This summer has been a particularly good one for the Chesapeake’s bottom grasses. Abundant and extensive, the underwater meadows are thriving this year, which is a good thing for the scores of species that seek shelter and food in the tangled masses.
Fish school around and through the patches of this “submerged aquatic vegetation” or SAV for short, and larger fish and crabs follow, snapping up the smaller species for dinner.
Widgeon grass in particular has seen a remarkable resurgence this year, and has largely contributed to the overall 27% increase in Bay grasses between 2014-15. Widgeon grass (photo above) has long, delicate leaf tendrils, and blooms in midsummer on thin white stalks. It’s great for vulnerable soft crabs, which hide in its shelter when shedding their shells until they’ve hardened up again. Widgeon grass is also excellent food for migratory waterfowl, which feast on billfulls of the tender grass strands. Scientists are unsure of why the widgeon grass has prospered this year— it’s a species that has irregular ‘boom or bust’ cycles, appearing and disappearing with little cause. But the expansion of the widgeon grass is a welcome sight, no matter the reason, and its presence benefits finned, clawed, and two-legged Chesapeake residents alike.
Mixed in with the widegon grasses are other species, and not all are native to the Chesapeake Bay. The Eurasian watermilfoil in the photo above is the most frequently-spotted example. With whorls of feathery leaves on long stems, watermilfoil creates dense clumps in slow-moving waterways. Accidentally introduced to the Bay in the early 20th century, it has proliferated and then attenuated several times in the last century. Although non-native, watermilfoil is not all bad. It provides habitat to Bay organisms, slows water flow and allows sediment to settle, contributes oxygen to the water, and thrives in places too muddy for native grasses.
The incredible abundance of Bay grasses this year is good for more than just crabs and fish. Grass beds provide prime crabbing and fishing spots, and within them, the water is often so clear and calm that one of the oldest and rarest of crabbing techniques is possible- the dipnet method. Armed with a dipnet, a bucket, and some luck, waders in the widgeon grasses slowly pass back and forth, searching for the elusive flash of brilliant blue claws. A cry of a triumphant, “I got one, Dad!” is the soundtrack to crabbing by dipnet, as families work together to fill a bushel basket for dinner.
It seems like time travel, back to a Bay 50 or 100 years ago, when crystalline shallows were an everyday sight and the Chesapeake’s bottom grasses were perennially verdant. Today, when so much is troubling about the Chesapeake’s environment, it is a remarkable if fleeting change of course. Bay grasses, for this year at least, mean clearer water, fatter geese, and abundant crab feasts— and the chance, for a little while, to see the Chesapeake your grandfather might have recognized.
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