Since our formation in 1983, the Chesapeake Bay Program has been leading the effort to reduce pollution and restore ecosystem health across the Chesapeake Bay region. Whether through the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, signed in 2014, or the Bay’s ‘pollution diet’—i.e., the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL)—our partners have continued to work collaboratively toward our shared goal of a healthy Bay.
With decades-worth of environmental data, our scientists are able to study how the health of the nation’s largest estuary is changing over time. Below, learn about a few of the ways the Bay and its rivers have been showing signs of resilience.
Underwater grasses, also called submerged aquatic vegetation or SAV, grow in the shallow waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. They provide food and habitat to wildlife, add oxygen to the water and trap and absorb pollution. Because of their sensitivity to pollution, the abundance of underwater grasses can serve as an indicator of restoration progress.
Between 2014 and 2015, more than 92,000 acres of underwater grasses were observed in the Chesapeake Bay. An increase of 21 percent from the previous year, it marked the highest amount ever recorded by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s aerial survey. Part of this increase was due to the expansion of widgeon grass—often referred to as a “boom or bust” species because its abundance can rise and fall from year to year—but other species like wild celery and eelgrass also saw a recovery.
The blue crab is one of the most iconic species in the Chesapeake Bay, supporting commercial and recreational fisheries in the region. But vulnerability to pollution, loss of habitat and harvest pressure have led their abundance to fluctuate over time; in 2014, adult female blue crabs were considered depleted.
Joint management between Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission has helped maintain the Bay’s blue crab stock at sustainable levels. At the start of last year’s crabbing season, there were an estimated 194 million adult female blue crabs in the Bay—a 92 percent increase from the previous year. And according to the 2016 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report, the blue crab stock was not depleted and overfishing was not occurring.
Just like humans, crabs, fish and other underwater animals that live in the Bay need oxygen to survive. Dissolved oxygen is a measurement of how much oxygen is present in the water; as dissolved oxygen levels decrease, it becomes more difficult for animals to get the oxygen they need.
As reported in the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s most recent Chesapeake Bay report card, dissolved oxygen levels in many regions of the Bay were frequently in “good condition” (scores of 60 percent or higher) in 2015, and no regions were below “moderately good” levels. Additionally, 2016 marked the second time in two years that there were no measured anoxic areas—or areas with no dissolved oxygen—in the main portion of the Bay.
Organisms that live at the bottom of the Bay and its rivers and streams are known as “benthos.” Benthic communities are made up of worms, clams, oysters, shrimp-like crustaceans and other underwater invertebrates, and they provide food for crabs and bottom-feeding fish.
In 2015, almost two-thirds of the bottom habitat in the tidal Bay was home to a healthy community of benthic organisms, an increase from 59 percent in 2014. In addition, the area of degraded and severely degraded habitat—or areas that are home to more pollution-tolerant species, fewer species overall, fewer large organisms deep in the sediment and a lower total mass of organisms—was the lowest it has been since 1996. Scientists attributed this improvement to increases in dissolved oxygen.
While some nutrients and sediment are a natural part of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, too much can be harmful to fish, shellfish and other underwater life. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus can fuel the growth of algae blooms, which can lead to low-oxygen dead zones that suffocate marine life. Sediment can cloud the water, preventing sunlight from reaching underwater plants and smothering bottom-dwelling species.
According to data from the Bay Program and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment loads to the Bay were below the long-term average in 2015. Additionally, since 1985, long-term trends in nitrogen pollution have improved at six of the nine monitoring stations located along the biggest rivers that feed into the Bay, including at stations in the region’s four largest rivers: the Susquehanna, Potomac, James and Rappahannock.
Want to learn more about our work toward achieving the goals of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement? Visit ChesapeakeProgress.
An osprey carries away a pipefish it snatched from Knapps Narrows near Tilghman Island, Maryland, on September 1, 2015. Also known as fish hawks, ospreys are harbingers of spring in the Chesapeake Bay region. The raptors begin arriving in early March and remain along the estuary’s shorelines, rivers and marshes through late summer.
In the mid-twentieth century, the widespread use of pesticides and industrial chemicals led to the near-collapse of the Chesapeake’s osprey populations. The pesticide dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane—known commonly as DDT—was causing female ospreys to lay eggs so fragile that they cracked under the parents’ weight. By 1972, when DDT was banned in the United States, there were fewer than 1,500 pairs of osprey in the Chesapeake Bay region.
High levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, have also been found in the eggs and chicks of ospreys that nest along the Bay. These industrial chemicals act as flame retardants and have been used in the production of inks, adhesives, sealants and caulk. While PCBs have not been produced in the United States since their ban in 1977, their ability to persist in the environment means the chemicals continue to be widespread in the region—and can expose ospreys to potentially harmful residue.
Despite the threat of these long-lasting pollutants, recent research has shown that ospreys are thriving in the Chesapeake Bay. As many as 10,000 pairs of the resilient raptors breed in the region—close to one-quarter of the osprey population in the contiguous United States.
As part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Toxic Contaminants Workgroup is working to reduce the impacts that chemical contaminants have on the Bay and its rivers—and the wildlife and people that depend on them.
Image by Will Parson
When Nancy Baker was in sixth grade, she knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up: a forester. She had spent every Christmas, summer and most weekends visiting her family’s land in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, and would follow in her father’s footsteps—literally—as they roamed the woods.
But when a guidance counselor asked her what she wanted to be, “forester” turned out not to be an acceptable answer. “She said, ‘Nancy, girls can’t be foresters,’” Baker remembers. “And I was crestfallen—I was just crushed.”
“I went home and I told my dad… that I couldn’t be a forester,” Baker recalls. “And he said, ‘You can be anything you want to be.’”
So that’s exactly what she did. Baker is now a forest ecologist, and for close to 40 years she has owned the 163 acres she grew up visiting (the land has now been in her family for more than 150 years). She’s the former president of the Bradford-Sullivan Forest Landowners’ Association, part of Pennsylvania’s Forest Stewardship Steering Committee and one of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay’s Chesapeake Forest Champions. She’s also a leader in the Women and Their Woods initiative: a program to connect women forest landowners in northeastern Pennsylvania and teach them the skills and confidence they need to care for their forests.
According to the most recent National Woodland Owner Survey, 21 percent of forest landowners are women. Whether through outliving their spouses, inheriting property or outright purchasing land, more and more women are becoming primary owners of forests. But a study by the National Association of State Foresters showed that, while 83 percent of women who inherit forestland were interested in managing it, only 34 percent felt they had enough knowledge to make informed decisions.
That’s where Women and Their Woods comes in. Whether the women have received their land through the passing of a husband, by inheritance or after purchasing it themselves, participants can access the knowledge and resources to feel confident in caring for their forests. At meetings, women forest landowners can connect, share knowledge, meet with experts and ask questions. The program also hosts four-day retreats full of hands-on activities that teach the women how to manage their forestland.
“I think there are a lot of women who—the window sort of opens for them, and it’s no longer just a green place out there,” Baker says. “It actually begins to make sense to them.”
It’s the hands-on experience that Baker feels the women might not get enough of otherwise. “Gentlemen are so nice to do things for us that we never learn ourselves,” she laughs. “As soon as you say, help me cut this off, the guy will just—not being intentionally mean or anything—they’ll just pick up the chainsaw and be very nice to you and cut it right off. And you’re standing there and you don’t get the experience.”
But chainsaws, herbicide sprayers, ATVs and even propane torches (“We almost took the eyebrows off somebody,” Baker jokes) are all fair game at the Women and Their Woods meetings. Attendees also learn how to identify plants and trees, how to measure a tree and how to talk to a forester: what questions to ask and what different terms mean.
Although some participants may be looking to learn how to garner the most income from their forests, research has shown that women tend to be far less interested in the economic value of their land. Instead, they tend to focus on its aesthetic, recreational and peace of mind values. Women and Their Woods teaches them how to care for their forest land as an ecosystem, giving them the skills they need so that, should they decide to focus on its economic returns, they can do so in a sustainable way.
Since Women and Their Woods began in 2008, about 80 women have gone through the program. Funding and support comes from several partners, including Delaware Highlands Conservancy, the USDA Forest Service at Grey Towers, Penn State University Natural Resources Extension and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).
On her own land, Baker works with her consulting forester to manage the health of her forest. A few fields, once cleared by her grandfather and great-grandfather, she keeps open. Otherwise, with Baker keeping a careful eye and stepping in where needed, the forest is free to take over. The two streams running along her property—Crane Creek and Panther Lick—have buffers growing alongside them that haven’t been cut since the late 1800s.
Slowly, the makeup of her forest has changed, whether through Baker’s careful management or through circumstances beyond her control, like disease, pests and climate change. Areas once home to ash trees have fallen prey to the invasive Emerald Ash Borer, leaving only a smattering of the trees standing. And while Baker could salvage and sell what timber is left, she prefers to let nature take its course: “My neighbors say, ‘Nancy, it’s all going to waste!’ No, it’s not going to waste. It’s being recycled.”
Years ago, Baker traveled to a conference on fire ecology—the study of wildland fire and its relationship to the environment. In attendance: 171 men and her. Today, Pennsylvania is home to a small but growing professional group of women foresters, many of whom lend their expertise to Women and Their Woods.
To Baker, this network of support is one of the most vital pieces of the program. “That’s the major thing that comes out of it, is that they do not feel alone anymore,” she says. “They have somebody that they can reach out to.”
To see more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Photos by Will Parson
Researchers from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) conduct the 2015-2016 blue crab winter dredge survey in the lower portion of the Chesapeake Bay on March 8, 2016.
From December through March of each year, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and VIMS conduct the winter dredge survey in the Maryland and Virginia portions of the Bay, respectively. Between the two agencies, 1,500 sites are visited over the course of three and a half months. Dormant blue crabs are hauled out of the mud to be weighed, measured and have their sex determined before getting tossed back into the water.
At the conclusion of the survey, researchers have an estimate of the number of blue crabs living in the Chesapeake Bay. The data helps fisheries managers determine how many of the crustaceans can be harvested without hampering the crab’s recovery.
Each summer, the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC) releases its Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report, providing guidance to support blue crab management. As part of the Chesapeake Bay Program, CBSAC—which includes representatives from state agencies, academic institutions and federal fisheries experts—supports the Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team. Last year, numbers from the winter dredge survey helped these experts determine the blue crab stock was sustainable.
Learn more about the winter dredge survey.