Elizabeth City News Article

EPA Announcement - National Coastal Condition Assessment Released

Environmental Protection Agency

On August 17, 2021, EPA released the National Coastal Condition Assessment, a scientifically rigorous survey of the nation’s estuarine and Great Lakes nearshore waters, and one of the four National Aquatic Resource Surveys (NARS).

The National Coastal Condition Assessment (NCCA) reports on the health of estuarine and Great Lakes nearshore waters nationally as well as for four regional estuarine areas (the Northeast, Southeast, Gulf of Mexico, and the West Coast) and each of the Great Lakes separately. The NCCA focuses on estuaries and the Great Lakes due to their ecological and economic importance. The survey helps answer such questions as: what is the condition of the nation’s coastal waters, what are key problems in our waters, and are conditions getting better or worse over time? In the summer of 2015, EPA and its partners visited a total of 1,060 randomly selected sites in 28 coastal states (excluding Alaska and Hawaii): 699 sites in estuaries and 361 in the Great Lakes, representing about 27,479 square miles and 7,118 square miles of coastal waters, respectively.

This summary includes four indicators for ecological health and three indicators related to the recreational use of these essential resources.
Estuaries

Most estuarine waters are in good biological condition with low levels of contaminants in sediments.

  • More than 75% of the estuarine area has good sediment quality based on measures of chemical contaminants found in sediments and laboratory tests of toxicity. Sediments serve as critical indicators of estuarine condition because they can accumulate contaminants that may enter the food web via bottom-dwelling organisms.

Most estuarine waters have low levels of bacteria and microcystin and are safe for recreation.

  • For information on bacteria and algal toxins in specific water bodies, people should check with local or state health departments before swimming, boating, or fishing.

Nutrient pollution is widespread in the nation’s estuaries.

  • Excess nutrients were found in 2/3 of the estuarine area. Eutrophication can contribute to harmful algal blooms, red tides, and fish kills.

Relationship to items in the news:

  • Red tides - The NCCA does not measure the organisms or toxins associated with red tides. However, NCCA data are available for researchers to investigate how changes in nutrients and other indicators may influence red tide formation and movement closer to shore. Red tides are a significant concern for coastal communities because they can produce toxins. Such toxins can make people sick and kill fish, shellfish, mammals, and birds.
  • Hypoxia - The NCCA samples within estuaries in the Gulf of Mexico, but the Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone forms further offshore and does not overlap the target population of the NCCA. However, the NCCA finds that nutrient enrichment is a widespread problem in estuaries. Excess nutrients contribute to development of Hypoxic Zones such as the ones in the Gulf of Mexico.
    High contaminant levels in Prey Fish in estuaries could pose a risk for the food-web.
  • The levels of contaminants in prey fish in 75% of the estuarine area could lead to adverse effects, such as stunted growth or reduced reproduction, in fish and wildlife that eat them.
  • Mercury was detected in all estuarine fish fillet plug samples collected, but was above human health benchmarks in only 2% of the area.
  • This indicator was not assessed in 43% of estuarine area, where fish appropriate for human consumption were not caught.
  • A fish fillet “plug” is a small biopsy sample taken from a live fish. The fish is released after sampling.
  • PCBs and PFOS in whole fish fillets were only assessed in Great Lakes nearshore waters.
  • Recreational anglers should consult local fish consumption advisories before eating their catch.
    Great Lakes Nearshore Waters


Most Great Lakes waters have low levels of contaminants in sediments.

  • Sediments are critical indicators of estuarine condition because they can accumulate contaminants and may enter the food web via bottom-dwelling organisms.

Most Great Lakes waters have low levels of bacteria and microcystin and are safe for recreation.

  • For information on bacteria and algal toxins in specific water bodies, people should check with local or state health departments before swimming, boating, or fishing.


Nutrient pollution is widespread in the Great Lakes.

Eutrophication is a persistent problem in the Great Lakes with almost half of the nearshore area in fair or poor condition; Lake Erie experienced the most eutrophication, with 67% of the nearshore waters in fair or poor condition.

Great Lakes fish contain high levels of contaminants.

  • 100% of the assessed nearshore area contained fish with detectable levels of PFOS, mercury, and PCBs in their fillet tissue and exceedances of health-based benchmarks ranged from 5% to 79%.
  • Recreational anglers should consult local fish consumption advisories before eating their catch.
  • High contaminant levels in Prey Fish in the Great Lakes could pose a risk for the food-web.
  • The levels of contaminants in prey fish in 66% of the Great Lakes nearshore area could lead to adverse effects, such as stunted growth or reduced reproduction, in fish and wildlife that eat them.


Other
The National Aquatic Resource Surveys provide critical, groundbreaking, and nationally consistent data on the nation's waters.

  • In the coming months EPA plans to release a Data Analysis Innovation Challenge inviting scientists and other stakeholders to examine questions using data from the NARS related to four priorities: climate change, environmental justice, nutrient management, and next generation water quality assessments.

This survey suggests that, although many actions are underway to protect our coasts and estuaries, we need to continue to address the sources of stressors – including runoff from urban areas, poor agricultural practices, and sewage treatment plants – to ensure healthier waters for future generations. We also need to continue to monitor contaminants in fish tissue and facilitate human health risk communication through state and tribal consumption advisories.

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