Mixed Results In Annual Coastal Bays Report Card

OCEAN CITY — It was good news, bad news this week as the Maryland Coastal Bays Program (MCBP) released its annual report card for the estuaries in and around the resort area with an overall grade of C, although some regions continued to do better than others.

The MCBP, along with its numerous public and private sector partners, each year since 2008 has compiled a comprehensive report card for the six individual regions within the larger coastal bays and assigns an overall grade for the entire watershed along with individual grades for each specific estuary. The report card considers six main indicators each measured on a 100-point scale with 100 representing a healthy ecosystem.

After carefully reviewing data collected for a variety of indicators during 2010, the MCBP determined there were areas where the health of the bays improved and other areas that continued to show declines.

“While the northern bays and western tributaries continue to struggle, there are signs of improvement in some areas,” the report reads. “However, the southern bays, historically the more pristine of the coastal bays, are still showing signs of degradation.”

The Sinepuxent Bay continued to be the all-star among the five coastal bays graded in the annual report card with a B- grade in 2011. However, it did see the second largest amount of decline in 2011, largely because of the losses in hard clams and seagrasses. Although the Sinepuxent Bay has maintained good to very good scores for nutrients, the region has room for improvement in dissolved oxygen, clams and seagrasses.

Chincoteague Bay earned a middle-of-the-road C+ in the 2011 report card, up slightly from the C grade in 2010, but lower than the average score of B- in 2008 and 2009. Chincoteague saw improvements in all indicators but seagrasses, which continued to decline likely due to recurring brown tides in the region.

Assawoman Bay, directly behind Ocean City and the resort area, received a grade of C and saw the biggest decline since 2010. There were improvements in nitrogen, phosphorous and chlorophyll a, but declines in dissolved oxygen, clams and major reduction in seagrasses brought down the scores in 2011. Assawoman Bay graded a low C in 2011 while the bay was graded nearly a C+ in 2010.

The Isle of Wight Bay received a grade of C in the 2011, the same grade the estuary received in 2010. Hard clams bounced back from moderate in 2010 to good in 2011 with nearly 80 percent attainment in 2011. Offsetting the gains in hard clams, however, continued to large declines in seagrasses, which are now considered very poor.

The St. Martin River received a D+ in the latest report card for 2011 released this week, which was the lowest score among the six coastal bays. Similar to 2010, the region had lower scores for phosphorous, chlorophyll a and seagrasses than any other of the five coastal bays.

Newport Bay received a D+ grade and was considered the second lowest scoring among the six coastal bay regions. However, Newport Bay did have the greatest single-year improvement. Seagrasses continued to decline, but there were slight improvements in each of the other indicators. Nonetheless, Newport Bay attained a grade of D+ in 2011, the same grade the region received in 2010.

Overall, water quality throughout each of the coastal bays continued to decline in 2011 despite modest gains in some areas. The biggest concern continues to be seagrasses, which saw their abundance in the coastal bays decreased by 35 percent in 2011 to levels not seen since the 1990s. The sharp decline is believed to be the result of degraded water quality combined with the particularly hot summer in 2010 when seagrass levels also declined in the lower Chesapeake Bay.

On the good news front, blue crab landings in the coastal bays in 2011 were above average for the fourth year in a row. Even though the landings declined somewhat after hitting an all-time high in 2010, they remained in the 75th percent again over the 32-year period when landings records were kept.

Despite gains seen in the Isle of Wight Bay, hard clam densities remained well below historic benchmarks in all regions of the coastal bays in 2011. While the cause of the decline has not been determined, low hard clam densities could be the result of unfavorable water quality conditions for their survival and possible increased predation by the thriving blue crab population.

The MCBP in the report card acknowledged it would not be successful without the help of its numerous partners, of which many received gold stars in the report. Among the partners earning gold stars this year were the MCBP water quality monitoring volunteers, the State Highway Administration for its work on the Lizard Hill project, the DNR, Ocean City Fishing Center, MDE and the Army Corps of Engineers for their help with the Skimmer Island restoration, the Racklifee House Trust, the town of Ocean City, the town of Berlin and Worcester County Tourism.