Chesapeake Bay Underwater Grasses Show 6% Increase, Indicating Progress Towards Maryland's Restoration Goals
HARFORD COUNTY - A recent survey by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) showed a moderate improvement in the prevalence of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), indicating progress toward meeting the state's restoration targets.
During the annual survey, scientists charted 37,297 acres of critical marine habitat and found that underwater grass prevalence rose by 6% in 2022. This increase accounts for 47% of the state's restoration target for 2025 and 33% of the ultimate restoration goal.
The Bay experienced moderate to dry conditions in 2022, which, according to MDE, likely facilitated the increased growth. The previous years, 2019 and 2020, recorded a significant decline in underwater grass coverage after heavy rainfall in 2018 led to increased nutrient and sediment pollution that clouded the water and obstructed sunlight necessary for the grasses' survival.
"While we celebrate continued positive signs for recovery in the Chesapeake Bay, we must remain vigilant to build resiliency for this vital marine resource," said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary Josh Kurtz. "To do so, we are evaluating ways to restore habitats to promote underwater grass growth. The Moore-Miller Administration is focused on ensuring these types of clean water benefits are distributed across Maryland's watershed to provide recreational and economic opportunities for all who rely on the Bay."
Underwater grasses contribute significantly to the health of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. They enhance water quality by absorbing excess nutrients, reducing sediment erosion, and increasing oxygen levels. These grasses also combat climate change-induced acidification, benefiting shellfish like crabs, oysters, clams, and scallops.
Last year, underwater grasses exceeded restoration goals in all or parts of five Maryland rivers, with an additional two regions reaching 75% or more of their restoration targets. Notably, Tangier Sound, the Susquehanna Flats, the lower Patuxent River, the Bohemia River, the Little Choptank River, and the lower Pocomoke River all showed positive growth in underwater grasses.
Over 15 underwater grass species are found throughout the Chesapeake Bay, distributed according to their salinity tolerance. According to MDE, 2022 was a good year for widgeon grass in the mesohaline areas with lower to medium salinity. However, minor declines were noted in freshwater SAV species in the Bay's tidal fresh and lower salinity areas. The Gunpowder and Middle Rivers were cited as particularly sore spots for freshwater grasses.
The 2022 distribution of underwater grasses in the Bay and its tributaries was mapped during the annual aerial survey conducted by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. You can visit the Department of Natural Resources website for more information about Maryland's underwater grasses.
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