Chesapeake Bay health shows positive trend
EASTON — For the first time since the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Chesapeake Bay Report Card scores have been calculated, the positive trajectory that has reported in recent years is statistically significant.
This is important evidence that the positive trend in the ecosystem health is real and efforts to improve conditions in the Bay are working.
UMCES released its 2017 Chesapeake Bay Report Card on Friday, June 15, at an event in Washington, D.C.
“We started in about 2004, and then we back calculated the data to 1986, which is when the Chesapeake Bay Program started collecting this monitoring data,” Alexandra Fries, senior science communicator at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said.
Fries said the report card evaluates seven indicators, including total nitrogen, aquatic grasses and water clarity. UMCES staff gets data from the Chesapeake Bay Program and then re-evaluates it based on thresholds for ecologically desirable standards. Those results then are converted to a score, like a report card score in school, with letter grades.
“The most exciting part about this year is that the overall trend is significantly improving, and it’s statistically significant,” Fries said. “So that means that it’s the first time that it’s improving and we can see that in the data.”
The largest estuary in the nation scored a C grade (54 percent) in the 2017 report card, one of the highest scores ever calculated. Punctuating this news is the improved A+ (95 percent) grade for fish population.
According to the report card, in 2017 the Fisheries Index scored 95 percent, an increase from last year’s 90 percent. Fisheries are highly variable over time, but even so, this is the best score ever recorded.
The Fisheries Index is an average of three important species scores. Striped bass, bay anchovy and blue crab are ecologically, economically and socially important fish species in the Chesapeake Bay. Striped bass held steady with a 100 percent score, while both blue crab and bay anchovy improved. Blue crab scored 100 percent, and bay anchovy scored 84 percent.
In 2017, aquatic grasses, also called submerged aquatic vegetation, had the best score ever for the overall Bay, according to the report card.
Aquatic grasses scored 44 percent, a moderate score. This is up from the 2016 score of 39 percent and significantly improved from the 1986 score of 12 percent.
Aquatic grasses are one of the more important habitats in the Bay because they provide nursery habitat to key species such as blue crab and striped bass.
“This is exciting news. It is the first time that the Chesapeake Bay report card are significantly trending in the right direction. We have seen individual regions improving before, but not the entire Chesapeake Bay. It seems that the restoration efforts are beginning to take hold,” said Dr. Bill Dennison, UMCES vice president for science application.
“Underwater grasses are sentinels of change in the shallow waters of Chesapeake Bay,” said Dr. Robert Orth, professor of marine biology at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. “Not only are we seeing more grasses in areas where they’ve been thriving like the Susquehanna Flats, but we’re actually seeing them appear in areas around Solomons Island and in the York River where they vanished decades ago.”
There also were improvements in seven Bay regions, including the James River, which attained a B- for the first time. Other regions that scored better are the Elizabeth River, Choptank River and Upper Western Shore. The region closest to Washington, D.C., the Potomac River, did not show improvement.
Seven out of 15 regions have significantly improving long-term health trends. Some of the regions are: Patapsco and Back Rivers (including Baltimore), Upper Western Shore, Elizabeth River and James River. Since 2014, all regions have been improving or remaining steady. No regions are declining over time.
Several other recent studies have shown improvements in Chesapeake Bay conditions.
For example, UMCES scientists showed dead zones (areas of low or no dissolved oxygen) in the lower Chesapeake Bay are beginning to break up earlier in the year, which is an indication that efforts to reduce nutrient pollution to the Bay are beginning to have an effect.
They found that during the past 30 years, the improved oxygen conditions have created a feedback loop that allows even more nitrogen to be removed from the Bay, which helps ecosystem recovery.
This year’s grades are mostly good news; however, there still is progress to be made. Water clarity and chlorophyll a scores in the Bay continue to be low, and some regions like the Upper Eastern Shore and the Patuxent River need focused attention to see improvement.
“While we can celebrate progress being made in the restoration of Chesapeake Bay, we can’t take our foot off of the accelerator,” said Dr. Peter Goodwin, UMCES president. “It is critically important that we continue to invest in science and monitoring to improve management actions which ensure that the Bay continues on its path to recovery.”
Recommendations for actions to contribute to a cleaner Bay include planting trees and using less fertilizer, which protect the Bay against sediment and nutrient pollution that causes poor water quality.
This is the 12th year the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Integration and Application Network has produced the report card. It is a comprehensive Baywide report card on the health of the entire Chesapeake Bay and is based on easily replicable analysis of data that goes back to 1986. UMCES not only creates a health report, with innovative, science-based metrics, but also outlines plans for involving both the public and private stakeholders.
This report card uses extensive data and analysis that enhances and supports the science, management and restoration of the Bay. For more information about the 2017 Chesapeake Bay Report Card, including region-specific data, visit chesapeakebay.ecoreportcard.org.
Aquatic grasses, also called submerged aquatic vegetation, in the Susquehanna Flats.