Study Finds Coastal Bays Grasses Recovering Well

OCEAN CITY – According
to a joint study released this week by state and local conservation groups,
seagrasses in the coastal bays in and around the resort area made considerable
gains last year, but the good news was tempered somewhat by the work that still
needs to be done to restore the important plants to levels not seen since 2005.

The Maryland Department
of Natural Resources (DNR), the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, the National
Park Service and the Virginia Institute of Marine Scientists this week released
the findings of a study of the abundance of underwater seagrasses in the
coastal bays conducted last year. The study revealed the level of seagrasses in
the coastal bays increased by an average of 25 percent in 2009 since the last
study was completed in 2008.

The significant
increase, from an estimated 10,916 acres in 2008 to 13,628 acres in 2009,
indicates the coastal bays continue to slowly recover from dramatic losses in 2005
when the amount of underwater acreage of the all-important plants neared
historic lows.

In the wake of the
dramatic losses in 2005, state and local governments and private sector
agencies embarked on an ambitious plan to reduce the run-off of pollutants in
the coastal bays and the streams and creeks that contribute to them. One result
was the mapping of designated critical areas closest to the water’s edge along
with stringent regulations on the types of activities allowed in them.

While the latest data on
the level of seagrasses in the coastal bays is encouraging, the abundance of
the plants has not been restored to pre-2005 levels, according to Maryland
Governor Martin O’Malley, who vowed to continue to promote conservation
measures in the critical areas.

“The seagrasses are a
great barometer of the health of the coastal bays, and while their increase is
promising, out work is not done,” he said this week. “We must continue to
reduce nutrient and sediment pollution, collectively and individually, to benefit
seagrass restoration and, ultimately, the health of the coastal bays.”

Seagrass acreage is
estimated each year through an aerial survey, which is typically done from late
spring to early fall. While the substantial gains realized from 2008 to 2009 is
considered a positive step in the right direction, only 50 percent of the goal
established following the near collapse in 2005 has been reached, according to
the study.

While seagrasses
increased by 2,712 acres total in the coastal bays, 2,165 of those acres gained
were realized in the Chincoteague Bay, representing a 27 percent gain in that
sub-estuary. With the increase, the Chincoteague Bay acreage of seagrasses
reached 10,158 in 2009, which is still far short of the 16,349 acres observed
in 2001, or roughly 40 percent short of the established goals.

Meanwhile, the Assawoman
Bay directly behind Ocean City realized the biggest gain percentage-wise and
has now reached a record high. Seagrasses increased by 300 acres in Assawoman
Bay in the most recent study, representing a gain of around 50 percent.

Newport Bay increased by
12 acres last year to 60 total acres, while Sinepuxent Bay gained 241 acres,
representing a 13-percent increase for that sub-estuary. The Isle of Wight Bay
and the St. Martin’s River remained virtually unchanged from 2008 to 2009, but
both are at the second highest acreage recorded in those sub-estuaries since

While the gains reported
in the most recent study are reason for optimism, the overall goals for the
coastal bays have not been met, according to Maryland Coastal Bays Program
executive director Dave Wilson.

“It’s good to see
improvement in seagrass abundance, but we have still not fully recovered from
the losses suffered in 2005 when the bays lost 38 percent of the seagrass due
to abnormally high water temperatures and poor water quality in some areas,” he
said. “The Coastal Bays Program will continue to work with local, state and
federal partners as well as the farming and development communities to reduce
nutrient and sediment pollution in order to reach our seagrass goals in the
bays behind Ocean City and Assateague.”

Seagrasses are an
indicator of clean water and provide essential food and shelter for many of
coastal bays fish and shellfish including flounder, blue crab and bay scallops.
For example, scallops, which require seagrasses in their early life, have not
been observed in Chincoteague Bay since 2005 despite previous restoration

Low water quality is the
biggest threat to seagrass recovery. Nutrient pollution fuels algae and seaweed
blooms in the water, which can block light to seagrass beds. Long-term
monitoring by Assateague Island National Seashore shows that current trends in
nutrient conditions continue to degrade in Chincoteague Bay. Sources of nutrient
pollution include air deposition, farm fields, boating, development, septic
fields, parking lots and wastewater treatment plants.