Underwater Grasses Surge in the Chesapeake Bay

This is the kind of grass you don’t want to cut back or pull out. Virginia and Maryland officials are reporting record amounts of underwater grasses in the Chesapeake Bay and they’re thrilled.

The Virginia Institute of Marine Science says grasses in 2015 were up 21% over 2014. In case you’re wondering that’s about 91,621 acres of Bay grasses now. The biggest yield in about 30 years.

But, the Chesapeake Bay Program thinks the right amount of grasses should be about twice that.

“Clearly, we are on the right path,” says Nick DiPasquale, Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program. “And just as clearly, we must continue our efforts if we are to succeed.”

Scientists say the growth could be due to cleaner water. Or it could be due to warmer water.

VIMS Researcher in tank full of underwater grasses
VIMS scientist combs through underwater grasses taken from the Lower Chesapeake Bay (Photo courtesy Virginia Institute of Marine Science)

The ‘wow’ factor in the growth of underwater grasses wasn’t just down south.

The biggest surprise was with the growth of wild celery and other species in the fresher waters of the upper Bay. It was helped by the continued expansion of widgeon grass in the moderately salty waters of the mid-Bay, and a modest recovery of eelgrass in the very salty waters of the lower Bay.

“Be it freshwater wild celery or mid-Bay widgeon grass, submerged aquatic vegetation would not expand so rapidly and into areas where it hasn’t been mapped before if water quality wasn’t improving, ” says Brooke Landry, a natural resources biologist with Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources and chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Workgroup.

In 2015, local highlights included:
  • Elk River rocked the grasses — “Grass beds in the Elk River suffered a severe crash after Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee hit the region in 2011. In 2015, the grass beds in this northeastern Maryland river were on track for a full recovery. While beds were not as dense as those seen in the river in 2010, field observations showed that some were larger and more diverse than previously observed and surpassed the river’s restoration target. Wild celery, whose seeds pods and roots offer food to migrating waterfowl, was the dominant species detected,” according to the VIMS report.
  • Choptank River isn’t far behind — “Although SAV abundance in the Choptank River also decreased significantly from 2011 to 2012, aerial imagery revealed 4,000 acres of grasses in the waterway by 2014. By 2015, this number increased 50% to 6,000 acres. The VIMS aerial survey also revealed a small, never-before-reported band of underwater grasses in the tidal freshwater portion of the river last summer.”

The type of grasses found in the Chesapeake Bay;

Celery grass (Photo courtesy NOAA) Chesapeake Bay widgeon grass (Photo courtesy Bay Journal) Eelgrass meadow (Photo courtesy Virginia Institute of Marine Science) Closeup of eelgrass in the Lower Chesapeake Bay (Photo courtesy VIMS) This is what the underwater grasses look like outside the water (Photo courtesy VIMS) One one of animals that live off underwater grasses Critters (ampithoids) that thrive in the underway grass, which provide food for fish (Photo courtesy VIMS) Lower Chesapeake Bay grassy area (Photo courtesy VIMS)
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Critters (ampithoids) that thrive in the underway grass, which provide food for fish (Photo courtesy VIMS)
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