Ecologist at St. John’s Harbor

Worst Science Jobs II: Number 7

by Peter Stemmler

Involves digestive product, generally disgusting, olfactory overload (see more)Peter Stemmler

One hundred twenty million. As the most telling number about beautiful St. John's Harbor, Newfoundland, this surely must be the count of resident shorebirds. No? Hmm. Then it's certainly the number of stars visible on a pristine summer night. Strike two? Oh, got it! The number of species living vibrantly in this aquatic paradise!

Wrong again: 120 million is the number of liters of raw sewage pumped into the harbor daily, straight from the city's sewers. That's about 50 Olympic-size swimming pools' worth of potty wash. Historically, St. John's assumed that it didn't need a sewage-treatment system because its harbor is flushed out by the great North Atlantic. Let the whole ecosystem be our sewer, the citizenry decided.
But even if you buy that logic, it's not hard to grasp that as the city population approaches 130,000, there's no way the North Atlantic can keep up. Microbiologist Deborah Squires-Parsons of the Memorial University of Newfoundland supervises a team of technicians who heroically venture out in boats and collect samples of the stew to measure the ecological harm caused by all that sewage. The place is spectacularly beautiful, Squires-
Parsons says--"until you see an upwelling where the floatables come to the surface." Floatables? "Condoms, tampons, bits of poo," she clarifies. And the breathe-deep salt air is invigorating, until you're hit by the latrine smell that increasingly permeates the region.

Commercial fishing in the
harbor was suspended in 2001 after a Memorial University study found Lysteria and E. coli in fish meat at concentrations as high as half a million bacteria per gram (acceptable levels top out at six a gram). St. John's first-ever sewage-treatment plant is set to open in 2007.