By now, you’ve probably heard that the Chesapeake Bay received another disappointing grade when it comes to ecosystem health. The most recent State of the Bay report gave the Chesapeake a barely passing grade of “D+”.
The 2022 State of the Bay report, put together by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, is one of several different reports that track the health of the Chesapeake Bay using a variety of indicators. This is related to, but separate from the Chesapeake Bay Report Card. Both are tools that help provide a snapshot of how the Chesapeake Bay is doing. Another such tool is the Bay Barometer, which is published by the Chesapeake Bay Program and looks at 31 different topics related to Bay health, though they don’t provide a grade.
Many of the items used in these different ways of measuring Chesapeake Bay health are related to the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, which was created in 2010 to provide a pathway to a healthy Bay through watershed implementation plans, Total Maximum Daily Load thresholds, and infrastructure for holding states and other entities accountable for meeting goals. All of these goals and tools look at reducing different forms of pollution and supporting healthy ecosystems.
In some cases that means looking directly at abundance of specific organisms like submerged aquatic vegetation (SAVs), blue crabs, and oysters. In other cases that means directly measuring water quality parameters such as water clarity, Nitrogen levels, Phosphorus levels, and toxic chemicals like PFAs, PCBs, and heavy metals. In some cases, it also means social and human health indicators, such as public access to the Bay, or a heat vulnerability index or walkability index for watershed residents. All of these together can give us an idea of how healthy the Bay is and how sustainable our relationship to the Bay is.
However, it can be hard to look at all of these reports and really understand what it all means. The point of these health tracking tools is to help us see what is working and what isn’t and to make better decisions about where to put money and effort when it comes to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. The ultimate goal is a swimmable, fishable Chesapeake Bay. While we have some areas that are swimmable and some areas that are fishable, there are still plenty of spots where pollution might keep people out of the water and contaminants keep us from eating more than one fish per month. If you don’t believe me, check the MDE fish consumption advisories below; several different species here on the Eastern Shore have advisories due to containing high levels of PCBs. More recently, MDE has begun monitoring for PFAs and recently issued advisories for Piscataway Creek on the other side of the Bay.
Aside from consumption advisories, some of these tools also highlight how a given species is doing, population wise. Oysters have had a couple of good years so we are seeing some growth there. However, 2022 was a bad year for blue crabs as population levels were the lowest since the Bay-wide surveys began in 1990. This isn’t necessarily a pollution based problem, rather, it may be the impact of invasive species like blue catfish, changes in weather conditions, and variability in the presence and availability of suitable habitat for juvenile crabs (if you’re interested in how these affect blue crabs, check out our previous article here).
So, the State of the Bay Report gave the Chesapeake Bay a D+ in 2022, which is the same grade given in 2020. However, the Chesapeake Bay Report Card gave the Bay a C in 2021 and 2020. The Bay Barometer doesn’t give a grade, but rather notes which items are on track to meet goals and which are not. In 2021/2022, the amount of brook trout habitat, the amount of tree canopy and forest buffers, the amount of SAV coverage, and the amount of wetlands are all off course, meaning they will not meet the 2025 watershed implementation plan goals. In addition, as you can see in the snapshot below, the Watershed Implementation Plans and Water Quality Standards Attainment are off course as well.
This means that some areas have either not completed or not implemented their watershed plan updates and that our water quality monitoring data is not showing expected reductions in pollution.
So what do we know? We know we are falling short in some areas and this doesn’t bode well for meeting the goal of a swimmable, fishable Chesapeake Bay by 2025. But even if we don’t hit this goal by 2025, we have the opportunity to hit it in subsequent years if we keep working to improve, to monitor, and to adjust the indicators used in all of these tools.
And, even though population levels in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are increasing, the amount of pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus that end up in the Bay are less than they were in the mid-1980’s. While you might think of these elements as good because they help keep your garden productive and your lawn green, they are pollutants when they are in the water. In the Chesapeake Bay, nitrogen and phosphorus help algae and phytoplankton grow, leading to algal blooms which can lead to fish kills and low dissolved oxygen levels. So less nitrogen and phosphorus in the Bay is a good thing and we are seeing improvements in these indicators.
We are also seeing some improvements in the oyster population around the Chesapeake Bay. Millions of dollars are spent on oyster restoration each year in Maryland and Virginia, but it seems that this work may be starting to pay off. We are seeing good reproduction in wild oysters and low levels of disease, which means more oysters are staying alive longer and more baby oysters are being produced. However, we can’t declare the recovery of the oyster population complete just yet. We need a few more years of these positive conditions to get to a population level that will to allow for continued population growth, without humans dumping billions of baby oysters into the Bay each year.
All this is to say that our work to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay is not done. There is still legislation that needs to be passed to encourage watershed citizens and businesses to make choices that protect the Bay. There are still federal and state funds that need to be allocated to projects that improve and protect existing resources like buffers and forests and support best management practices. We need to continue monitoring pollutants and observing annual variation in water quality to understand how humans and weather affect the health of the Bay. And we need to continue surveying important species like oysters, blue crabs, rockfish, menhaden, and more so that we know how they are doing and if we need to adjust harvest levels to better protect their populations.
The hope is, that if we continue this work, the health of the Bay will continue to improve. And if it doesn’t, it tells us that what we’re doing isn’t working and we need to figure out other ways to clean up the Bay.