Science Inventory



Pesch, C E., R Voyer, AND J H. Garber. IMPRINT OF THE PAST: ECOLOGICAL HISTORY OF NEW BEDFORD HARBOR. Presented at Ecological Society of America Annual Meeting, Snowbird, Utah, August 6-10, 2000.


To have an understanding of ecological conditions in a highly impacted area, it is important to look at how past events affected current conditions. Historical studies provide an understanding of how current ecological conditions arose, provide information to identify past pollutant inputs, identify modification or loss of habitat, help identify qualitative changes in species composition, and help in planning remediation projects. New Bedford Harbor, Massachusetts, was used as a case study for an historical analysis. New Bedford Harbor gained attention when it was named a Superfund site in 1982 because of PCB contamination. But current conditions in New Bedford Harbor are the result of over 250 years of agricultural, commercial, and industrial activities. We used Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping techniques to examine coastline changes, loss of wetlands, and locations of industries and sewer lines. Analysis of historical information about New Bedford revealed four sequential developmental periods: agriculture (1676 -1765), whaling (1750 -1880), textile (1875 -1940), and post-textile (1940 -present). The dates on these periods are approximate and overlap but are useful to define development and the associated ecological effects. Land was cleared during the agricultural period. A bridge and wharfs built during the whaling period caused changes in the coastline, water circulation patterns, and sediment deposition. During the textile period, wetlands were filled and mills built on the filled land. The dramatic increase in population, as mill workers moved to New Bedford, caused a tremendous increase of sewage discharged into the harbor. The post-textile period brought a variety of industries to the area, including two electronic parts manufactures that contaminated the harbor with PCBs. This historical analysis shows that impacts to New Bedford Harbor occurred throughout the development period, not just in recent years, it provides valuable insight in formulating remediation strategies, and is a useful educational tool to engage the public in environmental issues.

Record Details:

Product Published Date: 08/06/2000
Record Last Revised: 06/06/2005
Record ID: 80335