Clams and Grass to the Rescue
New York Times Editorial
Shinnecock Bay, a wide stretch of water on the south shore of eastern Long Island, is lovely to look at but sicker than you’d think. Pollution from fertilizer and septic runoff feeds frequent algae blooms that block oxygen and sunlight. Generations of shellfishing have scoured the bottom of clams, scallops and oysters. Once-lush beds of eelgrass, shelter for the little fish that feed bigger ones, have largely disappeared from the western part of the bay.
Waters all around Long Island, and the world over, are stressed by pollution and the slow-motion calamity of climate change. What Shinnecock Bay has going for it are scientists working to restore its waters and tidal flats to health. The Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program, run by Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and its Institute for Ocean Conservation Science, means to fix the problem, not just study it.
The institute’s executive director, Dr. Ellen Pikitch, said a big part of the job was as simple as replanting eelgrass and seeding the bay with clams and oysters, which filter the water clean and make the bay better able to fend for itself. “We as scientists can’t do as much about the septic systems,” she said, “but we can do something about restoring shellfish.” Local officials were doing their part by agreeing to close sections of the bay to shellfishing.
Her team has already covered the bottom with two million seed clams, 500,000 seed oysters and 150,000 adult clams in the hopes of building self-reproducing populations. More ambitious tactics, like building artificial reefs for oysters to grow on, are a possibility. The program was cut short for the year because of Hurricane Sandy and the onset of cold weather; clams need time to burrow down for the winter. The team will spend the coming months studying data and will be back on the water in the spring, tossing clams, planting grass, adding seaweed.
A Salve for the Seas
The Ocean Health Index was Commissioned To Give a Comprehensive View Of How We Can Improve Our Waters Both Globally and at Home on the East End.
by Jon Bowermaster
Long Island may represent the perfect dichotomy in the way man has treated the ocean. While the pounding surf and stunning horizon line give the impression of a wild, untamed resource, just beneath the ocean’s surface all is not right. From Stonington to Montauk, fishing fleets are at ever-greater risk, the temperature of the Sound is warming, red algae blooms are becoming commonplace, lobsters vanish, and disaster relief is proposed by government agencies almost annually over one problem or another.
During the past century man has put serious stress on the ocean we are so dependent on. We have carelessly overfished it, polluted it, dumped carbon dioxide into it, and heated it up. Perhaps the fact that it covers more than 70 percent of the planet has allowed us to think the ocean has an infinite ability to absorb toxic runoff, billions of pieces of plastic, 24 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, and still somehow miraculously heal itself, all the while providing us with valuable resources ranging from food to medicine.
Dr. Ellen Pikitch, a professor of marine biology at Stony Brook University and executive director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science, blames much of the problem on an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude people have long had toward the ocean and pollution. “It is a challenge to engage people who live away from a coast in the need to protect and restore the ocean,” she explains. “The ocean is critical to us all in so many ways. An unhealthy ocean will lead to a poorer economy, lower food availability, and a less healthy populace. We need to do a better job of educating the public about the consequences of ocean health to their families and communities no matter where they reside.”
However, Pikitch argues that all ocean-related problems are local. “Pollution and fisheries are both of great immediate concern to Long Island, and the two are somewhat interrelated,” she says. “Lack of adequate waste treatment, and run-off of fertilizers and other chemicals are major causes. In addition, overfishing has left our coastal areas depleted of hard clams, oysters, and other species, and in the past, high shellfish abundance kept nutrient levels in check. As a consequence, we have seen an increase in the number and duration of harmful algal blooms such as brown tides and red tides. These blooms are not only unsightly, but also impair growth and reproduction of marine life and occasionally result in fish kills.”
These red tides are of greatest concern as they can impair human health and even cause fatalities. “These dangerous red tides have occurred repeatedly in recent years, and large areas have been closed to shellfishing to forestall human health consequences,” says Pikitch. “Clearly, this is a case where there is a direct relationship between our own health and that of our waters. Also, these are serious problems, but they are problems that can be solved on a local and regional scale with the right kinds of efforts. There are some efforts in place, but these need to be scaled up and complemented by other efforts that will reduce inflow of waste into our waters.”
To try and stem the tide of ocean abuse, some of the greatest minds in science, conservation, and business combined forces to come up with a way to encourage cleaning up some of the worst of the ocean’s problems. The solution is a study of each of the 171 “Exclusive Economic Zones” (EEZs) surrounding countries with ocean coastlines. That data was collected worldwide and analyzed using 10 different criteria from Coastal Protection to Biodiversity to Tourism and Recreation; each country was then given an overall grade—between one and 100—that rates how it is measuring up. By assigning what are essentially grades is to give countries, regions, and industries incentive to clean up existing problems and invest in ocean protection.
The initial Ocean Health Index, announced this past August, is the creation of Conservation International, the National Geographic Society, New England Aquarium, and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. Starting in 2008, more than 60 scientists traveled the globe evaluating ecological, social, economic, and political factors for every coastal country and adding up the results. The highest score was given to isolated Jarvis Island in the South Pacific (which received an 86); the lowest went to the African nation of Sierra Leone (36). The US scored 63, tying it for 26th on the list, between Pitcairn and the Ukraine. The average score was 60, or as Dr. Greg Stone, Conservation International’s Chief Scientist for Oceans and one of the originators of the Index, put it, a “D.”
It wasn’t just remote islands that scored well. Germany ranked fourth, with a score of 73, suggesting its marine region is well protected. While the US scored well in coastal protection, it didn’t do so well in food supply, clean water, and tourism. The group that dreamed up the Index hopes it will become the lead indicator used by policy-makers and conservationists around the world as they try and assess what’s wrong with their respective seascapes and learn how to fix them. Dr. Ben Halpern, a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, oversaw the project and wrote the peer reviewed paper introducing it in Nature. He says the response to the research has already been “remarkably positive and excited.”
“You can’t manage something like ocean health without actually having a tool to measure it,” says Halpern. “It’s not a panacea that’s going to solve all problems, but it will definitely help in the process of trying to fix things.”
While admitting he was “surprised” by the average score of 60, Halpern said the reaction from some corners of the world has been swift: Marine biologists with the Colombian government (ranked 94th) immediately invited a team from Conservation International to advise it on how it can improve its score.
As to the impact of the index, Pikitch is optimistic. “I think it’s a bit early to know what impact the Ocean Health Index will have on stimulating the improvement of coastlines among nations,” she says. “Perhaps some of the earliest ‘adopters’ will be nations that view themselves as competing with one another over ocean health considerations. For example, tourists might make destination choices based on the cleanliness of the waters, the availability of local, fresh seafood, and other components of the OHI. Nations will undoubtedly want to know how they stack up against their competitors and what they can do to improve their score.”
Stone agrees that now is the perfect time to be releasing this seemingly straightforward rating mechanism. “I’ve never seen a moment as open, with so much opportunity as this for the oceans in my life. Even within the last several months the tempo has picked up, with [film director] James Cameron going to the bottom of the Mariana Trench (the deepest point on Earth) and new marine protected areas being announced with regularity.”
He is hopeful that the index will prove to be a missing link between talk and action, although he admits measuring direct change to come from it will not be easy. “One thing to be clear on: We are not trying to compare the health of the ocean today to a time when it was pristine, thousands of years ago,” Stone says. “That’s history. We are in an era where humans dominate the ocean, and we are the first to admit we are measuring a troubled system.” oceanindex.org
SBU scientists work to restore balance of nature
Shinnecock Bay gets help from Christopher Gobler, Ellen Pikitch and their team
Time Beacon Record
by Daniel Dunalef
Christopher Gobler is tired of being the bearer of bad news for Shinnecock Bay. Every time someone wants to talk about ecological problems in the bay, they reach out to the Stony Brook scientist for information.
Gobler finally has some good news to share. He and a team of scientists at Stony Brook received a $3 million grant from the Simons Foundation and a private donor to turn the tide in Shinnecock Bay. Through a five-year plan, Gobler and fellow scientist Ellen Pikitch are leading an effort to restore the water quality and improve conditions at Shinnecock Bay. They hope their efforts will allow the bay to sustain larger populations of shellfish and finfish.
"We're trying to do something to improve and reverse the things that have happened in the bay," Gobler offered.
The effort was funded by a philanthropic gift from the Laurie Landeau Foundation, matched by similar funds from the Simons Foundation.
The eastern-most lagoon along the South Shore estuary system, Shinnecock contains 9,000 acres of open water, salt marshes and intertidal flats.
The bay, which was once home to a thriving range of shellfish, has had a decline in water quality because of the run off of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous, especially from septic tanks. Researchers believe nitrogen loading and the absence of shellfish are the biggest contributors to toxic red and brown tides, Gobler said.
"Part of the problem is that there's stuff going into the bay" that leads to algal blooms, he offered.
Shinnecock is a tale of two bays. On the eastern side, it's still closer to the best of times, as ocean water flushes through every day. The west side, however, is suffering through closer to the worst of times, as nutrients introduced by human actions remain in the bay for over a week because of less active ocean cleansing.
Researchers at Stony Brook's School of Atmospheric and Marine Sciences plan to turn that around. The first step involves restocking shellfish, which will filter the water, and replanting eelgrass beds. This will create habitats for juvenile fish, which can hide from predators.
Scientists will also bring seaweed into the bay, which will act as a sponge, taking out the nutrients that lead to these red and brown tides. The scientists will remove the seaweed once it has absorbed enough nutrients, and will bring in a fresh batch.
Researchers like Pikitch and Gobler will monitor the bay regularly.
"This will be a continual effort we will build on," suggested Gobler, a graduate of Ward Melville High School who now lives in East Quogue with his wife Dianna Berry and their three primary school-aged children. "We're starting out with hard clams and oysters."
Pikitch has already started surveying fish throughout the bay and has found, as she expected, that there is a greater range of fish living in the eastern part of the bay, where the water quality is considerably better.
Pikitch expects improvements in water quality and an expansion of a healthy habitat throughout the bay to foster growth of a broad range of fish.
"As water quality improves and as eelgrass beds flourish, fish will be able to reproduce, hide from predators, and grow," she suggested.
Stony Brook University President Samuel Stanley hopes the restoration effort will "serve as a template for similar projects worldwide," he said in a statement.
Those interested in learning more about the restoration program can visit the website www.shinnecockbay.org.
Pikitch, who lives in East Quogue, said one of her favorite activities is to take her grandchildren to the ocean, where she hopes they fall in love with it at an early age, the way she did.
"I worry about what kind of world my grandchildren will grow up in," she offered. "I worry about harmful algal blooms. I wonder: What if we didn't do anything and things got worse."
If, she added, "the bays aren't healthy, we won't be healthy."
She said she feels a sense of urgency about her work. After all, humans caused the problem and we should be able to turn it around, she offered.
"We're going to make a big dent," she predicted. "This is a problem that can be solved."
Shinnecock Bay Restoration Project Moves Forward
By Emily Toy
Marine scientists and directors from Stony Brook University, state, town and village officials, and environmental advocates gathered last Friday morning for a boat tour on Shinnecock Bay to observe prevailing research efforts and to better understand the current state of the waterway.
"Our research is largely field-oriented and utilizes traditional, molecular, and experimental techniques to contrast the dynamics and ecological niche of harmful algal blooms with those of co-occurring, non-harmful species," said Christopher Gobler, professor with the university's School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.
"Estuaries represent some of the most productive, biodiverse, and important ecosystems on earth . . . [with] 100 percent of Long Island townships being located on coastal water ways, a series of environmental problems have arisen in these systems in recent decades," he said.
Particularly over the last decade, the aquatic environment of Shinnecock Bay has been deteriorating. The rapid decline in fish and shellfish populations, water quality, and habitat conditions has had a dramatic effect not only on the marine life but also the people that live near the body of water.
Several problems plague the Shinnecock Bay such as algal blooms (which occurred every year for the past three years), red tide (which was first observed in Shinnecock Bay in 2008 and again last year), loss of eelgrass beds and a decline in fish and shellfish populations.
In 2010, the Shinnecock Bay Restoration Project began, with the project now already moving into its second phase and third year.
"The pilot studies undertaken by SoMAS during the summers of 2010 and 2011 have provided valuable information to inform future restoration projects," Gobler said. "The goal is to eventually reach a 'tipping point' where the natural populations of shellfish will begin to recover and eelgrass beds will expand within the bay."
Friday's boat tour found Gobler and members of his team gathering data from measured and evaluated water temperatures, nutrient levels, water clarity, algal densities and more. In seeking to enhance the natural filtration capacity of the ecosystem with shellfish, the team restocked multiple species of shellfish with wild plantings, caged plantings that they monitor regularly.
The bay's nutrient levels are being measured with seaweed. The aquatic plants absorb large amounts of nutrients, and by removing nutrients, the plants can have an inhibitory effect on harmful algae, including red and brown tide.
Expanding the eelgrass beds is another important area of interest for the Stony Brook and Southampton teams.
Not only were shoots of eelgrass planted, they also focused on releasing seeds and genotyping eelgrass to ensure that specific strains of eelgrass are properly matched with the prevailing conditions of the bay. Abundant eelgrass beds also promote more sustainable habitats for fish.
Now that fall is here, it's time for assessment after the passed two year's efforts.
So far, according to Gobler and his team's findings, results show that both juvenile and adult stage oysters were more resistant to the effects of high temperature and brown tide than other shellfish. Also a water sample taken from eastern Shinnecock Bay was clear, while a water sample taken from the western Shinnecock Bay was yellow and murky, resulting from being plagued by a brown tide bloom. The samples were taken from both sides on the same day.
Since the restoration project received $3 million this year in two $1.5 million philanthropic gifts from the Laurie Landeau Foundation and the Simons Foundation, coming up with funding for the project has been less of a strain. Continuing on with the proposed five year plan for the project will no doubt be easier since funding is now firmly in place.
Stony Brook Univ. students get grant to clean up Shinnecock Bay
Students at Stony Brook University's Southampton campus received a multimillion grant to help them study the Shinnecock Bay.
The $3 million grant will allow the students to study and restore the declining fish, shellfish and plant populations in the waters.
The grant was provided by two private corporations.
News 12 Video (right). You may need to wait for video to load.
Stony Brook Gets $3 Million To Restore Western Shinnecock
Publication: The Southampton Press
By Michael Wright
The Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences announced on Monday that it has received some $3 million in donations from the Laurie Landeau Foundation and the Simons Foundation to seed a plan to help restore water quality and shellfish populations in western Shinnecock Bay.
The school made the announcement at a press conference at the university’s Marine Science Center at the Stony Brook-Southampton campus in Shinnecock Hills on Monday morning.
The school’s efforts will focus primarily on boosting shellfish stocks, expanding the presence of eelgrass beds in the bay and finding ways to battle the harmful algae blooms that have infected the western end of the bay for more than two decades. The program will use the scientific data about conditions throughout the western end of the bay that Stony Brook scientists and students have compiled over a decade of close monitoring to select specific areas where shellfish and eelgrass beds stand the best chance of thriving.
The $3 million is being given to the college by the Laurie Landeau Foundation, which has a specific interest in marine ecosystem restoration and shellfish stocks, and the Simons Foundation.
In the last two years, Stony Brook scientists have been at the forefront of a long list of discoveries about the problems facing western Shinnecock Bay. Two years ago, they were the first to detect the presence of a red algae species that infects shellfish with toxins that can be harmful to humans, even fatal. Last year researchers from the school announced that they had, for the first time, charted the connections between the declining water quality in western Shinnecock, and other bays around Long Island, and the septic systems of residential homes within the bays’ watersheds.
Red Tide Returns, With A Deadly New Twist
Publication: The Southampton Press
By Michael Wright
Blooms of a “red tide” algae stained the East End’s bays once again this week, the ninth straight year the organism known as cochlodinium has emerged here, and this year’s blooms appear to be on track to be among the densest and most harmful experienced since the species first appeared in local waters, scientists say.
Already the blooms have set a destructive new milestone, as they are being blamed for the first time for the death of hundreds of wild fish in a creek off Flanders Bay. Lab tests had long ago shown the organism to be toxic to fish and shellfish but this week is the first time scientists have seen direct evidence of the blooms killing free-swimming fish in the wild.
According to scientists from Suffolk County and the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, hundreds of menhaden, striped bass, black sea bass and smaller baitfish that died suddenly in Chase’s Creek in Aquebogue were covered in a reddish slime that is associated with cochlodinium blooms.
Stony Brook professor Dr. Chris Gobler, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the brown tide blooms that devastated East End fisheries in the 1980s and 1990s, said that water samples taken from the creek on the morning of the fish kill showed that low oxygen levels, a common cause of fish kills, were not an issue in the creek and that the red tide algae counts were extremely high throughout the creek.
“I don’t know how much more definitely we could say it was from one of these blooms,” Dr. Gobler said this week. “When we got there, some of the fish were still expiring. We took samples and oxygen levels were super-saturated … much higher than normal waters, so that was not the problem. But there was a very intense cochlodinium bloom going on. The fish that were dead were covered with this rust-colored slime that is caused by cocholodinium. We’ve had fish kills in pound nets and in tanks at our marine lab … where the fish can’t move, but this is the first time we’ve seen a wild population of fish dying from one of these blooms.”
The red tide blooms, which appear as reddish-brown to crimson red striations on the surface of local bays in late morning and afternoon, popped up early last week in eastern Shinnecock Bay and throughout the Peconic Bay Estuary. The late July bloom is three to four weeks earlier than the blooms have appeared in most previous years, though it is about a week later than it appeared in 2010.
Dr. Gobler said the early appearance is probably due to the high temperatures in July. In 2010, he said the early emergence, combined with high temperatures, led to denser and more widespread cochlodinium blooms, a pattern that this year’s bloom appears to be following as well.
“In 2010 we found that the blooms got really intense, and there were times when all of Peconic Bay was covered with them, whereas in other years its been more patchy. We might be headed there again.”
Soon after cochlodinium was first detected in local waters, scientists discovered that the organism, a dinoflagellate that can propel itself through the water column, sinking to the bottom of the bays at night and rising to the top during the day, was highly toxic to most marine species like fish and shellfish. It is not harmful to humans, however, unlike another species of red tide algae that has been found blooming in western Shinnecock Bay in recent years, leading to closures of shellfish harvesting there in the late spring and early summer.
Dr. Gobler said that the blooms of cochlodinium also thrive on elevated levels of nitrates in water and that runoff and groundwater tainted with fertilizer from farm fields just north of Chases’s Creek in Aquebogue probably fed the dense blooms there that killed the fish.
It was a group of scientists from Stony Brook led by Dr. Gobler that issued a report last year on years of research linking the emergence of harmful algal blooms, like the red tide and brown tide, to nitrogen seeping into local tidal waters from septic systems of homes within the watershed.
Brown Tide Chokes Western Shinnecock Bay
Publication: The Southampton Press
By Michael Wright
A destructive “brown tide” algae bloom has once again swept across western Shinnecock Bay, the Quogue Canal and eastern Moriches Bay, and this year’s occurrence appears to be approaching levels not seen since the devastating succession of blooms that nearly wiped out shellfish stocks in the 1980s and 1990s.
The brown tide began building in May, gradually staining the waters west of the Ponquogue Bridge a dingy brown. In recent weeks, the bloom has flourished, and densities of the algae cells may have already surpassed levels seen last year, the worst since the 1990s, according to scientists who have been observing the growing bloom.
“We’ve got a wickedly dense brown tide in Shinnecock Bay,” said Dr. Chris Gobler, a marine science professor at Stony Brook University and an expert on harmful algal blooms. “We’re seeing hundreds of thousands of cells per milliliter, on par with the really bad years. Last year, we got to two million parts per milliliter, and we’ll be doing testing this week—we’ll see if it’s over that this year. You can just see it, though. It’s thick.”
The brown tide blooms, which are not harmful to humans, first appeared in local waters in 1985, turning the waters of nearly every tidal bay and creek on the East End coffee brown. The density of the algae, which shellfish will not ingest as they do most other algae species, starved shellfish and cut off sunlight to aquatic plants. After several years of the choking brown tide blooms, the area’s once prodigious bay scallop populations finally collapsed in 1995 and have yet to return to even a shadow of their former abundance.
This year’s brown tide, appears just as concerns about another algae bloom—a “red tide,” for the reddish color of its individual cells—was fading out. The red tide organism, known as Alexandrium, has caused the closure of shellfish harvesting in all of western Shinnecock because the cells produce a biotoxin that can be harmful or even fatal to humans.
Dr. Gobler said the pattern in western Shinnecock has been that the brown tide will reach its peak in late June and early July, and then begin to wane, fading away in August as water temperatures reach into the mid- to upper-70 degree mark in the bay. In some years, it has returned in September as waters cooled again.
Regardless, the tide’s persistence in western Shinnecock Bay and eastern Moriches Bay, while largely absent from most other East End waters since 1995, is just another sign of the poor state of water quality in the bay.
“It’s sad to say, but this is business as usual for this water body,” Dr. Gobler lamented. “Since 2007, it’s been there every year. What’s special will be when it doesn’t occur.”
Harmful Algae Have the Right Genetic Stuff
Brown Tide Research Initiative
The Spring 2012 issue of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute's Oceanus magazine includes the feature article "Harmful Algae Have the Right Genetic Stuff." The research spotlights the efforts of Dr. Christopher Gobler of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, among others.
This year marked the sixth consecutive year that the single-celled alga Aureococcus anophagefferens - whose prolific blooms are known as “brown tide" - turned the waters brown from Long Island's western Shinnecock Bay to eastern Moriches Bay, making for intense, though localized, brown tide conditions.
"Aureococcus has contributed to major declines in the Long Island shellfish industry over the past 25 years," said Dr. Jim Ammerman, Director of New York Sea Grant. “For the past 15 years, Sea Grant has supported a number of Dr. Gobler’s ecological studies of Aureococcus, several through the Brown Tide Research Initiative launched in 1996 and funded by NOAA’s Ecology and Oceanography of Harmful Algal Blooms program. More recently, we have directly funded Gobler’s brown tide genomic research which suggests that Aureococcus is potentially well-adapted to exploit current coastal conditions of increased turbidity, metals, and organic compounds.”
This research was funded by New York Sea Grant, the Department of Energy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation. For more, check out the article below, which appeared in Oceanus magazine. This feature story is also available as a pdf.
New York Sea Grant's New York Coastlines also showcased this research in its Summer/Fall 2011 issue (click here). Findings from the study were published in February 2012 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Oceanus magazine, which celebrates 60 years in publication this year, explores the oceans in depth, highlighting the research and researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Each issue covers a wide spectrum of oceanography, spanning coastal research, marine life, deep-ocean exploration, and the ocean's role in climate, as well as ocean technology and policy. For more on Oceanus, which is currently circulated to a readership of about 5,000, visit www.whoi.edu/oceanus.
New York Sea Grant (NYSG), a cooperative program of Cornell University and the State University of New York, is one of 32 university-based programs under the National Sea Grant College Program (NSGCP) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The NSGCP engages this network of the nation’s top universities in conducting scientific research, education, training and extension projects designed to foster science-based decisions about the use and conservation of our aquatic resources. Through its statewide network of integrated services, NYSG has been promoting coastal vitality, environmental sustainability, and citizen awareness about the State’s marine and Great Lakes resources since 1971.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has reopened shellfishing in the Shinnecock Bay after closing it off April 10. According to the DEC, the 3,600 acres were closed after a biotoxin called saxitoxin was detected. Saxitoxin, DEC officials say, causes causes paralytic poisoning in shellfish.
The decision to reopen the bay to shellfishing comes after the testing of more than 140 shellfish in the western porton of the bay. DEC officials say the samples tested negative for biotoxins.
Approximately 315 acres outside the mouth of Weesuck Creek, however, will remain closed for the harvest of shellfish.
Western Shinnecock Bay Is Sterile, Thanks To Human Proximity, Scientists Say
Publication: The Southampton Press
By Michael Wright
The whole of western Shinnecock Bay has effectively become a dead zone for shellfish and other marine organisms, according to marine biologists from Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.
A variety of shellfish species, many of them placed in the bay specifically with the hope that they would spawn and augment wild populations, are not producing any offspring because the water quality in much of the bay has become too poor to support them during the fragile first weeks of their lives, a report issued by the university’s scientists shows.
At a presentation at the university’s Southampton campus on Friday, Dr. Christopher Gobler and Dr. Brad Peterson will present the findings of a year-long study of the bay, which showed that shellfish spawn are simply not surviving in the bay’s waters.
The scientists are unambiguous about what they believe is at the root of the problem: high nitrogen levels, spurred by pollution of groundwater and tidal areas by septic systems in densely populated neighborhoods within the bay’s watershed.
“I’m not going to pull any punches—there are some major problems,” Dr. Gobler said. “Shinnecock Bay, western Shinnecock Bay in particular, is in deep, deep trouble.”
The report, compiled by Dr. Gobler and Dr. Peterson from a broad range of studies done by the biologists and their graduate and doctoral students at Stony Brook’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, builds on the forboding conclusions of last year’s report, which was the first to lay out a concrete connection between human development within the bay’s watershed and the steadily growing number of harmful afflictions to befall the bay since the 1980s.
The darkest of the revelations from this year’s analyses was evidence that the shellfish that live in the western part of the bay are not reproducing, while their cousins that live east of the Ponquogue Bridge in Hampton Bays appear to be reproducing normally.
“We put out bags to collect different types of larval shellfish at a number of sites around the entire bay,” Dr. Gobler said this week. “In the eastern part, we found bay scallops, southern mussels, slipper shells—everything you’d expect. In the western basin of the bay, nothing settled at any of the sites. There were no [larval shellfish] at all. That is a sign that the water quality is very poor.”
Dr. Gobler is recognized as one of the nation’s leading experts on the devastating marine algal bloom known as “brown tide,” which nearly wiped out the East End’s once prodigious shellfish stocks in the 1980s and 1990s. His doctoral students were the first to discover the organism Alexandrium, a reddish-colored creature that appears in dense blooms known as “red tide” and produces a neurotoxin that can be deadly to humans if ingested in shellfish taken from western Shinnecock last year, prompting state officials to close of all shellfishing from miles of the bay’s waters.
“It turns out that was just the beginning of the fun for Shinnecock Bay,” Dr. Gobler said. “That was May. Then, in June, you had the brown tide come back again. And in August, the other species of red tide [known as cochlodinium]. Obviously, that is not good.”
The state again issued a mandatory embargo on shellfishing in the entire western half of the bay this week after the toxin was once again detected in shellfish there.
In a sprawling report issued last year, Stony Brook scientists showed evidence of direct correlations between the density of residential development in the watershed of tidal bays and increasing instances of harmful algae blooms. Their study, conducted in tidal waters across the entire island, showed a steady increase in water quality problems as one moved to the west, where development grows denser and denser, starting in western Southampton Town’s half-acre zoning districts of Hampton Bays, East Quogue and Westhampton Beach, and progressing to Nassau County’s suburban communities that line the shores of Jamaica Bay and other tidal estuaries.
The primary culprit, the scientists said, is nitrogen, a natural byproduct of human waste, injected into groundwater through septic systems. When residential density gets too great, the high levels of nitrogen that reach tidal waters through seeping groundwater can spark a host of environmental issues.
Quick solutions to the problem simply do not exist, Dr. Gobler said. The fix can only come through a wide range of long-term policy changes and sweeping, costly preventative measures. Moving development out of watersheds entirely, implementing costly upgrades to septic systems, connecting as many houses as possible to municipal sewer systems feeding to sewage treatment facilities, and tightening the reins on development are the only clear steps that can cut down the nitrogen loads, Dr. Gobler said. Preventing more development, on a handful of large vacant parcels in northern East Quogue in particular, also should be a priority, he said.
“We have to address the root cause here, and there are a few things that can be done,” he said. “East Quogue can go the way of Hampton Bays, or you can at least halt it where it is. There are ways to decrease nitrogen loads, with sewage treatment plants or alternate [septic] systems. Restoration of the ecosystem is also a possibility—rebuilding eelgrass beds, building the capacity of shellfish stocks. But those things have to be done in conjunction with improving water quality.”