Home > Uncategorized > The Trouble with Normal is it Always Gets Worse

The Trouble with Normal is it Always Gets Worse

Coming into the 31st year of Chesapeake Bay restoration, it seems reasonable to expect news and highlights from the restoration leadership about what has been achieved over the first 30 years of effort.  But it turns out that this is actually quite difficult to do.  When we compare where things were in the bad old days to where they are now, it is not clear what there is to crow about.

The Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP) tracks the following indicators of the health of the Chesapeake Bay’s eco-system.  The full data and methods information can be had here: http://www.chesapeakebay.net/track/health/bayhealth.

Bay Grasses One of the early problems that helped focus public attention on the Bay’s problems was the tremendous decline in Bay grasses (submerged aquatic vegetation) in the 1970s.  This change deprived fish and shellfish of an important component of their habitat and increased the harmful effects of wave action in the Bay.  Historic abundance of Bay grasses is thought to have been about 185,000 acres and achieving that level of Bay grass beds is the CBP’s stated goal.

In 1985, there were about 49,000 acres of Bay grasses.  In 2012, there were about 1,000 acres less than that.  But the number of acres changes considerably from year to year, and in 1984 there were only 38,000 acres of Bay grasses.  There does not appear to be a trend in the status of Bay grass abundances and the CBP does not claim one.  Although, their statement regarding long-term trends says that acreage has increased from 38,000 acres in 1984 to 48,000 in 2012.  A reader unschooled in probability theory might believe that comparing those two numbers says something statistically significant.  Of course, it does not.

Phytoplankton The CBP tracks the phytoplankton situation with a measure called the phytoplankton index of biotic integrity (PIBI).  The PIBI takes an average of scores for a number of quantifiable characteristics important to phytoplankton’s ecological function.  Those scores range from one to five with five being best.  A PIBI of three or greater qualifies as better than “poor”.  The CBP tracks the PIBI over time, allowing one to see our progress in getting things better than “poor”.

From a starting place in 1984 in which 54% of the samples qualified as poor, only 44 percent did in 2011.  (We don’t know about 2012 because apparently Maryland stopped funding this monitoring in 2011.)   There is a lot of variance over the period, and no discernible trend for better or worse.  On average, over the period, the numbers say that about half of the Chesapeake Bay sampling sites have a poor PIBI score.  So far, that does not seem to be changing.

Bottom Habitat  In general, we would like to see more organisms living and growing on the bottom of the Bay.  The CBP measures this characteristic by means of a Benthos Index of Biotic Integrity (B-IBI).  This index ranges from one (bad) to five (no problem).  Their goal is that all bottom samples will have a B-IBI of three or better.

In 1996 (the first year in CBP’s online data) only 48 percent of their samples had a B-IBI less than three.  In 2012, 55 percent of the sample set was less than 3.  However, over the period there does not seem to be a trend for improvement or degradation.  But in a confusing pitch, the CBP says that we are 47 percent of the way to our goal.  Never mind that we started out 52 percent of the way there.

Tidal wetlands  There is no specific CBP goal for conserving or increasing the amount of wetlands in the Bay drainage, and wetland area has dropped by about 2,500 acres since 1996.

Fish and shellfish  Between 1990 and 2012, the average number of female crabs was 117 million.  The goal is to have 215 million female crabs.  In 2012, it was estimated that there were about 97 million female crabs in the Bay.

Since 1994, when a goal of a ten-fold increase in the biomass of oysters was announced, oyster biomass has not shown any discernible trend away from the baseline.

Striped bass are a rare success story.  Their stocks increased dramatically from 1990 to 1996 due to a harvest moratorium and stocks are currently 135 percent of their target.

Among the bait fish, shad stocks are trending upward and menhaden appear to be trending downward.

Water quality  A prime measure of the quality of the Bay’s water is whether or not it has enough dissolved oxygen for creatures to live in it comfortably.  The CBP has established a standard for this.  In 1985-87, 39 percent of the waters tested qualified as meeting the CBP standard.  In 2009-11, only 34 percent of the waters tested qualified.  In the time between those two periods, there does not appear to have been a trend up or down.

Water clarity is measured in terms of how far one can submerge a secchi disk before it disappears from view.  The goal is for all sample points to have a specific amount of clarity, depending on salinity.  In 1985, 37 percent of their sample points met the water clarity goal.  In 2011, only 5 percent did.  There appears to be a downward trend for water clarity in the Bay.

Chlorophyll a is a measure of the amount of algae present in the water.  As noted in the phytoplankton discussion, we want there to be some algae, but too much is a problem.  So CBP has a standard for chlorophyll a that they would like to see met across all their sampling points.  In 1985, 48 percent of their samples met the chlorophyll a standard.  In 2011, only 18 percent did.  There is great variability from year to year, depending on a wide range of factors.  Still, over the period there seems to be a negative trend for the chlorophyll a goal achievement.

Clearly, we do not want chemical contaminants in the water column of the Bay or its tributaries, so there is a CBP goal for this as well.  In 2006, 37 percent of the water samples taken showed no or acceptable levels of chemical contaminants.  In 2012, only 28 percent qualified as attaining the goal.  There are no long term data for chemical contaminants in the Bay but, in the short term, there appears to be a decline in water that is not contaminated with toxic chemicals.

So those are the CBP Chesapeake Bay Health indicators.  Except for Striped Bass and Shad, none of them indicates an improvement in the Bay’s health.  Some of them indicate negative trends.  It seems to me that if we step back and view it with some perspective, we have to say that the Bay has fallen into a degraded state and we are not achieving restoration.  We may be holding the line in the face of increasing human impact, but we are not restoring the Bay, yet.

While the CBP’s website provides the information that I have used to conclude that the Bay is sick and not getting better, neither the CBP, nor any of its partners, nor the popular press comes to this same conclusion in their public offerings.  Instead, nearly every day, there are articles and press releases describing restoration efforts that have generated new acres of wetlands or stories about how many tons of trash volunteers have removed from streams and rivers. Given this onslaught of positive news stories, the general public can be excused if they are not aware that the Bay is sick and not getting better.

During the last presidential campaign, Larry David made an amusing campaign video for Barack Obama called, “It Could Have Been Worse”.  Part of what made this parody funny was that it was true, but totally unacceptable for a promotional campaign.  In today’s world, where marketing is supreme, no one wants to market the idea that all of the money and effort extended to restore the Chesapeake Bay has merely kept things from getting worse.  And yet, if the public does not know this, it is not clear how we are ever going to make things better.

One understands that those who work to improve the health of the Bay would rather accentuate positive news about their efforts.  And one understands that political leaders would rather describe the restoration effort in positive terms when they are in office.  It is less understandable that the general press does not care to tell the grimmer story.  As I understand it, grim exposés sell papers as well as, if not better than, happy stories.  Perhaps the press does not get it.

So perhaps we cannot expect an advocate for brutal honesty regarding the Chesapeake Bay restoration.  Perhaps everyone already understands that the Bay is sick and not getting better.  They just would rather not think about it.  Perhaps people are willing to accept this as the new normal and Bruce Cockburn is right.  The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.


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