Chesapeake Bay Executive Order
Protection and Restoration

Report to Recommend Strategies to Protect the Bay’s Fish and Wildlife Species and Habitats

September 08 2009

Success in protecting and restoring the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem will ultimately be measured by the vitality and richness of its living resources and the health and well being of the people who rely on them. From small beginnings in the mountain streams of West Virginia and New York, through the foothills of Virginia and Pennsylvania, to the extraordinary marshlands in Maryland, Delaware, and Washington, D.C., the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed are unparalleled natural treasures. Thousands of miles of rivers and streams support an intricate system of aquatic and terrestrial habitats—including open water, underwater grasses, wetlands, fields, and forests—for the more than 3,600 migratory and resident species that depend on the Bay. The Section 202(g) report will outline the renewed Federal commitment to develop focused and coordinated habitat and research activities that protect and restore living resources and water quality.

The Chesapeake Bay and its watershed make up one of the most biologically productive ecosystems in the world; Chesapeake habitats provide a vital ecological link for migratory fish and birds. But the watershed’s fish, wildlife and habitats are increasingly threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, invasive species, poor water quality, contaminants, overharvesting of aquatic species, occurrences of disease, and climate change. 

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Habitat Loss and Fragmentation: Living resources depend on networks of healthy and connected habitats for food, water, shelter, and breeding areas. Land use changes fragment or destroy these natural places, and can affect others downstream, leaving fewer natural habitats available to provide plants and animals with the basics they need to live. For instance, development can create more impervious surfaces, leading to increased soil and pollutant runoff into the Bay.

Invasive Species: Invasive species are animals and plants not native to the watershed that spread throughout the area quickly, often overtaking native species. There are more than 200 invasive species in the watershed; some, like nutria, northern snakehead, zebra mussels, phragmites, purple loosestrife, and water chestnut, cause costly ecological problems. Some of these invasive species can take over entire habitats while others consume the food or alter the habitat needed by our native species. For example, upland invasive plants, such as garlic mustard, tree of heaven and Japanese honeysuckle, reduce the stability of soil - leading to increased sediment into streams throughout the watershed. 

Poor Water Quality: Poor water quality alters available habitat and can limit the success of restoration efforts. Oxygen-deprived water is considered to be the largest aquatic pollution problem in the United States and is associated with increased harmful algal blooms and large areas of “dead zones” in the Chesapeake Bay. It also causes the loss of submerged aquatic vegetation, an important habitat for a variety of Bay species. Excess nutrients imported into the Chesapeake watershed may limit the ability to address habitat issues and are an overarching concern.

Contaminants: Evidence collected in the Piedmont province of the Potomac River suggests that the presence of endocrine-disrupting chemicals is affecting immune systems in fish and may be related to a high occurrence of intersex, or the presence of immature eggs in male fish, in smallmouth bass. Intersex is an indicator of chemical contamination. Loss of habitat can affect transport of contaminants. Human consumption advisories are in place for more than a dozen fish species in Maryland, Virginia, and other states’ waters due to PCB, mercury, and pesticides. 

Overharvesting: Overharvesting of living resources can significantly affect not only individual populations, but other living resources. Overharvesting is commonly implicated as a contributor to declines of commercially and recreationally important fisheries. Because all species in the Bay are related through the food web, the health of one species may also influence the success of other populations. Overharvesting can affect the economy by damaging entire commercial and recreational industries. To avoid these impacts, scientists and resource managers work closely to ensure that thorough scientific analysis is applied to decisions relating to living resources facing tough challenges.

Disease and Pathogens: Impacts of other stressors can result in increased disease outbreaks, high parasite loads, and decreased disease resistance. For instance, mycobacteriosis is a chronic bacterial disease currently affecting Chesapeake Bay striped bass, causing loss of fish and economic impact for recreational and commercial fisheries. Some of the mycobacteria that commonly infect fishes can also cause infections in people. Diseases have decimated native oysters and the habitat and water quality benefits they provide. Scientists predict that disease issues will become more prominent in response to higher water temperatures caused by climate change. 

Climate Change: Climate change is an additional stressor for living resources. The predicted changes in sea-level, precipitation patterns, stream flows, and water temperatures will directly affect stream corridors, coastal habitats, and the Bay. More acidic water in the system will reduce calcium in the water that is needed by aquatic species such as oysters. Superimposed on these changes are human population growth and changes in land use that may exacerbate some or all of the challenges induced by climate change. Understanding and managing these potential impacts can best be done by applying state-of-the-art monitoring and remote-sensing tools at the landscape scale.

To successfully address the multitude of stressors and support the health of living resources in the Chesapeake ecosystem, the 202(g) report will outline how agencies will work collaboratively to:

  • Prioritize actions to maximize ecological benefits;
  • Accelerate habitat protection and restoration; and
  • Coordinate research and assessment to support the Bay’s critical living resources. 

Sustaining and restoring the function of the watershed’s diverse habitats is essential to the sustainability of the Chesapeake ecosystem, the regional economy, and the quality of life enjoyed by the 17 million people who call this region home.

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