Chesapeake Bay Grasses Making A Comeback - WBOC-TV 16, Delmarvas News Leader, FOX 21 -

Chesapeake Bay Grasses Making A Comeback

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Eel grass in the Honga River (Photo:WBOC) Eel grass in the Honga River (Photo:WBOC)

CAMBRIDGE, Md.-  Since the 1960s, the grasses on the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay have been on a steep decline.  Those bay grasses serve as an important habitat for many of the creatures that live in the bay.  The loss of those grasses was felt throughout the ecosystem.

But that is changing.  A new study shows bay grasses are at the highest levels in 30 years.

Not many people would be brave enough to jump into the chilly waters of the Chesapeake Bay in mid April.  But it's Jay Fleming's job.  He's an underwater photographer.  The day we spoke with him, he was documenting the grasses near Wingate in Dorchester County.

"The grass is such an important habitat for small fish, juvenile crabs, crabs that are shedding and going through the ecdysis process, just because it provides protection from predators," said Fleming.

As such, it is a prime spot for Fleming to document the life in the bay.  He's heard about the upward trend in bay grasses.

"You know, it can't be bad.  I think the more places these critters have to hide, the more likely they are to survive and reach maturity," said Fleming.

Scientists at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science say the decline in bay grasses began decades ago.

"Due to human influence, mostly pollutants of one sort or another, the plants and their associated beds have been declining over the last several decades, beginning in the 1960s," said Dr. Michael Kemp.

A hurricane in the 1970s caused excess runoff from the land and from the Susquehanna River to pour into the bay, killing off much of the grass.  That has started to change.  But the real changes are up north.

"We think that the bay grasses have come back in the upper bay for a combination of reasons.  It seems like there are subtle but real decreases in nutrients coming into the bay from the watershed and the Susquehanna River," said Dr. Cassie Gurbisz.

That's not to say the rest of the bay is barren and devoid of grasses.  Bay grasses are abundant near Holland Island.  While nobody lives there now there is still life, because these bay grasses have provided an ecosystem for thousands of sea creatures.

But it's not just about providing a safe haven from predatory fish.

"The plants, because of their structure and the friction associated with their structure, slow down the water movement in tidal movements which causes the particles suspended in the water to sink out and they trap those particles there in the bed," said Kemp.

That means that water clarity improves in the areas where grasses are abundant.  The grasses then start to spread because of that better water quality.

"When you get clearer water, the plants grow even more, they can clear up the water even more, and you get this perpetual positive feedback cycle is what we call it," said Gurbisz.

That is good news for underwater photographers like Fleming, but he's thinking more about the creatures in those grasses, and also for the watermen.

"A lot of people will scrape for crabs in the grass, peeler crabs and soft crabs, and it gives them more places to work.  They know that the grasses are extremely crucial," said Fleming.

With the upper bay's grasses thriving, the hope is the tide will continue turning in the mid to lower bay.

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