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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12 Responses to “Septic Systems Slaughter Stripers: CLF Fights Back”

  1. Fritz Lauenstein

    I am, again, struck by the lack of thorough investigating within reporting on CLF’s website. Nowhere in this letter or in the Cape Cod Times is there a “scientist” named or any comprehensive understanding of how our ecosystems work, or the different players in this fish kill. How was the nitrogen attributed to septic systems. Could it have been fertilizer? What role did elevated ambient temps on Cape Cod this summer play in the growth of algae? What kind of algae was it? What about the sporadic influx of rainfall and the flow of tides?
    As a concerned citizen and commercial fisherman, I am alarmed by overfishing, climate change and overdevelopment. However our current political system seems to reward organizations that throw grenades into ongoing issues without asking for the hard work that is needed in resolving and understanding them comprehensively. There is a serious problem of how to deal with the overabundance of human feces and urine on Cape Cod just as there is in Boston. So,please CLF, come down to join the local organizations at meetings and get involved in the local conversation or you risk losing the regard and respect of local activists.
    A side note: This fish kill pales in comparison to the number of stripers killed by using gaffs on short fish during the short Massachusetts commercial fishing season and by non-commercial fisherman as well. I would also like to know the history of algae blooms in our estuaries and ponds on the Cape. I am not aware that these are outside the scope of historical norms. They may well be but I have no way of knowing.
    Fritz Lauenstein

  2. Fritz Lauenstein

    I am, again, struck by the lack of thorough investigating within reporting on CLF’s website. Nowhere in this letter or in the Cape Cod Times is there a “scientist” named or any comprehensive understanding of how our ecosystems work, or the different players in this fish kill. How was the nitrogen attributed to septic systems. Could it have been fertilizer? What role did elevated ambient temps on Cape Cod this summer play in the growth of algae? What kind of algae was it? What about the sporadic influx of rainfall and the flow of tides?
    As a concerned citizen and commercial fisherman, I am alarmed by overfishing, climate change and overdevelopment. However our current political system seems to reward organizations that throw grenades into ongoing issues without asking for the hard work that is needed in resolving and understanding them comprehensively. There is a serious problem of how to deal with the overabundance of human feces and urine on Cape Cod just as there is in Boston. So,please CLF, come down to join the local organizations at meetings and get involved in the local conversation or you risk losing the regard and respect of local activists.
    A side note: This fish kill pales in comparison to the number of stripers killed by using gaffs on short fish during the short Massachusetts commercial fishing season and by non-commercial fisherman as well. I would also like to know the history of algae blooms in our estuaries and ponds on the Cape. I am not aware that these are outside the scope of historical norms. They may well be but I have no way of knowing.
    Fritz Lauenstein

  3. Fritz Lauenstein

    I am, again, struck by the lack of thorough investigating within reporting on CLF’s website. Nowhere in this letter or in the Cape Cod Times is there a “scientist” named or any comprehensive understanding of how our ecosystems work, or the different players in this fish kill. How was the nitrogen attributed to septic systems. Could it have been fertilizer? What role did elevated ambient temps on Cape Cod this summer play in the growth of algae? What kind of algae was it? What about the sporadic influx of rainfall and the flow of tides?
    As a concerned citizen and commercial fisherman, I am alarmed by overfishing, climate change and overdevelopment. However our current political system seems to reward organizations that throw grenades into ongoing issues without asking for the hard work that is needed in resolving and understanding them comprehensively. There is a serious problem of how to deal with the overabundance of human feces and urine on Cape Cod just as there is in Boston. So,please CLF, come down to join the local organizations at meetings and get involved in the local conversation or you risk losing the regard and respect of local activists.
    A side note: This fish kill pales in comparison to the number of stripers killed by using gaffs on short fish during the short Massachusetts commercial fishing season and by non-commercial fisherman as well. I would also like to know the history of algae blooms in our estuaries and ponds on the Cape. I am not aware that these are outside the scope of historical norms. They may well be but I have no way of knowing.
    Fritz Lauenstein

  4. Fritz Lauenstein

    I am, again, struck by the lack of thorough investigating within reporting on CLF’s website. Nowhere in this letter or in the Cape Cod Times is there a “scientist” named or any comprehensive understanding of how our ecosystems work, or the different players in this fish kill. How was the nitrogen attributed to septic systems. Could it have been fertilizer? What role did elevated ambient temps on Cape Cod this summer play in the growth of algae? What kind of algae was it? What about the sporadic influx of rainfall and the flow of tides?
    As a concerned citizen and commercial fisherman, I am alarmed by overfishing, climate change and overdevelopment. However our current political system seems to reward organizations that throw grenades into ongoing issues without asking for the hard work that is needed in resolving and understanding them comprehensively. There is a serious problem of how to deal with the overabundance of human feces and urine on Cape Cod just as there is in Boston. So,please CLF, come down to join the local organizations at meetings and get involved in the local conversation or you risk losing the regard and respect of local activists.
    A side note: This fish kill pales in comparison to the number of stripers killed by using gaffs on short fish during the short Massachusetts commercial fishing season and by non-commercial fisherman as well. I would also like to know the history of algae blooms in our estuaries and ponds on the Cape. I am not aware that these are outside the scope of historical norms. They may well be but I have no way of knowing.
    Fritz Lauenstein

  5. Anthony Iarrapino

    Thanks for the comment, Fritz. The article quotes George Hampson, an Oceanographer from NOAA. His analysis of the likely source of the nitrogen enrichment responsible for this and other fish kills–septic systems–and the explanation of how the ecosystems work is entirely consistent with the conclusions reached in the heavily-detailed, peer-reviewed scientific studies of Little Pond and other impaired estuaries on the Cape completed by the Massachusetts Estuaries Project (MEP) as reflected in the Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) approved by EPA. CLF has reviewed these closely as they are the subject of our lawsuits. The “comprehensive analysis” spans hundreds of pages so a full recounting on this blog would be impractical, but I encourage you to reach out to the MEP or to EPA if you want to learn more; the TMDLs are also available on the web:
    http://www.mass.gov/dep/water/resources/tmdls.htm

    I think you will find that the analysis in this blog is consistent with the conclusions reached in those scientific reports. Further, it is consistent with the conclusions of Town officials themselves who are also quoted in the story.

    It is entirely likely that fertilizer run-off played a role in the nitrogen overload that led to this fish kill and even more likely that the elevated temperatures played a role too. The former is among the causes identified in the TMDLs as are the roles of tidal circulation and atmospheric deposition. As your own comments acknowledge, however, and consistent with the conclusions of scientists at SMAST, MEP, EPA, and NOAA, there is no escaping the reality that human wastewater is degrading Cape estuaries like Little Pond, sending a constant stream of over-enriched waste into the ecosystem. And in Little Pond’s watershed, that human wastewater comes mainly from septic systems.

    One cause you mention as an aggravating factor and that the TMDLs fail to grapple with is the elevated temperatures that have been experienced on the Cape and elsewhere throughout the world. As you may know, July was the hottest month ever recorded. These elevated temperatures are consistent with scientific models for global warming. Because CLF is well aware that ecosystem changes brought about by nitrogen over-enrichment can be compounded by elevated temperatures, CLF has challenged the TMDLs–i.e., pollution cleanup plans–approved by EPA specifically because they fail entirely to account for the role that global warming plays in the ecosystem degradation on the Cape. Thus, one objective of the CLF lawsuits is to force EPA to account for climate science in the TMDL process.

    CLF is a member-supported organization. We have members that live and vacation all along the Cape and they are supporting us in this work. Furthermore, my colleagues Chris Kilian and Cynthia Liebman have in fact participated over the last few years in forums held on the Cape aimed at finding clean water solutions to the overabundance of human waste that you acknowledge. More recently, I participated at a clean water forum held in Boston with municipal officials from Cape towns and leaders from the Cape Cod Commission and the Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative. Going forward, I expect we will participate in more such discussions about finding the right solutions to the Cape’s water problems.

  6. Anthony Iarrapino

    Thanks for the comment, Fritz. The article quotes George Hampson, an Oceanographer from NOAA. His analysis of the likely source of the nitrogen enrichment responsible for this and other fish kills–septic systems–and the explanation of how the ecosystems work is entirely consistent with the conclusions reached in the heavily-detailed, peer-reviewed scientific studies of Little Pond and other impaired estuaries on the Cape completed by the Massachusetts Estuaries Project (MEP) as reflected in the Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) approved by EPA. CLF has reviewed these closely as they are the subject of our lawsuits. The “comprehensive analysis” spans hundreds of pages so a full recounting on this blog would be impractical, but I encourage you to reach out to the MEP or to EPA if you want to learn more; the TMDLs are also available on the web:
    http://www.mass.gov/dep/water/resources/tmdls.htm

    I think you will find that the analysis in this blog is consistent with the conclusions reached in those scientific reports. Further, it is consistent with the conclusions of Town officials themselves who are also quoted in the story.

    It is entirely likely that fertilizer run-off played a role in the nitrogen overload that led to this fish kill and even more likely that the elevated temperatures played a role too. The former is among the causes identified in the TMDLs as are the roles of tidal circulation and atmospheric deposition. As your own comments acknowledge, however, and consistent with the conclusions of scientists at SMAST, MEP, EPA, and NOAA, there is no escaping the reality that human wastewater is degrading Cape estuaries like Little Pond, sending a constant stream of over-enriched waste into the ecosystem. And in Little Pond’s watershed, that human wastewater comes mainly from septic systems.

    One cause you mention as an aggravating factor and that the TMDLs fail to grapple with is the elevated temperatures that have been experienced on the Cape and elsewhere throughout the world. As you may know, July was the hottest month ever recorded. These elevated temperatures are consistent with scientific models for global warming. Because CLF is well aware that ecosystem changes brought about by nitrogen over-enrichment can be compounded by elevated temperatures, CLF has challenged the TMDLs–i.e., pollution cleanup plans–approved by EPA specifically because they fail entirely to account for the role that global warming plays in the ecosystem degradation on the Cape. Thus, one objective of the CLF lawsuits is to force EPA to account for climate science in the TMDL process.

    CLF is a member-supported organization. We have members that live and vacation all along the Cape and they are supporting us in this work. Furthermore, my colleagues Chris Kilian and Cynthia Liebman have in fact participated over the last few years in forums held on the Cape aimed at finding clean water solutions to the overabundance of human waste that you acknowledge. More recently, I participated at a clean water forum held in Boston with municipal officials from Cape towns and leaders from the Cape Cod Commission and the Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative. Going forward, I expect we will participate in more such discussions about finding the right solutions to the Cape’s water problems.

  7. Anthony Iarrapino

    Thanks for the comment, Fritz. The article quotes George Hampson, an Oceanographer from NOAA. His analysis of the likely source of the nitrogen enrichment responsible for this and other fish kills–septic systems–and the explanation of how the ecosystems work is entirely consistent with the conclusions reached in the heavily-detailed, peer-reviewed scientific studies of Little Pond and other impaired estuaries on the Cape completed by the Massachusetts Estuaries Project (MEP) as reflected in the Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) approved by EPA. CLF has reviewed these closely as they are the subject of our lawsuits. The “comprehensive analysis” spans hundreds of pages so a full recounting on this blog would be impractical, but I encourage you to reach out to the MEP or to EPA if you want to learn more; the TMDLs are also available on the web:
    http://www.mass.gov/dep/water/resources/tmdls.htm

    I think you will find that the analysis in this blog is consistent with the conclusions reached in those scientific reports. Further, it is consistent with the conclusions of Town officials themselves who are also quoted in the story.

    It is entirely likely that fertilizer run-off played a role in the nitrogen overload that led to this fish kill and even more likely that the elevated temperatures played a role too. The former is among the causes identified in the TMDLs as are the roles of tidal circulation and atmospheric deposition. As your own comments acknowledge, however, and consistent with the conclusions of scientists at SMAST, MEP, EPA, and NOAA, there is no escaping the reality that human wastewater is degrading Cape estuaries like Little Pond, sending a constant stream of over-enriched waste into the ecosystem. And in Little Pond’s watershed, that human wastewater comes mainly from septic systems.

    One cause you mention as an aggravating factor and that the TMDLs fail to grapple with is the elevated temperatures that have been experienced on the Cape and elsewhere throughout the world. As you may know, July was the hottest month ever recorded. These elevated temperatures are consistent with scientific models for global warming. Because CLF is well aware that ecosystem changes brought about by nitrogen over-enrichment can be compounded by elevated temperatures, CLF has challenged the TMDLs–i.e., pollution cleanup plans–approved by EPA specifically because they fail entirely to account for the role that global warming plays in the ecosystem degradation on the Cape. Thus, one objective of the CLF lawsuits is to force EPA to account for climate science in the TMDL process.

    CLF is a member-supported organization. We have members that live and vacation all along the Cape and they are supporting us in this work. Furthermore, my colleagues Chris Kilian and Cynthia Liebman have in fact participated over the last few years in forums held on the Cape aimed at finding clean water solutions to the overabundance of human waste that you acknowledge. More recently, I participated at a clean water forum held in Boston with municipal officials from Cape towns and leaders from the Cape Cod Commission and the Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative. Going forward, I expect we will participate in more such discussions about finding the right solutions to the Cape’s water problems.

  8. Anthony Iarrapino

    Thanks for the comment, Fritz. The article quotes George Hampson, an Oceanographer from NOAA. His analysis of the likely source of the nitrogen enrichment responsible for this and other fish kills–septic systems–and the explanation of how the ecosystems work is entirely consistent with the conclusions reached in the heavily-detailed, peer-reviewed scientific studies of Little Pond and other impaired estuaries on the Cape completed by the Massachusetts Estuaries Project (MEP) as reflected in the Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) approved by EPA. CLF has reviewed these closely as they are the subject of our lawsuits. The “comprehensive analysis” spans hundreds of pages so a full recounting on this blog would be impractical, but I encourage you to reach out to the MEP or to EPA if you want to learn more; the TMDLs are also available on the web:
    http://www.mass.gov/dep/water/resources/tmdls.htm

    I think you will find that the analysis in this blog is consistent with the conclusions reached in those scientific reports. Further, it is consistent with the conclusions of Town officials themselves who are also quoted in the story.

    It is entirely likely that fertilizer run-off played a role in the nitrogen overload that led to this fish kill and even more likely that the elevated temperatures played a role too. The former is among the causes identified in the TMDLs as are the roles of tidal circulation and atmospheric deposition. As your own comments acknowledge, however, and consistent with the conclusions of scientists at SMAST, MEP, EPA, and NOAA, there is no escaping the reality that human wastewater is degrading Cape estuaries like Little Pond, sending a constant stream of over-enriched waste into the ecosystem. And in Little Pond’s watershed, that human wastewater comes mainly from septic systems.

    One cause you mention as an aggravating factor and that the TMDLs fail to grapple with is the elevated temperatures that have been experienced on the Cape and elsewhere throughout the world. As you may know, July was the hottest month ever recorded. These elevated temperatures are consistent with scientific models for global warming. Because CLF is well aware that ecosystem changes brought about by nitrogen over-enrichment can be compounded by elevated temperatures, CLF has challenged the TMDLs–i.e., pollution cleanup plans–approved by EPA specifically because they fail entirely to account for the role that global warming plays in the ecosystem degradation on the Cape. Thus, one objective of the CLF lawsuits is to force EPA to account for climate science in the TMDL process.

    CLF is a member-supported organization. We have members that live and vacation all along the Cape and they are supporting us in this work. Furthermore, my colleagues Chris Kilian and Cynthia Liebman have in fact participated over the last few years in forums held on the Cape aimed at finding clean water solutions to the overabundance of human waste that you acknowledge. More recently, I participated at a clean water forum held in Boston with municipal officials from Cape towns and leaders from the Cape Cod Commission and the Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative. Going forward, I expect we will participate in more such discussions about finding the right solutions to the Cape’s water problems.

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