Buzzards Bay Report Finds Pause in Nitrogen Pollution

The 2015 State of the Bay report. (Buzzards Bay Coalition)

The 2015 State of the Bay report. (Buzzards Bay Coalition)

By ecoRI News staff

Last year, for the first time in more than a decade, harmful nitrogen pollution in Buzzards Bay didn’t get worse, reflecting an encouraging pause in the decline of the health of local harbors, coves and tidal rivers across the South Coast and Cape Cod’s western shore, according to the Buzzards Bay Coalition’s latest State of Buzzards Bay report.

After falling at a dramatic rate of three points every four years since 2003, when the coalition released its first State of Buzzards Bay report, the score for nitrogen pollution leveled off in 2015.

“Since 2003, we have documented troubling trends in the health of Buzzards Bay. No factor has continued to suppress Bay health and restoration efforts more than nitrogen pollution,” Buzzards Bay Coalition (BBC) president Mark Rasmussen wrote in the press release that announced the recent findings. “But local efforts to clean up nitrogen pollution from septic systems and sewer plants, as well as to prevent new sources of pollution, may be beginning to stop these declines.”

Nitrogen pollution is the biggest threat facing the health of Buzzards Bay, according to the BBC. Data collected through the coalition’s Baywatchers monitoring program show that more than half of the bay’s harbors, coves and tidal rivers suffer from nitrogen pollution. When water is polluted with nitrogen, it becomes cloudy and murky with algae, and fish, shellfish and eelgrass begin to disappear.

The report uses nine different indicators to track the health of Buzzards Bay. These indicators are grouped into three categories: pollution, watershed health and living resources. Overall, Buzzards Bay received a 2015 score of 45 out of 100.

Pollution (nitrogen, bacteria, toxics): All three pollution indicators remained steady in 2015. Municipalities across the South Coast and Cape Cod are taking steps to reduce nitrogen pollution. However, the bacteria and toxics scores have stagnated after steady improvement in past reports.

Watershed health (wetlands, forests, stream buffers): Across the region, proactive land conservation and permitting at the local level led to another year of stability in the scores for wetlands, forests and stream buffers. These important habitats filter out nitrogen pollution and protect Buzzards Bay.

Living resources (eelgrass, bay scallops, river herring): Overall, the score for eelgrass didn’t change in 2015, reflecting the reductions in nitrogen pollution, which impacts this underwater habitat. Bay scallops and river herring populations remain dangerously low in Buzzards Bay, after stunning declines during the past several decades.

To create the State of the Bay report, the BBC collaborates with scientists and land-use experts to examine the best-available current and historical data. Every four years, the coalition assesses these same nine indicators as a consistent method for tracking progress and pollution over time.