The Coastal Bays along Maryland’s seaside have long been recognized as a very special place. The diverse ecology, fertile soils, abundant timber, and easy access to water has supported untold generations in hunting, fishing, trapping, and agriculture. The temperate climate supports more species of wildlife than any other place in Maryland. Combined, these qualities have served as a platform for more than 150 years of tourism and leisure which has further helped the region prosper. As popularity of the area increased, Worcester County locals began to recognize the changes to the watershed, but we were slow to monitor or address those changes.
Prior to the early 1990s, the Coastal Bays did not receive much attention along the ecological front. We became the ‘forgotten bays’ as other local watersheds and estuaries received much more attention with monitoring, data collection, research, and management actions. Because of their economic, aesthetic, and recreational value, estuaries like the Coastal Bays are increasingly attractive to both people and commerce. Activities like boating, fishing, swimming, and nature observation draw millions of visitors here each year that support hundreds of local businesses.
Like other coastal areas around the country, the Coastal Bays community continues to experience rapid population growth and increased development. Human populations and built environments in America’s coastal watersheds are growing rapidly, with 55% of the U.S. population already living within 50 miles of the coast. The environmental impacts of development directly affect the ability of communities to balance natural resource protection with sustainable economic growth in their decision-making.
The population is expected to continue to grow during the next 10 years, accompanied by increasing environmental impacts likely to threaten the bays’ health. Already the bays are experiencing early warning signs of stress. In the northern bays, where human influences are greatest, populations of seagrasses, hard clams, and fishes are degraded. Warning signs are now also being witnessed in the formerly ‘pristine’ southern bays.
Recognizing the potential for additional stress on the fragile ecosystem of the Coastal Bays and the importance of a healthy ecosystem to our economy and quality of life, a number of federal, state, and local government agencies have joined with private individuals, civic organizations, scientists, and business and industry to work together to prevent further degradation of the Coastal Bays’ water quality and to stem the continuing loss of natural habitat.
Around the United States, there are approximately 144 bays and estuaries. Of those 144, 28 are in the National Estuary Program (NEP) and are declared ‘estuaries of national significance’ because of the value of their natural resources. The Maryland Coastal Bays Program is one of those 28 nationally significant estuaries. This is a prestigious, high-profile program that receives national attention.
The NEP is a broad-based program, taking a comprehensive approach to addressing the wide range of problems facing the nation’s estuaries—preventing habitat degradation and loss of recreational and commercial fisheries, protecting and improving water quality, pioneering watershed management techniques, controlling sewage outfalls and septic system impacts, mitigating impacts from increasing land development, and developing strategies to deal with invasive species and harmful algal blooms. The list goes on and reflects the inter-related nature of these problems and the community-based nature of the NEP approach.
As an NEP, the Maryland Coastal Bays Program is a public–private partnership designed to build consensus on corrective actions to restore and protect our local natural resources. By engaging and involving state and local governments, watershed groups, and citizens, many additional resources are brought into play in addressing estuary problems. The NEP has a history of valuing community involvement and building support for initiatives.
In June, 2008, we released the first-ever report card grading the health of the Coastal Bays. The study measured distinct differences in ecosystem health throughout the shallow bays behind Ocean City and Assateague, with southern regions such as Chincoteague Bay ranking higher than western tributaries such as the St. Martin River and Newport Bay.
The Coastal Bays Report Card provides a scientifically robust – and geographically detailed –assessment of ecosystem health. The report card combines multiple indicators of water quality and habitat health into a single score for six regions of the Coastal Bays.
While the overall health of the Coastal Bays in 2008 earned a C-plus, the health of the six reporting regions varied between locations, ranging from B to D-plus.