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New York Times article covers toxic blooms on Cape Code and State of MA response

A Toxic Stew on Cape Cod: Human Waste and Warming Water

January 1, 2023


Ashley K. Fisher walked to the edge of the boat, pulled on a pair of thick black waders, and jumped into the river to search for the dead.

She soon found them: the encrusted remains of ribbed mussels, choked in gray-black goo that smelled like garbage and felt like mayonnaise. The muck on the bottom of the Mashpee River gets deeper every year, suffocating what grows there. It came up to Ms. Fisher’s waist. She struggled to free herself and climb back aboard.

“I did not think I was going to sink down that far,” said Ms. Fisher, Mashpee’s director of natural resources, laughing. Her officers once had to yank a stranded resident out of the gunk by tying him to a motorboat and opening the throttle.

The muck is what becomes of the poisonous algae that is taking over more of Cape Cod’s rivers and bays each summer.

The algal explosion is fueled by warming waters, combined with rising levels of nitrogen that come from the antiquated septic systems that most of the Cape still uses. A population boom over the past half-century has meant more human waste flushed into toilets, which finds its way into waterways.

More waste also means more phosphorus entering the Cape’s freshwater ponds, where it feeds cyanobacteria, a type of algae that can cause vomiting, diarrhea and liver damage, among other health effects. It can also kill pets.


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