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Coastal bays still struggling to stay healthy - November 22, 2012

Maryland’s coastal bays are still struggling to stay healthy, though there are some signs of improvement, according to a new report on local waterways. The Maryland Coastal Bays Program released its 2011 Report Card, giving an overall grade of a C.

The report card gives people an idea of the current condition and the gradual improvements being made, said Dave Wilson, Executive Director of the Coastal Bays Program.

He said while the northern bays and western tributaries continue to struggle, there are signs of improvement in areas such as Chincoteague. 

“The larger amounts of heat stress on the climate impacts the high rate at which the sea grass are dying off. The high heat and high nutrient input creates an inhospitable environment for fish and crabs to survive,” Wilson said. “We are hopeful that over the decades the problems with water quality is going to turn around.”

In 2011, about 30 percent of bay grasses were lost overall, and about 95 percent of sea grasses north of the Ocean City inlet were lost due to larger amounts of heat stress, according to Wilson. 

Wilson said the main factor affecting the water quality is the nutrient levels. Historically, poultry processing has been a contributing factor in the nitrogen and phosphate levels in the water. 

Added Wilson: “(We) have to look at a trend standpoint, and not from year-to-year, to see what may be the beginning of something good or something bad.”

The first collaborative effort of a report card was launched by the Coastal Bays Program in 2008, finding sea grasses slightly rebounding with varying water quality. The report card scores six indicators, measured on a 100-point scale, including habitat health, water quality, and a biotic index. 

Coastal Bays is working on a plan called a TMDL, or total maximum daily load, so nitrogen and phosphorus levels drop to levels low enough for fish and crabs to survive, according to Wilson. 

Several partners including the town of Berlin and Ocean City received “Gold Stars” in recognition of their contributions to ensuring the health of our bays and the work they do in coordination with the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. 

Coastal Bays also works to protect and enhance the watershed of Ocean City, Ocean Pines and Berlin, and Assateague Island National Seashore. 

Last year, hundreds of residents and visitors volunteered more than 2,500 hours with Coastal Bays to supported environmental initiatives. They counted horseshoe crabs and birds, collected water samples, searched for reptiles and amphibians, and cleared trash from dunes.

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