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Chesapeake Bay News


Report card shows steady recovery of Chesapeake Bay health

Bridges cross the mouth of the Susquehanna River near Havre de Grace, Md., on June 27, 2016.

The Chesapeake Bay continues to show signs of improved health, according to the most recent Chesapeake Bay Report Card from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES). While the estuary’s “C” grade remains unchanged since 2012, the score of 54 percent in 2016 is an improvement from a 53 percent in 2015 and 50 percent in 2014.

“The 2016 Report Card again shows a steady improvement in a variety of ecosystem health indicators throughout the Bay,” said Nick DiPasquale, Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, in a release. “These improvements are accomplished by cooperation and collaboration at all levels of government and with the active participation and support of informed citizens."

UMCES researchers use several indicators of Bay health to calculate the Chesapeake Bay Health Index, including water clarity and dissolved oxygen, the amount of algae and nutrients in the water, the abundance of underwater grasses and the strength of populations like blue crabs and striped bass.

Many of these indicators improved or held steady from the previous year. The Fisheries Index, for example, improved from a 73 percent in 2015 to a 90 percent in 2016, with blue crabs in particular showing a marked increase. Phosphorus pollution also decreased across much of the estuary and its tributaries, and dissolved oxygen levels remained high.

Despite this progress, experts caution that more work is needed to see a fully restored Bay. Nitrogen pollution worsened from 2015 to 2016, as did populations of benthic organisms—the worms, clams and other invertebrates that live at the bottom of the Bay.

“We are happy to see that our beloved Chesapeake Bay continues its recovery. These scientifically rigorous report card results are telling us that we are indeed heading in the right direction,” said Dr. Bill Dennison, Vice President for Science Application at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “We still have a long way to go to fully restoring the Bay, so we need to have our diverse partnerships of people and organizations continue to work together to reduce the runoff of sediments and nutrients into the Bay.”

Learn more.


Photo of the Week: Glimpse geologic history at Seneca Rocks

Seneca Rocks rises above the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River in Pendleton County, West Virginia, after sunset on April 28. The only “true peak”—that is, inaccessible except by rock climbing techniques—on the East Coast, the site is popular with rock climbers. Today, a walkable trail of steps and switchbacks leads to an observation deck, allowing those who prefer not to rock climb an overlook of the river valley.

One of the best-known landmarks in West Virginia, Seneca Rocks sits on the western edge of the Wills Mountain Anticline—a geologic ridge formed more than 200 million years ago that extends from southern Pennsylvania, through Maryland and West Virginia, and into Virginia. The peak itself consists of layers of sedimentary rock that were upheaved and turned on their side, creating the characteristic sheer rock faces. Millions of years weathered away layers of softer rock, revealing vertical layers of the erosion-resistant Tuscarora sandstone characteristic of many formations in eastern West Virginia.

From a human’s perspective, geologic changes take place at an unfathomably slow pace, unlikely to be noticed over the span of one’s lifetime. At Seneca Rocks, however, one such change took place very quickly, in a highly noticeable way.

For years, a thin rock spire known as the Gendarme—French for “pinnacle” and a term used by rock climbers to refer to freestanding rock formations—stood precariously between the north and south peaks. But on October 29, 1987, at 3:27 p.m., the 25-foot-tall, 20-ton slab finally fell to the ground. No hikers were harmed, but witnesses in the area described seeing “a huge cloud of dust and flying debris” and hearing a sound similar to “the Navy fighter jets from Norfolk” that would frequently take practice runs over the area.

Learn more about Seneca Rocks.

Image by Will Parson

Stephanie Smith's avatar
About Stephanie Smith - Stephanie is the Web Content Manager at the Chesapeake Bay Program. A native of the Midwest, she received her Bachelor’s in Professional Writing from Purdue University and Master of Science degree from the University of Michigan. Stephanie’s lifelong love of nature motivates her to explore solutions to environmental problems and teach others what they can do to help.


Photo of the Week: As waters warm, herring’s long journey begins

Alewives swim against the current in a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay in Cecil County, Maryland, where thousands of river herring gathered to spawn on April 20, 2017.

River herring—alewives and their close relatives, blueback herring—are anadromous: as adults, they live off the Atlantic coast, but they return to freshwater to spawn. For the most part, river herring return to the same streams in which they were born. Scientists aren’t quite sure how the fish manage this migratory feat, but tend to attribute their homing instincts to a sensitivity to polarized light, magnetic signals and the unique characteristics of the waters where they were born.

As water temperatures warm and days lengthen each spring, river herring are spurred to begin their spawning runs. Years ago, some rivers seemed to turn silver or appeared to flow backwards as millions of river herring migrated upstream. The river herring fishery was once one of the most valuable in the Bay—alewives can be eaten fresh, smoked, salted or pickled, as well as used for pet food, as bait for lobster and snow crab or in fishmeal and fish oil. But habitat loss, harvest pressure and migration-restricting barriers like dams and culverts led to a sharp drop in river herring abundance, resulting in harvest moratoriums in Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River, as well as other states along the East Coast.

These days, river herring populations continue to struggle, and adults must navigate a maze of obstacles to reach their spawning grounds. Sometimes their long journey ends at a dam or other barrier that blocks their access to upstream habitat. By clearing blocked waterways, or by installing fish ladders and lifts that help fish get over or around larger barriers, managers can help river herring recover. “Last month they were out in the Atlantic Ocean somewhere,” said Jim Thompson, a fisheries biologist with the state of Maryland, as he observed last week’s spawning run. “That’s why it’s really important to build these [fish] ladders or take these dams out to get them over that last little speed bump so they can spawn.”

Learn more about the Chesapeake Bay Program’s work to open the region’s streams to the migration of fish.

Image by Will Parson

Stephanie Smith's avatar
About Stephanie Smith - Stephanie is the Web Content Manager at the Chesapeake Bay Program. A native of the Midwest, she received her Bachelor’s in Professional Writing from Purdue University and Master of Science degree from the University of Michigan. Stephanie’s lifelong love of nature motivates her to explore solutions to environmental problems and teach others what they can do to help.


More than 97,000 acres of underwater grasses recorded in Chesapeake Bay

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources leads a workshop on the Susquehanna Flats near Havre de Grace, Md., to show how to identify and monitor various species of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) that live in the Chesapeake Bay on July 25, 2016.

An estimated 97,433 acres of underwater grasses were mapped in the Chesapeake Bay in 2016, the highest amount ever recorded in more than 30 years of aerial surveys by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. The total marks a 53 percent achievement of the 185,000-acre goal adopted by Chesapeake Bay Program partners in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.

In addition, even more underwater grasses likely grew in the region than the estimate suggests. Due to weather conditions and security restrictions, researchers were unable to collect aerial imagery over a portion of the Potomac River. In 2015, the portion supported almost 2,000 acres of grasses, and trends suggest that—had it been mapped—the area would have put the Bay-wide total at 99,409 acres.

At 97,433 acres, underwater grass abundance in 2016 was the highest amount ever recorded by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Experts attribute the rise in underwater grass abundance to a strong increase in the tidal freshwater and moderately salty regions of the Bay, with widgeon grass in particular expanding in the latter region. However, because widgeon grass is a “boom and bust” species—its abundance can rise and fall from year to year—a widgeon-dominant spike is not guaranteed to persist in future seasons.

Underwater grasses—also known as “submerged aquatic vegetation,” or SAV—are critical to the Bay ecosystem. They provide food for small invertebrates and migratory waterfowl and maintain clear and healthy waters by absorbing nutrients, trapping sediment and slowing shoreline erosion. Although sensitive to pollution, underwater grasses are quick to respond to improvements in water quality, making their abundance a good indicator of Bay health.

“As a bay grass biologist, it is thrilling to see SAV recovering in the Chesapeake. Bay grasses exceeded our 2017 midterm goal of 90,000 acres for the second year, with reports of recovering SAV species diversity in areas throughout the Bay as well,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Biologist and Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Workgroup Chair Brooke Landry in a media release. “With continuing commitments to further reduce pollutants entering the Bay’s waters, I believe it’s possible to reach records every year and foster thriving SAV beds throughout the Bay—SAV beds that will promote ecological resilience and provide economic and recreational opportunities for generations to come.”

A sea nettle floats in the Severn River Sanctuary in Anne Arundel County, Md., on July 10, 2016.

Because grass beds provide shelter for young fish and blue crabs, underwater grass abundance is also one of several factors influencing the health and stability of blue crab populations. Earlier this month, data collected by Maryland and Virginia through the Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey showed that, while the overall blue crab population fell 18 percent between 2016 and 2017, the abundance of adult female crabs increased from 194 million to 215 million: the highest amount ever recorded by the Winter Dredge Survey.

In addition to financially supporting the aerial surveys used to monitor underwater grasses, the Chesapeake Bay Program has funded a citizen science project in which local riverkeepers, watershed organizations and volunteers can collect data on underwater grasses. As part of this project, Chesapeake Commons is expanding its Water Reporter app to include underwater grass monitoring features. By downloading the app and joining the Chesapeake Bay SAV Watchers group, anyone with a smartphone can help monitor underwater grasses whenever and wherever they are on the water.

Images by Will Parson

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