Chesapeake's Poor Health Calls for 'Bolder' Action

Despite increased restoration efforts throughout the watershed, the overall health of the Chesapeake Bay did not improve in 2008, according to a Chesapeake Bay Program report released March 19.

The nation’s largest estuary continues to have poor water quality, degraded habitats, and low populations of several key species of fish and shellfish. Based on these conditions, the Chesapeake Bay’s health averaged 38 percent, with 100 percent representing a fully restored ecosystem. The Chesapeake Bay Program, however, exceeded its goal for land preservation with 7.3 million acres permanently protected from development.

"Bay Barometer: A Health and Restoration Assessment of the Chesapeake Bay and Watershed in 2008"  says the bay and its tributaries are unhealthy primarily because of excess nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment entering the water. The main sources of these pollutants are agriculture, urban and suburban runoff, sewage treatment plants, and air pollution. The Chesapeake Bay Program has goals for health and restoration measures needed to restore the ecosystem. 

Water quality in the Bay was poor in 2008, meeting only 21 percent of goals. This includes measures for dissolved oxygen, water clarity, algae, and chemical contaminants. But there were gains in the underwater bay grasses that provide shelter for aquatic life, improve water clarity, increase oxygen, and reduce shoreline erosion. Last year, there were 76,861 acres of grasses, which was an increase of 11,943 acres (18 percent) from 2007.

"Bay Barometer," however, showed a drop in the blue crab population. The goal is to have 200 million blue crabs in the Bay that are at least one year old, which is spawning age. Last year, the population of blue crabs was 120 million – a decrease from 143 million in 2007. The abundance of oysters and shad remained at low levels.

“While there are small successes in certain parts of the ecosystem and specific geographic areas, the sobering data in this report reflect only marginal shifts from last year’s results,” said Jeffrey Lape, director of the Chesapeake Bay Program. “This affirms the need to take bolder actions and involve a wider network of stakeholders and resources to achieve significant improvements throughout the watershed.”

Chesapeake Bay Program partners continued to put new restoration programs and projects in place in 2008. Restoration efforts stand at 61 percent, with 100 percent meaning that all measures needed for a restored Bay are implemented. Work is under way to reduce pollution, restore habitats, manage fisheries, protect watersheds, and foster stewardship.

The report shows that the partnership has met its goal for land preservation. Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the District of Columbia committed to permanently protect 20 percent of their combined 34 million acres by 2010. Through the end of last year, the total land protected was 7.3 million acres, which surpassed the goal two years before the deadline. Forests, parks, wildlife refuges, and other natural areas provide habitat for animals and filter pollution before it reaches the bay and its tributaries

“Permanently protecting land from development is one of the most important ways to help the health of Chesapeake Bay,” said Virginia Governor Timothy M. Kaine, chair of the Chesapeake Executive Council. “Preserving more than 7 million acres of land is a tremendous success for the partners of the Chesapeake Bay Program and the citizens of the region. The Commonwealth of Virginia is proud to have made significant contributions to this worthy goal by protecting about 2.5 million acres.”

Because the watershed’s 17 million residents have an impact on local waterways and the bay, a section called “How You Can Help” was added to the report. It shows simple actions people can take to reduce pollution, such as not fertilizing lawns, installing a rain barrel, or volunteering for a watershed group.

The Chesapeake Executive Council will use information from the report at its annual meeting in May. The council establishes the policy agenda for the program and is comprised of executives from the six bay states, the District of Columbia, the Chesapeake Bay Commission, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The report can be accessed at

Featured Webinar