BALTIMORE - Deteriorating water quality and summer heat combined to kill off more than a third of seagrasses in coastal bays along the Eastern Shore, Maryland and Virginia officials announced Tuesday.
Seagrass acreage dropped 35 percent between July 2010 and May 2011, including nearly all of the grass beds in the Assawoman Bay and the Isle Wight Bay, according to figures by several groups.
The drop in seagrasses, which provide food and shelter for crabs, fish, birds and other species, coincided with large decreases in grasses in the lower Chesapeake Bay. Researchers said the grasses are now at levels not seen since the early 1990s, exceeding declines caused by the hot summer of 2005.
"The heat alone doesn't kill them unless combined with the already stressful conditions the plants are living in," said Thomas Parham, DNR Director of Tidewater Ecosystem Assessment Service.
The Chincoteague Bay lost the most _ a decrease of more than 2,700 acres or about 27 percent of grasses, split nearly equally between Maryland and Virginia. Assawoman Bay lost about 900 acres, the Isle of Wight Bay, nearly 500, and the St. Martin River lost its last 1.6 acres.
One of the few areas of good news was the continued expansion of eelgrass in Virginia's coastal bays.
Clearer water of the Virginia coastal bays and the proximity of the eelgrass meadows to cooler ocean waters made the summer heat more bearable, said Bob Orth, who oversees the annual aerial survey.
Water quality is the biggest threat, particularly pollutants such as nitrogen from fertilizer, sewage and car and power plant emissions, which can fuel algae blooms that block light and lower oxygen levels, the researchers said.
"It's difficult to imagine our bays without seagrasses, but that's the direction we're heading without a change in the status quo," said Trish Kicklighter, superintendent of Assateague Island National Seashore.
The figures were released by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Maryland Coastal Bays program, the Virginia Institute of Marine Scientists and the National Park Service
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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