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May 30, 2001

Chesapeake Bay Grasses Show Signs of Recovery, but it's Far from Complete . . .


Bay Grasses:

•  Produce oxygen from photosynthesis.

•  Dispel wave energy, reduce turbidity and erosion.

•  Absorb nutrients from water column.

•  Provivde food and shelter for waterfowl, fish, shellfish and invertebrates.

(Maryland Department of Natural Resources)

sea grasses

For the second year in a row, underwater grasses in the Chesapeake Bay are showing signs of recovery after enormous losses in 1998.

Officials still don't know what caused the great losses of the grasses two and half years ago and they say the problems are far from over. According to a recent report, overall acreage of the submerged grasses crept up just 1 percent in 2000 to about 69,000 acres and they remain at little more than 10 percent of their historic levels of about 600,000 acres.

Some scientists blame a persistent algae bloom that afflicted the middle Bay last year for the losses in those areas. Pollution and sediment are also big obstacles to the growth of lush bay grass beds.

The year for bay grasses in Maryland was mixed, says Bill Street of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

"We had some very nice gains in the upper Bay where we had some grass beds that looked as healthy as we have seen them in many years," he says. In the middle Bay, however, "we had quite a lot of algae and that algae blocks the sunlight for the grasses and the grasses are not able to grow as much, so we had very steep declines in some of the rivers in the middle Bay."

For example, the Severn River lost 70 percent of its grasses, but in areas of the lower Bay such as Tangier Sound, grasses increased.

Why do bay grasses matter?

"Bay grasses really are the single best indicator of the health of the Bay because they rely on water clarity and water quality to get the sunlight that they need to grow," says Street.

"They really are a reflection of how well we're doing cleaning up the water quality in the Bay." Grasses are also important for animals and fish that inhabit the Bay, such as blue crabs and trout.

Bay grasses aren't really grasses. Scientists call them submerged aquatic vegetation. The plants are rooted on the bottom and grow completely underwater, making them "totally at the mercy of water clarity to get that sunlight." The Chesapeake Bay is home to a dozen species of bay grasses.

The importance of bay grasses did not escape the attention of the Chesapeake 2000 agreement signed last year. Under the agreement, Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia and Pennsylvania have all promised to work together to increase acreage throughout the watershed.

The so-called "C2K" document "really set some strong goals for us to remove the limitations for the Bay for growing grasses," such as significant reductions in the nutrients and sediments that flow into the Chesapeake Bay, Street says.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation estimates that it could cost $8.5 billion to reach the goals.

"We think that the benefits that would come from that would far surpass that number," says Street. "We think it would be a good investment, and really is something that we need to do to bring the Bay back to what it should be."

Part of the agreement focuses on restoring vegetation around the shore of the Bay. "That's a very important component to restore the natural filters, the wetlands and the forests along our streams and rivers to filter out the sediments and the nutrients before they are able to get to the Bay."

The foundation and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources sponsor programs in which students plant bay grasses. In addition to learning about why the grasses are so important to the health of the Bay, the efforts can help in restoration.

For example, the South River lost almost all its grasses last year. Plantings by citizens and students have led to the comeback of Redhead Grass there for the first time in 35 years. "That's really providing the plant material that hopefully will spread to other other creeks on that river."

Such plantings "really can play an important role, but certainly water quality is the most important factor."

The Related Sites are provided for information purposes. NM is not responsible for the accuracy of their content..

• Community
  >  The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, conducts a variety of activities to defend and restore the Chesapeake Bay, including lobbying, hands-on environmental projects and citizen programs. & featured panelist.
  >  Maryland Department of Natural Resources, leads Maryland's Chesapeake Bay Program, assessing and restoring the water quality, habitat and health of the Bay watershed.
  >  Maryland Department of the Environment, Maryland's environmental protection and restoration agency.
• General
  >  Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), nation's environmental regulatory agency.
  >  North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA), encourages voluntary, public-private partnerships to conserve North American wetland ecosystems.
  >  U.S. Geological Survey, provides reliable scientific information to manage water, biological, energy, and mineral resources; and enhance and protect our quality of life.
  >  U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing the nation's fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats.
• Other Information
  >  Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants, includes the Aquatic, Wetland and Invasive Plant Information Retrieval System (APIRS), as well as a variety of resources on aquatic plants.
  >  The Chesapeake Bay Trust, provides financial support grants to civic and community organizations, schools and volunteer groups for Chesapeake Bay restoration and education projects in Maryland.
  >  Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, information on bay grasses and submerged aquatic vegetation in the Chesapeake Bay and Delmarva Peninsula Coastal Bays.

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