Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Chesapeake Bay Gets Its Annual D+

 EPA Chesapeake Bay Program: Chesapeake Bay sees health score decline by one point, but retain D+ grade

Despite a one-point decline in the health of the Chesapeake Bay since 2018, Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) President Will Baker believes, “this is a historic opportunity to demonstrate to the world that by following the science, we can save a national treasure”.

In its biennial State of the Bay Report, CBF graded the overall health of the Bay a D+, or a score of 32. CBF assigns the Bay’s grade based upon the best available information in three categories: pollution, habitat and fisheries. The foundation of this information primarily comes from monitoring data, supported by in-the-field observations. The three above categories contain 13 total indicators that are individually assigned a score, which are then averaged together and compared against the gold standard of Bay health: the pristine conditions that Captain John Smith encountered in the 17th century.

Which is a convenient standard, since we don't really have good records of what the state of the Bay was at the time, although Smith reported  "oysters "lay as thick as stones," and the Bay and its rivers contained more sturgeon "than could be devoured by dog or man  ... Of fish we were best acquainted with sturgeon, grampus, porpoise, seals, stingrays ... brits, mullets, white salmon [rockfish], trouts, soles, perch of three sorts." One suspects a bit of hyperbole was involved. The same kind that led the Viking merchants to name Greenland. 

Thanks to the pollution reducing practices put into place by each of the six states in the watershed (Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia) and the District of Columbia, as well as upgrades to wastewater treatment plants and favorable weather, all but one indicator—toxics—improved in the Pollution category. Historical contaminants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) may have been banned in the 1970s but are still prevalent throughout the Bay’s fisheries today. And emerging toxic contaminants, including those from microplastics, personal care products and pharmaceuticals, can now be found in every part of the ecosystem. Still, nitrogen and phosphorous pollution are down from 2018, with dissolved oxygen and water quality scores also improving.

PCBs are "prevalent" virtually everywhere on earth at this point, and only a long period of no release and continued degradation is going to fix that. 

The Habitat category told a less-promising story, with two indicators—forest buffers and underwater grasses—declining and wetlands and resource lands (conserved areas) having no change. These decreases are believed to be the result of climate change, development and the easing of federal regulations.

But most concerning is the decline of the striped bass fishery. Chris Moore, CBF’s senior regional ecosystem scientist laments that “adult female striped bass, widely used to gauge the overall health of the population, have dropped approximately 40% from 2013 to 2017.” The fishery has seen below-average spawning activity over the past two years, prompting the Atlantic Marine Fisheries Commission to take stronger management actions, such as reducing the annual catch by 18%. As for the other indicators that make up the Fisheries category, shad declined, while the progress of oysters and blue crabs increased.

I don't feel strongly about the annual grading of the Bay; I think there's a lot of self-serving going on. What would happen to CBF's donations if they were to suddenly announce one year that the Bay was just fine, thank you? On the other hand, I think the sense of this grade is about right. Any improvement in the Bay's health is incremental, and the continued decline of the Striped Bass certainly counts against it, although no obvious way to combat this is obvious. The stripers will not be recovering until we have one or more years with very good recruitment, and three years for the fish to grow. And water quality improvements, while important, are not what is causing poor recruitment. 

The Wombat has Rule 5 Sunday: Rep. Lauren Boebert up and running. 

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