Choptank Complex Announced as Habitat Focus Area

Two sites in NOAA’s North Atlantic Region have been selected as Habitat Focus Areas under NOAA’s Habitat Blueprint. The Choptank River complex in Maryland and Delaware and the Penobscot River watershed in Maine are the new areas where the agency will focus resources to support habitat conservation and restoration. 

Both selected areas have experienced habitat degradation and face challenges from pollution, development, overfishing, invasive species, and barriers to fish passage. This has reduced the resilience of fish and other wildlife communities, degraded water quality and habitat health, and affected public use and tourism.

The NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office and other NOAA offices are already working in the Choptank River complex. The Choptank is the largest river on the Delmarva Peninsula; it empties into the Chesapeake Bay. Most of the surrounding land is currently used for agriculture.

But growing populations and land development threaten the traditional agricultural base as well as working waterfronts and natural shorelines and marshes. These changes affect fish like menhaden, river herring and shad, which are prey for commercially and recreationally important species like striped bass, weakfish, bluefish and predatory birds such as osprey and eagles.

Once-abundant native oyster populations have been reduced to just 1 percent of historic levels. Oysters help filter water and oyster reefs provide critical habitat for a range of Chesapeake Bay species, including juvenile and adult blue crabs and finfish.

“The Choptank River Complex is a microcosm of the many tidal tributaries in Chesapeake Bay--and of great importance to ensuring sustainable fisheries and coastal economies. Working with partners at NOAA and around the area, we hope to successfully protect and restore the ecological health of this watershed and apply the habitat blueprint model to other coastal ecosystems throughout the region,” said Peyton Robertson, director of the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office.

NOAA conducts mapping and acoustic survey work in the Chesapeake Bay, including the Choptank River watershed, to support native oyster restoration. NOAA also funds on-the-ground restoration work and applied research to quantify how oyster reefs provide ecosystem services. Areas in several subtributaries in the Choptank River were designated as oyster sanctuaries by the state of Maryland. This affords an excellent opportunity for intensive oyster restoration on an unprecedented scale.

NOAA has also conducted extensive environmental monitoring programs. Data generated will help managers address future challenges due to storm flooding, sea level rise, barrier Island movement, degraded water quality and wetland loss.

The Penobscot River is New England’s second largest river. It is home to 11 migratory fish species, including three listed under the Endangered Species Act, and represents the largest run of Atlantic salmon left in the United States. Even though the watershed is not highly populated, like many eastern rivers, dams, culverts, water pollution and overfishing have had a serious effect on fish populations. NOAA has have restoration and conservation projects under way in the Penobscot watershed to bolster populations of alewife, blueback herring and Atlantic salmon. NOAA and partners will identify the highest-priority fish passage needs and explain the benefits of dam removal to the public.

The Habitat Blueprint is NOAA’s strategy to integrate habitat conservation throughout the agency, focus efforts in priority areas, and leverage internal and external collaborations to achieve measurable benefits within key habitats such as rivers, coral reefs, and wetlands. Under the Habitat Blueprint, NOAA selects certain Habitat Focus Areas to prioritize long-term habitat science and conservation efforts.

Next steps for the two new Habitat Focus Areas include developing implementation plans for each area. NOAA will also begin the selection process for the Habitat Focus Areas in other U.S. regions.

 

oyster clump with hooked mussels

Measuring oyster spat grown in restoration project, Eastern Bay, 2005

choptankannounce-thumbright