Strangling the Sound
This chapter details the role of nitrogen in the Sound, as well as the consequences of too much nitrogen. I found the discussion of salt marshes to be particularly interesting because my father often speaks of making salt hay in Stony Creek when he was a child, but my family no longer keeps up that tradition, so I did not know much about salt marshes.
The amount of nitrogen flowing into the Sound has risen dramatically. “Four centuries of ever-increasing development and population had swollen the Sound’s burden of nitrogen to 91,000 tons per year, a 128 percent increase over the estimated 40,000 tons that flowed to the Sound before European settlement. The additional 51,300 tons of nitrogen included 29,600 tons from sewage plants and factories, and 8,800 tons from storm water runoff.” The effects of eutrophication began to be evident as oxygen levels decreased, but unfortunately the hypoxia was largely ignored, until repeated crashes that seemed to occur in August. In 1973, the National Marine Fisheries Service found that “compared with 1972, there were 86 percent fewer benthic animals and 55 percent fewer benthic species. In other words, almost nine out of ten individual animals, and more than half of all the kinds of animals, were wiped out.” Such large effects on the populations in only a single year’s time are simply terrifying.
The overall message that I got in this chapter was the need for an effective way to remove nitrogen from wastewater. While nitrogen will runoff from many different places, I believe that focusing on the wastewater treatment plants will be a good start.
The Brink of Disaster
My blue-collar roots made the story of John Fernandes resonate with me. Being raised on a farm myself, and marrying into a fishing family, I can only imagine how heart-breaking and scary it was for Fernandes to pull up what he thought would be 300 pound worth of lobsters to sell, and instead finding that they were all dead. As Phil Briggs from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation said, “They’re fearful for their livelihood right now, and I don’t blame them.”
Researcher Barbara Welsh lays out the scenario that as the western parts of the Sound became hypoxic, the lobsters, fish, and other mobile animals migrated eastward, in search of oxygen. So while western lobsterman like Fernandes weren’t catching anything, there were record catches toward the middle and east of the sound.
Anderson goes on to describe that 90% of lobsters in the Sound are caught when they reach their legal size, so it is important to the survival of the species that they are able to reproduce before being caught. He also describes the many illegal measures that lobstermen will take, including territoriality, keeping shorts in underwater cages, scraping the eggs off females. The consequences for getting caught are high, including losing your license. I am friends with some commercial lobster fishermen who live on a little island in Maine. The older lobstermen tell tales of territoriality in their early days, and they all talk about getting buoys getting cut and losing pots, people hauling someone else’s pot, and boats getting sunk. Even in the last five years, a man that I know had his boat sunk when he moved into a new town. Their description of protecting the lobster population is more encouraging: females with eggs have their tails notched, and in Maine it is illegal to catch a lobster with a notched tail, since it is known that she is a breeding female. This is the type of management that I would like to see in the Sound. However, there are decreasing yields of lobsters in Maine as well, and the prices have also dropped, making, as Anderson describes, a man work much harder for the same amount of money.
Back in Connecticut, we see fisherman continuing to leave the business, selling or losing their boats, just as we see farming families selling or losing their farms. I am hopeful that new methods of aquaculture and a better understanding of the impact of human activity as well as ecological influences on populations will lead to more sustainable management of the Sound’s fish and shellfish, both for our own benefit and the health of the Sound.