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DNR Announces Good News About SAV, But Cautions Much More Progress Needed

ANNAPOLIS, MD (September 25, 2003) — Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary C. Ronald Franks today announced some positive news about increased bay grasses in Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay, but cautioned that many challenges remain to achieve its goal of 185,000 acres Bay-wide by 2010.

Bay grass acreage in Maryland’s portion of Chesapeake Bay set a new record in 2002, increased to 51,232 acres, according to the a recent collaborative survey. However, bay grasses acreage remains a fraction of historic levels.

This represents a 30 percent increase from bay grass acreage in 2000, the last year that a full survey was completed, and continues the long-term recovery of bay grasses that has been underway since the aerial survey began in 1978. The large increase from 2000 to 2002 is attributed primarily to two years of drought, which improved conditions for the grasses to grow. Bay managers and scientists are concerned that greater than normal rainfall, Hurricane Isabel’s flooding and erosion in 2003 may have long-reaching negative impacts.

“Restoring bay grasses is a cornerstone of our efforts to restore Chesapeake Bay,” Secretary Franks said. “The increases in bay grasses that we have observed over the past two years demonstrate the benefits we will realize as our efforts to improve the Bay’s water quality are successful.”

Maryland is working on several fronts to achieve its bay grass goals, including a wide variety of programs aimed at reducing nutrient and sediment pollution, protecting existing bay grass beds, and carrying out necessary research and education. A new component of this effort involves the large-scale planting or seeding of grass beds in portions of the Bay that meet the necessary water quality conditions to support bay grasses, yet are currently lacking adequate seed sources for natural re-vegetation.

“There is no question that improving water quality is the single most important action we can take to restoring bay grasses,” said Dr. David Goshorn, Chief of DNR’s Living Resource Assessment Program. “But if we can establish reproductive beds in strategic locations, we may be providing the grasses the jump-start they need to really get going.”

DNR will begin the first two large-scale seeding projects in October, 2003 on the Potomac and Patuxent Rivers.

Bay grasses (also known as Submerged Aquatic Vegetation or SAV) are critical resources that provide food and habitat for a wide range of creatures, including crabs, fish, and waterfowl. Bay grasses also protect shorelines from erosion, remove nutrients from the water, produce oxygen, and trap sediments that cloud bay waters. Current bay grass acreage is only a small portion of what existed historically, primarily due to the effects of excessive nutrient and sediment pollution.

Almost 90 percent of the 16,000 acres of bay grasses gained since 2000 occurred in the higher salinity areas of Eastern Bay, the lower Choptank River, the Honga River, Tangier Sound, and the lower Potomac River. Other areas that demonstrated significant increases include the Susquehanna Flats and Northeast River.

The increases in the Honga River and Tangier Sound are especially welcome. In the 1990s, scientists were greatly alarmed when these productive fishing and crabbing grounds in the bay areas rapidly declined from about 13,000 acres in 1993, to 2,700 acres in 1998. However, since 1998, steady bay grass gains have been made, and bay grass acreage in both areas now stand at new combined all-time high of 15,345 acres.

The increase in bay grasses has been primarily caused by the natural ability of the existing bay grass beds to expand when provided with the favorable growing conditions that were common during the two consecutive low-rainfall growing seasons. Low rainfall years generally send reduced amounts of sediments and nutrients into the Bay. In contrast, high rainfall years generally deliver large amounts of sediments and nutrients into the Bay, clouding the water and reducing the amount of light available for the bay grasses. Results from DNR’s long-term Water and Habitat Quality Monitoring Program demonstrated improvements in water clarity and/or reduced nutrient levels in 2001 and 2002 in the areas that experienced increases in bay grasses.

“While the latest bay grass increases appear to be largely the result of two years of low flow conditions, the increases demonstrate what is possible under ‘normal flow conditions’ if we can improve the Bay’s water clarity,” said Mike Naylor, DNR biologist and Chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s SAV Taskforce. “It will be interesting to see what the impacts of this year’s greater than normal rainfall and hurricane Isabel have on the grasses.”

Despite the overall increase, some areas in Maryland experienced decreases in bay grass acreage. All these areas were located in low salinity portions of the Bay and included the Elk, Bohemia, Sassafras, Gunpowder, Middle, Upper Patuxent, and upper Potomac Rivers, and the main-bay areas between the Sassafras and West rivers. The bay grass coverages in these areas were probably reduced by the higher than normal salinities common during low rainfall or drought conditions.

 

 

 

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