The health of the Chesapeake Bay remains poor, due in part to insufficient management of the Bay’s rockfish population, according to a recent report by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Out of the 13 health indicators, the rockfish score alone declined by 17 points, which is “the largest decline in any indicator in more than a decade,” the foundation said in its report, which was released Tuesday.
The Bay’s rockfish population began declining in the 1970s and 1980s from overfishing, but returned to healthy levels by the early 2000s, thanks to conservation efforts. However, the rockfish population has been under threat again within the last few years. The presence of adult female striped bass dropped by 40% from 2013 to 2017.
In response, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission required Maryland and Virginia to reduce their striped bass, or rockfish, harvest by 18%, and restricted the catching of menhaden, which is a primary food source for striped bass, in 2019.
Still, there need to be stronger actions that help stimulate stiped bass’s population growth, according to the report — especially in Maryland.
“The state needs to take more effective measures to stem the decline in striped bass. While other states chose to close the striped bass fishery during key times when the species is most threatened, Maryland took a piecemeal approach that we believe had limited effectiveness,” Alison Prost, the vice president for environmental protection and restoration of CBF, said in a statement.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has been releasing biennial reports since 1998, relying on 13 health indicators, including water clarity, forest buffers, blue crabs and oyster populations.
The bay’s health remained at a D+ since its last report in 2018. It scored 32 on a 100-point scale, one point lower than in 2018. If the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, which calls for six Bay states and the District of Columbia to meet pollution-reduction targets by 2025, is successful, then the Bay’s health should reach a score of 40 by 2025, according to the report.
A score of 70 would represent a “saved” Bay, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said, and a “saved” Bay would provide $130 billion a year in natural resource benefits to the region.
Not all health indicators were negative this year. For instance, the Bay witnessed lower nitrogen and phosphorus pollution over the last two years, which decreased the size of dead zones, or areas of water that have little to no oxygen. This year, the Bay had the seventh smallest dead zone in the last 35 years.
However, forest buffers, which help slow down nutrient runoff into waterways, are still low, partly due to changes in federal law that used to help fund many of the buffers in the Bay region. The health of underwater grasses, which provide food and habitat for fish, also declined because of heavy rainfall from the last two years, which affects water clarity.
The Bay can be restored by enforcing the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, CBF representatives said, but this heavily relies on Pennsylvania, which has lagged behind other Bay states, to meet its share of pollution reduction goals.
“If Pennsylvania does not meet the obligations it’s promised to meet by 2025, there is no doubt that the Chesapeake Bay will never be saved. It’s that basic,” William Baker, the president of CBF, said during a news conference Tuesday.
Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia and several organizations sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in September, accusing the federal government of failing to hold Pennsylvania accountable for its portion of the Bay cleanup.
“The stagnating score shows that we are witnessing apathy take hold and political will wane,” Baker said in a statement. “We can still save the Bay and deliver the promise of clean water to the next generation, but only if our elected officials redouble their clean water commitments and invest in finishing the job.”
U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) lambasted the Trump administration for failing to hold Pennsylvania accountable.
“While Congress, on a bipartisan basis, has increased the federal resources available to protect the Bay, the Trump Administration has refused to hold Pennsylvania more accountable for failing to meet their pollution reduction targets under the Chesapeake Bay Agreement,” Van Hollen said in a statement. “Everyone needs to work together and I look forward to working with the incoming Biden Administration EPA to meet our mutual goals of Clean Water in the Chesapeake Bay by 2025 by holding all partner states accountable.”
What will be most important for Maryland, however, is to make sure that lawmakers continue to allocate enough money in the budget for the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, Prost said. Investment in pollution controls for agriculture will also be important, since it is one of the areas that Maryland is relying on the most to reach its pollution reduction goals by 2025, CBF officials said.
Another priority for the upcoming General Assembly legislative session will be the Climate Solutions Now Act, which is a multifaceted bill that addresses the intersection between climate and water quality, Prost said.