- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 3, 2002

BALTIMORE (AP) Increasing salinity in the Chesapeake Bay because of the ongoing drought is harming wildlife, federal and state officials say.
Diseases that thrive in salty water have killed more oysters than scientists have ever seen, leading to a dramatic decline in oyster harvests this winter. Up to 60 percent of the bivalves in some areas have been lost.
Fish, meanwhile, are being forced to swim farther upstream to spawn, officials said.
"Fish and plants tend to adjust, but when you have severe weather extremes and less water to dilute salinity, it becomes harder for them," said Richard Batiuk of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program.
The U.S. Geological Survey said freshwater flows into the Bay are on pace to reach historic lows, which were set in 1941.
"We need a major change in salinity, and I'm not talking about just a few months of rain," said Chris Judy, head of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' shellfish division. "We need three to four years of significant, normal rainfalls to reverse this drought situation in order to see these mortality levels subside."
The state spends about $4 million a year to grow and plant oysters and to improve water quality in the Bay.
The National Weather Service said rainfall at the end of last month was expected to bring the region close to the average March rainfall of 3.6 inches, but there is still a significant seasonal deficit. Since September, 8.6 inches have fallen. Rainfall is usually 23.2 inches in that time span.
Scientists suggest that the changes will cause salt-loving underwater grasses in the lower portion of the Bay to thrive and those farther north that like fresher water to die.
The saltier water also will bring sea nettles, which often sting swimmers in the summer, to the Bay earlier and cause them to spread to more rivers and creeks than in recent years.
In addition, reproduction among rockfish and white perch may be down from cooler, wetter years.
"It's not clear whether we're going to have an early spring, as we thought a couple of weeks ago when it was so warm, or whether conditions may be moderated," said Bob Wood, assistant research scientist at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Chesapeake Biological Lab.
"I certainly am not excited about jumping into the prediction game, and this is one of those years that reminds me why," he said.


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