Gaining or losing: Which is it? Benchmark: To accurately answer questions on the status of the bay, an environmental reference point from earlier days is needed.

On the Bay

March 21, 1997|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

HOW IS THE BAY doing? It all depends on where you are coming from and when you started keeping score.

A friend from the Washington suburbs, down for a ramble, remarks how "refreshingly rural" the Eastern Shore remains.

Maybe to him, I reply; but to me, who grew up here during the 1950s, it seems more a burgeoning suburb.

In fact, there is no standard, or even informal consensus, on how the Shore should be, and so it keeps filling with admiring %J newcomers, becoming to Washington as Long Island is to New York.

With our environment we must always be asking: What is the standard, the goal, the threshold, the baseline?

In their absence, things natural usually erode and fade, but seldom rebound.

An oyster scientist who goes "way back" to the 1980s, when Maryland harvests still were measured in the millions of bushels, complains of local newspaper headlines:

"Oysters back!" they trumpet whenever the pitiful harvests of recent years climb above a 10th of 1980's harvests.

"They don't remember; they don't even know," he says.

Baselines matter. Where we have set them, we have seen results.

Rockfish would not have come back had we not in the mid-1980s established a point -- based on years of data gathering -- and said: Below this, fishing ends until there is a recovery.

All of this makes especially exciting Mike Naylor's project to, in effect, reconstruct the "good old days" of the bay.

He wants to make sure we don't set our sights too low in restoring one of the estuary's most important natural features -- the submerged aquatic vegetation that is as integral to a healthy bay as the rain forest is to the Amazon River basin.

Naylor, a biologist in the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, first glimpsed the bay's former grassy glory in an extraordinary set of 1938 photographs.

Kent Mountford, a scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency, had acquired the pictures from an elderly neighbor on the creek where he lives off the Patuxent River.

For years, Mountford had shown them wherever he went, trying to persuade people of the pictures' significance.

They were aerial shots of excellent quality, showing incredibly large and lush beds of submerged aquatic vegetation stretching far out into the Patuxent's waters. But in recent decades, very little has existed.

Restoring this critical grass bed habitat throughout the bay is a major element in its recovery, but no one really knows where to set the baseline for what will constitute success.

There is a short-term goal set by the EPA and state governments to restore 114,000 acres, baywide, by 2005.

By that standard, we seem to be doing all right -- more than halfway there, with bay grasses up to around 70,000 acres, from a low of 37,000 acres in 1984.

But that goal is based only on what we have known and measured since the 1970s, when the bay's water was already getting too murky (from sewage, sediment and land runoff) for ideal grass growth.

As a hedge, bay managers set a vague, long-term goal of restoring around 600,000 acres, based on the amount of water in the estuary that is less than 6 to 7 feet deep.

Deeper than that, and it was assumed grasses couldn't get enough light for consistent growth, even in a more pristine bay.

Or could they?

Tantalizing, anecdotal evidence existed: 1866 newspaper accounts of canvasback ducks feeding 8 to 9 feet deep; old crabbers who said they were unable to reach grass beds with a standard, 10-foot net; Smith Islanders who recalled scraping for soft crabs in 10 to 15 feet of water.

Could the bay have supported a million or more acres of grasses? It is important to know; so we can tell whether it is recovered halfway, or 10 per cent, or only a few percent.

Naylor recognized the value of Mountford's old 1930s photos -- they were part of a set that might include virtually the whole of Chesapeake Bay.

Congress, concerned during the Great Depression about the nation's ability to feed itself, ordered aerial photography of the entire United States' agricultural lands.

First done in the 1930s, the photos were repeated in the 1950s, the 1970s and the 1980s. Though not designed to show submerged grasses, the survey overlapped the shorelines enough to do a creditable job.

Naylor, working in his free time, has assembled a full set of old photos for the entire Patuxent River. He used 1952 aerials, which were shot at a better time of year to show the grasses than those photographed in the 1930s.

He has "ground-truthed" many of them by seeking out watermen who worked the river then.

"Without question, the grasses in many areas grew to at least 12 feet below mean low water," he says. "There was a continuum of grasses, all the way from the little headwater creeks down to the mouth." (Many people have assumed some of those stretches never grew grasses.)

He says there are stretches of the river that in the old photos show single, continuous grass beds that far exceed any of our short-term goals for restoration.

Naylor's immediate goal is to finish digitizing all the photos for the Patuxent, so they can be placed on computers. He'd like to see the same thing done for the entire bay, as all the photos are available from a national archive.

It could be done inexpensively, he says, perhaps as a project for groups representing each of the bay's tributaries.

"I hope it will wake people up," Mountford says.

With the addition of a true baseline for grass restoration, we will have that much clearer an answer when asked, "How's the bay doing?"

Pub Date: 3/21/97

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