Scientists at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation graded the estuary’s health at a D+ for the third time in a row, with the blue crab population under duress and a multi-state cleanup pact poised to be deferred past its original 2025 deadline.
But Hilary Harp Falk, the Annapolis-based nonprofit’s president and CEO, struck a hopeful tone during a news conference Thursday.
“While the news is tough today, we are all very optimistic about the future, and know that 2025 is an important deadline — but not the finish line,” she said.
In October, the Chesapeake Bay Program —which manages the 2025 cleanup plan — tasked staffers with evaluating a new deadline for the failing agreement, which focuses on reducing the amount of harmful nitrogen and phosphorous flowing into the estuary from its multistate watershed. Those nutrients contribute to oxygen-depleted “dead zones” in the bay, virtually devoid of underwater life.
The Environmental Protection Agency, which enforces the 2025 plan, has taken a harsh stance against Pennsylvania, which lags the furthest behind on its bay commitments, in part because of its large number of farms. This year, the state legislature there stepped up funding for restoration, by designating federal dollars for a Clean Streams Fund for farmers to reduce runoff.
Reducing agricultural pollution and urban stormwater runoff are the greatest challenges facing the bay restoration effort, Falk said, with many early improvements coming in technological upgrades for wastewater treatment plants.
Last month, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation was among the environmental groups to sue Maryland for its new stormwater permit for industrial sites, arguing the Maryland Department of the Environment failed to consider climate change when setting new standards for rainwater control.
This year, foundation scientists scored the bay 32 out of 100, based on the status of key bay fisheries and habitats — along with its pollution levels. A score of 100 would represent the bay’s return to its health before colonization. The first foundation report in 1998 graded the bay at a 27.
In 2022, a good year for oysters was canceled out by a bad year for blue crabs.
While the bay’s oyster population remains small, it’s seen improvements in recent years, with 30-year high numbers of spat counted in Maryland and Virginia in the past few years, the report stated. That brought the oyster’s score from 12 out of 100 in 2020 to 17 this year.
“However, past increases in oyster reproduction have been quickly exploited by increases in harvest, limiting their contribution to longer-term oyster recovery,” cautioned the report.
With 2021′s winter dredge survey for blue crabs revealing a record-low score, the population’s score on the report dipped from 60 out of 100 to 55.
Still, the crab population has not declined to a point that would trigger immediate action from fishery managers, who base their assessments on the number of adult female crabs.
“On the positive side of this, this low number has spurred action by the bay jurisdictions and NOAA to start a comprehensive stock assessment of the population that will hopefully inform our scientists and our managers moving forward and allow us to manage the species in a way that brings it back to its former numbers,” said Chris Moore, the bay foundation’s senior regional ecosystem scientist.
Rockfish, also known as striped bass, saw a two-point improvement on this year’s report card thanks to lower fishing quotas. But the numbers of juvenile striped bass were far below average this year in Maryland, tempering optimism for the species.
Shad again received the lowest score of the species on the report card, a seven out of 100. Though a moratorium was placed on fishing for the species in the 1980s, there has not been a significant rebound. The rise of the invasive blue catfish and obstacles to fish passage on rivers feeding the bay have played a part.
Though the size of this year’s bay dead zone was smaller than average for the third consecutive year — a “promising trend,” according to the report — it didn’t show much improvement compared to 2020, leaving its score unchanged.
The score for phosphorous pollution improved two points, but other measures of pollution either remained unchanged or worsened by a point.
The Bay Foundation’s habitat measures — including the amount of forest buffers, wetlands, underwater grasses and conserved land — also largely remained unchanged.