tide was more widespread and intense because of excess nutrients. As the algae died, oxygen-deprived water led to tens of thousands dead fish of 12 species like these on Spa Creek in Annapolis — a harbinger of worse to come this summer?

Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts have reached their lowest ebb.  The wheels are coming off the commitments by federal and state governments to get the job done and assure a flourishing ecological treasure.

When I joined 700 other hopeful bay caretakers at the signing of the first Bay Restoration Agreement in Virginia in 1983, I was optimistic we would succeed in restoring the bay. If the bright-eyed, full of hope leaders back in 1983 had envisioned a nightmare scenario for the Bay’s future, we are in it now!


Yes, absolutely, the bay is better off than it would have been without these efforts.  But we are very far from a restored Chesapeake with excessive flows of nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen) from farms, urban stormwater runoff, septic tanks, and wastewater treatment plants. Huge amounts of sediment still flow from farms and stormwater runoff. 

Here are results of the flagging efforts to control pollutants:   


Flesh-Eating Diseases. Dinoflagellates such as pfiesteria flourish proliferate and grow toxic fueled by excess nutrients. Contact with bay water can lead to flesh-eating infections, loss of limbs, and even deaths.  I have seen the legs of men being eaten from the inside from water contact in the Severn and South Rivers. 

Mahogany Tide.  This spring’s mahogany tide was more widespread and intense because of excess nutrients. As the algae died, oxygen-deprived water led to tens of thousands dead fish of 12 species — a harbinger of worse to come this summer?  

Oysters.  Populations collapsed of this keystone species necessary to filter-cleanse bay waters to 1% of historic levels while the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the General Assembly dither and allow continued harvest. 

Crabs. The 2020 winter survey documented a 32% decline in crabs from 2019 down to only 18% of 1990 numbers. Juvenile crabs dropped 42%  to 38% of 1990 numbers. Females declined to only two-thirds of the goal. At $400 a bushel harvest accelerates unabated.

Rockfish. Our state fish is in trouble as substantial overfishing has been occurring for years. The annual survey of young rockfish in 2019 was well below the 66-year average, the 3rd lowest in 11 years. And yet DNR has failed to meaningfully restrict commercial harvest.

Soft clams, shad, sturgeon.  All are collapsed populations with only clams still harvested.  Shad fishing was shut down in 1980 with little recovery.  Both sturgeon species are listed federally as endangered. 

Bay grasses. Bay grasses, one of the best indicators of bay health, declined last year by 33%, the largest drop since surveys began in 1986.  These underwater grass beds are critical for juvenile blue crabs and waterfowl food and pump oxygen into water, trap sediment and buffer shorelines from erosion. Bay states vowed to reach 185,000 acres by 2010 but are at only 66,400 acres. There may have once been 600,000 acres. 

Water quality declines. The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Studies annual 2019 Bay Health Report dropped to a C-, the second consecutive decline and the lowest grade since 2011. Most of the bay’s waters do not meet basic Clean Water Act requirements.  


The responses by policymakers to this disturbing news: blame the weather, cyclical variations, or the other states or the EPA. They tout any positive signs and try to sugar-coat the bad news to keep the money flowing to the folks steering this sinking ship. This is in lieu of forcefully addressing overfishing and the largest pollution source—agriculture—and cracking down on urban stormwater runoff and septic tank pollution.

The Trump administration response has been to try to shut down the Bay Program, force the EPA to turn critical Clean Water Act pollution limits into voluntary goals, and prevent the EPA from enforcing existing laws.  

Maryland, Virginia, and DC are suing EPA as Pennsylvania and New York failed to develop required plans to achieve 2025 restoration goals. Unmentioned is that Maryland and Virginia failed to meet their mandated nitrogen reductions in 2017 without any punitive EPA actions. Both states are unlikely to meet their 2025 nitrogen limits without manipulating tradeoffs.  

Making matters worse is the blatant Green Washing by top governmental leaders like Gov. Larry Hogan who declared last year that “we practiced skilled stewardship of the environment, which resulted in a Chesapeake Bay that is cleaner than it has been in recorded history.” 

Some advocacy groups, scientists, and federal and state agencies also participate in Green Washing by falsely praising the status quo to bring funding and prestige.  

I am angry and disheartened at the lack of leadership and courage to make the bold changes needed.  The bay is part of our heritage and our culture. I must speak out, being the skunk at the garden party, and hope that true warriors will join the fight for the bay.