News Archive 2014

August 15, 2014

Why Sharks Need Our Help

By James Sturtz
Hampstons Magazine

Dr. Chapman with shark
Dr. Demian Chapman holding a silky shark in the Bahamas.

Sharks have long been the sea's scariest creatures, but now they find their very existence threatened as scientists work to save these misunderstood monsters.

It’s 8:26 am when the R/V Shinnecock pulls in its first trawl—a juvenile horseshoe crab and baby tautog. Bluefish are flitting at the surface of Shinnecock Bay, and the eight-person crew from Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS) is out this morning to catalog the bay’s water quality and life. There’s devotion among the scientists and volunteers on this 35-foot platform research craft. They started this project in 2012 with a clear vision—to take care of what’s happening in the Long Island university’s aquatic backyard and to see how to protect and improve it.

A second and third trawl reveal striped sea robins, anchovies, shrimp, comb jellies, and a half-dozen varieties of crab. Other days, they’ll be joined by stingrays, fluke, and grouper. But these are small fish in a vast pond. They’re only half of the story.

The other half is sharks.

Forty years ago, Peter Benchley’s Jaws transformed Long Island into shark central. Inspired by the real-life story of shark hunter Frank Mundus, who claims to have harpooned a 4,550-pound great white off Montauk Point in 1964, the novel was set in the fictional town of Amity, allegedly somewhere between Bridgehampton and East Hampton. By the time Steven Spielberg’s adaptation followed a year later, the book had already sold 5.5 million copies and spurred a worldwide fascination with hunting sharks. Spielberg’s film changed cinema, introducing film’s first blockbuster and creating a feeding frenzy of fear and concern. But by the time Benchley died in 2006 and Mundus passed away two years later, both had taken up a new fight: Each had become a staunch conservationist.

Now Stony Brook is leading the way in that conservation, protecting sharks with a mix of advocacy and hard science, in the face of estimates that approximately 100 million of these ocean predators are being killed each year. Chief among the team is Demian Chapman, who travels the globe with peculiar luggage: a bright orange hard-side suitcase crammed full of endangered shark fins. When I meet him at Stony Brook University’s main campus, the 40-year-old professor has just returned from the Bahamas, Belize, and Fiji, and is preparing to administer a graduate-student exam before taking off again for South Africa and Hong Kong. A new batch of fins to add to his stockpile is drying in a plastic bin outside, and he sheepishly admits, “I’ve got to go wash my hands. You get used to the smell, but you can never be totally oblivious to it.”

Half of the world’s shark fins pass through the ports of Hong Kong, making their way to mainland China and elsewhere, many to be bleached and shredded for shark-fin soup. It’s a long-standing practice, but a complicated one, and in 2009, Chapman and his colleagues developed a DNA-testing technique to trace the fins back to their region of origin. He then expanded the testing to other species to better understand the complex nature of the global trade.

Jaws was definitely bad for sharks,” Chapman tells me in his office. “Tournaments like the ones in Montauk already existed, but then killing them became the new hot thing. The sharks were villains, and they put the fishermen on the map.”

After the initial craze waned, though, developments overseas spurred on the hunt. “By the 1980s, the Chinese economy grew, and that had nothing to do with Jaws,” Chapman continues. “There was a new middle class with plenty of disposable income, and the luxury product they wanted was soup, which can cost $100 a bowl in restaurants.” Complicating matters, the United States Fisheries then pushed American fishermen toward catching sharks, both to answer the new demand and to protect other fish species that had become depleted.

Between 2000 and 2004, CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, and its 180 member countries added great whites, whale sharks, and basking sharks to its list of animals that had to be protected worldwide. But stopping them in customs remained a problem because it was difficult to tell the 400-plus shark species apart.

“Finning”—cutting fins from the sharks and then leaving the mutilated creatures to die—was the preferred harvesting approach, because it left fishing boats’ freezers open for more valuable catches, like tuna. In some cases, fishermen would even slice the fins from females, removing embryos and taking their tiny fins as well.

But while finning of sharks has become less common—whether by individual nations’ regulations, or an increased market for the sharks’ meat, cartilage, jaws, and oils—it hasn’t decreased the numbers being killed. “Sharks don’t reproduce fast enough for aquaculture,” Chapman says. “So they’re getting depleted.”

Efforts to add additional shark species to the endangered species list were similarly hindered because the task of telling the fins apart seemed insurmountable. But in 2012, Chapman and his wife, Debra Abercrombie, developed a fin guide, based on simple visible physical differences. “We taught ourselves how to identify them, traveling the world and looking at sharks, and making sure there weren’t variations among the species in different areas,” Chapman explains. Funding came from the US government and the Pew Charitable Trust, and the pair displayed the fins and their guide (available at to delegates at the CITES conference in Bangkok in 2013. Three hammerhead species, porbeagles, and oceanic whitetips were added to the list along with all manta rays. Those regulations take effect worldwide this September 14.

But back to Chapman’s bag. He’s wheeled it through airports around the globe, showing it to customs officers at ports. “I spend a lot of time doing paperwork,” Chapman admits, “but you can get through customs pretty easily with a good story, and I’ve got one.” Chapman explains that in one hour he can train a customs officer to spot illegally sourced fins and that the training is inspiring people to want to do their part. “They see how easy it is to make a big difference with a global problem,” he says.

Chapman—whose grandfather had a shark tattoo on his arm—became interested in sharks as a child in New Plymouth, New Zealand, but it changed when he met Ellen Pikitch, a Bensonhurst, New York, native who grew up mesmerized by fish on summer outings to Coney Island. Pikitch was the founding director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s global marine conservation program, headquartered at the New York Aquarium and then at the Bronx Zoo. She met Chapman while doing fieldwork in the Bahamas and later hired him to run the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science’s shark research program in 2007. In 2008 she moved the institute to Stony Brook University’s main campus, where she and Chapman are SoMAS professors as well.

Pikitch’s groundbreaking career includes leading the scientific efforts for beluga sturgeon to be listed on the US Endangered Species Act (at one time, Americans consumed 80 percent of its caviar each year). This resulted in the banning of all US imports of the fish in 2005, saving a fish heading toward extinction. She also helped lead a 2009 study of forage fish—prey species like sardines, herring, anchovies, and bunker—which according to statistics shows that direct fishing for these species constituted one-third of the world’s marine catch, and that by removing them from the ocean, we were endangering the larger fish we rely on for human food. The research has led to changes in fishery policy worldwide.

Closer to home, Pikitch coleads the Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program, which is funded by a $3 million, five-year grant from the Laurie Landeau Foundation (matched by Stony Brook’s Simons Foundation) to study and restore Shinnecock Bay, which has been undergoing increasingly harmful algal blooms. In addition to the trawls, the work includes stocking 20 half-acre underwater sanctuaries with 50,000 hard-shell clams, establishing oyster beds (both bivalve species filter water, with a single oyster filtering up to 50 gallons per day), and planting eelgrass, which serves as a habitat for scallops and young fish. Southampton residents can even participate in the oyster program, in a joint effort between SoMAS and Southold’s Cornell Cooperative Extension.

“Smaller systems like Shinnecock Bay let us show that protecting marine areas really works,” Pikitch tells me when we meet in New York—she’s just back from Beijing, where she was consulting on fish and food safety. “On Long Island, the Southampton trustees were very accessible, very serious, they understood the problems, and they had the power to close off areas to create clam sanctuaries without our having to deal with dueling agencies, so we did it in record time. Successes like that enhance the chance of implementing them elsewhere.”

Chapman and his students, Mark Bond and Jasmine Valentin, operate a “chum cam” in Belize to see how marine reserves benefit sharks. These data are used to help support development of other protected areas for sharks, including the Bahamas, where all shark trade was banned in 2011 and shark-related tourism now contributes $78 million annually to the economy (with each shark producing up to $3 million in ongoing revenue in its lifetime).

The fins that Chapman lugs around the globe come from Belize along with ones donated by Montauk shark fishermen. “A lot of people are against the tournaments,” Chapman says, “but if you’re going to have them, our goal is to get as much data as possible. Anything that monetizes the sharks as living creatures is good for them. That’s the best way to move conservation forward: It’s like what’s been done in safari parks in Africa.”

In Montauk, alternatives have emerged thanks to things like cage diving with Sea Turtle Dive Charters. This summer, Abercrombie will accompany local fishermen to tag shortfin mako sharks with satellites off of Long Island, growing their influence in the region and working to preserve the delicate but essential ecosystem.

Back on the R/V Shinnecock, Konstantine Rountos, a freshly minted SoMAS PhD, is examining a pair of mating green crabs. This fall, he’ll start a postdoc at SoMAS after designing first-of-their-kind experiments on the effects of red tide on the early development of fish. Sara Cernadas-Martín from Spain is alongside him, taking samples of the crabs’ flesh before releasing them back into the bay.

As a commercial trawler passes us, Andy Brosnan, the Shinnecock’s captain, says, “This is a summer community, so people don’t know what’s here in winter. But there are harbor and harp seals, and snowy owls that fly down from the Arctic because they only feed in light. I saw one in the Quantuck parking lot, chewing on ice.”

Black cormorants greet us on the dock as we step ashore at Stony Brook’s Marine Sciences Center in Southampton, an $8 million, 15,000-square-foot facility that opened in September 2013. A 2,400-square-foot outdoor wet lab for studies that need natural light sits outside, while an indoor seawater lab holds 17 tanks for experiments, plus 10 more for studying algal blooms. Powered by a 100-gallon-per minute pump, the entire array can bring water in from the bay, or use a closed, filtered flow that can be further adjusted by tweaking the calcium levels, salinity, and temperatures to satisfy any scientist’s parameters. The first experiments began this summer.

A second floor features classroom labs and a conference room with enviable views of summer homes, resident swans, and the water. There’s work to be done in Shinnecock Bay and in oceans around the world, but it’s impossible to stand in these halls and not feel that Stony Brook’s fleet of scientists is making a difference.

Read the article at Hamptons Magazine with photos

August 1, 2014

"All for the Bays" Concert Benefits Shinnecock Bay

The Hamptons Visitors Council presented its first annual “All for the Bays Concert,” last Thursday, July 31st at Ponquogue Beach in Hampton Bays.  Proceeds will benefit the Shinnecock Stewardship Fund at the Long Island Community Foundation.

Bonnie Grice of WPPB radio hosted the event, which featured the Grammy Award Winner, Rick Derringer along with The Doors Tribute Band, LA Woman. Locals Dub Steady and Maria performed.

“Scott Horowitz and I were talking,” says Donna Lanzetta, president of the East Quogue Chamber of Commerce, “we kind of had the same idea at the same time and we kind of merged it into this concert.”


Lanzetta mentioned Grice and everyone else involved had volunteered their time. “I think it’s wonderful to see the community come out and enjoy themselves on our fantastic beach,” says South Hampton Town Trustee, Scott Horowitz.

SHiRP representatives were in attendance to spread awareness and enjoy the show. The music began after a VIP meet and greet with Rick Derringer and the other musical guests at Dockers.

Attendees mentioned the need to improve the health of the local waterways. “The bays and the ocean are the lifeblood of Hampton Bays,” says Jack McKenna of Hampton Bays, “we should all get behind it and help out anyway we can.”

Susan Gentile-Hackett of the Southampton Visitors Council hopes to make the event annual. “It all fell into place very quickly,” Gentile-Hackett say, “we have a day for next year and we have some momentum.”

Clams for Clams

June 14 - Restore eelgrass to the bay


June 18, 2014

eelgrass group
Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and volunteers “Keep Clam and Carry On.” The group handled 8,200 reproductive shoots, each containing roughly 50 seeds.

Seeds of Hope for Shinnecock Bay

SOUTHAMPTON, NY, June 18, 2014 – On Saturday, June 14, East End volunteers worked side-by-side with members of the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, (SoMAS) to help revitalize Shinnecock Bay. More than 40 residents, friends and neighbors were on hand at this second annual event to help improve the Bay’s condition by restoring eelgrass habitat into areas where it has disappeared.

“Although the problems occurring in the Bay can seem overwhelming — from algal blooms such as brown tides to vanishing shellfish populations — the Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program (ShiRP) is working toward solutions. It is something that the community can get involved with and make a positive impact,” said Christine Santora, Program Coordinator for ShiRP. The restoration location and method was chosen based on research done by Bradley Peterson, Associate Professor at SoMAS, who has a long history of studying the eelgrass ecology. Shellfish and other marine life depend on this habitat for growth and survival. “It was encouraging to see so many volunteers assisting Stony Brook University researchers in their efforts to help restore eelgrass in Shinnecock Bay,” said Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. (Sag Harbor) who also pitched in at the event. “Efforts like these will help to restore the ecosystem functions and economic value of our local bays.”

The event occurred in three phases. The first phase was harvesting adult reproductive eelgrass shoots from the bay by Peterson and his team. Next, volunteers separated thousands of eelgrass shoots in water-filled tubs, looking at each individual piece for seeds. The fertile ones were piled into mesh bags, which were then tied mid-line to a cord, anchored by a cinder block and affixed with a buoy at the top for identification. Last, the bags were brought out in to the Shinnecock Bay and installed at various drop points. The Buoy-Deployed Seeding System (BuDS), originally developed by the Cornell Cooperative Extension, will allow the seeds to be dispersed in mid-water and offer the greatest chances for success.

The group handled 8,200 reproductive shoots, each containing roughly 50 seeds, for a total of approximately 410,000 seeds being dispersed this season. “We’re doing our best to combat problems in Shinnecock Bay and restore it to a place with clean water and healthy marine life,” said Santora. With the help of the local community, the bay will be one step closer to being a more vibrant habitat.

Read the article at Stony Brook Newsroom

group photo
Peconic Baykeeper Board members Maureen Sherry, Dan Guilizio, Nancy Hébert and Phyllis Toohey, present Dr. Christopher Gobler with a grant for a dedicated shellfish spawner sanctuary.
Photo credit: John Neely

June 3, 2014

Peconic Baykeeper Awards $10K Grant for Dedicated Shellfish Spawner Sanctuary in Support of Shinnecock Bay Restoration Project
Baykeeper partners with Stony Brook University efforts to restore water quality of Shinnecock Bay

SOUTHAMPTON, NY, June 3, 2014 - Peconic Baykeeper has awarded $10,000 to Stony Brook University's Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program to sponsor a shellfish spawner sanctuary in a dedicated location in the Bay. Working with the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS) at the Stony Brook Southampton campus, the grant will fund a designated clam sanctuary and representatives from Peconic Baykeeper will assist marine scientists from the school in the deployment of clams in Shinnecock Bay.

As filter feeders, shellfish are critical to balancing nutrient levels and helping to maintain the overall health of bays. Based on research conducted by Stony Brook marine biologists, a link has been established between increased nitrogen levels in our ground and surface waters, the rise of harmful algal blooms and the collapse of our once thriving shellfish populations. Taking steps to reverse the decline of our local estuarine environment, the Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program is rebuilding shellfish populations from strategically placed spawner sanctuaries around the bay.

"It has been well established that a healthy shellfish population is the key to clean water and a thriving estuarine environment," said Daniel J. Gulizio, Peconic Baykeeper Board member. "We are very excited to partner with Stony Brook University's Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program to advance our shared vision of a healthy Shinnecock Bay."

"Throughout Long Island, we are battling an increasing array of water quality issues including increased nitrogen in our ground and surface waters," said Professor Christopher Gobler Associate Dean for Marine Sciences at the Stony Brook Southampton campus. "We are seeing a growing litany of impaired waterbodies, routine beach closures and the collapse of our once thriving shellfish populations. This must be reversed, and Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program is a model effort, so we are grateful to the Peconic Baykeeper organization for supporting this important initiative."

"Effectively addressing the region's water quality issues will take a comprehensive approach," said Gulizio. "Peconic Baykeeper will continue to use advocacy, science, education and the law to fight for your fundamental right to clean water."

On June 2, 2014 at 7:30 pm, Christine Santora, Program Coordinator, will be giving a lecture on "turning the brown tide blue" at the Quogue Wildlife Refuge. Read more here.

On June 6, 2014 at 7:30 pm, the Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program will be featured at Stony Brook Southampton's evening lecture series in Chancellor Hall. Come hear details about our shellfish and eelgrass restoration activities, and meet our scientists.

*Save the Date* June 14, 2014 for an eelgrass restoration event at Stony Brook Southampton, a chance for individuals of all ages to become “citizen scientists” for a day and help to restore important habitat to the bay.

June 17th, 2014 is open house for SPAT registration. Anyone interested in growing their own oysters in Shinnecock Bay this summer through Cornell Cooperative Extension/Southampton Parks and Rec should contact Christine Santora (

*Save the Date*
July 11, 2014 for our annual "Clams for Clams" benefit. Info is forthcoming.

May 14, 2014

Some Signs Of Hope In Effort To Bring Shinnecock Bay Back From Brink
By Michael Wright
The Southampton Press

Two years into a $3 million effort to boost the ability of western Shinnecock Bay to absorb the abuse of development along its shores, scientists from Stony Brook University say they are hopeful that some subtle changes in environmental patterns could be the first small successes of their labors.

Millions of shellfish, deposited by the university as the main and first phase of the five-year effort, might have started to rein in the juggernaut of destructive algae blooms that have swept across Shinnecock Bay each summer for nearly three decades.

This summer the experimental research effort, known as the Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program, will move into its third year with a second new initiative, featuring new techniques, that scientists hope will restore ecologically important eelgrass beds on the bottom of the bay’s anemic western half. A third effort, still in the experimental stages though scientists hope it will become a reality someday, would tap natural processes to sop up the pollutants that feed the algae blooms seen as the main scourge in local waters.

The Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program was kicked off in the summer of 2012 on the back of the $3 million bequest by aquatic veterinarian Laurie Landeau, with the mission of taking on the torrent of ills that had beset East End bays since the mid 1980s, especially in the western half of Shinnecock Bay. A year earlier Stony Brook scientists had detailed the nearly barren conditions in the western bay that, they say, revealed connections between the loss of biodiversity and algae blooms, and spikes in nutrient levels sparked by effluent from residential septic systems in the neighborhoods surrounding the bays.

The mission of the program is to bring the wealth of knowledge of the university’s scientists regarding natural processes to assist in the fight against the problems that they had been documenting for more than two decades: smothering blankets of “brown tide” that starve bay scallops of nutrition and prevent eelgrass of absorbing sunlight; toxic blooms of red algae that kill fish and make shellfish poisonous to humans; and precipitously vanishing numbers of once valuable marine species.

The university’s scientists—five professors and a dozen graduate students have led the effort—have laid out a four-pronged approach: rebuilding dense shellfish stocks to increase the filtration of algae from the water; restoring eelgrass beds; developing a system for using seaweed to remove nutrients, like nitrogen, from the water; and embarking on a broad public outreach and education initiative to boost understanding among the general public about the threats facing the bays and convincing them that they must be fixed.

The bolstering of shellfish stocks is the cornerstone of the effort. Shellfish are prodigious consumers of algae and if their numbers were boosted to robust levels, on par with what they were in the decades before the first harmful algae blooms appeared, perhaps they would eat enough of the harmful cells to keep the destructive blooms from gaining a foothold.

Over the last two years, the scientists have overseen the creation of several shellfish sanctuaries in parts of the bay where water sampling indicated they should be able to survive, and in dense enough numbers to ensure their ability to spawn successfully. As their numbers grow, algae blooms should taper, the hypothesis goes. And the scientists hope that they are already seeing evidence that their theory is correct.

“There have already been some hopeful signs,” Stony Brook professor Dr. Christopher Gobler, Ph.D. said. “The bay this last year looked better than it had in prior years. It was the first time in three years that we hadn’t had a red tide leading to a [shellfish harvest] closure. Our monitoring showed that there were less bad [algae] cells, which is what we would expect if we’re enhancing the filtration capacity.”

Dr. Gobler is quick to add that a single year’s observations does not mean that their theory is correct. As a result, they intend to keep pumping up the shellfish numbers in local bays. “In the time frame we’re looking at,” Dr. Gobler added, “we’re hoping to plant more than 30 million shellfish in the system.”

The next effort to come fully online will be the restoration of eelgrass, the critical marine plant that once carpeted local bay bottoms, providing protective habitat for young shellfish and other marine species. The grass died off in vast swaths in the mid-1990s, the victim of thick brown tide blooms that blocked out sunlight. For a decade scientists from Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County in Southold have been trying to help the grass re-establish itself in its old haunts with mixed success.

This summer the Stony Brook scientists and students, with the help of community volunteers, will employ a method devised at Cornell of suspending eelgrass fronds above beds to release their pollen, spurring new growth.

“The furthest west into the bay we can go and find any surviving eelgrass is Tiana Beach, so we’re trying to jump-start the growth there,” Dr. Brad Peterson said. “We have found the plants have a very high ability to come back on their own if their seeds are successful.

“Transplanting shoots directly to an area—5 percent survival was kind of the standard, which is terrible,” he continued. “We saw 10 percent with this method.”

The restoration program’s public outreach initiative, led by Christine Santora, will be hosting a volunteer drive on Saturday, June 14, at the university’s Marine Sciences Center in Southampton, asking for help from members of the public in assembling the eelgrass seeding devices. And later this month Dr. Peterson and Dr. Gobler will meet with the Southampton Town Trustees about placing 50 of the eelgrass seeding buoys in select parts of the bay.

“They’ve been doing some very good work, we’re very pleased to be able to draw on such a wealth of knowledge in our own efforts with reseeding,” Southampton Town Trustee Eric Shultz said. “We’re going to ramp up our seeding efforts this year in line with what they’re doing in the western bay there.”

The third component of the restoration program’s approach, using seaweed to absorb excessive nutrients from the water column—items that are hazardous to marine life—and then compost them on land, is still in the conceptual phase, with scientists trying to devise ways to apply the potential they see in laboratories to real-life scales.

With its halfway point nearing the horizon, program leaders are already looking toward the sunset of the five-year bequest and the need to maintain the funding levels for the long-term effort that they say will be needed to make meaningful changes in the bay’s natural system. Advancement head Deborah Lowen-Klein says there has already been a good base of support from individuals and groups who see the restoration of the bay as a critical necessity.

“I think people really got inspired by Laurie Landeau’s generosity,” Ms. Lowen-Klein said, noting that in addition to the $3 million bequest there have been charitable gifts to the program from 40 different individuals and organizations since it got under way. “We’ve seen good community support ... from the strong belief that these are our waters and if we don’t take care of them now we’re going to look back in disbelief years from now and think: Why didn’t we take the time to do anything to save them.”

Read the article at

April 2, 2014

Scientists Target Nitrogen Reduction In Stagnant Waters
By Michael Wrigh
The Southampton Press

Climbing nitrogen levels in local waters not only are spreading destructive algae blooms across the region, they are making them grow faster and more toxic to marine species, as well as spiking acid levels in water that can kill larval shellfish, according to the results of research over the last year by Stony Brook University.

The silver lining, albeit faint, to the nitrogen problem is that even in areas with heavy influxes of nitrogen from ineffective residential septic systems, the ill effects on waters are substantially muted if the area receives good circulation with clean ocean water.

That understanding, say the scientists, could help public officials embarking on the Herculean task of trying to address the deluge of human waste that is seeping into local bays from outdated, failed or inadequate septic systems in communities near bays and harbors. Areas where waters are stagnant and receive little or no exchange of ocean water, like Quantuck Bay near East Quogue, should be at the top of the priority list for making steep reductions in the amount of nitrogen released, the scientists say.

These and other conclusions about the state of the East End’s bays and the impacts of high nitrogen levels will be the subject of a report issued by the leader of the university’s far-reaching water quality monitoring program, professor Christopher Gobler, Ph.D., at the Southampton campus on Friday night.

Dr. Gobler, one of the nation’s leading experts on harmful algal blooms, said this week that Stony Brook has also launched a new scientific research and public outreach group, the Long Island Coastal Conservation and Research Alliance, which will seek to apply the catalog of research the school’s water quality teams have been developing to the real world of political and social action.

Additionally, the new alliance will be expanding the focus of the university’s water quality efforts from the East End to all of Long Island, as well as expanding its efforts to apply the findings of its research to the real world in real time. It will look to disseminate conclusions on how the impacts of humans might be dampened, to everyone from public officials tailoring regulations to fishermen looking to dodge blooms of toxic algae.

“We’re trying to make science count,” Dr. Gobler said in an interview on Monday. “Not just science for science purposes but so that it can be more helpful and constructive for the masses.”

Among the findings of the last year, Dr. Gobler said, is the discovery that in areas where nitrogen “loads” are highest, some species of toxic red algae grow faster and carry more toxins that can kill fish and shellfish that come into contact with them, or make humans sick if they eat shellfish contaminated with the toxins.

At least two species of algae found in local waters carry neurotoxins that can be harmful, or even fatal, to humans. A third species has been shown to be deadly to fish and has been blamed for die-offs of bunker and other fish caught in traps or small harbors and is suspected of being the cause of a massive die-off of bay scallops in 2012.

New data this year, Dr. Gobler said, showed that the acidifying effects of algae blooms, which suck oxygen out of water and crash pH levels when they die in the fall, could be a greater threat to shellfish stocks than global warming. Highly acidic water is low in carbonates, which larval shellfish need to grow their hard protective shells.

“The data show that the acidification that we’re getting now from nitrogen levels is likely worse than what is going to come from climate change,” Dr. Gobler said. “We have already reached levels that are dangerously high.”

It was Dr. Gobler’s army of student scientists and professors who drew conclusive direct links between the growth of residential development, rising nitrogen levels and the proliferation in the last 30 years of a series of destructive algae blooms.

Since Stony Brook’s 2011 report detailing the role of residential development in declining water quality, public support has grown for sweeping overhauls of Long Island’s residential waste collection systems. But the costs associated with the kind of comprehensive upgrades needed are gargantuan, in the several hundreds of millions of dollars. Southampton Town and Stony Brook have led a push for a regional initiative to develop new technology and science that could speed up, and economize, the battle. But that effort is still years in the making.

So scientific groups have been developing formulas for targeting the upgrade efforts to have the maximum effect, focusing on regions with older development, close to tidal waters and with very shallow and fast-flowing water tables. Along those lines, last week Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone announced plans to expand sewer systems in three communities on Moriches Bay and Great South Bay, which he said would provide a lot of “bang for the buck” and could reduce the amount of nitrogen flowing into those bays by 25 percent.

The evidence to be presented by the Stony Brook team this week could add another degree of magnification, looking at areas near water bodies far from ocean inlets.

“What we’ve discovered is that nitrogen loads the gun but the flushing rates pull the trigger,” Dr. Gobler said. “If you have really high nitrogen rates but also very good flushing, the negative effects from the nitrogen don’t have time to manifest themselves.”

Dr. Gobler pointed to Quantuck Bay in East Quogue and the Forge River area in Moriches—one of the regions proposed for new sewerage by Mr. Bellone—as prime examples of the problem. Dense development, aging and wholly inadequate septic containment and waters many miles from the nearest inlet have led to chronic annual blooms of “brown tide” algae blooms.

In contrast, he pointed to western shores of eastern Shinnecock Bay, where development in the Cormorant Point region releases high levels of nitrogen into the waters but strong currents of water roar in from nearby Shinnecock Inlet and no regular algae blooms have been seen. The eastern and northern ends of Shinnecock Bay, farther from the inlet, have seen blooms of harmful red algae that have killed fish corralled in pound nets.

Read the article at

March 30, 2014

Notable Edibles: Creating a Clam Sanctuary in Shinnecock Bay
By Meghan Harlow

There may be plenty of fish in the sea, but there aren’t nearly enough shellfish in Shinnecock Bay. There the effects of decades of overfishing, habitat loss and disease have collided, prompting what scientists call a negative feedback loop in the bay. It is, in layman’s terms, a very vicious cycle. Clams and oysters, those small but impossibly mighty players in our ecosystem, are dying; harmful brown and red tides are rolling in; and the water quality is suffering. Luckily, the Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program has been monitoring the situation, and working to improve it, for years.

Founded by the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science and the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, the Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program (ShiRP) is populated primarily by graduate students and professors, many of whom have been studying the bay for decades. “Which is what makes our organization so unique,” says Christine Santora, ShiRP’s program coordinator. “We’re not just activists. Everything we do—research, restoration, outreach—is rigorously grounded in science.” So, too, are the organization’s objectives.

Just as a healthy body is generally equipped to ward off or fight infection, a healthy and thriving ecosystem in the bay could and should be able to reduce the occurrence of brown and red tides or harmful algal blooms. The question, then, is how to restore the bay and its brown water back to health, back to being an estuary with clear water and productive fisheries. The answer, says Santora, is in the research.

“Right now our restoration efforts have three parts. First, we’re working to expand the bay’s remaining eelgrass beds. We’re also stocking and restocking seaweed in the bay, which will help to filter the water. And finally we’re installing clam sanctuaries throughout the bay to increase shellfish population. Because, in trying to understand the bay’s problems, we found that its existing clam colonies are so sparse that the clams just aren’t close enough to reproduce effectively. And we want clams in that water. The more clams, the cleaner it is.”

But the installation of clam sanctuaries is complicated. Once ShiRP obtains the clams, they have only 36 hours to install them, and installation can only happen during certain times of the year. “April through June and then October through November,” says Santora, “and it isn’t cheap.”

To help raise money for their shellfish restoration efforts, ShiRP held their first annual Clams for Clams Fundraiser last year in Southampton. It was a rousing success—they raised $55,000—and resulted in the installation of new clam sanctuaries. Santora hopes this year’s fund-raiser, date still to be announced, will be more successful still. And for good reason: “You can’t put a price on clean water,” she says decisively. “And if anyone knows and values that, it’s East Enders.”

Read the article at Edible East End

March 3, 2014

Southampton Town, County And Scientists Pitch East End Clean Water Tech Hub On East End
By Michael Wright

Officials from Southampton Town, Suffolk County and Stony Brook University made a personal pitch to Governor Andrew Cuomo last week, asking for help in making the East End a hub for the study, development and manufacture of clean-water technology, primarily with regard to household septics, for decades to come.

Staff from Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst’s office, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and Stony Brook University professor Christopher Gobler, Ph.D., met with the governor at his New York City offices last Thursday, February 27, to present him with their proposal. Their plan is to rally state resources behind an initiative that spurs discussion and research of new water quality protection technology, as well as attract private sector manufacturers to the East End.

“We have a real problem, but a shortage of solutions, and we need to be doing a better job of putting our heads together to come up with new ideas,” said Jennifer Garvey, Ms. Throne-Holst’s deputy chief of staff, whom the supervisor credited as “the brainchild” of the proposal pitched to the governor. “We have all these state resources and these fabulous institutions—Stony Brook, BNL [Brookhaven National Laboratory]—we need to get everybody to come together and see that there are specific technologies that need to be developed in short order, and how we can bring that to fruition.”

It has been three years since scientists from Stony Brook University, led by Dr. Gobler, issued a series of reports that drew concrete connections between the byproducts of human waste—primarily nitrogen—seeping out of failing or ineffective residential septic systems and deepening water quality problems, as made evident by the emergence and spread of destructive algae blooms in local bays.

The reports put the spotlight on the need to reduce the amount of nitrogen being released into the ground from residential developments and spurred a broadening discussion of ways to address the problem. Southampton Town has been at the forefront of the effort locally, pressing for a regional approach to finding solutions for the shared threat and presented the idea of a technology hub to Suffolk County officials last summer.

The response from Mr. Bellone was strong and Ms. Throne-Holst said on Friday that Governor Cuomo was equally as understanding of the subtleties of the threat posed, as well as the need for “big science,” and big money, in order to tackle the problem.

“The governor clearly recognized the issue that we’re having on Long Island and that is facing the municipalities here,” Ms. Throne-Holst said on Friday. “There is a clear grasp that we need to have a comprehensive understanding of what the problem is, what the source of it is, and start laying plans for how to remediate it.

“There are many resources under the purview of the state ... that need to be involved in this,” she continued. “Yesterday was one of the first steps in that direction.”

The weight the state could put behind the issue could range from research grants for scientists to regulatory changes to allow new technologies to advance rapidly to tax incentives for businesses to create new research and manufacturing facilities on the East End.

The main obstacle to a broad solution thus far has been that the septic collection and treatment technology currently available is limited, and those systems that approach the sort of steep nitrogen reductions seen as necessary across a wide region are exceedingly expensive—costing as much as $30,000 per property.

“The real key is that a solution is not a solution until it is affordable,” Ms. Garvey said.

The first part of their vision is a rallying of resources behind a scientific incubator to study and develop methods of reducing the amount of nitrogen that is released into the environment from residential waste. In the longer term, the plan would then be to organize and incentivize private sector development of manufacturing facilities around the East End.

The private sector, on a national level, has thus far not been driven to put high levels of resources toward technological advancements in the field, Ms. Garvey said, because the market for such systems is so fragmented by regional concerns, and stringent and often diverging regulations.

“There is real opportunity in this because, oddly, there is this technology sector that is so underfunded and so poorly tended to,” Ms. Garvey said. “The private sector hasn’t seen a compelling market to try to capture. The markets are small and highly regulated, and regulated differently in different areas, it’s hard for them to see the profit.

“If we could create an area where there is ... a real market for this technology, the private sector could take over,” she continued. “There are 30 million of these [outdated septic] systems in America.”

Ms. Throne-Holst acknowledged that the effort is a crusade, not a blitzkrieg, and each step in the process will likely take many months, or even years, despite the obvious urgency.

“There is a recognition that time is of the essence,” she said. “We’ve got the ball rolling. Stay tuned.”

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