ANNAPOLIS — While scientists are seeing a depletion of Bay grasses, some watermen are seeing a season flush with grasses on their trotlines.

The 2019 Bay grasses assessment released by the Chesapeake Bay Program Wednesday, July 8, found a 38% decline in grasses between 2018-19.

However, Jeff Harrison, president of the Talbot Watermen Association, said, “That must be from last year. We see the opposite (this year). There’s loads of grass.”

Beth McGee, Chesapeake Bay Foundation director of science and agricultural policy, issued a warning.

“The significant loss of Bay grasses this year is a sobering reminder that the Chesapeake Bay is still a system dangerously out of balance,” McGee said. “The extreme flows of polluted runoff that damaged the grasses are also a clear sign that climate change is threatening the Bay’s recovery. This setback should be a wakeup call that climate change and increasing pollution cannot be ignored.

“In addition to providing critical habitat for aquatic life, a recent study demonstrated that underwater grasses also help diminish the acidification of the Bay caused in part by the burning of fossil fuels,” McGee said. “Acidic water threatens the health of fish and shellfish. The study showed that Bay grasses can act as a ‘Tums’ to help alleviate acidification.”

Waterman Mark Connolly of Wittman said he’s “seeing some grasses, not not like what I have seen in the past.”

But location may be a factor. “It’s a mess on our trot lines,” Harrison said. “We have got a lot of grass. We are seeing more than the last two years.”

According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, underwater grasses — also known as submerged aquatic vegetation or SAV — “are critical to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. They keep our waters clean by absorbing excess nutrients, trapping suspended sediment and slowing wave action that helps to stabilize shorelines, protect wetlands and reduce erosion.

“Bay grasses also provide food for small invertebrates and migratory waterfowl and habitat for fish and blue crabs. In fact, Bay grass abundance is one of several factors that can impact the health and stability of the blue crab population: the loss of these grasses is a loss of nursery habitat which can increase their vulnerability by pushing young crabs to gather in the limited nurseries that remain.”

High water temperatures, turbulence from strong storms and drought can also affect the growth and survival of underwater grass beds.

The 2020 Blue Crab Advisory Report found that the overall blue crab population in the Bay decreased from 594 million in 2019 to 405 million in 2020. While this marks a 31% decrease from the previous year, experts report the overall Chesapeake Bay blue crab population is not depleted or being overfished.

According to a July 8 report in the Bay Journal, “Grasses are considered one of the most important indictors of Bay health because they require clear water to survive. They are important habitat for waterfowl, juvenile blue crabs and many types of fish. They are also a critical component of the ecosystem in their own right, pumping oxygen into the water, trapping sediment and buffering shorelines from the erosive impact of waves.”

“The good news is that many of the Bay’s tributaries stood up well against the high flows and associated sediment and nutrient runoff from 2018 and 2019, and SAV acreage even continued to expand in some. But there’s still much more work to do in order to mitigate unpredictable impacts from climate change,” the Chesapeake Bay Program’s press release stated.

“While it is disappointing to see a decline in SAV acreage this past year, I also see this as an opportunity to refocus our efforts on the restoration and protection of SAV beds,” said Elle Bassett, Miles-Wye Riverkeeper, ShoreRivers. “SAV plays a critical role in our local waterways and in the fight for swimmable, fishable rivers. We have the capability to reach our SAV acreage by improving water quality and being better stewards of our land.”

Connolly said the effort to protect Bay grasses limiting the few clammers who are working Bay and river bottom. “Putting SAV buoys up (in Brannock Bay in Dorchester County) is messing up clammers because it’s moving SAV lines into their areas. From the buoy to the shore, you’re not allowed to do anything.”

He said that in 20 years he’s “never seen a spit of grass” in that traditional clamming bottom. But now measures are being put in place to extend boundaries where there is no grass “and never has been grass,” he said.

Bay Journal Editor Karl Blankenship and Star Democrat Managing Editor Connie Connolly contributed to this story.

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