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.

Do We Need Any More Science to Restore Chesapeake Bay?

(Posted by Bill Dennison)

Chesapeake Bay is arguably the best studied estuary in the world, with a long history of scientific research culminating in theses, scientific journal articles, scientific society activities including workshops and conferences.  Many of the paradigms on how estuaries work have been developed through studies of Chesapeake Bay.  This leads to the question posed in the title, “Do we need any more science to restore Chesapeake Bay?”.  Many people have said to me that we know enough already and we don’t need more science, we just need to get on with the restoration.   These comments are in part a result of the frustration that we have not more made more progress in Chesapeake restoration.  Research can, in fact, be used as a delaying tactic if restoration activities are forced to wait for more data.  Researchers can be complicit in the criticism if they allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good or if they simply document the decline and focus solely on the problems, rather than the solutions.

We do need more and better science for Chesapeake Bay restoration. There are three major research areas that can and will aid in Chesapeake Bay restoration.  1) Monitoring science; the collection and integration of data used to track the progress of restoration activities and provide feedback on the effectiveness of restoration activities. 2) Diagnostic science; the use of scientific tools to track sources of pollution and investigate ecological interactions important in restoration trajectories.  3) Restoration science;  the development of better ways to restore critical ecosystem attributes (e.g., oyster or seagrass rearing and planting programs) and targeting restoration efforts for maximum benefit.

Management, monitoring and research all involve using a scientific approach involving data collection, analysis, interpretation and communication.  The cost of maintaining an active management, monitoring and research program is typically a small fraction of the cost of implementing various management actions (e.g., sewage treatment upgrades, cover crop programs, riparian buffers).  I advocate for a balanced approach to management, monitoring and research (roughly one third each), which in total represents 10-15% of the implementation budget.  By employing good science, we can develop more cost effective approaches, learn how to do it better in an iterative fashion (adaptive management), and maximize the impact of the resources we devote to restoration.

A key aspect of incorporating science into environmental management is developing a shared vision with the stakeholders of the region and the organizing the participation so that academia, state and federal agencies, non-government organizations (NGOs), etc. can participate constructively in the overall program.  The various communication strategies need to ultimately lead to an informed and engaged citizenry, via government, NGO and academic venues.  An informed and engaged citizenry can then undertake effective actions to achieve the shared vision.

Some of the science that researchers conduct is ‘curiosity driven’ and can be esoteric in the context of the day-to-day decisions that resource managers and policy makers are faced with.  It is easy to discount this ‘basic’ research in the restoration effort and some view the resources spent as frivolous or detracting from the restoration effort.  However, most curiosity driven research funding is obtained through highly competitive grant systems to agencies and foundations.  The monies devoted to this type of research would not be available for restoration projects.  But the results of this type of research include the identification of emerging issues, development of new tools and techniques and elucidation of key processes to better understand Chesapeake Bay and its watershed.  Sometimes the only thing separating basic research from applied research is time—eventually the basic research is used in science applications.

Ecosystem science and more specifically restoration science is relatively young.  Physics and astronomy have been actively pursued for over 500 years, chemistry and biology for several hundred years, but ecology and restoration science is largely a product of the 20th century.  Like medical science, ecology has advanced rapidly over the past several decades and we can envision an active expansion of these fields over the next several decades.  We generally do not question the intrinsic value of medical science and even though the search for a cure for cancer (as one example) is a half century old, we are not willing to say, enough research, let’s just focus on treatment and prevention.  Similarly, we need to continue to learn more, but also DO more on behalf of Chesapeake Bay.  The question that we need to ask is the following: “What science do we need to restore Chesapeake Bay?”

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