Chesapeake Bay Foundation gives media first-hand look at bay

John A Pavoncello
York Dispatch

The clouds were breaking as a group of journalists from southern Pennsylvania climbed aboard Snow Goose, a Chesapeake Bay workboat traditionally used for harvesting crabs and oysters.

Fishermen spend the early morning hours casting in the upper Chesapeake Bay where the Susquehanna River flows in at Havre de Grace, MD, Wednesday, April 12, 2017. Clearing waters, increased underwater grasses and a decreased dead zone mean more fish.  John A. Pavoncello photo

As guests of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a conservation organization with the sole purpose of saving the bay, the journalists listened to a safety briefing by Ian Robbins, captain of the Goose and educator, before the boat launched from Havre de Grace, Maryland, to take a trip into the mouth of the Susquehanna River. Along the way, passengers saw seagulls, nesting ospreys, double-crested cormorants and a few bald eagles.

Reaching a pre-determined spot along the Susquehanna, Robbins cut the engines, and the education on the state of the bay started.

The Chesapeake Bay Agreement, a blueprint to restoring the bay, was signed in 1983, with the support of President Ronald Reagan and the Environmental Protection Agency. In the 34 years since, led by a regional partnership, the Chesapeake Bay Program, much work has been done.

In the 2016 State of the Bay report, the CBF rated the bay's health at C minus, up from the D plus in 2014 but still far from acceptable.

Rockfish populations stabilized after a 10-year decline, and the number of blue crabs grew from 297 million in 2014 to 553 million in 2016. Oysters exceeded one million bushels for the first time in 30 years.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation educators Albert Leavell, left, and Angelica Willis look to see if they can determine the sex of a white perch caught during a media a tour of the upper bay and lower Susquehanna River, Wednesday, April 12, 2017.  John A. Pavoncello photo

Much of that progress occurred because the EPA provided about $73 million annually to the project, which encompasses efforts of six states — including Pennsylvania — and Washington, D.C., to coordinate science, research and cleanup efforts, in addition to grants to state and local governments for reducing pollution.

President Donald Trump's budget proposal calls for cutting the EPA's funding by more than 30 percent, including the complete elimination of the Chesapeake Bay Program.

Harry Campbell, executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Pennsylvania, has said he was shocked when he learned about Trump's proposal.

"This program has been a model of state and federal cooperation," he said when the budget proposal was announced. "It's working to provide real and tangible returns for cleaner water."

Aboard the Snow Goose, CBF educator Albert Leavell, skipjack program coordinator, talked about sub-aquatic grasses. A 1937 aerial survey showed nearly 200,000 acres of submerged grass beds growing in the bay.

"By 1984, we went down to about 37,000 acres of submerged aquatic vegetation," Leavell said. The aquatic grasses filter the water and provide habitat for blue crabs and spawning and feeding habitat for fish.

The Chesapeake Bay Program made it a goal, at that point, to replenish the bay to 150,000 acres of vegetation, he said.

From 1984 to 2000, the vegetation increased to about 78,000 acres, then the growth slowed to a stop for several years, Leavell said.

And then, between 2014 to 2015 it suddenly increased to 91,000 acres, "which is like a 22 percent increase in a year," Leavell said.

Most of the EPA funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program is distributed as grants for state and county agencies and nonprofits, which then support farmers and municipalities in designing and installing measures to cut down on polluted runoff.  The program also provides fundamental support for water-quality monitoring of rivers and streams feeding the bay. 

William Baker, CBF president, says cutting the EPA budget "makes no sense."

"We are in disbelief," he said in a news release. "The EPA's role in this cleanup is nothing less than fundamental. It's not just important, it is critical."