Septic Systems Slaughter Stripers: CLF Fights Back

Anthony Iarrapino

The other night, I broiled a gorgeous piece of striped bass for dinner. Though I savored each bite of this healthy, delicious, lean protein, I couldn’t help think of the grim images of other sizeable stripers that washed up dead in the latest fish kill to occur on the shores of Cape Cod in late July.

Healthy striped bass like these inhabit many of New England's coastal waters. Nutrient pollution from septic systems creates toxic algae blooms in Cape Cod waters that threaten these fish. Photo credit: Bemep @ Flickr Creative Commons

According to the Cape Cod Times, on July 25, Falmouth residents began calling local officials complaining about foul odors and dead fish washing up on the shores of Little Pond Estuary–one of the many areas along Cape Cod where fresh water from the land mixes with salt water from the ocean. Upon investigation, officials confirmed the presence of what one resident referred to as a “heap of large dead fish…on the shore.”  Among the dead fish were dozens of striped bass, some measuring as long as 40″. The story noted that this is not the first fish kill of its kind in Falmouth’s Little Pond, nor is it the first on Cape Cod. You can see pictures of the dead stripers and read the full article here, and also check out a previous post to this blog discussing another Cape fish kill that occurred a couple of years ago: “1,000 Dead Fish on Cape Cod: When Will the Killer Be Brought to Justice?

The tragic slaughter of these beautiful fish–much beloved by sport fishermen who bring tourism revenue to the Cape and other places on New England coast that these hard-fighting fish frequent–could have been stopped.

Scientists who investigated the fish kill identified nitrogen pollution from nearby septic systems as the main culprit.  You see, nitrogen is a common component of human wastewater. When too much of that wastewater flows unchecked into an estuary, the nitrogen feeds explosive blooms of toxic algae that  make the water smell foul, unpleasant to look at, and unsafe to swim in. Blooms of harmful algae also throw the entire ecosystem out of balance, resulting in an underwater environment without enough oxygen for even fast-swimming fish like stripers to survive.

Normally, most of the nitrogen that leaches from underground septic systems is retained in the soils. But, as this fish kill demonstrates, Cape Cod’s sandy soils present a unique problem because they are so porous that the pollution flows right through them and bubbles up into surface estuaries. Because of this unique pollution problem and the dire need to address it before more slaughter occurs, CLF is pushing EPA to recognize that the Clean Water Act requires these septic-system polluters to clean up their act.

Last week, a federal judge in Boston accepted the joint schedule that CLF and our partner Buzzard’s Bay Coalition worked out with EPA lawyers so that the Cape Cod cleanup litigation can move forward.  You can read more about our lawsuit and the clean water solutions that will help save the stripers here.

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