U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and other lawmakers are looking at making the Chesapeake Bay a national park.

An annual report that is designed to gauge the effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay to its once-pristine condition was released this week, continuing to show an ecosystem in recovery from short-term weather impacts and long-term water quality degradation occurring from excess nutrients and sediment.

The Chesapeake Bay Program calls its Bay Barometer a “science-based snapshot” that “provides the most up-to-date information about the environmental health and restoration of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.”

There have been a number of improvements from the previous assessment period shown on the report, according to a press release from the 38-year old Annapolis-based program. Among positive finds, the report shows “an estimated 17% of female blue crabs were harvested in 2019, marking the 12th consecutive year that number is below the 25.5% target and 34% overfishing threshold.”

Doug Myers, a Maryland senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, shared with Southern Maryland News this week that crab abundance in the bay has been maintained since 2014.

“We are no longer at the whims of other things that impact crab populations,” he noted, adding numbers have remained stable for six years now. “That’s encouraging news.”

In addition to blue crabs, another popular Chesapeake Bay watershed denizen, the oyster, is benefiting from a population restoration project. In 2019, Maryland completed 788 acres of oyster reefs within 10 tributaries selected as part of a large-scale project, which includes the St. Mary’s River, located in southern St. Mary’s County and flowing southeast through Great Mills and widening into a tidal estuary near St. Mary’s City.

“The oyster restoration projects are right on schedule,” Myers said, with three tributaries complete in Maryland and four in Virginia so far. “Funding is lined up” to continue moving forward.

Also cited as an encouraging sign in the barometer summary are indications of increased environmental literacy planning. According to the report 27% of local education agencies that responded to a Chesapeake Bay Program survey self-identified as “well-prepared” to deliver high-quality environmental literacy programming to their students.

This marks an increase in environmental literacy preparedness since the pilot Environmental Literacy Indicator Tool survey was distributed in 2015.

In 2019, 32% of the 132 local education agencies that responded to a Chesapeake Bay Program survey reported providing “Meaningful Watershed Educational Experiences” to at least some of their elementary school students. At the middle school level this number rose to 38%, and at the high school level it rose to 43%.

“The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has been at the forefront of getting environmental literacy bills passed,” Myers claimed. Although “preachy” in the past, environmental education now is more about “becoming familiar with the environment, how it works” and learning one’s place in it.

The foundation’s Maryland Education Program serves about 10,000 students each year at education sites in Annapolis, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Havre de Grace and Tangier Island and Smith Island sites.

Progress is being made in achieving the land preservation goals mandated in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. Data collected between 2016 and 2018 show that nearly 1.36 million acres or 22% of land in the bay watershed have been permanently protected since 2010. This marks an achievement of 68% of the outcome and brings the total amount of land protected in the watershed to 9.16 million acres.

Despite some bay improvements, the annual report revealed some decreases from the previous assessment period as well.

As far as the growth of underwater grasses, 66,684 acres were mapped in the bay; achieving 52% of the target of 185,000 acres but showing 38% decrease from 2018 when it was estimated that the bay may have supported up to 108,078 acres of underwater grasses.

And, 38% of the bay and its tidal tributaries met water quality standards during the 2016 to 2018 assessment period, showing a 4% decrease from the previous assessment period of 2015 to 2017.

Myers said the watershed implementation goals have been “less than ambitious” and as a result of climate change and some other factors, storm water loads are higher than they were when the plan began, meaning more loads of nitrogen and phosphorous in the bay.

“Chesapeake Bay health, resiliency and diversity are increasing overall, but more is needed at a greater pace and scale to achieve our ambitious goals,” Ben Grumbles, secretary for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said. “The Hogan Administration will continue to lead with science, record-setting investments, robust conservation and innovative regulation, while pressing all of our federal and state partners to step up in the cleanup and protection of this national treasure.”

Twitter: @MadisonSoMdNews

Twitter: @MadisonSoMdNews