Health of the state's five coastal bays is mixed, study says

Newport rates the worst

development endangers all, according to report

August 20, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Maryland's coastal bays are home to stable populations of crabs, clams and even the once-rare scallop, a report released yesterday shows. But it says the waters around Ocean City remain vulnerable to shoreline development and a growing population.

The report, a multiagency effort led by the nonprofit Maryland Coastal Bays Program and the state Department of Natural Resources, is the first of its kind to focus on the five coastal bays, whose health has not been studied nearly as much as that of the Chesapeake Bay. And while the coastal bays are in less dire straits than the Chesapeake, those who live and work along the coast say that doesn't give them much comfort.

"I don't grade on a curve," said Jay Charland, who works as the "coast watcher" for the Assateague Coastal Trust, a nonprofit organization that monitors all five bays. "I'm not prepared to say the coastal bays are doing well simply because the Chesapeake Bay is doing worse."

Because the coastal bays have been studied only for a few years, the report doesn't offer much in the way of trends. But generally, the areas farthest from land development are faring the best.

Sinepuxent Bay, which is south of Ocean City and has a relatively undeveloped watershed, has the highest ranking for water quality, living resources and habitat. Sharing its "good" ranking is Chincoteague Bay, rated next highest.

Assawoman Bay and Isle of Wight Bay, which have lost sea grasses due to development, were rated "fair." They also suffer because tributaries flowing into them have brought nutrients and sediment that reduce water quality.

Newport Bay received a "poor" ranking due to high sediment toxicity and very little sea grass. However, it is doing better than the St. Martin River, north of Berlin, which suffers because of agricultural activity.

The coastal bay picture is not entirely bleak, according to the report. There are enough blue crabs to support a steady commercial and recreational fishery. Hard clams have enjoyed a modest increase. And scallops, which disappeared in the 1930s, have returned to Sinepuxent, Chincoteague and Isle of Wight.

For David Wilson, outreach coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, the report's data is something of a wash: Areas that had been poor show some improvement, while areas with historically excellent water quality show some decline. But the report is an important step; now, he says, bay scientists have data that can show trends over time in the state of the coastal bays.

The report continues a momentum that began in the 1990s, when Worcester County residents began to notice an infusion of development and new residents. By 2000, the watershed's population had increased 50 percent in a decade, to 34,000 residents, Wilson said.

"It's different down here. It's a rural area," Wilson said. "Historically, there weren't a lot of people screaming for environmental protection."

Worcester County has undertaken a management plan to control development and protect shorelines. In 2002, the General Assembly voted to extend Critical Area Law protection to the five coastal bays, making waterfront development more difficult.

Charland says the years without the critical-area protections hurt the coastal bays. But he is hoping the report is the beginning of a new era in safeguarding the watershed.

"We are paying attention. It's never too late," he said. "There are always things you can do to restore a water body."

In Ocean City yesterday, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said the report was important to plans for the coastal areas.

"It will shape policy," he said. "For so long, the coastal bays never made the radar screen."

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