Two major recreational beaches in eastern New Brunswick have a fecal pollution problem that needs solving, says an environmental microbiologist at Mount Allison University.

Prof. Douglas Campbell says Parlee Beach and Murray Beach have had sporadically high readings of E. coli and fecal streptococci dating back to at least 2011.

"I don't mean a little bit — 50, 60, or 100 times acceptable count levels on certain days," he said Sunday. "Then they drop back down, and they go back up." 

'There's a problem'

The numbers were taken from weekly testing done during the tourism season by Research and Productivity Council office in Moncton. The province gives colour-coded warnings when the levels are unhealthy, but doesn't publish the actual amounts.

Campbell was approached by community members in the Shediac area who were concerned about the pollution, so he began to collect the data through access to information. He will work with the Shediac Bay Watershed Association as he attempts to figure out where the problem originates.

Prof. Douglas Campbell

Prof. Douglas Campbell says the research will be a good opportunity for his students, though he wishes it wasn't an issue that needed studying. (Mount Allison University)

"There's a problem and we have ideas and we don't know why yet."

Though Campbell is shining a light on the issue, it is well known to local beach-goers. In August, the water at Parlee Beach was rated poor more days than it was rated good.

In January, Campbell plans to assign students in his environmental microbiology class to assemble the data and attempt to correlate it with events, currents, rainfall and tides. A separate geographic information systems class will also attempt to solve the mystery.

Campbell notes that the problem doesn't seem to stretch down to the Nova Scotian shore.

"This is not strait-wide contamination of the entire water body," he said. "It is somewhat localized." 

He said part of the problem is that the testing takes two days, so you're "always looking in the rearview mirror." There are clues that can be looked for, however.

People or other animals?

Aside from looking for specific weather events or problems with sewage handling stations, researchers can look at the level of E. coli, which diminishes quickly in salt water, as opposed to the fecal streptococcus, which persists. 

"We're going to try to see if we can look at the ratios of persistent streptococcus to transient E. coli."

They'll also try to determine whether the waste is predominantly from people or from other animals. There have been concerns from some residents that the area is overdeveloped

Campbell said despite the dour subject matter, it's an exciting opportunity.

"From a pedagogical point of view, I think it's going to be great," he said. "I wish we weren't doing it, but wow, what a chance for our students to really sink their teeth into something."​