Human health and coastal ecosystems at a tipping point

Written by Inka Milewski on February 26, 2017

There has been understandable handwringing and questions being asked about the sporadically high levels of E. coli and fecal streptococci reported at Parlee Beach and Murray Beach in southeast New Brunswick. The provincial Minister of Environment and Local Government has said that the water quality testing and rating system will be improved. This announcement is akin to a doctor telling a patient with high blood pressure that improvements are being made on how blood pressure is being tested and reported but no remedy would be prescribed if the levels were high other than more testing.

No one should have been surprised, least of all the provincial government, that the water quality at these beaches was declining. Despite constant warnings – some dating back 40 years – about the impacts of using coastal waters as sewers and dump sites and destroying key water-filtering and sediment-stabilizing coastal habitat such as oyster reefs, eel grass beds and salt marshes, those warning have gone, and continue to go, unheeded. The results of ignoring those warning have been an increase in the number of areas closed to swimming, an acceleration in the erosion and instability of the shoreline and an expansion in coastal flooding during storms.

Since 2000, in my former capacity as science advisor for the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, I and my university colleagues studied and reported on the degradation and decline of oyster reefs, eelgrass beds and salt marshes along the southeast coast of New Brunswick. We studied these habitats because they are absolutely critical to maintaining healthy coastal ecosystems. Now there is strong evidence that these habitats protect human health.

In an article published on February 17 of this year in the journal Science, researchers reported that seagrasses, such as our eelgrass beds, can cleanse faecal pathogens that threaten human health from the water. Researchers have suggested several way in which seagrasses can reduce pathogen loads: bacteria can adhere and be retained in the muddy organic sediment in which the eelgrass grows; the high oxygen content around the plants can kill bacteria that thrive in low oxygen, high sulphide conditions; and the mussel and oysters living in among eelgrass can filter out the bacteria.

In 1993, the New Brunswick government was presented with an opportunity to act quickly and decisively on recommendations made by the Commission on Land Use and the Rural Environment (CLURE). The Coastal Land Use Policy, which would have established development setbacks from coastal features such as eelgrass beds, salt marshes and dunes, went out for public comment. Thirty-four years and many government changes later, we still haven’t seen any regulations. A wetlands policy that would see salt marshes and eelgrass beds protected has also been stalled for decades.

Since 1993, there has been an intensive scramble to develop as much of the province’s coastline as possible before any coastal zone regulations are implemented. Salt marshes have been filled in for cottage and business development. Eel grass beds have been smothered by sediments released into rivers from poor forest management and other land-use practices and destroyed by nutrient loading from municipal sewage and septic systems, fish plants and other industrial operations. Channel mouths, gullies and bays have been dredged to make way for boat harbours and marine service centres. While most of these projects must be registered for screening under the provincial Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) regulations, many criticize the process as inadequate.

The stubborn refusal by successive government to enact regulations, the greed of developers and the public’s blind trust in government to protect their health and critical ecosystems have brought on the water quality problems at Parlee and Murray Beaches. It’s been decades in the making and better monitoring won’t fix the problem. It will just tell us how bad the problem is.

The federal minister of Fisheries and Oceans has said that Ottawa will financially help the province if the problems are related to faulty sewage line. Faulty and out-dated municipal sewage systems and improperly functioning septic systems can be found all along the southeast coast of New Brunswick. There is no need to wait. Ottawa should open its wallet now.

Meanwhile, the Department of Environment and Local Government needs to immediately put a halt to all coastal development until it finally enacts new and more robust regulations to protect the vital natural assets that in turn protect us.

Inka Milewski is a marine biologist and former science advisor for the Conservation Council of New Brunswick. She lives in Miramichi.

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