Saving bay grasses Chesapeake Bay: Clam dredges uproot vital vegetation, requiring buffer-zone protection.

March 15, 1998

THE CHESAPEAKE BAY is nothing without its underwater grasslands. They are essential for the prosperity of fish and shellfish and other aquatic life.

Grasses feed and protect fish, mammals and birds; they clean the bay's waters of sediment and pollutants. The growth of grasses is a key measure of the bay's well-being.

Nature and mankind have destroyed much of the submerged vegetation. But over the past 15 years, the grasses have staged a remarkable comeback, doubling their cover to more than 60,000 acres. That's still only one-tenth of the shallows area in which grasses can grow.

Protection for the aquatic vegetation is promised in legislation before the General Assembly that would extend a buffer zone around the grass beds, barring clam dredging. That's the same protection given to oyster bars.

Understandably, commercial clammers are up in arms. Such restrictions would close off extensive, important clamming areas, forcing many watermen to abandon their livelihoods. The bill would limit areas of fishing for hydraulic clam dredges, which churn up the bay floor.

That practice is patently destructive. Virginia bans clam dredges. "It completely uproots the grasses, destroys them," says Robert Orth of the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences.

Clamming is not a major bay industry -- $1.5 million a year. There are only about 200 clammers, and many of them also fish for crabs.

Crabbers have joined environmentalists in pressing for the grass-bed buffers, blaming dredges for destruction of important crab breeding grounds. But task force last year could not agree on a recommended bill.

The legislative fight is over the size of buffers that would be closed to clam dredgers. A compromise to accommodate clammers while protecting aquatic grasses is in the works. But buffer zones are needed to prevent "accidental" dredger incursions into the fragile beds that are critical to the vitality of the bay.

Pub Date: 3/15/98

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