Humans began measurably and negatively impacting water quality in the Chesapeake Bay in the first half of the 19th century, according to a study of eastern oysters by researchers at The University of Alabama.
The work, published in Scientific Reports, show pollution’s effect appears a bit earlier than previously thought, but it generally confirms increasing deforestation and industrialization around the Bay led to water quality issues before the Civil War, which has been shown by other studies with different testing methods.
The study shows using oyster shells from archeological sites is an effective way to measure the environmental impacts of waste input on estuaries, particularly levels of nitrogen that impact the oyster’s shell chemistry as it feeds from nutrients in the water, according to the paper.
“We were one of the first to try this on archeological shells, and the first to identify an ancient period of pollution using this method,” said Dr. C. Fred T. Andrus, associate professor and chair of the UA department of geological sciences.
“This might be a good way for us to learn what the baseline of clean water looks like. It tells us the natural amount of animal and human waste that should be going into a bay, which matters because the fisheries we depend upon can be greatly damaged by excess nitrogen.”
The research was led by Heather Black, a former student in Andrus’ lab who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geology from UA and is now pursuing a doctorate at Florida International University.
Co-authors on the paper include Andrus; W.J. Lambert, a UA graduate who now runs the Alabama stable isotope laboratory; Dr. Torben Rick, curator of North American Archaeology at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum; and Dr. David P. Gillikin, associate professor of geology at Union College.
Black chose the Chesapeake because of heavy pollution, early colonization in American history and abundance of ancient trash heaps with discarded oyster shells, or shell middens, she said.
Though nitrogen is necessary for life and a healthy part of coastal waterways, too much nitrogen changes the ecosystem. Found in human and animal waste, increasing amounts of nitrogen began to wash into the Bay as the mid-Atlantic region transformed through European settlers.
Despite how critical it is for life, historical levels of nitrogen are hard to assess, and a lot of organic matter is lost over time. Shells, though, are different.
Sitting at the bottom of the bay unable to move and eating much of what washes over it, the eastern oyster has a large tolerance for changes in the water. Serving as a filter as it feeds, the oyster becomes a record of environmental…