‘Oyster Effect’ to be Tested on Estuaries and Salt Ponds

By ecoRI News staff

WESTPORT, Mass. — The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth School for Marine Science & Technology (SMAST) researchers were recently awarded $525,967 by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to determine whether the development of oyster colonies can restore estuaries and salt ponds endangered by high nitrogen levels.

UMass Dartmouth has partnered with the Westport River Watershed Alliance (WRWA) on this project. The project will use the waters of Cockeast Pond as a natural laboratory and will quantify the utility of oysters in removing excess nitrogen to promote estuarine restoration. WRWA has joined the team to enhance outreach efforts to other municipalities.

This project follows a lengthy study by SMAST and WRWA on the conditions in Cockeast Pond, where the water quality has degraded significantly during the past decades. The first stage of the project will determine if the oysters will survive in the pond’s fluctuating temperature and salinity conditions, and then will measure reductions in nitrogen pollution and the corresponding rebounding of native aquatic species.

The grant is part of a $4.6 million program to develop innovative, cost-effective strategies to protect coastal waters in southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The projects are intended to identify, test and promote effective regional approaches in critical areas, such as water monitoring, watershed planning, nutrient and/or septic management, and resilience to climate change.

The UMass Dartmouth initiative, led by Brian Howes and Roland Samimy at SMAST’s Coastal Systems Program, will use the Westport River and Cockeast Pond — a coastal pond connected to the river — as a natural laboratory to test whether the development of oyster clusters can reduce nitrogen levels that destroy fish and other marine habitats. If proven successful, the strategy, which utilizes the natural power of oysters to cleanse water of nitrogen, could help reduce the need for high-cost solutions such as expanded wastewater treatment systems.

“Addressing the nitrogen problem along the South Coast, Cape Cod and the South Shore will cost billions of dollars if we only consider traditional strategies such as bigger wastewater treatment plants and more sewer lines,” Howes said. “We just don’t have the time or money for that course. It is, therefore, imperative that we find soft solutions that leverage nature, in this case the oyster, to make progress.”

These projects are funded through EPA’s Southeast New England Program (SNEP). Since its launch in 2014, SNEP's mission has been to seek and adopt transformative environmental management. The program's geographic area encompasses coastal watersheds from Westerly, R.I. to Chatham, and includes Narragansett Bay and all other Rhode Island coastal waters, Buzzards Bay, southern Cape Cod, and the islands of Block Island, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

“SNEP serves as a unique and exciting framework for acting holistically in a critical but very vulnerable ecosystem,” Curt Spalding, regional administrator for EPA’s New England office, said. “The stresses challenging the coastal watersheds of southeast New England are regional and complex. The proof is in these eight new projects — together they reach up into the Taunton watershed and down to Rhode Island’s Salt Ponds and Aquidneck Island, cross Buzzards Bay to the middle of Cape Cod, explore septic system improvements in multiple states. We see this as the way of the future for doing business.”