Tag Archives: Chesapeake Bay

Restoring hope in the Chesapeake Bay

John Smith, Jacques Cousteau, Rachel Carson. People have long recognized the significance of the Chesapeake Bay: it is the largest estuary in the nation, a corridor for migrating American shad and striped bass, a nursery for juvenile fish and blue crab, and the birthplace of Old Bay Seasoning.

In the early 1980s, people also recognized that pollution and mismanagement were having a significant impact on this system. The underwater grasses that provide oxygen, absorb nutrients, and feed and shelter fish were becoming sparse; populations of crab, shad, and bass were plummeting; there wasn’t much for Old Bay to season anymore.

In response, Congress appropriated funding to create the Chesapeake Bay Program, a partnership that has led collaborative restoration and protection efforts in the watershed since 1983, and has gradually been moving the needle in the right direction for the fish, wildlife, and people who depend upon this system. Remember those sparse underwater grasses? Their extent has nearly tripled in the last 35 years.


Underwater grasses play a vital role in the health of the bay — providing oxygen, absorbing excess nutrients, trapping sediment, and sheltering the iconic blue crab. Photo: FWS

The bay received another boost in July 2019, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) released The Chesapeake Bay Comprehensive Plan and Restoration Roadmap, developed with support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and states, to help partners in the Chesapeake identify the most strategic places for cross-cutting restoration actions to support the long-term health of the watershed.

Places like Tangier Sound, Mobjack Bay, and the Choptank River, which caught Chris Guy’s attention because it flows through his home state of Maryland before draining into the Bay.

“The Choptank came out as a priority, and now the Corps has identified sites in the tributaries where they can say: If all you have is $1 for restoration, that’s where you want to spend it,” said Guy, Branch Chief for Conservation Planning and Assistance at the Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office.


The Choptank River, the longest on the Delmarva peninsula, is one of the places that was identified as a priority area for restoring tidal wetlands. Photo: NOAA

Those investments are backed by more than 200 stakeholders who contributed to the plan, including representatives from every Service field office and state wildlife agency within the watershed.

“We focused on identifying places where partners could get the most habitat restoration and conservation benefits based on the goals and outcomes outlined in the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Agreement,” explained Alicia Logalbo, Chief of the Norfolk District’s Environmental Analysis Section for the Corps, who coordinated the development of the plan.

The Bay Program created the 2014 agreement as a way of tracking progress in the restoration effort. It focuses on 10 overarching goals related to biodiversity, clean water, climate resiliency, conservation, and community engagement. Given that those goals can be approached through a multitude of different sites, actions, and initiatives, the fundamental question became, where are the best places to start?

“There are many restoration opportunities, but we wanted to get that down to a manageable amount and also identify those opportunities that optimize multiple Bay Agreement goals and outcomes,” said Logalbo. “We wanted to take those broad goals and opportunities and put them on the map.”


The Service’s restoration priorities focus on supporting fish and wildlife throughout their ranges. For example, identifying aquatic barriers for American eels, which must migrate from freshwater to the ocean to spawn. Photo: FWS

As the Service’s liaison to the Corps, Guy explained, “My role was to communicate what is important to U.S. Fish & Wildlife.” Naturally, fish and wildlife were a top priority — “endangered species, species of concern, migratory birds” — but so were landscape characteristics that can support species throughout their ranges, like aquatic connectivity. “We want to be able to say this culvert in this stream is blocking eels,” said Guy.

The Corps synthesized and analyzed information from the Service and states to understand what partners wanted to sustain at what level, and what threats or barriers were keeping that from happening. But there were still some gaps in the data, so they turned to Nature’s Network — a collaborative effort to identify the best opportunities for conserving and connecting intact habitats and ecosystems across the entire 13-state Northeast region.

“We looked at a lot of factors for prioritization in the watershed, like development threats and stream restoration potential, but we wanted to be able to optimize for wildlife,” said Logalbo.

The imperiled species layer from Nature’s Network offered spatially explicit information about the location of the most important habitat for fish and wildlife species, and the connectivity analysis helped them understand how to ensure that habitat could be fully utilized as part of a functioning network.


The bog turtle is considered imperiled in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and is one of thousands of species whose habitat needs are incorporated into Nature’s Network. Photo: FWS

“I think regional information really helps you focus,” she said, “You can fine tune it with local information or field visits, but regional perspective gives you the broad brush to optimize, and then zoom into important areas you can verify.”

Areas like the Choptank, where the plan has already started a conservation dialogue.

After the river emerged as important in the analysis, the Corps approached Guy for his perspective on reviving a number of projects that had been identified in the Choptank years ago but had fallen by the wayside.

“They asked, are these still good projects? Which ones would you like to see happen?” said Guy.

More than just suggesting the best starting places for restoration, the plan is already providing a vehicle for moving forward.

Beyond the storm: science for managing our changing coast

There is a silver lining to every storm cloud, and to many coastal sites in the North Atlantic region, too.

Consider Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, established as a sanctuary for migratory birds because of the vast expanse of contiguous saltmarsh habitat encompassed within. A study conducted by Salisbury University revealed that between 1938 and 2006, the Refuge lost over 5,000 acres of that marsh to land subsidence, erosion, and sea-level rise. That’s equivalent to more than a third of Manhattan.

“It hasn’t gotten any better since then,” notes Matt Whitbeck, Supervisory Wildlife Biologist at Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Complex, which includes Blackwater. For the communities of people and wildlife that rely on those tidal wetlands for food, shelter, and quality of life, the forecast probably looks pretty gloomy.

Supervisory Wildlife Biologist at the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex Matt Whitbeck explains that sustaining marsh habitat into the future means planning for change. Photo: Steve Droter

But hark, is that a bright spot on the horizon? “That study also shows that as sea levels rose, nearly 3,000 acres of upland at Blackwater converted to new tidal marsh,” explains Whitbeck.

That’s because Blackwater has both the physical space and functional processes, like inputs of sediment and freshwater, needed for marsh habitat to migrate inland. And it’s not the only bright spot. In a new study supported by Hurricane Sandy Resilience Funding, scientists from The Nature Conservancy (TNC) identified thousands of other coastal sites that have the potential to migrate, and in doing so, to offset more than 50 percent of the total predicted tidal habitat loss in the region.

TNC calls these places “coastal strongholds.” I call them silver linings.

The final product is called Identifying Resilient Coastal Sites for Conservation, and offers a resource for managers working at any scale to make strategic decisions toward helping coastal systems and communities adapt to changing conditions. The report and data are available to download from TNC’s Conservation Gateway, and will soon be rolled into the Nature’s Network conservation design to refine existing information on opportunities to maintain regional connections and connect tidal marshes to adjacent uplands.

A range of species, including saltmarsh sparrow and blue crab, depend on healthy saltmarsh habitat. People do too. Photos: FWS

“Because of the rate of change we are seeing in the Chesapeake Bay — where sea level rise is twice the global average — we need to think not only about where habitats are now, but where they are going in the future,” explains Whitbeck.

To his credit, he has been thinking about that for years. In 2011, Whitbeck partnered with The Conservation Fund, Audubon Maryland – DC, and the Chesapeake Conservancy to develop a strategy for salt marsh persistence at Blackwater.

But he says TNC’s tool represents a “huge step” forward. “It reinforces what we found in our study, but it also expands upon it, and can help us work across borders with new partners.”

A collaborative approach is critical for Refuges to meet their mandates for protecting fish and wildlife, and for ensuring that neighboring communities continue to benefit from functioning natural systems. Blackwater provides habitat for at-risk species like saltmarsh sparrow and Delmarva fox squirrel, and a nursery for species like blue crab that support the Chesapeake Bay’s economically and culturally important fishing industry.

The Refuge also provides a buffer against destructive storm surges that threaten infrastructure and public safety. TNC’s study is a call to action for protecting the marsh habitat we depend upon, but it also offers strategic guidance for how to do so effectively and efficiently.

“Although the study confirms that the Chesapeake Bay is seeing a great deal of marsh loss, it also shows that this system can be resilient moving forward if we plan right,” says Whitbeck.

And nowadays, planning “right” requires planning for change.

“When I was in school, pre-colonial conditions were the gold standard for land management. What was it like a few hundred years ago? That’s what we want to bring it back to,” remembers Whitbeck. “The lesson at Blackwater is that we have to let that go and think dynamically about maintaining a suite of habitats and ecosystem services across an entire landscape, and this tool can help us do that.”

The new gold standard might be to look for the silver lining.

Putting conservation on the map in the Chesapeake Bay watershed

Last month, my boyfriend and I were driving west on I-88 in New York on our way to Ithaca to visit friends when we passed a sign announcing: “Entering Chesapeake Bay Watershed.”


All roads lead to conservation on a new prioritization map for the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Credit: Ian Hutchinson/Upstatenyroads.com

Talk about a sense of place. One second we were just cruising along a rural freeway in what felt like the middle of nowhere (actually, it was Worcester, N.Y.), and then suddenly we were part of a six-state watershed that drains 64,000 square miles into one of the most productive estuaries in the world. When we stopped at a rest area a few minutes later, the sound of the toilet flushing had a whole new significance.

Context allows you to zoom out to see where you fit into the big picture, and that change in perspective can be empowering. But when coupled with information, context can also help you zoom in on local decisions that help keep the big picture intact.

Thanks to a collaborative effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Coordination Office and their partners, conservation practitioners in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed have a lot more than road signs for guidance.

This spring, the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership completed a watershed-wide map of conservation priorities created cooperatively by federal agencies, state agencies, and non-governmental organizations across the six-state region.

Developed with technical support from the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC) and the Chesapeake Conservancy, the map uses data from the Nature’s Network conservation design. Nature’s Network reflects habitat needs for thousands of vulnerable species identified in State Wildlife Action Plans from Maine to Virginia, as well as for important game species like American black duck.

Looking at the map, I discovered that the rest area where we stopped on I-88 is within an “Aquatic Buffer” — an area that is upslope and upstream of high-quality river reaches, lakes, and ponds, and has a strong influence on the integrity of these aquatic systems. Neat.


The Chesapeake Bay watershed map displays a network of priority areas for conservation based on data from Nature’s Network on intact habitat and ecosystems that can support the needs of fish, wildlife, and people into the future.

People involved in resource management and community planning across the Chesapeake region can discover more things like this when exploring the interactive map. That’s because the map integrates information on the highest priorities for sustaining natural resources and benefits determined by six goal teams nested within the Chesapeake Bay Program.

“There are teams focusing on sustainable fisheries, vital habitats, water quality, healthy watersheds, stewardships, and partnerships,” explained Kristin Saunders, the Bay Program’s Cross-Program Coordinator.  “Each team works toward specific outcomes, ranging from brook trout habitat, to land use methods, to environmental literacy.”

This map is the critical next step for making progress: finding the best places to take action where it will yield the most benefits.

For Saunders, the map brings opportunities for collaboration into focus. “It allows us to see where priorities overlap — information we can use to answer specific management questions, like, where is there existing capacity to do fish passage work?” she said.

“Where multiple priorities align, partners see places they hadn’t thought about working before.”

Partners like Steve Reeser, a District Fisheries Biologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and a member of the Bay Program’s Brook Trout Action Team. “Let’s say we want to focus on conservation easements in areas of important habitat for brook trout,” he said. “This gives us a way to narrow down to the highest priorities.”


The visualization tools help partners find the best opportunities to take actions to support species like Eastern brook trout that are sensitive to changes in water quality and temperature.

After a pause, Reeser added, “For that matter, it gives any group that is interested in brook trout conservation a place to start.”

And that’s what Saunders sees as most exciting about this tool. More than just aligning major players in conservation in the watershed, it gives others a lens to see where they fit into the regional conservation picture.

“Folks who live in the upper reaches of the watershed have had less incentive to focus on water quality issues in the Bay even though those same issues affect them,” she explained. “This map gives us another way to talk to people who haven’t felt connected to our work in the past.”

Bringing more people into the conservation allows partners to leverage resources through mutually beneficial projects, like protecting aquatic buffer areas around Schenevus Creek in Worcester, N.Y., because it will provide flood control for communities in the area, but also because it will increase water quality downstream.

That’s not only inclusive, it’s cost effective. Jennifer Greiner, Chesapeake Bay Liaison with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, pointed out, “By honing in on places where actions can make the most difference, we can maximize return on conservation investments and help communities make decisions that meet multiple objectives efficiently.”

For people living, working, and playing across this region — from the upper reaches of the Susquehanna River to mouth of the James River — all roads on the Chesapeake Bay watershed prioritization map lead to a brighter conservation future.