Despite a one-point decline in the health of the Chesapeake Bay since 2018, Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) President Will Baker believes, “this is a historic opportunity to demonstrate to the world that by following the science, we can save a national treasure”.
In its biennial State of the Bay Report, CBF graded the overall health of the Bay a D+, or a score of 32. CBF assigns the Bay’s grade based upon the best available information in three categories: pollution, habitat and fisheries. The foundation of this information primarily comes from monitoring data, supported by in-the-field observations. The three above categories contain 13 total indicators that are individually assigned a score, which are then averaged together and compared against the gold standard of Bay health: the pristine conditions that Captain John Smith encountered in the 17th century.
Thanks to the pollution reducing practices put into place by each of the six states in the watershed (Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia) and the District of Columbia, as well as upgrades to wastewater treatment plants and favorable weather, all but one indicator—toxics—improved in the Pollution category. Historical contaminants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) may have been banned in the 1970s but are still prevalent throughout the Bay’s fisheries today. And emerging toxic contaminants, including those from microplastics, personal care products and pharmaceuticals, can now be found in every part of the ecosystem. Still, nitrogen and phosphorous pollution are down from 2018, with dissolved oxygen and water quality scores also improving.
The Habitat category told a less-promising story, with two indicators—forest buffers and underwater grasses—declining and wetlands and resource lands (conserved areas) having no change. These decreases are believed to be the result of climate change, development and the easing of federal regulations.
But most concerning is the decline of the striped bass fishery. Chris Moore, CBF’s senior regional ecosystem scientist laments that “adult female striped bass, widely used to gauge the overall health of the population, have dropped approximately 40% from 2013 to 2017.” The fishery has seen below-average spawning activity over the past two years, prompting the Atlantic Marine Fisheries Commission to take stronger management actions, such as reducing the annual catch by 18%. As for the other indicators that make up the Fisheries category, shad declined, while the progress of oysters and blue crabs increased.
Beth McGee, CBF’s director of science and agricultural policy, advocated for reductions in both agricultural and urban pollution runoff, as well as strong plans to address climate change, as the way forward for the Bay. But, she cautioned, “the recovery is still fragile, and the system remains dangerously out of balance”.