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: USFWS

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.

Chesapeake Bay. Photo: NASA

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: USFWS

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: USFWS

“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.

Bridget Macdonald and Lauri Munroe-Hultman are science writers for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.



U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Northeast Region

Conserving wildlife and habitats from Maine to Virginia, New York, and Pennsylvania.