After decades of effort, the voluntary, collaborative approach to restoring the health and vitality of the Chesapeake Bay— the largest estuary in the United States—has not worked and, in fact, is failing. A diverse group of 57 senior scientists and policymakers have joined forces to save the Bay. This is our plan.

Why Chesapeake Bay is the Best Studied Estuary in the World

(Posted by Bill Dennison)

Chesapeake Bay is one of the best studied coastal regions on the globe.  There are several reasons for this intensive research effort.  1) Chesapeake Bay has and continues to be incredibly productive in terms of fisheries resources (particularly crabs, oysters and fish).  2) Chesapeake Bay is one of the largest estuaries in the world, providing extended gradients between freshwater and marine conditions, thus providing a good model system globally.  3) The proximity of Chesapeake Bay to large population centers and associated academic and governmental research institutions makes it available to many researchers.  4) The intense pressures on Chesapeake Bay has presented a series of environmental challenges that require scientific research to document and help solve these problems.  There are more graduate student theses, research publications, scientific reports, books, and fundamental paradigms about estuarine and environmental science developed in Chesapeake Bay than anywhere else.

This intense research effort is due to a long history of Chesapeake Bay research, which can be described in four phases.  These phases are a) Estuarine Science, b) Eutrophication Science, c) Science Coordination, d) Environmental Accountability, described below.

Estuarine Science phase (1925-1972). The first state marine laboratory, Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, was founded in 1925 by Dr. Reginald Truitt from the University of Maryland, which has developed into the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.  The Virginia Fisheries Laboratory was founded in 1940 and is now the College of William and Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Johns Hopkins University created the Chesapeake Bay Institute in 1949 (since dissolved). Drs. Eugene Cronin, Bill Hargis and Don Pritchard, the respective directors of these institutions, led teams of scientists who described the basic physics, chemistry, biology and geology of estuaries. The scientific society Atlantic Estuarine Research Society was created in 1950, and after other regions emulated this regional society, the premier estuarine society was created in 1971; Estuarine Research Federation (now Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation). The scientific journal Chesapeake Science, started in 1960, eventually became Estuaries and Coasts.

Eutrophication Science phase (1972-1987). In 1972, a large flood associated with Hurricane Agnes delivered massive amounts of freshwater and sediments to Chesapeake Bay, breaking a drought period that extended throughout the 1960s.  There were a lot of ramifications of Hurricane Agnes, and the researchers throughout the Bay combined efforts to document the impacts.  In 1972, the

University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science was created (Horn Point Laboratory and Appalachian Laboratory added to Chesapeake Biological Laboratory).  The Environmental Protection Agency funded a large multi-disciplinary study on Chesapeake Bay in the 1970s and eutrophication issues like seagrass loss and nutrient cycling were studied.  The Chesapeake Bay Program, a federal partnership program led by the newly formed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was created and located in Annapolis in 1983, with an initial (and ongoing) focus on the eutrophication issue. Various other governmental and non-governmental organizations have been created to focus on management, advocacy and education, such as the Chesapeake Bay Commission, Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Alliance for Chesapeake Bay.

Science Coordination phase (1987-2003). This phase involved setting up and running a coordinated long term monitoring program, developing committees, subcommittees and working groups to manage activities, and the creation of Chesapeake Research Consortium to coordinate research activities by the various laboratories (which now included Old Dominion University, Smithsonian Institution’s Smithsonian Ecological Research Center).  The Bay continued to degrade, with chronic anoxia, seagrass losses, regular harmful algal blooms and fisheries declines.  The monitoring program developed in the phase provided rigorous documentation of key indicators of Chesapeake Bay health, including loads from the watershed and stream health indicators.

Environmental Accountability phase (2003-present). In 2003, a large storm surge from Hurricane Isobel and a very wet year resulted in major impacts to Chesapeake Bay.  In addition, the Integration and Application Network at UMCES was launched, focusing on science integration, communication, environmental reports and science application activities.  This phase has focused on developing environmental report cards, a new governance system for managing the Chesapeake related management response in Maryland called BayStat, and developing ecosystem based management programs for fisheries and other issues.  The Governmental Accountability Office and various Bay Program reviews have called for more transparent reporting, and the response has been to initiate an annual communication cycle with ecological forecasting, summer tracking, summer review and annual report cards.  From these programs it is evident that too little progress in Bay restoration has been made to date, so a new environmental solutions phase of creating positive ecosystem responses will need to be created.

This historical perspective of Chesapeake Bay science is part of what makes the lack of progress in restoration exasperating, but the progression of estuarine science (50 years), eutrophication science (15 years), science coordination (15 years) and environmental accountability (7+ years) provides a solid scientific basis for moving into the environmental solutions phase (and hopefully sooner, rather than later).  Other coastal regions should be able to learn from the Chesapeake experience and leapfrog to the environmental solutions phase.

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