Bay health im­prov­ing

Record Observer - - Opinion -

Re­port­ing on his 1608 voy­age in the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay, English ex­plorer Capt. John Smith of­fered de­scrip­tions that were equal parts trav­el­ogue and out­right hy­per­bole. His sug­ges­tion that one could step out a boat and pretty much step from stur­geon to stur­geon and cross the Bay with­out get­ting wet was out­landish even then, but it paints a hope­ful pic­ture. Even then, folks were root­ing for the Bay.

This won­der­ful es­tu­ary which rends Mary­land’s ge­og­ra­phy in two has been more than a source of myth and leg­end. It has been a boun­ti­ful provider of crabs, fish and oys­ters, and af­ter some rough years, is mak­ing a sig­nif­i­cant come­back — at least, ac­cord­ing to one source con­sid­er­ably more cred­i­ble than the guy who prob­a­bly wasn’t re­ally res­cued by Poc­a­hon­tas four cen­turies ago.

A re­port this month from a con­ser­vancy group, the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Pro­gram, said the over­all health of the Bay is im­prov­ing. That con­curs with the find­ings of an­other agency, the non­profit Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Foun­da­tion, that also gave the Ch­e­sa­peake a grade of C-. While that’s not honor roll ma­te­rial just yet, keep in mind that’s the best grade for the Bay since 1998.

Com­bine that with a Mary­land De­part­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources re­port last spring (with a fol­low-up due soon) that the agency had mapped a new record high of more than 53,000 acres of sub­merged aquatic grasses in Mary­land’s por­tion of the Bay, and the fu­ture is look­ing bet­ter. An abun­dance of aquatic grasses is a ma­jor marker in di­ag­nos­ing the health of an es­tu­ary, ac­cord­ing to DNR.

And that lat­est CBP re­port con­firms the im­prove­ment. It says most in­di­ca­tors show Bay wa­ter is clearer, nu­tri­ent and sed­i­ment pol­lu­tion is re­duced, blue crabs are in­creas­ing, and Bay grasses and pro­tected lands are mak­ing progress. The group says it’s “cau­tiously op­ti­mistic” about the ef­forts still nec­es­sary to achieve goals set in the 2014 Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Wa­ter­shed Agree­ment with other states.

Over the past few years, the CBP, the Univer­sity of Mary­land Cen­ter for En­vi­ron­men­tal Science and the CBF have been grad­ing the Bay’s health in in­di­vid­ual re­ports. Their sep­a­rate re­port cards sup­ple­ment each other, said Univer­sity of Mary­land Cen­ter for En­vi­ron­men­tal Science Pres­i­dent Don Boesch. The univer­sity group gave the Bay a C last spring, and a new re­port is due soon.

“What we are all say­ing is the dead zone is get­ting smaller, the crab pop­u­la­tion has re­bounded, things are work­ing,” CBF Pres­i­dent Will Baker said. Pri­mar­ily caused by nu­tri­ent pol­lu­tion, a dead zone is an area in the wa­ter of low oxy­gen con­cen­tra­tion that causes ma­rine life to suf­fo­cate.

All three groups agree the Ch­e­sa­peake’s health is trend­ing up­ward, but more work must be done. And Baker re­minds us that while the re­cov­ery is sig­nif­i­cant, it is also frag­ile. Any re­cent gains could be eas­ily erased by pol­lu­tion or nat­u­ral forces.

It’s good news for the en­tire Bay wa­ter­shed, but what does this all mean? Does it in­di­cate that closer state reg­u­la­tory scru­tiny, con­ser­va­tion ef­forts of groups and in­di­vid­ual cit­i­zens and cleanup work have been ef­fec­tive? Yes. Does it mean East­ern Shore and the state in gen­eral can let up now? No.

But the key to main­tain­ing healthy wa­ter­ways re­mains re­spon­si­ble ste­ward­ship, which in­cludes con­ser­va­tion and avoid­ing pol­lu­tion and lit­ter. That’s some­thing with which Capt. John Smith could agree with with­out ex­ag­ger­a­tion.

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