Underwater comeback: Aquatic grass reappears in Chesapeake Bay

WASHINGTON — Underwater grasses along the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay that had been virtually wiped out by pollution decades ago have made a remarkable comeback, according to new research from the University of Maryland.

The resurgence of aquatic grasses signals a positive shift in the ecological health of the bay and provides fresh evidence that long-term cleanup efforts in North America’s largest estuary are paying off, the university’s Center for Environmental Science said.

“The Chesapeake Bay has turned the corner. In fact, it’s one of the large ecosystems in the world that has probably made the most progress,” said Peter Goodwin, president of the center, in a statement.

For years, nutrient pollution had fueled the growth of algae, blocking the sun from reaching the aquatic grasses on the bottom of the bay. (Courtesy University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science)
For years, nutrient pollution had fueled the growth of algae, blocking the sun from reaching the aquatic grasses on the bottom of the bay. (Courtesy University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science)

The underwater grasses are considered ecologically important because they provide a habitat for baby crabs and other creatures and helpe protect shorelines. (Courtesy University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science)
The underwater grasses are considered ecologically important because they provide a habitat for baby crabs and other creatures and help protect shorelines. (Courtesy University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science)

Nurtrient pollution in the bay also caused algae to grow on the aquatic vegetation itself, further blocking it from needed sunlight. (Courtesy University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science)
Nutrient pollution in the bay also caused algae to grow on the aquatic vegetation itself, further blocking it from needed sunlight. (Courtesy University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science)

Aquatic grasses making a comeback in the Chesapeake Bay. (Courtesy University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science)
Aquatic grasses making a comeback in the Chesapeake Bay. (Courtesy University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science)

The Virginia Department of Health hasn’t said exactly where the man contracted the bacteria, but a representative told The Washington Post it happened in the health department's eastern region, which includes Virginia’s Northern Neck and tidewater areas that feed into the lower Chesapeake Bay. (Courtesy University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science)
Aquatic grasses making a comeback in the Chesapeake Bay. The underwater vegetation is seen in the Susquehanna Flats near Havre de Grace. (Courtesy University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science)

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For years, nutrient pollution had fueled the growth of algae, blocking the sun from reaching the aquatic grasses on the bottom of the bay. (Courtesy University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science)
The underwater grasses are considered ecologically important because they provide a habitat for baby crabs and other creatures and helpe protect shorelines. (Courtesy University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science)
Nurtrient pollution in the bay also caused algae to grow on the aquatic vegetation itself, further blocking it from needed sunlight. (Courtesy University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science)
Aquatic grasses making a comeback in the Chesapeake Bay. (Courtesy University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science)
The Virginia Department of Health hasn’t said exactly where the man contracted the bacteria, but a representative told The Washington Post it happened in the health department's eastern region, which includes Virginia’s Northern Neck and tidewater areas that feed into the lower Chesapeake Bay. (Courtesy University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science)

The center attributes the resurgence to specific efforts to reduce what’s known as nutrient pollution — essentially an overdose of nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater and runoff that enters coastal waters. The nutrients fuel the growth of algae on the water’s surface, which blocks sunlight from reaching the bay grasses below.

Researchers analyzed 30 years of data on land use, fertilizer application and land runoff in the Chesapeake Bay area. Since 1984, nitrogen concentrations in the water have fallen by 23 percent and phosphorus concentrations by 8 percent, thanks to long-term efforts by federal, state and local agencies to reduce nutrient pollution in the bay.

The study was published March 5 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Aquatic grass is considered ecologically important because it provides a habitat for baby crabs and other creatures, protects shorelines and reduces erosion.

The underwater vegetation is also what’s known as a sentinel species — a natural early warning system of ecological damage.

“We’re been calling these grasses our coastal canaries, the things that are most sensitive to water quality degradation, and the things we have to watch as long-term indicators of these water quality situations,” said Bill Dennison, vice president of the environmental science center.

Still, the Chesapeake Bay still has room to improve. Last spring, the center released its annual report card on the bay’s overall ecological health, which assessed a C grade. That’s up from failing grades for several years.

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.


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