Each year Granite State shellfishers search shallow briny waters in search of delicious mussels, clams, or oysters for the dinner table. Those who are skilled often are rewarded with full buckets, but few shellfishers realize that good harvests in New Hampshire’s Seacoast owe much to activities occurring far upstream.
The quality of the water and amount of available nutrients that sustain a clam or
oyster is directly related to the condition of the rivers and streams that drain the land. The Hampton-Seabrook Estuary is fed by approximately 46 square miles of surrounding land. An even larger system, the Piscataqua River Estuary that includes Great Bay, is supplied by a watershed that is 1,023 square miles.
Development within the coastal watershed area has profound impacts on the amount of contaminants flowing to the sea. Sediment washed from roadways and bare soil flows downstream and collects in the estuary where it smothers shellfish beds in
extreme cases. Nutrients, primarily nitrogen, are contributed by wastewater treatment plants, septic systems, and land use activities such as lawn fertilizing. Excessive nutrients threaten the ecological balance of the estuaries and thus the survival of shellfish populations. Finally, bacteria from failing septic systems, pet waste, or damaged sewer systems create a human health hazard in estuarine waters.
Because shellfish filter great amounts of water to take in food and oxygen, they absorb contaminants from the water that accumulate in their flesh. Therefore, a watershed that flushes large amounts of contaminants downstream will deliver many of these contaminants to shellfish and reduce their numbers or often make them unsafe to eat.
It is this close relationship between coastal watershed function and shellfish health that caused the New Hampshire Estuaries Project (NHEP), and many partnering agencies, to monitor shellfish in New Hampshire and make their restoration and maintenance a priority. The NHEP Manage- ment Plan includes many strategies that improve water quality throughout the watershed that will in turn improve shellfish populations and open more harvesting areas.
New Hampshire Estuaries Project
Brochi, Jeannie; Grizzle, Raymond E.; Grout, Doug; Jones, Stephen H.; Konisky, Ray; Nash, Chris; Smith, Bruce; Walker, Charles; and Zankel, Mark, "Shellfish Spotlight: 2008" (2008). PREP Reports & Publications. 64.