In the Chesapeake Bay, the river meets the sea. Freshwater and saltwater mix. Countless fish, birds and mammals find a home, a rest stop or a place to raise their young. All in one of the most productive ecosystems on earth—and the largest estuary in the United States! Here are eight reasons the Bay is exceptional.
The Bay is the largest estuary in the United States and the third largest in the world. It is about 200 miles long and holds more than 18 trillion gallons of water, some from the Atlantic Ocean and some from the 150 streams, creeks and rivers that drain into its watershed. This fresh and saltwater mix supports more than 2,700 species of plants and animals.
The Bay and its tidal tributaries have 11,684 miles of shoreline—more than the entire U.S. west coast! Shorelines support a number of unique critters, like diamondback terrapins that dig shallow nests in the sand, horseshoe crabs that spawn on Bay beaches and shorebirds that have long legs and an appetite for fish, clams and other aquatic snacks.
Shorelines also allow people to reach the water to swim, fish and walk on the sand. There are over 1200 existing access sites along the shorelines of the Bay and its tributaries, and groups like the National Park Service are working to add more.
Image courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region/Flickr
While the Bay itself lies within the Atlantic Coastal Plain, the watershed spans two more geologic regions: the Piedmont Plateau and the Appalachian Province. This means watershed residents don’t have to travel far to spot plants, insects and animals that live in different landscapes.
You can find the Delmarva fox squirrel that favors the flat lowlands of the Delmarva Peninsula or the black bear that prefers the mountains and valleys of the Appalachian foothills in these regions.
About 284,000 acres of tidal wetlands grow in the Bay region. These wetlands provide critical habitat for fish and shellfish, who use the protected areas as nurseries or spawning grounds.
They also support birds, who use wetlands to find food, cover and, in the case of migrating waterfowl, a winter home. Wetlands also slow the flow of pollutants into the Bay and its tributaries, stabilize shorelines and protect properties from flooding.
Forests cover 55 percent of the Bay watershed and provide critters on land and in the water with food and shelter. Bald eagles, for instance, build two-ton treetop nests near the water, while brook trout depend on the shade of streamside trees to cool their underwater habitat.
Forests also support the economies of watershed states. Forestry is the second largest industry in the Pennsylvania and Virginia and the fifth largest in Maryland.
Image courtesy Becky Gregory/Flickr
Close to one million ducks, geese and swans spend their winters on the Bay. The birds, which make up about one-third of the Atlantic coast’s migratory population, stop here to feed and rest during their annual migration along the Atlantic Flyway.
The Bay produces about 500 million pounds of seafood each year. The watershed’s well-known catches include the blue crab, which is popular steamed or picked and turned into a crab-cake, and the eastern oyster, which is harvested in colder months and eaten raw, fried or even baked with spinach and bacon.
The Bay watershed is home to more than 18 million people, with 150,000 moving into the watershed each year. There are watermen, fishermen and farmers. There are hikers, bikers and boaters. There are teachers, beach-goers and seafood-eaters. And many of them work to restore the natural resources in the watershed.
Learn more about the importance of estuaries here.