2016 State of the Bay Report

As the Chesapeake Bay Foundation celebrates its 50th anniversary, we are happy to also celebrate definitive progress being made in efforts to Save the Bay. Our 2016 State of the Bay report presents some great news—the Bay is improving! We're pleased to report that this year's score is the highest since we issued the first State of the Bay 18 years ago.

Each of the three indicator categories—pollution, habitat, and fisheries—has improved. The iconic blue crab score leapt the most dramatically. The bottom line is our report provides hope and promise for the future.

We believe the Bay is reaching a tipping point. As this report shows, the evidence is there. We are seeing the clearest water in decades, regrowth of acres of lush underwater grass beds, and the comeback of the Chesapeake's native oysters, which were nearly eradicated by disease, pollution, and overfishing.

The progress reflected in our report shows that the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, established in 2010, is working. Its strategy of states writing their own plans for restoration with federal support is working. As positive as our report is, it is also important to note that the Bay is not saved yet and that progress is not consistent throughout the region. In particular, Pennsylvania lags far behind its pollution-reduction goals.

Indeed, there continue to be opportunities for improvement.

If we are to see this progress continue, the states on track must stay the course, and those off track jurisdictions must accelerate their work.

It is now 2017—the year when 60 percent of programs to achieve the Blueprint's pollution-reduction targets are to be in place. While that will be a heavy lift, it is imperative for all 18 million of us who live in the Bay watershed to keep the pressure on.

Our elected and appointed leaders need to do everything possible to succeed. The fate of one of our nation's most beautiful and economically significant national treasures is at stake.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's State of the Bay report examines the best available historical and current information for 13 indicators in three categories: pollution, habitat, and fisheries. CBF scientists then assign each indicator an index score between 1 and 100. Taken together, these indicators offer an assessment of the Chesapeake's health.

Progress is compared against the last State of the Bay report, published by CBF in 2014.

The following are excerpts from the 2016 State of the Bay indicator summaries. For the complete report, download the PDF file.

POLLUTION

INDICATORS: Nitrogen & Phosphorus, Dissolved Oxygen, Water Clarity, Toxics

Four of the five pollution indicators—nitrogen, phosphorus, dissolved oxygen, and water clarity—are improved. One held steady—toxins—and none declined. Over all, the water quality indicators improved by about 10 percent over the most recent, 2014, report and there has been continued improvement since 2008.

Nitrogen: 17
(+1 from 2014)

Phosphorus: 28
(+3 from 2014)

NITROGEN & PHOSPHORUS

  • Bay-wide nitrogen and phosphorus pollution decreased since 2014. While partly a reflection of less-than-average precipitation, it is also an indication that improvements in managing stormwater runoff from farms, lawns, and roads may be having a positive impact.
  • Long-term trends in nitrogen pollution at monitoring stations on the nine main rivers feeding the Bay indicate conditions are improving.
  • Phosphorous reduction trends are not as rosy, with only three monitoring stations showing improvement and five showing degrading conditions (one station had no trend).

Dissolved Oxygen: 40
(+3 from 2014)

DISSOLVED OXYGEN

  • Analysis of the size and extent of the dead zone (areas in the Bay of no or low dissolved oxygen) during the summer of 2016 suggests reasons for optimism about the Bay's recovery.
  • The summers of 2015 and 2016 are the only ones on record since 1985 to have no recorded summertime anoxia (defined as a dissolved oxygen concentration of less than 0.2 milligrams per liter). This trend, if real, will be very good news for ecosystem recovery.
  • The overall size of the dead zone remained average—a possible sign of increased resilience.

Water Clarity: 20
(+2 from 2014)

WATER CLARITY

  • The last two summers' improving water clarity provide visible signs of Bay recovery. In 2016, water clarity at most monitoring stations was above average through June.
  • Conditions are still far from what is needed for a healthy Bay. Suspended sediments and algal blooms, some of them toxic, fueled by nitrogen and phosphorus pollution are at levels that reduce water continue to cause problems for underwater grasses and filter feeders such as oysters.

Toxics: 28
(no change from 2014)

TOXICS

  • Despite the commitment made in the 2014 Chesapeake Watershed Agreement to ensuring the Bay and its rivers are free of the effects of toxic contaminants, progress is slow and new reports document additional threats.

  • In 2015, Pennsylvania released a report that identified herbicides and endocrine-disrupting chemicals as likely causes of the smallmouth bass decline in the Susquehanna River.

  • A recent review by scientists warned of the dangers of "microplastics" (small plastic particles) both within the Chesapeake Bay and globally. The threats are largely unknown, but their persistence and prevalence in the Bay, and beyond, is disturbing. On the positive side, recent federal and state (Maryland) legislation restricts the use of micro-beads (small particles added to toothpaste, facial scrubs, and even fleece clothing).

  • Studies have shown that many practices that help reduce nutrient and sediment pollution can also reduce runoff of toxic chemicals.

The State of the Chesapeake Bay is improving. Slowly, but improving. What we can control—pollution entering our waterways—is getting better. But, the Bay is far from saved. Our 2016 report confirms that the Chesapeake and its rivers and streams remain a system dangerously out of balance, a system in crisis. If we don't keep making progress—even accelerate progress—we will continue to have polluted water, human health risks, and declining economic benefits—at huge societal costs.

Back to Top

HABITAT

INDICATORS: Forested Buffers, Wetlands, Underwater Grasses, Resource Lands

Reductions in pollution resulted in greater abundance of underwater grasses, a trend that may be one of the clearest signs that the Bay is on the road to recovery. However, overall improvement to habitat in the Bay region continues to be slow. The indicator score for forested buffers declined for the first time since we began issuing the State of the Bay report. Wetlands and resource lands remain unchanged.

Forested Buffers: 57
(-1 from 2014)

FORESTED BUFFERS

  • For the first time, we have lowered the score for forest buffers—those strips of trees near waterways that protect them from soil erosion and other pollutants. Stalled buffer implementation and a recent CBF analysis indicating the region is losing buffers account for the declining score.
  • The most recent data reveals that, despite federal and state commitments, forest buffer plantings were the lowest in the last 16 years. The states planted only about 440 streamside acres (versus a Clean Water Blueprint goal of 14,000 acres annually) along the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams. The lack of progress is alarming.

Wetlands: 42
(no change from 2014)

WETLANDS

  • Tidal and non-tidal wetlands are among the most important natural resources in the Chesapeake Bay region, providing valuable wildlife habitat and acting as natural filters.
  • The most recent data suggests the states have achieved only 10 percent of their goal to restore 85,000 acres of wetlands by 2025.
  • Tidal wetlands are particularly vulnerable to sea level rise and, thus, among the most threatened natural resources in the Chesapeake. In this region, sea level has risen three times faster during the past two decades than the worldwide average

Underwater Grasses: 24
(+2 from 2014)

UNDERWATER GRASSES

  • Underwater grass beds are critical to the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay, providing habitat for fish and crabs, adding oxygen to the water, helping remove pollutants from the water, and trapping sediment. Abundance of underwater grasses is a good indicator of water quality because grasses need clear water and sunlight to survive and thrive.
  • This year's increased score reflects the continued resurgence of underwater grasses in the Bay and its tidal rivers and may be one of the clearest signs that the Bay is on the road to recovery.
  • Between 2014 and 2015, underwater grasses increased by 21 percent to 91,621 acres. This represents the highest value in the last three decades and the highest ever-recorded by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science's annual aerial survey.

Resource Lands: 32
(no change from 2014)

RESOURCE LANDS

  • There is good and bad news in resource lands, leading to the score not changing.
    Good news:
    • Most recent data from 2014 demonstrate a slight slowdown in environmentally damaging development, with some urban areas seeing increases in redevelopment rather than new development.
    • There was an overall gain of more than a half million forested acres between 2007 and 2014 in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.
    • Virginia gained 127,000 acres of forested land in 2013 and 2014, and permanently preserved 40,000 acres of forest and farmland in 2015.
    Bad news:
    • Since 2012, development has continued to increase and much of it is spreading out in an environmentally damaging way.
    • Pennsylvania lost 100,000 forested acres between 2013 and 2015.
    • The annual protection of resource lands has continued a downward slide in Maryland. In 2015, the state added only 6,388 acres of protected lands compared to 25,000 in 2010; 19,500 in 2012; and 8,928 in 2013.

Back to Top

FISHERIES

INDICATORS: Rockfish, Blue Crabs, Oysters, Shad

We are seeing positive signs for all four fisheries, particularly for blue crabs, which increased by 10 points. Shad, rockfish, and oysters have also increased, butthe very best, science-based fisheries management is integral to their long-term health and success.

Rockfish: 66
(+2 from 2014)

ROCKFISH

  • The coast-wide rockfish (striped bass) population appears to have stabilized after a ten-year decline that was documented in 2013.
  • States tightened their fishing rules in 2015, resulting in a 23 percent reduction in rockfish catch. These new rules should boost the spawning potential of the population as originally intended.
  • Three quarters of the rockfish caught along the Atlantic Coast are spawned in the Chesapeake Bay. Challenging conditions in the Bay, including poor water quality and low numbers of menhaden, often lead to serious disease. Fewer rockfish survive their years in the Bay as a result, so improvements in water quality and menhaden management should lead to more rockfish.

Blue Crabs: 55
(+10 from 2014)

BLUE CRABS

  • The total number of crabs has increased dramatically since 2014, from 297 to 553 million, as estimated from the annual winter survey. This number reflects a more resilient population because all categories—males, females, and juveniles—increased.
  • Numbers of adult crabs have roughly tripled since 2014, helped by better winter survival and continued management of crabbing activities. The recent improvement may also be related to expanded grass beds seen in the Bay in 2014 and 2015.
  • The increase in mature female crabs pushed their numbers closer to the level that managers have set as the target population level for the Bay. The population will need to reach and maintain that level for several years before it can be considered healthy.

Oysters: 10
(+2 from 2014)

OYSTERS

  • Oyster harvests exceeded one million bushels in 2015—the first time in 30 years —but they started dropping again in 2016. Good oyster reproduction in 2010 and 2012 increased the number of oysters on public bars, but their numbers didn't last due to greater harvest pressure from watermen.
  • There are no scientific estimates of the number of oysters Baywide, but the scale of ongoing restoration has led to increasing numbers in sanctuaries closed to harvest.
  • In Harris Creek, the first tributary targeted for large-scale restoration in Maryland, all planted bars met the desired oyster density.
  • If protected from harvest indefinitely, oysters in sanctuaries will slowly rebuild the three-dimensional reefs once common in the Bay, providing additional water filtering and habitat benefits and helping repopulate other areas through natural reproduction.

Shad: 11
(+2 from 2014)

SHAD

  • The return of shad to the Susquehanna River improved slightly in 2016 as did the number of juveniles hatched in the river.
  • A new agreement to improve fish passage at the Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna holds great promise, after 15 years of poor returns of shad to the dam.
  • The James River has seen improved returns in recent years due to consistent efforts to restock with hatchery-reared young.
  • Maryland's juvenile fish survey documented a record number of baby shad in 2015, driven primarily by numbers in the Potomac River.
  • Recovery will continue to be slow until the accidental catch of shad in other large-scale ocean-fishing operations is controlled.

Back to Top

CONCLUSION

The good news is that we are on the right path. The State of the Chesapeake Bay is improving. Slowly, but improving. The Clean Water Blueprint for the Chesapeake and its rivers and streams is working.What we can control—pollution entering our waterways—is getting better.

But, the Bay is far from saved. Our 2016 report confirms that the Chesapeake and its rivers and streams remain a system dangerously out of balance, a system in crisis. If we don't keep making progress—even accelerate progress—we will continue to have polluted water, human health risks, and declining economic benefits—at huge societal costs.

All of us, including our elected officials, need to stay focused on the Blueprint, push harder, and keep moving forward. Our environment, our economy, and our health depend on it. Saving the Bay and restoring local water quality will not just benefit us; clean water will benefit our children and all future generations.

FULL IMPLEMENTATION OF THE BLUEPRINT MAKES GOOD ECONOMIC AND ENVIRONMENTAL SENSE

Decades of Success: The 1970s

Even as a young organization, our work was effective and got noticed. Find out what we did.

Explore Our Timeline

Volunteer

Do you enjoy working with others to help clean the Chesapeake Bay? Do you have a few hours to spare? Whether growing oysters, planting trees, or helping in our offices, there are plenty of ways you can contribute.

Volunteer