The coastal and ocean areas of the Mid-Atlantic region are home to high populations and various human activities. Subsequently, its coastal and ocean waters are subject to various stressors from human activities. The region is home a number of highly active ports and harbors and attracts large numbers of tourists each year. The region’s many watersheds are also home to vibrant agricultural and chemical refinery industries, among others, that can contribute a significant amount of nutrients and other pollutants to the region’s coastal and ocean areas. Together, these factors have served to significantly degrade the coastal water quality in the Mid-Atlantic. Issues such as outdated wastewater management infrastructure and the widespread loss of wetlands (which capture pollutants from land-based sources) have exacerbated this issue and elevated concerns associated with coastal and ocean water quality to the top of the region’s agenda.
There are many different sources of pollution that lead to water quality impairments in the coastal and ocean waters of the Mid-Atlantic:
- Agricultural sources
- Ports and marinas
- Atmospheric deposition of pollutants
- Wastewater and stormwater runoff
- Marine debris and floatables
Impacts and Implications of Degraded Water Quality in the Mid-Atlantic
Harmful algal blooms (HAB) are a dramatic proliferation, or “bloom”, of microscopic, single-celled organisms which causes adverse impacts to other organisms through the production of neurotoxins, human illness or death through consumption of contaminated seafood, mechanical damage to aquatic organisms, and depletion of oxygen in water (WHOI 2009). One of the more prominent concerns associated with HABs and the introduction of increased nutrient levels to the coastal and ocean waters of the region is that of eutrophication and anoxia. Large amounts of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) can cause excessive algae growth, leading to decreased levels of dissolved oxygen, which can harm marine species. HABs also have notable economic implications as well. Closures of shellfish beds, lost production in fisheries, severe reductions in tourism, and medical costs for public illness can result in the loss of millions of dollars per bloom.
Mercury is normally present in relatively small concentrations in seawater, which is initially absorbed by algae at the lowest levels of the food chain, which then accumulates in larger predatory fish. However, increasing mercury emissions are leading to increased concentrations in coastal waters. Mercury is toxic because it binds to proteins and can alter protein production or synthesis. This can result in reproductive impairment, growth inhibition, developmental abnormalities, and altered behavioral patterns. This has significant implications not only for marine species, but also for the health of consumers of commercial fish species that intake this harmful chemical.
Ecological and Socioeconomic Implications
Large-scale die-offs of marine species resulting from nutrient overenrichment and harmful algal booms can drastically impact marine food webs and ecological dynamics. Excessive phytoplankton growth from raised nutrient levels can also reduce water clarity thereby reducing light transmission available for the growth of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), which serves as an important habitat for fish, crabs, and other species. Atmospheric pollutants can have severe ecological impacts on coastal and marine ecosystems.
Contaminated coastal and ocean water has significant implications for the health of both coastal and inland residents in the region. Increasing levels of contamination in marine species, derived from poor water quality, can lead to sickness in individuals who consume contaminated seafood. Poor water quality also poses a threat to coastal tourists and beachgoers. Degraded coastal and ocean water quality can have severe economic implications as well. Harmful algal blooms can lead to large die-offs of potentially valuable fisheries.
Improving Water Quality in the Mid-Atlantic
There are various approaches that are being undertaken to improve the region’s water quality. Continually refining water quality standards is key to adequately addressing water quality. Improving standards, however, depends upon improvements in data collection and monitoring with regards to water quality, information on human activities in the coastal zone, and information on the capability of existing infrastructure to meet improved water quality standards
Efforts are also being undertaken to improve regional wastewater and stormwater infrastructure. Aging infrastructure in coastal municipalities in the Mid-Atlantic is responsible for numerous spills each year in addition to leakage of waste into stormwater runoff and, ultimately, to coastal waters. Increased investments and federal leveraging of funding will be instrumental to upgrading regional infrastructure to improve coastal water quality for recreation, seafood, and ecological health, among others. There is, however, a significant gap in the funds required to maintain aging wastewaters systems, estimated by the EPA to be over $500 billion nationally (EPA 2009a).
Additionally, innovative management options, such as green infrastructure, water quality trading, and biological nutrient removal, are also being examined. The development and dissemination of best management practices (BMPs) and well as public education and outreach have also been identified as critical to improving the region’s water quality.
Also identified as crucial to addressing water quality issues in the region is the need to integrate and coordinate various management efforts throughout the region, primarily those associated with monitoring and assessment, as there are often many various organization and agencies involved in these activities.
EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) (2008). National Coastal Condition Report II. Environmental Protection Agency. Dec 2008. Available at: http://www.epa.gov/owow/oceans/nccr3/pdf/nccr3_entire.pdf
EPA(a) (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). Sustainable Infrastructure and Financial Assistance. [online] Mid-Atlantic Water. September 2009.
WHOI (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute). “Distribution of HABs in the U.S.” National Office for Harmful Algal Blooms. February 2009.
Image credit: J. Woerner, University of Maryland. Retrieved from the NOAA Photo Library