, Newburyport, MA

October 22, 2013

Good sign for Merrimack River's health

Newburyport Daily News

---- — A story in last week’s Daily News of Newburyport made a lot of clamdiggers ecstatic, but it also portrayed a success story that should make anyone who boats on, fishes in, swims in or even looks at the Merrimack River happy.

For the first time in 80 years, the clam flats known as Joppa Flats have been reopened to clamming. This is a major step forward in the decades-long effort to clean up what was once one of the top 10 most polluted rivers in the nation.

The flats, located off the Joppa and South End neighborhoods of Newburyport, had historically been a major contributor to the city’s shellfish industry. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, dozens of tiny clam-shucking shacks lined Water Street, processing the day’s haul. But all that came to an end decades ago, when the pollution primarily produced by mills upstream in Manchester and Nashua, N.H., and Lowell, Lawrence and Haverhill made the river a toxic mess. The clam flats along the lower Merrimack were shut down.

As recently as 30 to 40 years ago the horror stories about the Merrimack River’s unsavory waters were common. The river stank with the smell of raw sewage and chemical residue, the water color was unnatural at best. What had once been one of the most abundant rivers for marine life was at death’s door.

Clean-up efforts took years. Spurred on by state and federal laws and the gradual modernization of wastewater treatment plants and chemical disposal, the waters of the river began to improve. Over the years there have been many efforts, both private and public, to remove the junk that has been thrown into the river — cars, tires, barrels, trash, you name it. Those efforts continue today.

A major sign of positive change came in 2006, when 534 acres of flats closer to the mouth of the Merrimack were reopened. Last week’s reopening also affected a large area — some 250 acres.

“Massachusetts’ soft shell clam harvest is worth five to six million dollars annually and the opening of Joppa Flats will benefit commercial shell fishermen in the area who rely on open and productive flats for their livelihood,” said state Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Mary Griffin.

On the first day that Joppa Flats was opened, Newburyport harbormaster Paul Hogg sold 12 permits to clamdiggers, with many more expressing interest in buying licenses in the following days. One can only imagine the size and quantity of the clams they will find.

Even so, the clams are not pristine. They still must be run through the purification plant on Plum Island, where clean salt water is flushed through their bodies to remove any residual impurities. This is a common procedure for clams harvested in tainted areas.

The Merrimack still has a long way to go. Every time a rainstorm hits with .25 inches of rain or more, the clam beds — and river swimming — are closed. That’s because sewage treatment plants from the industrial cities are overwhelmed by stormwater, which then gets dumped into the river along with untreated sewage. It’s a problem that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to fix.

Maybe someday it will be fixed. But for now, the Merrimack is showing great strides in the right direction.