There were more than 53,000 acres of grasses covering the floor of the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay last year, a footprint 29 percent larger than in 2014 and approaching a key benchmark in bay restoration.
The data is according to an annual aerial survey conducted by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and released by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources on Thursday. The survey found 91,000 acres of grasses across the entire bay.
The grasses are an important indicator of the bay's health because they are a habitat for blue crabs and other creatures. They also help prevent erosion, absorb and filter nutrients and sediment and provide food for migrating waterfowl, state Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton said.
"The record resilience and resurgence of underwater grasses indicate that Maryland is making progress on Chesapeake Bay restoration and improving water quality in the watershed," Belton said.
Kim Coble, vice president for environmental protection and restoration for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the data shows that regionwife efforts to reduce runoff of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment are working. The pollutants prevent sunlight from reaching grasses.
"These are positive signs of a still troubled ecosystem recovering slowly from decades of degradation from pollution," Coble said in a statement. "But we can't relax our efforts. The amount of underwater grass in the Bay is still only half of the goal which Bay states and the District of Columbia agreed upon in the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint."
The growth rate is on track with goals, however, state officials said. The 2015 measurements are 94 percent of a goal for 57,000 acres of grasses by 2017.
Five Chesapeake waterways surpassed grass restoration goals -- the Chester, Elk and Bush rivers, Fishing Bay and the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. Others that saw grass growth were the middle Choptank River, the Big Annemessex River, the Manokin River, Tangier Sound and Middle River.