Coastal Bays Health Improving, Report Card Finds

Coastal Bays Health Improving, Report Card Finds

BERLIN – The health of Maryland’s coastal bays improved in 2017, according to a new report from the Maryland Coastal Bays Program and its partnering agencies.

Last year, the coastal bay system received a B-minus in overall health for the first time, according to the new 2017 Coastal Bays Report Card.

Each year, the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and its partnering agencies release a report on the health of Maryland’s coastal bays by measuring the levels of chlorophyll, dissolved oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorous, seagrass and hard clams in six regions – Assawoman, Chincoteague, Isle of Wight, Newport and Sinepuxent bays and the St. Martin River – and issuing a grade.

According to the 2017 report card, the overall health of coastal bays improved from a C-plus in 2016 to a B-minus last year.

Frank Piorko, executive director of the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, applauded the progress.

“Since 2008, the Coastal Bays Report Card has pretty much been in the same range of C or C-plus,” he said, “so this was good news.”

Overall, the report gave Sinepuxent Bay the best health grade and Newport Bay the worst, with low scores for seagrass, hard clams, nitrogen and phosphorous.

And while health conditions declined in the Assawoman Bay this year – an event Piorko attributed to a significant decline in hard clams – areas such as the St. Martin River and Chincoteague Bay noted improvements.

“The good news for the Chincoteague Bay is that its health improved mainly through improvements in the level of phosphorous and nitrogen,” Piorko said. “In the St. Martin River, we were able to measure hard clams for the first time, which were not included in past report cards because of low density.”

Piorko said the next step is to take the report card and evaluate possible reasons for improvements in water quality and changes in biological indicators such as hard clams and seagrasses, which remain absent in some bays.

“We try and come up with the best educated guesses on what’s causing these changes,” he said. “For example, hot weather we’ve had in the last four years could have to do with the decline of beneficial seagrasses. The warmer water could fuel more nutrients and macroalgae and it can smother the good grasses.”

Piorko added improvements in water quality could also be attributed to human activity. He noted that the planting of cover crops could have played a role in the reduction of agricultural runoff into the bays.

“For everything we try and figure out the reason,” he said, “but the larger the body of water, the harder it is to pinpoint.”

While he said he was pleased with this year’s report card, Piorko explained it was important that officials continue to observe trends in coastal bay health.

“We’re happy that there’s an improvement, but we want to make sure we are sending a message that we need to continue to be aggressive with our monitoring …,” he said. “It’s important to collect the data that tells the story.”

About The Author: Bethany Hooper

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Bethany Hooper has been with The Dispatch since 2016. She currently covers various general stories. Hooper graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 2012 and the University of Maryland in 2016, where she completed double majors in journalism and economics.