NEW BEDFORD — When there is heavy rainfall — and sometimes when it’s dry — openings along New Bedford’s shoreline function as relief valves for the city’s old and overloaded sewer system, spewing into nearby waters a mixture of stormwater and untreated sewage from homes and businesses.
Some of these receiving waters contain beds where people recreationally or commercially harvest little necks, cherry stones and chowders — all types of quahogs. But when the openings release enough effluent, those areas must temporarily close due to possible contamination.
The state department overseeing fisheries determined in 2020 that New Bedford’s closures due to releases into Clarks Cove and the outer harbor were no longer predictable or manageable, with some overflows going unreported by the city.
As a result, “conditionally approved” areas for shellfishing in those waters have been continuously closed since late 2019 to 2020. More than two years later, a staff member with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) has expressed concern that these shellfishing areas in waters shared by New Bedford, Fairhaven and Dartmouth will be permanently closed due to the sewage releases.
“I am concerned that due to these issues FDA will require both areas be downgraded and reclassified to Prohibited,” wrote the state’s shellfish program manager Jeff Kennedy in a May memo to DMF Director Daniel McKiernan.
The city is engaged in a multi-year improvement plan, under a decree from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and laid out a plan to spend more than $260 million through at least 2036 to upgrade the system. As this work moves along, the city is still grappling with remediating problems created by old, costly-to-fix systems.
According to the EPA, sewage discharges are a “major problem” in the country and cause some bodies of water to remain unsafe for swimming and fishing, with the problem being “especially acute” in New England, where more than 100 communities are affected.
These openings, called combined sewer overflows (CSOs), have decreased in number since the 1990s, and consequently, the city through sewer separation efforts has reduced the amount of sewage outfall from an estimated 3.1 billion gallons in 1990 to about 183 million gallons in 2016, according to a city report.
It was further reduced to 181.9 million gallons from July 2020 through June 2021, according to a city spokesperson.
While the city’s work to improve the system has resulted in thousands of acres of previously closed shellfish areas opening, the affected areas currently closed are about 4,000 acres.
Eddie Foster, a third-generation fisherman, has been harvesting quahogs for nearly four decades, including from the outer harbor since the 1990s, but he hasn’t been able to harvest as much due to the closures.
“It’s just devastating honestly,” Foster, 55, said of the closures. “I’m a little dumbfounded and lost for words with it… This is my livelihood. This is what I do, what I’ve done all my life. It’s just crushing.”
Foster said it’s just two people, himself included, who have commercial permits to harvest shellfish in the harbor and Clarks Cove.
Eight CSOs dot the Clarks Cove shoreline, and six run along the eastern peninsula into the outer harbor.
“They can’t even keep two lousy guys working. We just want to go to work and earn an honest living,” he said, adding he’s making about half of what he was earning before the closures.
Foster said there is a third area farther offshore that is not closed where he’s been fishing, but that there is not much shellfish to be caught there. If he wasn’t also catching blood clams, he said the quahogs alone wouldn’t be enough to justify the trips.
He said he’s thinking of tying up his boat for now as the operating costs are too high given what he’s been able to catch.
Though these shellfishing areas have been closed, they are still listed as conditionally approved areas, just in a closed status. They have been conditionally approved for at least a decade to possibly several decades, according to Kennedy, and managed based on rainfall and the CSO activations.
Timothy Cox, the Fairhaven harbormaster and shellfish constable, said there is no concern as far as swimming at the local beaches, but said the shellfish closures have affected people who shellfish commercially and recreationally.
“We’ve got to get everybody on the same page to figure out if these areas are going to be able to be open again,” Cox told The Light.
Alan Curtis, the other person with a commercial permit for New Bedford, only got involved in shellfishing a few years ago after sustaining an injury working on a scalloper.
He said Clarks Cove is “jam-packed” with quahogs, and he would mainly go there for shellfish.
“It doesn’t look like they’re ever going to open it,” Curtis, 60, said. “It’s very disheartening. I don’t even think about it anymore, it just ruins my day.”
He said he spent tens of thousands of dollars to buy and rebuild his 35-foot vessel. But now, it sits in its slip with a for sale sign. He said he hasn’t gone fishing in about two months, and hasn’t been able to pay the city the full annual fee for the slip.
On fishing beyond the outer harbor and farther offshore, Curtis said it can be riskier and noted it’s not worth the operating costs. He estimated about three to four bushels per hour in Clarks Cove, but only about one bushel per hour for the open area farther out.
Foster said a bushel can sell for $50 to $100, depending on the size of the quahogs.
New Bedford City Councilors Brian Gomes and Scott Lima during a June council meeting spoke of the need to get the shellfish areas back open, citing Kennedy’s memo.
Lima, who also serves on the board of directors for the New Bedford Ocean Cluster, a nonprofit that focuses on aquaculture (among other marine sectors), said he toured the now-closed areas by boat a few years ago, where people discussed bringing aquaculture for oyster farming.
“That was looked at as the perfect place to do this,” Lima said of Clarks Cove and the outer harbor.
Blair Bailey, general counsel for the New Bedford Port Authority, said talks are actively underway about developing aquaculture in these areas (or possibly other areas), and that the CSOs are not of concern to officials as the aquaculture would be suspended in the water column.
“We’ve had conversations with all the agencies about what are places where this sort of activity can take place… because obviously they need to make sure it is clean and they can’t have these closures for their business,” he said. “As far as the Clarks Cove and outer areas, we haven’t heard anything back from anyone that said it’s a bad idea or shouldn’t go there.”
Cox said the area Fairhaven shares with New Bedford, which is the outer harbor, is a “strong area” to catch shellfish so the closures have affected those who fish commercially “immensely.” He estimates up to a dozen people in Fairhaven have been affected.
New Bedford Department of Public Infrastructure Commissioner Jamie Ponte said there are two commercial permits for New Bedford shellfishing, while the rest are recreational.
Per Kennedy’s memo, two local commercial fishermen have been frustrated, with one leaving a “caustic” voicemail with DMF. The memo identified the fishermen as Foster and Curtis.
Under the Superfund site designation, the EPA still considers fish and shellfish caught in some areas of the New Bedford Harbor unsafe for human consumption at certain levels. For shellfish in Area 2, the EPA recommends not more than one meal per month, or one meal per week from Clarks Cove, and no lobster or bottom-feeding fish at all.
Korrin Petersen, vice president of clean water advocacy for the Buzzards Bay Coalition, said New Bedford has struggled for the last century due to its older wastewater system.
“They have a lot of work ahead of them to disconnect the stormwater system from the sewer system,” she said. “We certainly are supporting all of their efforts. They’ve made a lot of gains in recent decades, but it’s really expensive work to do.”
Petersen said the coalition is more concerned about nitrogen pollution as it relates to the health of the bay, which is caused by septic systems in more suburban communities. She called it the “greatest long term threat” to the bay’s health.
The nitrogen problem is not as much a concern coming from New Bedford, Petersen explained, because urban centers have municipal plants and wastewater treatment facilities that keep the nitrogen levels lower. In contrast, people in suburbs have individual septic systems that can leach into the groundwater and run off into nearby waters.
The biggest issue with CSO activations is the bacteria levels because it is untreated sewage, Petersen said.
When combined sewer overflow systems discharge
Combined sewer systems, which are more often found in older cities, are designed such that stormwater and sewage run in the same pipes. When there is heavy rain or significant snowmelt, the system can get overloaded, so combined sewer overflows (CSOs) release some of the untreated sewage and stormwater into local waterways through outfalls so that it doesn’t back up into homes or public streets.
When the weather is drier and there is no need for overflow, the sewage will get transferred to the local wastewater treatment plant, though sometimes there can be releases during dry weather due to malfunctions in the system.
Newer systems have separate piping for stormwater and sewage, but some older cities in Massachusetts, including New Bedford and Boston, are still operating to some degree with the older, combined systems.
According to the EPA, sewage discharges are a “major problem” in the country and cause some bodies of water to remain unsafe for swimming and fishing, with the problem being “especially acute” in New England.
New Bedford public works officials said the city’s Department of Health also tests the water after the outfall releases to ensure it is safe for swimming, and notifies public works whenever there is a health risk for swimming.
Regarding shellfishing, DPI Commissioner Ponte said that over time, both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and DMF became more strict with their interpretation of a memorandum of understanding regarding closures.
The city in its efforts to address the closures installed new equipment to monitor some of the outfall activity.
“We’ve been working on the equipment that we put into the system to try and show [the Division of Marine Fisheries] that our discharges are not what they think they are,” said DPI Deputy Commissioner Justin Chicca.
Some of this new equipment includes meters, each of which costs about $2,100 per year, that collect data on the frequency and volume of the overflows. The city currently has more than 30 meters that function to alert officials of any dry weather overflows as well.
“Now we actually have real time data. Right now in the dry weather, if there was an issue here, and this [CSO] is metered, we’ll actually get a notification saying, ‘Hey, there’s a problem.’ And we’re able to react to it,” Ponte said. “It’s a good system.”
Kennedy noted in his memo in May that the city’s system was not yet ready for use, but Ponte said the system became operational that month and that the city has been using it to report CSO releases to the state, as required by a new law, since July.
The state law requires all permittees to notify the public of discharges of untreated or partially treated wastewater, but allowed some time between its passage and when the reporting requirement started.
According to the state’s data portal for CSO releases, there have been four reported activations in New Bedford since July. The data entered includes measures of any rainfall, as well as the duration of the release.
“Most important to DMF is the ability to calculate if/when each CSO activates, the duration, flows and ultimately the volume,” Kennedy wrote.
Some of New Bedford’s earliest sewers, which are combined sewers, date to the mid-1800s and comprise the “backbone” of the city’s existing system, according to a report. More were added between the 1930s and 1960s as the city expanded, and most of the sewer system is 50 years or older.
Since 1990, the city has spent at least $280 million to improve the system and mitigate discharges into surrounding waters, including the construction of new pipes and the closure of CSOs.
As the work continues, the FDA will soon undertake a review of Clarks Cove and the outer harbor. They were two of several locations the agency selected for review in Massachusetts, per Kennedy, and the purpose of the review is to verify DMF’s compliance with the National Shellfish Sanitation Program (NSSP).
The role of the FDA is to evaluate state programs for compliance with national sanitation requirements and provide training and technical assistance, per an FDA spokesperson, who said the review of New Bedford waters is tentatively scheduled for this month.
The FDA will conduct field observations and review sanitary surveys, water quality samples and data provided by DMF and other sources.
The review will conclude with recommendations that DMF must address. Ultimately, though, each state is responsible for classification of its own shellfish growing waters, Kennedy said, so in Massachusetts, DMF will determine whether these shellfishing areas will remain conditionally approved and managed in response to CSO activations, or be downgraded to closed.
“We continue to work with the Division of Marine Fisheries and show them data that we have and to try and figure out a way to get some of these beds in certain areas open,” Chicca said. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure the water quality is the best it can be. And that obviously we want to make sure the shellfishing is safe for all the people that want to come out here and get it.”
Kennedy told The Light that New Bedford has spent a lot of money on the monitoring system, and that DMF appreciates it as well as their cooperation.
The City Council in June passed a motion to convene state and local officials to discuss what has been done so far and what will be done so that the shellfish areas can reopen. It was sent to the council’s committee on fisheries, which will meet Tuesday at 7 p.m.
Kennedy, Ponte, DMF Director McKiernan and DMF Shellfish Biologist Matt Camisa have all been invited to attend and discuss the issue.
Curtis and Foster plan on attending.
Email Anastasia E. Lennon at email@example.com.
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