Flooding closes shellfish beds

Bacteria counts rise in inshore waters; only Nantucket escapes state shutdown. (6/18/98)

By JOHN LEANING STAFF WRITER

Shellfish beds up and down the Massachusetts coastline, including those off almost all of Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and in all of Buzzards Bay, were ordered closed yesterday because of bacterial pollution washed in by the torrential weekend rains. Wellfleet shellfish constable Paul Somerville said the shellfishing industry could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars from the closure, which will also cause widespread inconvenience for restaurant customers who expected major shellfish orders.

Donald Ryder seeding shellfish bed at Wychmere Harbor. Shellfish beds up and down the coastline were ordered closed yesterday due too bacterial threat from heavy down pours.Tom Leach photo.

The closure remains in effect until tests show water has cleared. "It is very important people realize this is a precautionary measure in the interest of public health," Somerville said. The pollution comes mainly from overflowing sewer and septic systems, and also from road and field runoff and may cause human illness.

On the Cape, the weekend deluge dumped 5.88 inches into a rain gauge maintained by the Cape Cod Commission. At the Barnstable wastewater treatment plant, 3.67 inches were recorded. The closure, coming just two weeks before the traditional summer tourist kickoff, the 4th of July weekend, was ordered by the state's Division of Marine Fisheries. For shellfishermen and markets, "This is a major hit two weeks before the July Fourth weekend," said Frank Germano, senior shellfish biologist with the state.

The state standard for water quality for shellfishing is 14 colonies of fecal coliform bacteria per 100 milliliters of water - about three ounces. Germano said preliminary test results from beds in some Cape towns showed colonies in the 100s. "We are utilizing every means possible to open areas as soon as possible. But it will not be done at any human risk," Germano said. Included are all coastal shellfish beds from Sandwich to the New Hampshire border, all of Buzzards Bay, all of Martha's Vineyard, and just about every cove, river and embayment on Cape Cod.

Areas that remain open include Nantucket, which received only 2 inches of rain over the weekend, and open waters - some areas in Cape Cod Bay and on the Atlantic Ocean side of the Cape. Shellfish in stores and restaurants now should be considered safe because they were harvested before the rain. "Not to worry. Chances are, everything in restaurants and fish markets (now) was taken from approved waters," Somerville said.

Peter Nielson, owner of Breakwater Fish in Brewster, said he has good stock taken before the rains began. He said some markets or restaurants may choose to run out of shellfish, or to assure the public it is safe. "Go to people you know and trust," he said. The coastal closures from Sandwich to New Hampshire were due in large measure to contamination from the Boston Harbor sewage outfalls.

At the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, which is responsible for treating sewage from the Boston metropolitan area, spokesman Paul DiNatale said the new plant handed one billion gallons of sewage, combining both primary and secondary treatment, over the weekend. But the total volume of water was so great there were sewer and storm drain overflows, compounding the pollution problem. 'In essence, this was a flood. There is not a heck of a lot more you can do to be prepared," DiNatale said, noting that the plant equipment performed well.

Later this year, the MWRA will start up the long treated sewage discharge into Massachusetts Bay to help clean Boston Harbor. Cape critics of the outfall worry that the single outfall, discharging hundreds of millions of gallons daily, could pose pollution threats to Cape Cod. But the shellfish closures on the Cape and Martha's Vineyard were less related to the Boston Harbor discharges than to the region's own septic systems.

Germano said area septic systems were flooded out, "bubbling over" and spewing raw sewage into coastal waters or streams that flow into coastal embayments. That was happening on the Cape, and in inland areas where the pollution flowed to the coast in river discharges. "Unfortunately, the closures are a reflection that most surface waters are shooting directly into shellfishing water," said Henry Lind, Eastham's shellfish constable and director of natural resources. "You can get away with that in intermittent rain, but more than three inches in 12 hours blows all the statistics out the door." "We have to keep this in mind, and plan for it in the contingency plan," said Armando Carbonell, executive director of the Cape Cod Commission. "And we do have to clean up our own act. To be sincere critics of the outfall and have an environment that meets our expectations, a lot of work has to be done at home," he said.

The last time the state ordered such an extensive shellfish bed closure was October 1996, when the region was also hit with torrential rains. Similar closures were put into place following the "No Name" northeaster in October 1991 and Hurricane Bob in August 1991. "The good news is it is not quite the season when prices are up. The bad news is any time you have a closure, you lose money, but you also have a ripple effect. That's what we really have to overcome," Lind said, referring to people's reluctance to eat shellfish from an area that was once closed but since deemed safe and reopened by the state. "With any kind of food product like that, people are very sensitive to potential problems," he said.