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With coastal water quality declining, Nantucket residents vote to ban the use of fertilizers

Nantucket residents overwhelmingly voted to ban the use of fertilizers on the island, fearing the lawn chemicals have contributed to a sharp decline in the local scallop fishery.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Nantucket residents have overwhelmingly voted to ban the use of fertilizers on the island, fearing the chemicals that residents use to green their lawns have contributed to a sharp decline in the local scallop fishery.

Local shellfish harvesters have raised concerns for years about the declining water quality in the town’s harbors, where algae blooms have killed off eelgrass, which is vital to the island’s scallops and other fisheries. The harvesters have blamed homeowners, who each year nurture what seem to be ever-more lush lawns, using so much fertilizer that they sometimes glimmer like emerald carpets beside the town’s harbors.

On Tuesday night, after last season’s scallop harvest crashed, local residents took the controversial step of seeking a home-rule petition from the Legislature that would allow them to ban the use of fertilizers.

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“Our attitude was simple: If we don’t do something soon, we won’t have any eelgrass left, and if we don’t have eelgrass, we won’t have a scallop fishery,” said Bob DeCosta, who has spent decades harvesting scallops in town waters, and said landings were so bad this past winter that he had to quit three months early.

The vote, which passed with the approval of more than three-quarters of members of the Town Meeting, was so contentious it led to a shouting match in which the owner of one landscape business claimed to be assaulted by DeCosta. That landscaper, Ken Panacek, declined to comment. DeCosta described the incident as a “misunderstanding” and said the two have settled their differences.

Landscapers on the island said their businesses are being unfairly singled out and argued that the science isn’t settled about whether fertilizers are the primary problem.

“It seems like we’re just making decisions based on emotions, and that doesn’t seem like it will accomplish much in the end,” said Michael Misurelli, co-owner of J&M Landscape Services, who tried to persuade his neighbors on Nantucket to oppose the ban on fertilizers. “Their concerns are based on fear. It just seems too far reaching to ban fertilizer for all trees, shrubs, gardens, flowers, etc.”

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A report in 2019 by the Nantucket Land Council found that the abundance of eelgrass has diminished so much, particularly in Nantucket Harbor, that it’s “potentially threatening the future ecology and economy” of the island’s scallop fishery.

The report blamed the decline on an infusion of nitrogen into coastal waters from residential septic systems, as well as from lawn fertilizers, runoff from roads, and the discharge of groundwater.

Climate change may also be playing a role, as warming waters can sap oxygen levels and create ideal breeding grounds for cyanobacteria, the toxic ingredients of algae blooms that can multiply to dangerous levels in very short periods. Those problems are more pronounced on ponds on the island and elsewhere in the region.

Local officials and others on the island noted that the town has spent tens of millions of dollars over the years to reduce the amount of wastewater from septic systems entering the town’s coastal waters. About a decade ago, they also introduced stringent requirements for the application of fertilizers.

But they said those requirements are often ignored, which led Joe Minella, a hatchery technician at the Nantucket Natural Resources Department, to propose the resolution at Town Meeting to ban fertilizers altogether.

In recent years, he said, he has noticed large amounts of algae concentrated in areas below lush lawns, with relatively little algae in areas where there are no lawns.

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“It comes down to common sense,” Minella said. “You take a lot of chemicals from fertilizers, and you let them run off into the harbor. In my mind, it’s not that hard to connect the dots.”

Officials from the shellfish industry blame those chemicals for sharp declines in the scallop harvest.

In the 2020-2021 season, harvesters landed just 3,200 bushels of scallops, less than half the haul from the previous year and nearly one-sixth of what they brought in during good years a decade ago.

“If there’s something we can do to save the health of our harbor and the last commercially viable, wild-caught bay scallop fishery in the world, why wouldn’t we?” said Samantha Denette, executive director of the Nantucket Shellfish Association. “If we don’t do something now, it will be too late. This is about the health of our harbor.”

But town officials noted that it’s unlikely that the ban will be enacted, as it requires state approval before taking effect.

Town Counsel John Giorgio noted that residents approved a similar home-rule petition about a decade ago that sought to ban fertilizer. It was ultimately rejected by state lawmakers.

“There are strong lobbies on lots of issues that can affect whether the General Court approves measures like this,” he said. “Is the climate different now? I don’t know. We’ll see how this plays out.”

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David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.