By Rob Moir
On July, 25, 2018, in Boston Harbor many striped bass chased thousands of menhaden fish. They raced headlong under the Mystic River bridge and up the river. Before the Amelia Earhart Dam that stretches from Somerville’s Assembly Square to Everett, all the fish rolled up dead having swum into an ocean dead zone. The incoming tide carried a few hundred through the locks to litter the freshwater shore. Thousands of fish were pushed up by a Southwesterly summer breeze onto the Everett Shore, covering the water surface with bloated fish bodies. The next day, stepping out of my car parked at Cosco’s Tire Center, the stench was palpable.
“Nothing fishy: Thousands of pogies washed up in Everett, but it’s due to natural causes,” ballyhooed the Boston Globe (July 26, 2018). On the surface of it, literally fish carnage carpeting the water, there were no signs of human toxins and meddling. So let’s call it death by natural causes. Besides, the fishery council had forced fishermen to reduce their catch of menhaden (called for by striped bass fishermen because their fish were starving.) Now with an abundance of menhaden, we were told to ignore this really smelly event.
The most powerful actions we may take to address climate change are not obvious. It is difficult to even imagine how the amount of greenhouse gasses we release could contribute to a hurricane gathering energy when passing over ocean water in 24 hours. In a day, hurricanes go from category 4 to 5, where a category 5 hurricane is four times as powerful as 4. Of all that energy retained from escaping the planet by greenhouse gasses, the whale share goes into the ocean.
For the dead fish in the Mystic, the newspaper went with the simplest answer and blamed the ocean dead zone, assuming such tragic phenomena are natural. They happen all the time. This reminds me of the roadrunner cartoon where the bird serenely steps aside while a big boulder crashes down missing him by inches. Some blame the boulder for falling. Others blame Wile E. Coyote up on the ledge holding an oversized crow bar used to leverage a rock that is no longer there.
In Falmouth, Massachusetts, people did not stop at simply blaming an ocean dead zone for the death of sixteen striped bass and one horseshoe crab found in Little Pond on a hot July day in 2012. They looked to the lawns stretching down to the water and blamed the spread of excess fertilizers. The summer folk of Falmouth may love their ocean views created by sweeping lawns, but they love the idea of catching and eating striped bass even more.
A good sized striped bass, as were the ones found that fateful day, are the supreme sport fish. Casting from a rolling boat or from the rocks of a jetty jutting out from a sandy shore the tug and play of a striped bass is an indelible experience that never fades. The year of the dead fish, 2012, was the same year when the Maryland Department of Natural Resources reported the fewest young striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay. Record lows were due primarily to a lack of forage fish, menhaden and herring. When menhaden populations later increased, so too did the stripers.
For the lobstermen out of Falmouth, adding algal insult to injury, was the need to carry large vats of boiling water in the back of their small craft. Lobster traps were dunked into the vat to clear them of thirty to forty pounds of weed. If not cleared of weed, the soggy weight would break trap lines and gear would be lost. The algae were growing thick because of an abundance of nutrients, mostly nitrogen in the water. With big lawns looking from the water like protruding tongues, lobstermen cursed the wealthy estates. You bet a ban on lawn fertilizing in Falmouth.
The bylaw Falmouth passed prohibited the spread of more than one-pound of fertilizer per thousand square feet of lawn in a year. This was a vast improvement over the recommended application of one pound per thousand square feet of lawn five times a year, or five pounds per thousand square feet a year. Any more than one pound per application will burn the grass. Any more than five applications between Easter and Columbus Day will burn the grass. (The directions on bags of fertilizer are to spread thickly on Easter, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day and in the fall, they could not wait until Columbus Day to make that sale.) Further cleaning the waters, Falmouth prohibited the use of the standard quick-release fertilizers and permitted only slow-release applied no more than one half pound in spring and one half in the fall.
Actually the Falmouth bylaw was consistent with how many golf courses treat their fairways. That is, only spread fertilizer when grass needs it; the amount grass will take up; and make sure all fertilizer goes to the grass. No fertilizer should be washed into waterways or percolated down into groundwater because that would be a waste expensive product.
Slow-release fertilizer is best practice because bits of nitrogen are surrounded by a smooth coating that dissolves in water overtime. When there is sufficient moisture for grass grow, not too cold, not too dry, the nitrogen is released slowly over weeks. The most available slow-release fertilizers, for example Osmocote, puts nutrients for soil microbes into the coatings to help restore the microbial ecology of the dirt beneath lawns.
Fertilizer companies increase sales and profits by mixing slow-release with quick-release fertilizer. Releasing the fertilizer slowly means more of the mixture may be applied before harming the grass plants. Thus, Watertown recommends three pounds of fertilizer per thousand square feet applied three times a year, or nine pounds of nitrogen per year instead of five, or in Falmouth, one. In Watertown, they say be happy its organic. For blooming cyanobacteria, a.k.a. blue-green algae, nitrogen is all the same.
Use of a modest amount of slow-release in the fall encourages roots that had been swimming in fertilizer to grow deeper. When grass plants grow deeper roots they become more resilient and put on more foliage. Denser grass plants resist weeds and pests better than lawns where much quick-release is spread. Odd how the spread of more quick-release fertilizer results in increased sales of pest and weed control products, including one mixture called Weed and Feed.
Since the Falmouth Bylaw of 2012, a dramatic reduction in the application of fertilizer to established lawns, no striped bass have not been killed by a Falmouth ocean dead zone. Private lawns in Falmouth are just as green as lawns in neighboring municipalities still applying three to five times as much fertilizer.
Towns and cities off of Cape Cod and Islands have been prohibited from passing similar lawn care ordinances. The fertilizer industries successfully demonstrated to the state that they have the science backing their claims for grass swimming in fertilizer, and surely the state knows better than any town. The Falmouth bylaw was struck down and residents were told if they did not spread at least 3.5, better 5, pounds per thousand square feet of lawn their grass would suffer. Fortunately for Falmouth, their state senator was Teresa Murray who was president of the Senate. She put the Falmouth Bylaw into the State budget bill and it was approved by Beacon Hill.
Ocean River institute table at a Medford Farmers’ Market. One Lego house has a spongy unfertilized lawn before it, the other a rock patio. Which house will best survive an extreme weather event from a turkey baster full of water?
The Ocean River Institute is going town by town asking conservation commissions to modify their wetland regulations. Properties next to wetlands may only use a half pound of 100% slow-release fertilizer per thousand square feet of lawn in the spring or fall. Properties next to wetlands may not use chemical herbicides or pesticides on lawns. With the support of conservation commissions and news reports heralding acts of climate leadership, the Ocean River Institute works with local groups including lake associations with educational outreach to practice on all lawns what is regulated for just those boarding wetlands. With a few towns, after all, runoff from properties and groundwater flow to waterways fresh then salty where harmful algal blooms are becoming more common.
This summer there were harmful algal blooms and closed waters in many waterways including Billington Sea in Plymouth, Chauncy Lake in Westborough, West Reservoir in Harwich, Santuit Pond in Mashpee, Devol Pond in Westport, Scargo Lake in Dennis, Stillwater Pond in Chatham. In Brewster harmful algal blooms closed beaches on Sheep, Upper Mill, Lower Mill, and Cliff Ponds, in Barnstable closed shores on Bearse’s, Lovell’s and Shubael Pond, and on the Charles River there was a harmful algal bloom between Boston University and the Museum of Science.
Nitrogen is the worst pollutant of oceans because it feeds algae that create ocean dead zones, areas sickening for people and deadly for fish and dogs that like to swim. Stopping the spread of fertilizers stops nitrogen pollution from lawns. It is possible to have both green lawns, when there is sufficient water (not during droughts), and clear, clean waters without the slime.
The powerful actions fighting the climate crisis of global warming are not obvious when one stops spreading fertilizer on lawns. The practice of spreading bags of fertilizer, instead of using mulch, began after World War II when ammunition facilities with much ammonia and synthetic nitrates for explosives converted to the product of nitrogen-based fertilizer. The manufacturing requires the removal of oxygen by burning natural gas with the use of electricity. Much carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere to make fertilizer.
Once spread on lawns, fertilizer will release nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide ranks third of the greenhouse gases gathering around the planet preventing the escape of heat that results in global warming. Nitrous oxide is also now the dominant ozone depleting substance. The stuff from overusing fertilizers is 298 times more effective than CO2 at blocking the escape of energy. That’s 12 effective as methane. Further increasing its potency, while methane will last about twelve years as a greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide lasts for an average of 114 years. When you do not buy fertilizer you are doing much more than protecting the grass and saving money, you are lending a hand in salvation of the planet.
Do not fertilize established lawns, except perhaps for a modest amount of 100% slow-release in the fall. The grass will then put down deeper roots. It will become more resilient to changing conditions wet or dry. With deeper roots and more minerals, grass puts on more foliage. A non-fertilized lawn captures more carbon. With more foliage will retain more water during extreme weather events to better protect homes from water damage, certainly better than the patio with impervious surfaces. (Like the patio, unlike wildlife flower beds, grass may be walked, sat and played on.)
When fighting global warming, lawns and grasslands have an advantage over forests. During a fire, they do not release as much carbon exacerbating climate change. This is because with grass a higher percentage of carbon is cycled up the food chain into animals.
It should come as no surprise that established lawns do not need fertilizing. Simply leaving the grass clippings on top after a mow is equivalent to one-pound of nitrogen fertilizer per thousand square feet of lawn in a year. Erik the Red was able to establish a Viking settlement in Greenland by finding sufficient flat land to build up soil to support grass. This was a tenuous existence. If a man’s goat or sheep was found grazing on the lush grass, the plenty was death. Without that bit of grass the family owning the patch might not make it through the winter. Four hundred years after the Vikings abandoned Greenland, taking with them the livestock, the distinct grass plots were found to be still green. The grass, lacking both chemical and livestock fertilizer, remained healthy by being part of the soil’s microbial ecosystem.
America’s population is on the rise. With rising populations come more homes and lawns. By stopping the unnecessary spread of fertilizers on lawns, stopping nutrient pollution of our waterways, people are freed of the expense of lawn care. By letting grass grow deep roots it becomes healthier, more robust and lush. Working with nature, not expending resources to short-cut natural processes, has its rewards.
Responsible lawn care will result in less carbon emissions, less nitrous oxide emissions, more carbon capture and better cycling of carbon in local, place-based ecosystems. You benefit by a healthier lawn often complete with worms, robins and rabbits. You benefit by cleaner waters with less harmful algal blooms and more aquatic life. The planet cools and everyone benefits from less greenhouse gas emissions and more carbon capture. Even striped bass and lobstermen benefit when you leverage many powerful actions for addressing climate change with responsible lawn care. Acting most local, beginning around your home, you make a global difference.
Rob Moir, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Ocean River Institute had the good fortune of sailing on the Dutch ketch Tecla from Iceland across the Denmark Strait, down the coast of East Greenland, where the large glacial erratic was found, around Cape Farewell to Nuuk, West Greenland, twenty-two days at sea, June-July 2019. Rob lives in Somerville where a small patch of grass separates the buildings, the width of a car, that gets walked on and bicycle-ridden on most every day.