THE GLOBAL CITIZEN: You Can't Have Houses And The Pond

Les Kaufman called me from the Boston University Marine Program, sputtering about Title Five. "How do you get people to care about little brown fish?" he grumbled. "I always thought clean ponds were a New England thing. Now we're turning the place into Texas, where you can't see three inches into the water, and no one seems to care."

"Hey, slow down!" I cut in. "What are you talking about?"

"Title Five," he said. "You know, exotic wildlife isn't the only kind that's endangered. The local stuff is in trouble too. Maybe the problem is that the glaciers pretty much wiped away the local intrigue, so the backyard fauna aren't so spectacular."

Dr. Les Kaufman normally studies the brilliantly colored and rapidly disappearing cichlid fish of African lakes. What prompted this call, he finally got around to telling me, was a meeting some time ago with Karsten Hartel of Harvard, who studies the freshwater fishes of New England. Hartel told Kaufman that he could hardly find the bridle shiner any more.

"Bridle shiner -- what's that?" I asked.

"It's a fish about two inches long, with a black stripe from nose to tail," said Kaufman. "Its scales are lined with black, so the upper part of its body looks like wrought-iron grillwork. It used to be one of the most common fish around here. Now the New England Aquarium has done a survey and found that the shiner is gone from three-fourths of the ponds it sampled in eastern Massachusetts -- all ponds where the shiner had been known to occur. It made me feel guilty; here I am floating around trying to save fishes in Africa and ignoring my own back door."

He launched into an explanation of why New England waters are so clear. "Pond life in this part of the world is basically a hostile affair. There aren't many nutrients. When you swim out in the water, you're not suffocated by weedy plants or scum. The native fish like it that way. So do the people, or so I thought."

The ponds are scumming up because of septic tanks, golf courses, roads, lawns, all of which leach nutrients into the water. People unknowingly spread exotic weeds as they move boats from pond to pond. Fishermen find native fish uninteresting, so they bring in largemouth bass, walleye, muskie. All those changes do in the bridle shiner.

"How?" I asked.

"Well, the nutrients cause the weeds and algae to multiply. They crowd out the native vegetation, then they die back and make a slimy mess in the water. The common treatment at that point is to drain the pond, dredge it and refill it. By that time you've lost insects, fishes, amphibians. Whatever you've got left, it's not a native system, hardly even a system."

The bridle shiner, the survey suggests, can survive in the presence of introduced largemouth bass, as long as there's native vegetation on the bottom for the shiner to hide in. It can survive in gopped-up water as long as there are no bass. What the shiner can't seem to handle is the combination of bass plus gop. Kaufman guesses that's because the gop creates floating weeds on the surface, which shade out the bottom plants and destroy the shiner's habitat -- and muck up the pond for people, too.

"What does this have to do with Title Five, whatever that is?"

"The state is dragging its feet on listing the bridle shiner as a threatened species. They're sorry about the loss of the fish, but they're afraid listing it will upset developers, because then they'll have to obey Title Five."

"And what," I asked, losing patience, "would that mean?"

Title Five, it turns out, is a Massachusetts regulation intended to keep development from overtaxing the waste treatment facilities of a community. If it were strictly enforced, and if the nutrification of ponds were considered a serious problem, houses couldn't be built right on the shores of ponds. Drainage from lawns and septic tanks wouldn't be allowed to flow directly into the water -- there would have to be buffer zones of vegetation to absorb nutrients, or full-scale sewage systems to divert wastes entirely. Pondside developments would be more regulated, less dense, more expensive.

I was beginning to picture the story some developer would make out of any attempt to protect the bridle shiner. I could just hear it in a Congressional hearing: crazy enviros stop a million-dollar lakeside building project to save a worthless little fish that no one ever heard of. Kaufman was painting a more complicated, more complete picture.

"This isn't about saving one fish. It's a clearcut case where the loss of an animal goes along with something of deep value to people -- crystal clear ponds." Clear ponds. The very asset that makes building projects worth a million dollars. The goose that lays the golden eggs.

"Look, it's very simple," Kaufman said. "Anyone can understand it. You can't put houses right on the pond and still have the pond."

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