Derelict crab pots killing 3.3 million crabs annually in the Chesapeake Bay

When Virginia closed its winter dredge fishery in 2008, waterman Clay Justis turned his attention from catching crabs that season to collecting the gear that captures them. He was one of several watermen hired under a program that taught them to use sonar to find and remove lost and abandoned fishing gear, primarily crab pots, […]

Scientists heartened by baywide increase in underwater grasses

The amount of underwater grass beds in Chesapeake Bay surged 27 percent last year, one of the largest single-year increases since monitoring of the critical habitat for fish and crabs began three decades ago.

While a rebound was seen Baywide, much of the recovery in 2014 was driven by a huge expansion of widgeon grass in the Mid Bay. Widgeon grass is notorious for its boom-and-bust cycles, which means it can disappear as quickly as it pops up.

Bob Orth, a researcher with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who oversees the annual aerial underwater grass survey, said 2014 was interesting because widgeon grass was found in areas where it had never before been mapped.

He and others were so surprised when the photos showed beds in certain areas, such as parts of Pocomoke Sound and the Honga River, they had people visit the sites in person. “Sure enough, it was,” Orth said.

Meanwhile, beds in freshwater and low-salinity areas, while having an increase in grasses, remain at half the record-high levels observed in 2010, before the devastating impacts of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in 2011. Those storms pushed huge amounts of sediment-filled water into the Bay, blotting out grass beds.

In the high-salinity areas of the lower Bay, eelgrass is rebounding after a heat-related die-off in 2010, but scientists are concerned that the critical species remains in long-term downward trajectory.

The overall results from the annual Baywide aerial survey showed 75,835 acres of underwater grass beds in the Chesapeake and its tidal tributaries last year, up from 59,711 acres in 2013.

“What we do know now is that restoration and conservation efforts to clean up the Bay’s waters are paying off,” said Brooke Landry, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and chair of the Bay Program’s SAV Workgroup.

It was the second straight year of increase for submerged aquatic vegetation, or SAV, after a dramatic three-year decline from 2010 through 2012 that saw underwater grass acreage plunge to its lowest levels in the Bay since the 1980s.

Still, SAV acreage remains well below its recent highs of 89,659 acres in 2002, and is just 41 percent of the Chesapeake Bay Program partnership’s ultimate goal of 185,000 acres. But, Landry said, shorter term Bay Program goals of 90,000 acres in 2017 and 130,000 acres in 2025 are achievable.

“I think we have a good chance of meeting both of these interim goals if we continue efforts to cut pollution that runs into the Bay,” she said.