A Crisis in the Chesapeake Bay

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Victoria Penate

Environmental scientists have found compelling evidence to show that the Chesapeake Bay is recovering from the damage it has sustained from after over a century of abuse. This positive development has implications beyond the Chesapeake Bay in particular because it may be a cause for optimism regarding the recovery of other areas of the world.

The Chesapeake Bay has been the site of a particularly concentrated array of environmental restorations projects over the course of the last several decades, efforts which were made to combat both natural events and man-made ecological disturbances in the past, including the introduction of invasive species and pollutants.

According to the Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP), a collaborative organization which has led the effort to restore the Bay, invasive species like the blue and flathead catfish were introduced to local bodies of water for recreational purposes starting approximately forty years ago. These catfish have a diet which includes the native species of the area, raising concern for the future of the native’s survival.

Plant life in the Bay is also suffering due to invasive species such as the water chestnut. The CBP dates the artificial addition of the water chestnut to the late-nineteenth century. This floating plant was added for ornamental purposes, but it spread quickly and has harmed the Bay’s underwater vegetation by blocking out sunlight.

Pollution is another serious problem in the Chesapeake Bay and further degrades the habitat quality for local plants and wildlife. Sources of natural airborne pollutants include ]wildfires or dust storms, which are irregular events. In contrast, man-made pollution occurs consistently and is a product of industrial facilities, agricultural operations, and motor vehicles in the surrounding area, among other causes.

The CBP is working to improve the condition of the bay through the administration of several sub-programs which range from preventative monitoring to active removal of harmful elements.

As reported by the CBP overview of programs, “nineteen physical, chemical, and biological characteristics are monitored [twenty] times a year in the Bay’s mainstem and many tributaries.” These characteristics include the water quality, the well-being of various types of wildlife, and the quantity of underwater grasses. The evaluations are useful in environmental research regarding current trends, which allow the CBP to optimize its programs accordingly.

Sub-programs of the CBP actively maintain control over the amount of invasive species and pollution which are allowed to exist in the Chesapeake Bay. A program called Best Management Practice verification consists of inspections and follow-up evaluations of farm practices in order to reduce the amount of sediment and harmful nutrients being emitted into the Bay.

In addition, the CBP’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team works to manage the spread of invasive catfish species; there is also an ongoing volunteer effort which aims to help the underwater grass beds by removing invasive chestnut plants.

These programs have been highly successful according to recent evaluations of the Bay’s condition. Long-term trends in pollution to the Bay seem to be decreasing, according to a recent article published by the Associated Press. Nitrogen levels, for example, have reportedly dropped by about 23 percent. This is significant because an excess of nitrogen constitutes nutrient pollution in the Bay, and “can block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and create low-oxygen ‘dead zones’ that suffocate marine life,” according to the CBP.

The Associated Press reports that, due to the improvement in chemical balance, there has been a significant recovery in the underwater grasses which exist along thousands of miles of coastline. Due to this recovery, it is predicted that the grass beds will be able to display more resilience in withstanding difficult weather such as hurricanes.

The CBP’s work has the potential to bring improved conditions far beyond the Chesapeake Bay, according to Jonathan Lefcheck of the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences. “We like to say if we can do it in the Chesapeake Bay, we can do it anywhere,” as quoted by the Associated Press.