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2019 Articles

wbur.org
July 26, 2019
Barbara Moran

Summertime, And Toxic Algae Is Blooming: Here's What You Need To Know

The state Department of Public Health is warning people to keep themselves — and their pets — out of the lower Charles River Basin, from the BU Bridge to the Museum of Science, because of toxic algae.

And it's not just the Charles: As of Thursday, the DPH has posted alerts for eight harmful algae blooms in the state, from Cape Cod to central Massachusetts.

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Here's what you need to know to stay safe this summer.

Toxic algae? What's that?

Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, blooms in freshwater and produces a toxin that is harmful to humans. If you swim in affected water and swallow a lot of it, it can lead to stomach cramps and nausea, hay fever-like symptoms, or liver failure and death in extreme cases. Touching the water can also cause skin rashes.

What does it look like?

Sometimes it's a green scum on the water's surface, but it can also look like green paint, bright green strands or pea soup.

Green-blue algae blooms dot the surface of the Charles River along the esplanade by Community Boating. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Green-blue algae blooms dot the surface of the Charles River along the esplanade by Community Boating. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Is this the same thing as red tide?

No. "Red tide" occurs in saltwater and affects shellfish. In Massachusetts it's caused mainly by two organisms — Alexandrium and Pseudo-nitzschia — which produce toxin. When shellfish eat these organisms, the toxin accumulates in their bodies to levels that can be very dangerous for humans.

On the upside, it's generally safe to swim in the ocean during red tide outbreaks "because you just can't swallow enough of the algae to be dangerous," says Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution biologist and algae expert Don Anderson. He adds that the red tides we see in Massachusetts are less likely to cause respiratory problems, as happens in Florida.

Is it safe to swim in areas where there's blue-green algae?

No. "I would try to avoid it," says Anderson. "It can be dangerous, especially to young children who may swallow a lot of water."

Marc Nascarella, chief toxicologist for the Department of Public Health, goes further when speaking about the Charles generally: "Never really under any circumstances do we advise that individuals swim in the Charles River, because it is not routinely sampled for bacteria to evaluate its safety," he says.

Is it safe to go boating where there's blue-green algae?

Probably, if you stay out of the water. If you get splashed with algae-infected water, rinse it off as soon as possible, or you may get a rash.

How do you know if there's an algae bloom?

There's no statewide clearinghouse for blue-green algae blooms, so look for signs posted at specific lakes, ponds and rivers, or notices from towns. The state Department of Public Health does post advisories, when it receives them. "We only update it when we become aware that a water body operator or other entity has issued an advisory. It should not be considered comprehensive," says Alison Cohen, a spokesperson for the DPH.

Why are dogs always getting poisoned by blue-green algae?

When dogs swim in affected water, they often drink a lot of it, and also get algae in their fur and then lick it off, says Nascarella. So they ingest a lot of toxin.

And here's another thing: Freshwater algae can wash up on the shores of the lakes, where it becomes a tempting snack for dogs. "It'll get all crunchy like potato chips, and the dogs love to eat that," says WHOI's Anderson. They can get very badly poisoned, he says, and even die.

Is drinking water in Massachusetts safe?

Nascarella says: "I'm not aware of harmful algal blooms that have impacted drinking water sources as of yet."

Will these toxic algae blooms get worse because of climate change?

Yup. Blue-green algae loves hot weather and nutrient-laden stormwater. So as the region sees more hot days and more heavy rainstorms, says Nascarella, "I think that harmful algal blooms will get more and more common."

Is there anything people can do to help prevent algae blooms?

Blue-green algae blooms are fed by nutrient runoff, especially phosphorus, says Emily Norton, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association. She says people can help by not putting fertilizer on their lawns or by switching to electric vehicles. "There's actually phosphorus in the gasoline that drips onto the roads and gets into the stormwater runoff," she says.

Also: support green infrastructure like parks and rain gardens, which will also help mitigate the effects of climate change.

This segment aired on July 26, 2019.

 

Cape Cod Times
By Doug Fraser
Posted Jul 1, 2019 at 8:15 PM
Updated at 7:25 AM

Red tide raises threat of shellfishing closures

Red tide that has been creeping down the coastline for over a month is now poised slightly north of Cape Cod.

The tide has caused shellfishing closures that now extend from the New Hampshire border south to Duxbury.

The red tide algae, Alexandrium fundyense, produces a neurotoxin that can cause a condition called paralytic shellfish poisoning. The condition can cause tingling and numbness of the lips, tongue and extremities; drowsiness and dizziness; vomiting; respiratory arrest; and even death if the shellfish are eaten in sufficient quantities.

Filter-feeding species such as soft-shelled clams, blue mussels, surf clams, quahogs, bay scallops, oysters and some snails and whelks accumulate the toxin in their tissues as they feed on the algae. Once the bloom crashes and there are no more red tide algae in the water, they continue to metabolize these cells and purge the toxin from their meats. They are usually safe to eat within three days after the algae bloom ends.

The state Division of Marine Fisheries, along with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the states of Maine and New Hampshire, closely monitor the concentration and progress of the algae along the coastline after they hatch from cyst fields in Maine and are carried south by coastal currents and wind.

This year’s bloom was aided by a wet May and June that washed nutrients into the sea to feed the algae, said WHOI senior scientist Donald Anderson, an internationally renowned expert in harmful algal blooms. Anderson said Alexandrium fundyense algae also do especially well in layers of low-salinity water that form in the upper layer of coastal waters as stormwater washes off the land and from rivers into the sea.

“We have seen high cell concentrations in (Massachusetts) Bay this year,” Anderson said.

While the coastal currents can carry the cells offshore, saving inshore shellfish beds, easterly winds like those through the spring help pen them up against the shore. A large mass of cells in Massachusetts Bay resulted in closures on the north and south shores that began June 10, with closures progressing south through the rest of the month.

In March, the Division of Marine Fisheries begins testing locations along the coast and sampling mussels, which tend to accumulate and purge algae and toxins more quickly than other species. When high levels of toxin begin appearing in mussels, the state agency increases testing from once a week to twice a week, and begins testing other shellfish species.

As of Monday, Michael Hickey, chief shellfish biologist for the agency, said it was hard to predict whether the red tide will make it to Cape Cod.

“A lot is based on the wind direction,” Hickey said.

On Monday, the wind was coming out of the west and should be pushing the tide offshore, Hickey said. But cell counts are still high up into New Hampshire and Maine, he said.

Hickey said he expected to get an update late Monday after samples taken that day were processed in the lab.

The last big red tide event was in 2005, which led to shellfishing closures from Maine to Nantucket. The closures caused millions of dollars in lost summer revenue for shellfishermen and affiliated businesses.

— Follow Doug Fraser on Twitter:@dougfrasercct.

Red tide raises threat of shellfishing closures - Cape Cod Times

CapeandIslands.org
By EVE ZUCKOFF
JUN 28, 2019

The Cape Has 1,000 Freshwater Ponds. How Many Are Toxic?

Ted Kingsley fishes at Santuit Pond in Mashpee. The pond is experiencing significant impacts from a blue-green algae bloom that can pose serious public health risks.
CREDIT EVE ZUCKOFF

On a typical June evening at Santuit Pond in Mashpee, fishermen like Ted Kingsley can be found perched by the shore, or wading through the water, looking for bass.

“The [deepest] I've been -- up to my ankles in it, maybe,” Kingsley said.

He said he won’t go in past his ankles, though; something about the water isn’t right.

The transparency ends about a foot-and-a-half past the shore, and it has a blue-green cast, almost the color and clarity of pea soup – a common reaction to an overabundance of micro-organisms called a cyanobacteria bloom.

When blooms form, some types of cyanobacteria release dangerous toxins that can pose public health risks.

Of the approximately 1,000 freshwater ponds on Cape Cod, only 22 are being monitored for algal blooms that can cause health problems ranging from skin irritation, to fevers, to major organ damage. And the number of these blooms could be growing.

The Association to Preserve Cape Cod (APCC) has been at the forefront of the effort to monitor the ponds and notify the public.

When testing Santuit, the APCC found levels of the bacteria were about 10 ten percent above the point at which the Massachusetts Department of Public Health recommends ponds be closed for recreation.

There are now several warning signs around the pond’s public entrance telling people not to swim or even let their pets go in.

But those levels might not tell the whole story, according to Keith Loftin, of the United States Geological Survey.

“Since we don’t know why toxins are produced and what controls [them]…. it’s hard to know when a bloom is going to become toxic,” Loftin said.

The toxins can be ingested or inhaled, but it’s not always clear what effect they’ll have on different people.

In recent years, researchers have observed lakes and ponds around the country with toxin levels so high, they’ve been connected to a series of dog deaths. The toxins also could affect wildlife like ospreys and bald eagles that fish and forage around the pond.

Even still, these algae blooms aren’t new, nor is it clear whether they’ve increased in recent years. But cyanobacteria have been shown to thrive when they're in warm water and have access to nutrients from fertilizers and septic systems.

“One of the effects of the warming trend that we’ve seen over the last decades, is that we're creating ... broader climate conditions that are conducive to allowing cyanobacteria to proliferate and outcompete other species,” according to Andrew Gottlieb, executive director of APCC.

With climate change in mind, researchers from institutions like Tufts, MIT, and the EPA are narrowing in on the future of these blooms. They predict that in the next 70 years a combination of extreme weather and population growth will produce even more nutrients that will seep into our water bodies, which have steadily warmed over decades.

That recipe is expected make these blooms even more prevalent.

“We’ve got global climate change, which is particularly intense in the Northeast, and we're over-enriching these waters with nutrients. So we're getting it on both ends,” Gottlieb said.

The APCC now is working with towns on the Cape and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to identify the best system of testing suspicious ponds and, in turn, alerting the public when necessary.

A sign posted by the public entrance to Santuit Pond in Mashpee warns people of a potentially dangerous cyanobacteria bloom.
CREDIT EVE ZUCKOFF

A spokesperson from the MDPH said in a statement that the state “works with waterbody operators to evaluate and respond to these reports.”

Gottlieb said he’s worried that’s not enough.

“The problem is you've got a ... 200-acre pond. The town owns one particular spot as a boat launching ramp. There are two 8-by-11 sheets of paper with warnings, so it's a challenge to provide adequate public notice to the rest of the public.”

Still, there are solutions. Among them: targeted sewering to reduce nutrients seeping into ponds through groundwater. Also, Gottlieb said, lay off the fertilizers.

“People really ought to think hard about what they’re doing on their own properties because it can have a meaningful impact on solving or limiting the effects of this issue while the larger, systemic issues are being worked on.”

In the meantime, he’s not taking any chances.

“I will say this: I had my dogs at work with me today, and before we came I dropped them off at home because I didn’t want them walking around the water here,” said Gottlieb.

But what will it take to stop Ted Kingsley from fishing in Santuit?

“Well  if I don't  catch any fish,” he said, “I don't want to fish here anymore.”

The Cape Has 1,000 Freshwater Ponds. How Many Are Toxic? - CapeandIslands.org

Cape Cod Times
By Doug Fraser
Posted Jun 24, 2019 at 6:19 PM
Updated Jun 25, 2019 at 6:02 AM

Toxic blooms prompt Cape pond advisories

Heavy rains lead to warnings at 5 freshwater spots.

BARNSTABLE — People and their pets are being advised to avoid all contact with the water in three Cape Cod ponds after an unusually wet spring helped cause toxic bacterial blooms.

Water samples revealed cyanobacteria blooms in Santuit Pond in Mashpee, Bearse Pond in Barnstable and Upper Mill Pond in Brewster, and warnings were issued Friday for recreational users to avoid contact with the water, according to a statement Monday from the Association to Preserve Cape Cod. The advisories were issued by the three towns with the backing of the state Department of Public Health, the statement says.

Brewster Health Agent Nancy Ellis Ice said Monday that the advisory on Upper Mill Pond would likely be removed after the most recent testing showed that levels had dropped.

The town of Barnstable also has issued advisories for Lake Wequaquet and Hinckley Pond recommending that pet owners keep animals out of the water.

Cliff Pond at Nickerson State Park in Brewster, Lovells Pond in Barnstable and Scargo Lake in Dennis are “ponds of concern” and are being closely monitored, the statement says.

“Compared to recent seasons, the presence of cyanobacteria and HCBs (harmful cyanobacteria blooms) in ponds across the Cape in 2019 has so far been significantly greater,” the association statement says.

Cyanobactera produce cyanotoxins that can be absorbed through the skin or by swallowing the water and can damage the liver and nervous system in humans in severe cases. In some cases the toxins can be inhaled when downwind of a lake experiencing a bloom.

The Association to Preserve Cape Cod is monitoring 22 Cape ponds in conjunction with the Brewster Ponds Coalition, Friends of Chatham Waterways, Indian Ponds Association, several towns and the University of New Hampshire, and may expand to other locations later in the summer, according to the statement. Barnstable is monitoring another 20 of its own ponds.

Other ponds may be affected but are not yet being monitored. The Cape has about 1,000 freshwater ponds, according to the statement.

Rain washes nutrients, including septic effluent and lawn fertilizer, into ponds and that promotes the growth of these naturally occurring bacteria.

“This will be a problem for all the Cape towns,” said Mashpee Natural Resources Director Richard York, because, although towns can clean up ponds by dealing with nutrient loading and nitrogen in the bottom sediments, it cannot control how much will flow into the ponds from frequent rainstorms, especially the heavy downpours attributed to climate change. Warmer temperatures mean more moisture in the air and a better growing environment for bacteria, he said.

The association has an online interactive map and informational page at apcc.org/cyano.

— Follow Doug Fraser on Twitter: @dougfrasercct.

Toxic blooms prompt Cape pond advisories - Cape Cod Times

Mashpee Enterprise
By SAM HOUGHTON

Santuit Pond Sounds Alarm On Freshwater

In the summer, the blue-green algae bloom in Santuit Pond has seemingly become commonplace.

For the third year in a row, the water in the pond looks green rather than clear. A mat of greenish algae recently became evident, too.

The Mashpee Health Department has installed signs around public access and swimming areas warning that people should minimize exposure to the water and keep animals from drinking it. Swimming is not recommended.

“This is more than an aesthetics issue,” said Andrew R. Gottlieb, chairman of the board of selectmen, during a meeting Monday, June 17. “We need to do something about it.”

The first order of business, the chairman said, is to notify the public before coming up with a more long-term solution.

The bacteria has a potential to be toxic and creates a toxin similar to one thought to have led to the death of a dog who drank water out of a pond in Brewster in the 1990s.

The bacteria is cyanobacteria, a natural occurring part of a pond’s food system, but given the right conditions, it can lead to an overabundance of the bacteria and to algae blooms.

And given enough concentration of it, it can produce harmful toxins, even release aerosol, and, when ingested, lead to liver damage. It can also degrade the vitality of a pond, leading to fish kills.

How this bacteria turns into a more toxic, dangerous bacteria is still being explored by researchers on the federal level.

The Association to Preserve Cape Cod, a local environmental watchdog, recently launched a project to monitor the bacteria found in freshwater ponds across the Cape. Part of the project is to keep municipalities and the public informed when the bacteria blooms before the threat of exposure.

Mr. Gottlieb is executive director of the association.

Since last week, the association has found levels of cyanobacteria in several ponds of the some 20 they have studied.

High levels of the bacteria were found in ponds including Lovell’s, Hinckley, Wequaquet and Bearse’s ponds in Barnstable.

For Bearse’s Pond, the Town of Barnstable has issued a similar recreational use advisory as Mashpee has for Santuit Pond, and has warned the public to limit exposure to the pond’s water.

Scargo Lake in Dennis, Upper and Lower Mill, Cliff and Sheep ponds in Brewster, and Stillwater Pond in Chatham all recorded levels of the bacteria as well, according to recording by the APCC.

Outside of the APCC’s reporting, Shawme Pond in downtown Sandwich recently had a fresh batch of the bacteria as well, with scientists in that town indicating that it likely came from the recent heavy rains washing fertilizers into the pond.

Bryan Horsley, a restoration technician, has led the sampling project with the APCC, which is based on a model approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Mr. Horsley said that cyanobacteria has become more and more common as it has been identified in many Cape ponds recently, and he thinks it is only going to worsen.

“I don’t see it getting better unless we make some big changes,” he said. “It’s pretty sad to see this happening.”

The restoration technician said that the reasons for the bacteria’s emergence are likely the combination of climate change—increased water temperature—and the concentrated development of the Cape around these ponds.

More homes means more nutrients finding their way into water bodies. The conditions are a “perfect storm” for the bacteria to grow and the blooms to spread, he said.

By tracking the ecology of a pond overtime, Mr. Horsley said that they can actually forecast these bloom events and warn the public before it is too late.

Santuit is an example of a success for this model, given that conditions for the pond have been tracked for the last few years. APCC informed the town late last week that the association suspected an algae bloom was coming.

By Monday, the town had tested the pond itself and started to inform the public. Under a microscope, Richard H. York Jr., Mashpee’s director of natural resources, read a level of 76,533 cyanobacteria cells per milliliter. The state threshold for posting advisories is 70,000 cells/ml. Mr. York notified the health department and signs were posted around the pond.

By Wednesday, Mr. Horsley said that scum had begun to form; while the presence of the bacteria is not ideal, the APCC technician said that they were able to warn the public before the risk of exposure.

“I’m excited how well that worked,” he said.

Still, because little is known about cyanobacteria, some local health and natural resources departments outside Mashpee do not necessarily know how to react. Without naming names, Mr. Horsley said that some health departments on the Cape have not issued advisories at the ponds.

The APCC program started in 2017 with only a handful of ponds sampled, but the sampling has expanded every year since.

In the past, it could take a long time for the results of a water-body sample, but APCC is able to let municipalities know with a quick turnaround. The association is looking to track ponds across the Cape, but currently covers mostly the mid-Cape..

In Mashpee, Mr. York is working in tandem with the health department to keep on an eye on the bacteria, but they have yet to identify the harmful toxin. The natural resources department director said that some cyanobacteria can contain toxins including Anabaena and Microcystis, which have been abundant in past blooms, but a bloom of a potentially toxic species might or might not be toxic at a given time. If floating algae that looks like scum is present, it can be more toxic per unit volume because it is concentrated on the surface, Mr. York said.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health reports that these toxins can produce adverse health effects. Toxins are released from intact cyanobacteria cells when they die in the water body or when they are ingested by animals or humans. Once ingested, the digestive juices destroy their cell wall (lysing or breaking down the cell membrane) and the toxin is released into the gastrointestinal tract.

Mr. York said that residents can still boat on Santuit, even fish, although just catch and release. He did not recommend eating fish from the pond until further study.

Santuit did have a few years without an abundance of cyanobacteria after the town installed a device called a SolarBee. In the years prior, the pond had been shut down for recreation. In the years from 2012 until 2016, Mr. York said that water-clarity levels had doubled and even tripled. But for the past three years, the bacteria has been back in full force, leaving some to question if the SolarBees can handle the loading.

Mr. Gottlieb said that the way forward to protecting ponds on the Cape is to control the source of the contamination, or essentially catching the abundance of nutrients before they get into the ponds.

One way to do that is by building sewers, which Cape municipalities and environmentalists have long been investigating to catch pollution running into region’s embayments. Mr. Gottlieb said that the emphasis has long been on the marine side, with freshwater ponds being just around the corner.

“We’ve turned that corner,” Mr. Gottlieb said.

Cape Cod Times
By Brian Bushard
I&M Staff Writer
Posted Apr 7, 2019 at 10:25 PM
Updated Apr 8, 2019 at 6:13 AM

Are scalloping’s days numbered on Nantucket?

“Guys that scallop to the end are your veterans, your die-hards, guys who are out there. That’s their business.”

NANTUCKET — Nantucket bay scalloping is a dying profession, town shellfish constable J.C. Johnson said this week, just days after commercial scalloping season came to a close.

Fishermen brought in 13,000 bushels of scallops last season. That number was down by 10,000 bushels this year to around 3,000, making the season’s harvest one of the lowest ever, Johnson said.

Along with the decreased harvest size, the fleet itself is aging, with only a handful of young scallopers now fishing.

“We have a couple younger guys going out, but your veteran guys, Bill Spencer, Herkey Stojak, all those guys who have been scalloping for years are almost done, so what’s going to happen if you don’t have their kids following suit?” he asked.

“Guys that scallop to the end are your veterans, your die-hards, guys who are out there. That’s their business,” he said.

Carl Sjolund has been scalloping off Madaket for the past 50 years. He usually fishes the entire season. This year, however, he pulled his boat midway through January. Even though there were no serious nor’easters or major freeze-ups, he simply was not seeing any adult scallops.

Fish markets were paying scallopers $18 to $22 per pound this year. Last year that price was $12 to $15. Sjolund said the price difference was the incentive to fish this season.

Retail prices at fish markets began at $19 to $23 early in the season. As the season came to a close, the price had gone up to $40.

Blair Perkins did not stick around on the water this year, either. Just a week into the season, he was struggling to reach his limit of five bushels. He took his boat out of Madaket Harbor just 10 days into November. His season was over.

“The days of guys going out, making a living scalloping, are over,” Perkins said. “You would be foolish not to have other work to fall back on.”

In the summer Perkins leads whale watches and cruises with Shearwater Excursions.

“I tested out all over the harbor and all over Madaket Harbor, and I was really discouraged with what I saw, it was mostly seeds (immature scallops),” he said. “It’s really rare to see adult scallops.”

Part of the reason behind that, he said, is because many scallopers take nubs, adult scallops with smaller muscles but a normal-sized shell. The town and the state Division of Marine Fisheries, in 2008, came up with an agreement to allow scallops with a growth ring of 2.5 inches to be harvested.

“The enforcement guys have a hard time trying to get these guys who are taking illegal scallops,” Perkins said.

“It’s so frustrating when we’re so used to taking what we know to be adults and leaving what we knew to be seed. Now there’s such a gray area.”

Natural Resources Department Director Jeff Carlson attributed the dwindling number of scallops to a decline in eelgrass, the underwater plant scallops cling to, to avoid being eaten by predators like crabs.

Carlson remembers seeing scallopers fish off 40th Pole Beach, where there used to be healthy eelgrass beds. Eelgrass used to fill the seafloor from Madaket Harbor to Eel Point, but now, he said, it is virtually nonexistent.

“That population of eelgrass (north of Dionis) has substantially declined in the last decade,” Perkins said. “It’s patchy at best now. It’s not as much a water-quality issue, but there’s been a lot of sediment mixed, and a lot of shoaling.”

Water quality plays a much larger role in Nantucket Harbor, he said, which is reflected in the number of fishing boats he typically sees on the water on a mild winter day.

This year, he would see no more than three boats on a good day. When the scallop yield is low as early as November, the desire to fish goes down with it, he said.

Perkins tested the waters in Nantucket Harbor a couple days this season. It was clouded with algae, he said. He worried that too much algae in the harbor would prevent eelgrass from growing back.

“It’s such a frustrating industry right now,” he said. “Until we deal with water quality, it’s not going to come back. We need to get really serious about water quality. There’s too much fertilizer going into the harbor.”

The Nantucket Land Council, in October, re-started a program to plant eelgrass in a sandy stretch of seafloor off Quaise as well.

Having healthy eelgrass will not prevent year-to-year fluctuations in the number of scallops, Carlson said. But he hoped it would help to increase the number of scallops overall.

“When we look at water quality and habitat health, we want to get to the point where, instead of steady decline, that population is leveling off and even increasing,” he said.

“Then, when you have these fluctuations, it’s not going down to 2,000 or 3,000 bushels. Hopefully you’re looking at 25,000 and 15,000 bushels.”

Are scalloping’s days numbered on Nantucket? - Cape Cod Times

Cape Cod Times
By Doug Fraser
Posted May 4, 2019 at 8:30 PM
Updated May 5, 2019 at 6:46 AM

Cape scientists, inmates explore life in the dead zones

EAST FALMOUTH — If you were looking out the window from one of the homes along the Eel River last Sunday, you saw a very different crew at work on the water.

A dozen or so fishermen-types were crowded onto two rafts. The larger float was anchored, but the smaller one, powered by a tiny outboard, was working its way methodically along a line of buoys, pausing at intervals determined by a laptop GPS flipped open on the decking while two crewmen plunged what looked like a hybrid post hole digger/bull rake into the water. The device brought up black mud from the pond bottom that was then dumped into individual crates, and shuttled via skiff to the larger raft.

Barnstable County Correctional Facility inmates Richy Lapointe and Robert LaBoissiere were pouring buckets of water into the crates carefully washing away the muck, like panning for gold, but picking out mostly broken shells, sometimes an occasional live razor clam or quahog. Lapointe and LaBoissiere had become desensitized to the rotten-egg smell emanating from the mix of sand, clay and organic matter pulled from the river bottom, the product, Falmouth town fisheries biologist Christine Lovely said, of specialized bacteria that could decompose organic material even in low or no-oxygen zones and produced hydrogen sulfide.

The smell was a sign that portions of the river had been slowly dying over the past 10 to 20 years. Nitrogen in septic system effluent acts like lawn fertilizer, fueling explosive growth in algae that that can be both unsightly and smelly. A few cloudy days and photosynthesis grinds to a halt. The bloom dies and the algal mats sink to the bottom and get swept by currents into low-lying portions of the river. Their decomposition sucks all the oxygen out of the water, forming anoxic dead zones that kill other plants and wildlife such as fish and shellfish.

Coring down into these dead zones was being done in part to address the concerns of shellfishermen in town who worried there might still be living quahog beds there.

Sunday’s work, with 144 corings, yielded just 11 stout razor clams, a species that seemed to be able to live in the low-oxygen zones, and a few quahogs. The razor clams were sent to Roger Williams University for study and spawning.

Lovely and Barnstable County Deputy Jeff Wiseman measured every mud core sample like it was a striped bass. LaBoissiere and Lapointe then washed out the muck and picked out the few survivors of what was essentially a blighted benthic ecosystem, pausing over each living thing, from lowly clam worm to fist-sized quahog, like it was a precious nugget.

“These are sweet,” said R. Charles “Chuck” Martinsen as he lifted the mustard-colored inhabitant of a slipper shell to his lips. Falmouth’s deputy director of marine and environmental services and the town’s shellfish constable, Martinsen was overseeing survey work for a pilot project to test the filtering power of oysters and other shellfish and whether these natural filtration organisms will make a quantifiable and substantial impact on nitrogen contamination in town estuaries.

The hope was that oysters, a sweeter and more universally accepted fare, could be coming out of the waters of these areas within a few years as a direct result of the work done Sunday, and that shellfishermen eventually would be bidding to set up aquaculture farms in the three Eel River survey zones.

But to get there, the shellfish projects intended for wastewater cleanup have to prove themselves. The Falmouth ponds and rivers that reach deep into the mainland from Nantucket Sound are so contaminated with nutrients that they chronically suffer from algae blooms. Scientific research has determined that between 72% and 100% of the nitrogen must be prevented from entering the water for those water bodies to recover to the point that they are suitable for bottom plants like eelgrass, and for swimming and fishing.

Typically that level of nitrogen removal could only be done through expensive sewering. But state and federal officials recognized that the public, faced with unprecedented costs in the hundreds of millions of dollars per town to clean up wastewater contamination of bays and ponds, was demanding cheaper alternatives should at least be tried. When the Cape Cod Commission updated the regional wastewater management plan in 2014, it evaluated more than 40 alternative nitrogen-removal technologies, including the use of shellfish, and the DEP and EPA signed off on their use, as long as monitoring showed they were effective.

The town already has installed pilot projects in Little Pond, Bournes Pond and Waquoit Bay, growing around 6.5 million scallops, clams, but mostly oysters. Each oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of water per day, using the nitrogen to build their shell. A recent Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution/Sea Grant study was able to calibrate an average of the grams of nitrogen contained in oyster shells allowing for a more precise estimate of the efficacy of aquaculture projects in a wastewater plan. Other studies in Falmouth and Orleans looked at determining the amount of nitrogen in the tissue of these animals. A third line of inquiry looks at how feces and other indigestible particles excreted by shellfish that drifto the bottom may create an environment favorable to bacteria that also can remove nitrogen from the water.

The survey of three Eel River sites is scheduled to be completed this month, followed by hearings before the Conservation Commission and selectmen with permit applications for the sites sent to the state Division of Marine Fisheries in June. At the same time, the town will solicit applications from private aquaculturists with licenses awarded sometime in June or July.

Falmouth’s comprehensive wastewater management plan approved by the state includes the use of aquaculture to remove approximately 7.2% of the nitrogen from seven ponds, bays and harbors. The plan estimates that aquaculture will remove nearly 7,800 pounds of nitrogen a year from these water bodies, eliminating the need for 550 sewer connections. The remaining 92.8% of nitrogen will be handled through a combination of sewering and alternative technologies such as composting toilets, permeable underground barriers and low-tech solutions such as inlets, lawn fertilizer bans and improved stormwater management.

The goal is to be able to accurately quantify the amount of nitrogen being removed by the shellfish so the town is able to meet the nitrogen-removal goals laid out in the plan.

“People wanted to know how is it working, what is the amount that that is being removed, and we’re able to get a little bit closer to that answer,” Martinsen said.

Karplus said generally, the tissue contains about 40% of the total nitrogen, and the shell around 60%, but that can vary depending on the site and the growing technique, he said. That’s why the state Department of Environmental Protection requires each wastewater aquaculture project to submit tissue and shell samples to a lab to quantify the nitrogen content.

Last week, inmates Arthur Ashley and Al Randell worked on the smaller float with Karplus. The two inmates did the heavy work of shoving the coring device down into the muck, compressing the core sample as water squirted from the top of the device, then lifting that compact, heavy sample back onto the rack for loading into the individual crates.

Inmate Jason Battles worked in the skiff transporting the crates to the big float for processing.

The inmates selected for the project have to be nonviolent offenders near the end of their term. Lapointe, who lives in Harwich and is an electrician by trade, and LaBoissiere, a carpenter from Wakefield, both worked steadily as if they were on a job site.

“Who wouldn’t want to work?” said Lapointe, who will be released in October. LaBoissiere will be released next month.

If they were not on the work detail, Lapointe said they’d be inside the whole day with the exception of a few hours of recreation. Here, they work outdoors for most of the day, something that helps ease the transition to the real world.

“We’ve been working with the Barnstable County inmates and staff for approximately six years,” Martinsen said. The work crew built a propagation center for Falmouth that has grown tens of millions of shellfish, including oysters that will be used on the pilot project and in similar ones in Bourne and Orleans, Martinsen said.

“They’ve been wonderful to work with and they come here and learn a new skill,” he said. Some have gone on to find jobs in aquaculture.

Martinsen tells inmates that after their release they are welcome to come back, bring their families and children.

“They can show them what they did when they were here, that it’s something to be proud of and very fitting that they are making a contribution to the environment and fisheries of Cape Cod,” he said.

— Follow Doug Fraser on Twitter: @dougfrasercct.

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Photo Gallery: Scientists, inmates team up for Falmouth shellfish project

Cape scientists, inmates explore life in the dead zones - Cape Cod Times

Cape Cod Times
By Carlos R. Munoz carlos.munoz@heraldtribune.com
Posted Jan 17, 2019 at 2:05 PM
Updated Jan 17, 2019 at 2:05 PM

Fla. red tide episode kills record number of sea turtles

A Florida red tide outbreak close to 16 months old has killed more sea turtles than any previous single red tide event on record, and manatee deaths are not far behind.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission attributed 589 sea turtles and 213 manatee deaths to this episode of red tide, which began in late 2017. It had killed 127 bottlenose dolphins as of Dec. 20, leading the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to declare an unusual mortality event.

Combined manatee deaths from red tide, human actions, cold stress and other causes are 824, according to a preliminary FWC report. A previous die-off killed 803 manatees in 2013 during another red tide bloom.

Preliminary data from FWC showed that the 824 manatee deaths in 2018 from both red tide, sickness and human-related causes surpassed the previous record of 803 set during another red tide outbreak in 2013.

Because of the partial U.S. government shutdown, NOAA has not provided updates for dolphins on its UME website. Dolphin strandings spiked in August and November, but have begun to slow down as red tide shows signs of weakening along the Southwest Florida coast.

Few experienced the gruesome first-hand effects of red tide more than turtle patrol participants, who wore masks and scarves to check turtle crawls following hatching during nesting season, May through October.

Don MacAulay of Englewood said he felt the effects of the airborne toxins -- a nearly 150-mile by 20-mile wide bloom at its peak -- driving over the bridge to Manasota Key. His throat and eyes burned from the aerosolized red tide toxins carried miles by the sea spray.

The stench of the carnage hung on the summer humidity.

“We were wearing snorkel goggles and respirators to do the job,” said MacAulay, a volunteer since 2016. “It was just horrible. Everywhere you stepped, you couldn’t go down to the shoreline. It was lined all the way with dead fish. ... The bugs were worse.”

Turtle patrollers -- doctors, dentists, anglers, kayakers, teachers, outdoors people from all walks of life -- donned military-grade gas masks or wore scarves over their face on mile-long walks to check for fresh turtle crawls. Later on, they cleared a path through piles of rotting fish to make way for hatchlings racing to the sea.

“The turtles barrel through the dead fish and still nest,” MacAulay said. “We had to go each day regardless of the stench and the toxins in the air. We tried to protect ourselves the best we could. It’s kind of extreme when you’re walking down the beach like you’re in chemical gear in a lab somewhere.”

MacAulay and many others who signed on for the previously leisurely strolls to check nests -- before sunrise and before beachgoers or tides could erase evidence of the crawls -- didn’t quit the thankless job.

“We protect every single nest on the beach from predators and whatever,” MacAulay said. “If we miss a day, it’s pretty bad. Even during hurricanes people try to go out before it gets bad.”

In September, an exasperated MacAulay posted a photo of a deceased dolphin on Facebook. Its jawbone was exposed and it appeared to have been dead for a while.

“Red tide is wiping everything out,” MacAulay told the Herald-Tribune after the discovery.

Fellow Manasota Key patroller Emily Rizzo, whose asthma makes her more prone to red tide sickness -- the itchy throat, watery eyes and coughing -- continued her duty walking a half-mile stretch despite the symptoms.

“I love sea turtles; I feel an obligation,” said Rizzo, who lives in Venice. “Frankly, if I could have found someone to take my place, I’d be happy to let them do it, but we are short of volunteers. It was tough, but I thought I had to do it.”

The turtle hatchlings needed the support. Coyotes have become very active on Manasota Key in the past few years, according to Rizzo.

“We were very, very worried about our babies,” she said.

Suzi Fox, the director of Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch & Shorebird Monitoring, said 2018 was a highly successful nesting season on Anna Maria Island thanks to about 89 walkers. They reported that an estimated 35,000 hatchlings came from 534 nests on the island.

She suspects there could be a dip in nesting next year after several record seasons.

“People don’t come to Anna Maria Island to visit a high-rise,” Fox said. “They come for the wildlife. These people are dedicated to wrapping their arms around the wildlife and protecting it.”

It could be decades before the impact of red tide on the hatchlings is known. Sea turtles take about 20 to 30 years after hatching to reach sexual maturity and mate, according to NOAA.

The data patrollers provided to local and state groups will be vital to studying the long-term impact of red tide on the area’s endangered sea turtles.

“The sea turtle patrol were some of our biggest help during this,” said Gretchen Lovewell, strandings investigations program manager at Mote Marine Laboratory. “They were reporting animals to us every morning, often times collecting them in one area so we could one-stop shop. It was hard enough to pop over the dune and breathe again. They were breathing it in and coughing.

“The death and destruction was bad, but they helped get them out of the environment quicker.”

Mote performed more than 200 necropsies on sea turtles this summer.

The widespread effect of this year’s red tide outbreak made it more difficult to recover and treat marine animals, according to FWC veterinarian Martine DeWitt, who said the 2013 bloom that killed 277 manatees was more localized near Charlotte County.

DeWitt said the recent red tide took more coordination among local and state agencies and that manatees with suspected red tide toxicity are still being collected.

“The toxin can persist in the environment and still be in the sea grass,” she said. “It’s not over yet.”

So far, Manatee County has picked up 316 tons of dead fish from waterways -- consuming 892.5 regular hours and 253.24 overtime hours. Cleanup has cost the county $210,543, the bulk of the costs incurred by contracting with a vendor ($154,482) to clear residential canals during the peak of the bloom.

Sarasota County removed 251 tons of red-tide related fish and marine debris from county-managed properties at a cost of $231,991.57. About 4 additional tons of debris removed from the city of Sarasota were not included in the county cost.

Red tide-related marine animal deaths

Sea turtles

    • Current: 589
    • 2005-2006: 568

Manatees

    • Current: 213*
    • 2013: 277

*Number could rise pending further tissue testing.

Dolphins

    • Current: 129
    • 2005-2006: 190

 

Sources: NOAA, FWC.

Fla. red tide episode kills record number of sea turtles - Cape Cod Times

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