2016 2016: UMass Dartmouth researchers awarded $525,967 to test the positive “oyster effect” on estuaries and salt ponds endangered by high nitrogen levels

2016 2016: UMass Dartmouth researchers awarded $525,967 to test the positive “oyster effect” on estuaries and salt ponds endangered by high nitrogen levels
UMass Dartmouth researchers awarded $525,967 to test the positive “oyster effect” on estuaries and salt ponds endangered by high nitrogen levels

Initiative focused on Westport River is part of $4.6 million program to protect southeast New England coastal watersheds through innovative “soft solutions”

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

The grant is part of a $4.6 million program to develop innovative, cost-effective strategies to protect coastal waters in southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The projects are intended to identify, test, and promote effective new regional approaches in critical areas such as water monitoring, watershed planning, nutrient and/or septic management, and resilience to climate change.

The UMass Dartmouth initiative, led by Dr. Brian Howes and Dr. Roland Samimy at SMAST’s Coastal Systems Program, will use the Westport River and Cockeast Pond (a tributary of the river) as a natural laboratory to test whether the development of oyster clusters can reduce nitrogen levels that destroy fish and other marine wildlife habitats. If proven successful, the strategy, which utilizes 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,” Dr. 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 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 Rivers.

These projects are funded through EPA's Southeast New England Program (SNEP). Since its launch in 2014, SNEP's mission has been to seek and adopt transformative environmental management. The program's geographic area encompasses the coastal watersheds from Westerly, Rhode Island to Chatham, Massachusetts, and includes Narragansett Bay and all other Rhode Island coastal waters, Buzzards Bay, and southern Cape Cod as well as the islands of Block Island, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket.

"SNEP serves as a unique and exciting framework for acting holistically in a critical but very vulnerable ecosystem," said Curt Spalding, Regional Administrator for EPA's New England office. "The stresses challenging the coastal watersheds of Southeast New England are regional and complex. With support from his Congressional colleagues and other partners, Senator Reed's leadership in creating this program is making a lasting difference in the way we approach environmental protection. The proof is in these eight new projects -- together they reach up into the Taunton watershed and down to Rhode Island's Salt Ponds and Aquidneck Island, cross Buzzards Bay to the middle of Cape Cod, explore septic system improvements in multiple states, and jump to Martha’s Vineyard. We see this as the way of the future for doing business."

"These projects are on the leading edge in researching, identifying, and designing modernized and collaborative steps toward solving the water needs of Southeastern New England where we are most at risk of the consequences should they be left unaddressed,” said Congressman Bill Keating of Massachusetts. “I will continue to fight for the preservation of this program with my colleagues."

"The Baker-Polito Administration is committed to assisting cities and towns in their efforts to protect and improve the environment while planning for a resilient and economically robust future," said Commissioner Martin Suuberg of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. "The grants provided through the Southeast New England Program will help to support on-the-ground water quality improvement projects in our precious coastal watersheds."

“UMass Dartmouth is continuing to establish itself as a leader in environmental research,” said Senator Michael Rodrigues (D- Westport). “We are facing a critical need for innovative ways to protect our natural resources. I look forward the SMAST research team’s recommendations on how best to protect our coastal waters.”

"The Westport River and its tributaries are critical to the quality of life in our community," said Rep. Paul Schmid (D-Westport), who is House Chair of the Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture. "I am looking forward to the results of this research and how the science can be used to protect our vital natural resource. This is one shining reason why UMass Dartmouth's ascendance to national research university status is critical to the region."

Full EPA press release

More information on the SNEP program


Emily Bender, EPA - bender.emily@epa.gov – 617.918.1037

John Hoey, UMass Dartmouth – jhoey@umassd.edu – 508.264.5920