Oysters cleanse water of nitrogen

Researchers are testing whether oyster clusters can reduce nitrogen levels that destroy fish habitats.

Massachusetts oyster bed in a Fish & Wildlife Preserve

UMass Dartmouth School for Marine Science & Technology (SMAST) researchers were awarded $525,967 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to determine whether the development of oyster colonies can restore estuaries and salt ponds endangered by high nitrogen levels.

Led by SMAST Professor Brian Howes, director of the school’s Coastal Systems Program, and Roland Samimy, research manager with the program, the initiative will use the Westport River and Cockeast Pond (a tributary of the river) as a natural laboratory. The team will test whether the development of oyster clusters can reduce nitrogen levels that destroy fish and other marine wildlife habitats.

Harnessing the power of oysters to cleanse water of nitrogen

If proven successful, the strategy, which harnesses the natural power of the oyster to cleanse water of nitrogen, could help reduce the need for high-cost solutions such as expanded wastewater treatment systems.

“Addressing the nitrogen problem along the SouthCoast, Cape Cod, and the South Shore will cost billions of dollars if we only consider traditional strategies, such as bigger wastewater treatment plants and more sewer lines,” Howes said. “We just don’t have the time or money for that course. It is, therefore, imperative that we find soft solutions that leverage nature, in this case the oyster, to make progress.”

UMass Dartmouth has partnered with the Westport River Watershed Alliance (WRWA) on this project. WRWA has joined the team to enhance outreach efforts to other municipalities and for public dissemination of the results. The project will quantify the utility of oysters in estuarine restoration, but also implement first steps toward restoration of the Westport River.

The grant is part of a $4.6 million program of the EPA’s Southeast New England Program to develop innovative, cost-effective strategies to protect coastal waters in southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

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