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Bays get overall health rating of 'C' - December 18, 2012

Every year for the past four years the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, in association with other state and federal agencies and academic institutions, has created a coastal bays report card.

This report card is similar to school report cards; each of the five coastal bays and the St. Martins River are given a letter grade based on various criteria and then the overall health of the coastal bays area is assessed using those grades. The grades are not based on pristine conditions, but rather livability for fish, crabs, and shellfish.

This year the coastal bays have an overall health rating of C. While there are certain conditions that are relatively good there are still major problems that need to be improved to protect the health of the bays and the local economy they support.

The health of each embayment; Sinepuxent, Chincoteague, Assawoman, Isle of Wight, and Newport bays along with the St. Martin River are each graded using multiple indicators. These indicators include the total nitrogen and phosphorous in the water, chlorophyll a, dissolved oxygen levels, seagrass coverage, and hard clam populations. These indicators help us assess the general water quality for the bays and rivers which allows us to create a grading scale to evaluate the health of the individual and coastal bay areas as a whole.

The two areas with the lowest individual grades were St. Martin River and Newport Bay; they each received a D+ rating. St. Martin River had the lowest scores for phosphorus, chlorophyll a, and seagrass coverage in the entire coastal bays watershed and did not see any major improvements over the past year. Newport Bay had a decline in seagrasses; however, it had slight improvements in all other categories and had the greatest improvement in water quality from last year’s report card. Nevertheless it still maintains poorer water quality than most of the other coastal bays.

Assawoman and Isle of Wight bays both received C ratings, indicating that while they were not in bad shape they could still use serious improvements. Isle of Wight Bay saw a large decline in sea grasses; however, the bay did see a major increase in hard clam populations with attainment nearly up to 80 percent in 2011. Assawoman saw the biggest decline in health since 2010. While there was improvements in total nitrogen, phosphorous, and chlorophyll a levels there were significant declines in dissolved oxygen levels along with hard clam and seagrass populations.
 
Chincoteague Bay received a C+ rating which was slightly better than its 2010 grade. This bay saw improvements in all indicators, except for sea grasses, which raised its overall grade from a C in 2010 to a C+ in 2011. Unfortunately this area has consistently had the lowest hard clam population in the coastal bays region over the past few years, possibly due to reoccurring brown tides.

Sinepuxent bay received a B- rating which was the highest grade of all coastal bays. While this bay had the best overall health compared to the other bays there was still room for improvement. Sinepuxent saw the second largest decline in overall scores since 2010 in the coastal bays region. The biggest declines were seen in dissolved oxygen and sea grasses with some declines in the hard clam population as well.

While we make strides in controlling the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous that enters our watershed via runoff we still have a major problem with excess nutrients in our groundwater. Groundwater is extremely important because it provides us with drinking water, is used for irrigation by farmers, and helps recharge rivers, streams, lakes and other bodies of water.

Unfortunately this water is being contaminated with historic nutrients from septic systems, agriculture, and developed land. Groundwater discharge adds these nutrients into our streams and rivers and this eventually leads to those nutrients being added to our coastal bays. Because groundwater recharge is slow, it is estimated that even if we capped our nutrient use today there would still be no major changes in nutrient levels in groundwater discharge for 20 to 30 years.

Seagrass reduction was seen heavily throughout the coastal bays region and can often be linked with lower levels of dissolved oxygen in the water. Overall seagrass cover decreased by around 35 percent in 2011 leaving us with levels not seen for nearly a decade. The decline is believed to be a combination of the extremely warm summer of 2010 and the continual degradation of water quality throughout the coastal bays.

While hard clam populations went up dramatically in certain areas, such as Isle of Wight, the population of these bivalves is well below historic levels. This could be due to a variety of reasons including poor water quality, harmful brown algae blooms and increased predation.

While a C for the overall health of the bays is worrisome it should not be seen as the beginning of the end but a chance to show how resilient and committed we are to saving our coastal bays. It would be easy to see this low grade as a precursor for bad things to come, but instead it should be seen as a new goal to make our bays healthy again.
 

Harrison Jackson is the Coastal Stewards Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.

 

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