We know that nitrogen pollution entering our bays and harbors – from aging sewer and septic systems, fertilizer use, and burning fossil fuels – has crippled, and in many areas destroyed, countless acres of salt marshes, seagrass meadows and shellfish beds across southern New England and New York. Excess nitrogen is the cause of the chronic dead zone in western Long Island Sound. It fuels algae blooms that consume oxygen in the water, kill fish and other marine life, poison shellfish, and cause respiratory distress and skin irritations in people and their pets. But, did you know that nitrogen pollution doesn’t just threaten Long Island Sound?
Right now - nutrient pollution is ravaging south Florida and the situation is dire. Red tides on the west coast are devastating wildlife, local fisheries and tourism, Sargassum – a brown seaweed – piling up and rotting on east coast beaches is turning away locals and tourists alike, and toxic blue-green algae discharged from Lake Okeechobee has become a human health hazard on both coasts. [Click the links above to view just a few of the current stories in the news.]
These images and stories are all too familiar, evoking recent memories of brown tides, tens of thousands of dead fish, and thick mats of Ulva – a green seaweed – piled up on our own local beaches. The availability of excess nutrients is the origin of the problem in all these crises. Our data indicate that reducing nitrogen pollution and improving natural resource management efficacy are foundational to protecting Long Island Sound from further decline and restoring the conditions biodiversity needs to thrive. That’s why the Conservancy is using science, innovation and engaging partners to solve this problem. And, we are making progress toward nitrogen reduction goals in Connecticut and New York.
Restoring the clean coastal waters that support life in our estuaries, oceans and coastal communities requires a long-term investment. It’s a local, national and global issue, inextricably tied to ensuring clean water, food security, healthy communities, and even adaptation to climate change.
Nitrogen pollution in our estuaries and oceans is accelerating, and increasing the vulnerability of marine life to, ocean acidification – dubbed the “evil twin” of climate change – because as algal blooms decompose, in addition to consuming oxygen, they release carbon dioxide in the process. In turn, reducing local sources of nitrogen pollution decreases local stressors, increasing the resilience of both marine life and coastal communities to the global stress from climate change. The Conservancy is uniquely positioned to work at local, state and federal levels – and at scale – to promote policy reforms, mobilize support for stronger water quality standards and identify advanced technologies and practices that reduce nitrogen pollution at its source. We all depend on clean water and healthy marine life, and we must all do our part to protect it.
Written by Chantal Collier, The Nature Conservancy’s Long Island Sound Program Director