The foundation assessed the bay’s pollution levels, its habitat and its fisheries and graded it on a scale that ranged from a dismal one, which would mean it is dead, to the pie-in-the-sky 100, if it were once again the youthful, drop-dead gorgeous picture of health it was when European explorers arrived in the 1600s.
“We’ll never see that again,” said William Baker, president of the foundation, which gave the bay a grade of 32, or D plus, a slight improvement from 2010 and much better than the 28, or D minus, from 2008. “But a 50 would be great. That would mean the bay is halfway to where it was historically.”
The Chesapeake is the nation’s largest estuary, a 200-mile-long mix of fresh and salt water that supports more than 3,500 plant and animal species. Thirty-two is the highest grade the foundation has dished out since it was founded in the late 1960s. The lowest, 23, was issued in the early 1980s.
Baker, the foundation’s president, attributed the slight health improvement reflected in the 2012 report to an earlier bay cleanup plan led by states.
The report follows upbeat announcements from Virginia and Maryland that the oyster population, decimated by disease, is showing signs of a rebound. Virginia watermen harvested only 79,600 bushels of oysters in 2005 but hauled in more than 236,000 bushels in 2011. Maryland’s crop jumped from 26,400 to more than 121,000.
Blue crabs were even more robust, as the number of juvenile crabs in both states shot up from 207 million in the winter dredge survey of 2011 to more than 600 million last year. The growth followed the closing five years ago of the winter dredge fishery, in which watermen harvested mostly pregnant females with a steel dragnet, killing as many as they caught. The overall crab population grew from 250 million when dredge fishing was closed to more than 750 million last year.
A 2011 study by Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science found that cleanup efforts have reduced oxygen-deprived events in the bay known as dead zones. Last year’s dead zone plague, which basically kills fish, oysters and crabs almost on contact, was the second-smallest since 1985.
That was a big deal because the 2011 one-two punch of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, which muddied the water with huge loads of sediment, were expected to produce some of the largest dead zones ever. But that didn’t happen.
It’s encouraging news, Baker said, but nothing to celebrate. “The bay is dangerously out of balance still. The good news is it’s headed in the right direction. The solution is exactly what’s in the bay blueprint,” he said.