Love That Dirty Water
Boston Harbor has long been a favorite spot for many recreational anglers. Even before the major cleanup that led to the beautiful harbor we know and love today, people flocked to the “flounder capital of the world” in pursuit of winter flounder, also known as blackback flounder. A recent study discussed in The Conversation shows how the harbor cleanup has impacted winter flounder and the local marine ecosystem, highlighting the importance of healthy ocean habitats.
For those unfamiliar with the history of Boston Harbor, the city used to allow raw sewage to flow directly in the harbor. It took a lawsuit and a court-ordered cleanup for the city to end the sewage sludge discharge and build a secondary treatment plant and tunnel that would discharge offshore.
As discussed in The Conversation article, winter flounder interestingly thrived in that pre-cleanup dirty water where there was an abundant food supply in the sewage sludge. With that food supply, though, came health costs. In 1984, studies showed that 8-15 percent of winter flounder sampled from Boston Harbor had liver tumors, but annual testing since the cleanup showed tumors in winter flounder declining over time, and no tumors were detected after 2004.
Michael Moore, lead scientist on the study and senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, wrote in The Conversation: “Boston Harbor’s turnaround shows that heavily damaged ecosystems can recover and provide benefits far larger than their cleanup costs.” In fact, Moore notes that another recent study “estimates that Boston Harbor now provides a capital value of $30 billion to $100 billion in ecosystem services, such as recreation opportunities and habitat for fish and shellfish, thanks to a cleanup with a total price tag of $4.7 billion.”
The benefits that have resulted from the Boston Harbor cleanup – note the video in The Conversation article of a breaching humpback whale – emphasize the importance of maintaining healthy ocean habitats. The ocean is a rapidly industrializing environment and New England is not immune to these threats. From historical and current impacts of fishing gear to renewed interests from the federal government in offshore oil and gas exploration (and Moore even mentions a few others), marine animals and plants in our region face constant pressure. This is only increased by the ecological changes resulting from impacts of climate change and ocean acidification.
The threat of sewage in Boston Harbor may be behind us, but there are many still existing and new threats that make it all the more important to protect spaces in our ocean where marine life can thrive.