In 2022, the State of the Bay score remained unchanged at 32, a D+. Of the 13 indicators assessed, three improved and three declined. A big gain for oysters was tempered by a worrying drop for blue crabs, while pollution and habitat indicators showed only modest change.
Far too much pollution still reaches our waterways. As the State of the Blueprint report outlined last fall, states are not on track to reduce pollution fast enough to improve and sustain water quality over the long term. Further progress requires meaningfully addressing agricultural pollution, especially in Pennsylvania, and growing pollution from urban and suburban development.
Overfishing, pollution, and habitat loss have reduced many of the Bay region’s fish and shellfish populations from their historic levels, but fisheries continue to support thousands of jobs and generate billions of dollars each year.
The past few years have been a tumultuous time for key species. After dropping precipitously in 2020, rockfish (striped bass) populations are slowly improving following new management actions. For oysters, record reproduction in both 2020 and 2021 provided the species a boost even as the availability of reef habitat remains a concern. These positive trends, however, are tempered by a concerning decline in blue crabs. In 2021, the total number of blue crabs reached the lowest level on record and marked a third consecutive year of below-average numbers of juvenile crabs.
Rockfish Grade B- – The population is still considered depleted. Recent surveys indicate that numbers of juvenile striped bass are still well below average in Maryland, while they are at or slightly above long-term average levels in Virginia. Recent modeling indicates that the availability of suitable habitat for striped bass in the Bay is extremely limited during spring and summer and has decreased in extent over time.21 Continued conservative management of striped bass and improvement in habitat is required to ensure the population rebuilds to its target by the 2029 deadline set in the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Management Plan.
Oysters Grade F – Both 2020 and 2021 were record years for oyster reproduction, with Maryland and Virginia reporting the highest number of oyster spat (juvenile oysters) in the past 30 years. This, coupled with several years of below-average mortality from disease and predators, could provide oysters a much-needed boost. However, past increases in oyster reproduction have been quickly exploited by increases in harvest, limiting their contribution to longer-term oyster recovery. Stock assessment updates in Maryland indicate that certain areas of the Bay still experience overfishing, despite improvements in oyster numbers. The Bay’s oyster population still suffers from a lack of oyster reef habitat. A lack of the materials used for restoration, specifically oyster shell, significantly limits large-scale reef building.
Blue Crabs B – The 2020 and 2021 blue crab winter dredge surveys, which assess blue crab abundance
at more than 1,500 locations throughout the Bay, brought concerning and disappointing results. In 2021, the total number of blue crabs reached the lowest level on record in the survey’s 33-year history and marked a third consecutive year of below-average numbers of juvenile crabs. Despite the recent declines, the blue crab fishery, which is managed based on the number of adult female crabs, has not exceeded any triggers that would require fishery managers to take immediate action. The number of adult females is above the level considered sustainable, and the number of crabs harvested by the fishery is within bounds. Managers and scientists have committed to pursuing an updated assessment of the population to determine the cause of the recent declines and whether they require changes to the way the blue crab fishery is managed.