Only 28 marine ecosystems throughout the United States are protected by the United States Environmental Protection Agency through the National Estuary Program.
We’re lucky here that one of these estuaries is right in our backyard.
From the headwaters of the Peconic River and the mud flats of Flanders Bay to The Ruins off Gardiners Island, the fertile fishing grounds of Plum Gut and the migratory bird havens of Great and Little Gull islands, different parts of the Peconic Estuary all have their own unique character, their own unique ecosystems, and their own challenges as we face an uncertain future plagued by environmental budget cutbacks, warming and acidifying waters, coastal erosion and changes to habitat for many of our native species.
Every February for the past several years, the folks behind the 28 national estuaries have launched a social media campaign using the hashtag #iheartestuaries, allowing members of the public to share their favorite spots in their favorite estuaries.
Anyone who’s piloted a small craft through the Peconic Estuary knows the nuances of this coastline are unique, and its changing currents and winds are a never-ending education in the variety of nature’s expression.
If you take to these waters in a sailing dinghy, on a stand-up paddleboard or in a kayak, you can very easily develop an appreciation for the nuances of the coastline of the Peconics, and a realization that every day here can be a new experience.
Leaving the sheltered waters of the Peconic River, Flanders Bay empties out into the Great Peconic Bay, which looks on the map like the blown up belly of a pufferfish, the distance from shore to shore greater than anywhere west of Shelter Island within the estuary. In the distance to the east, you’ll see Robins Island, home to mud swallows nesting on high bluffs, oystercatchers with their long bright orange bills guarding the shoreline, and ospreys, between March and October, shrieking to warn humans paddlers to stay away from their nests.
The Robins Island ospreys nest lower to the ground than they do on the high osprey nest poles on the mainland of the Twin Forks, as if to signal that they are the top predator here, and you are encroaching on their territory.
Head further east and several spits pierce the estuary like needles — Nassau Point with its constant waterfront construction and cliffside human compounds, and Jessup Neck, home to the Morton National Wildlife Refuge and all things wild, which is accessed by land from Noyac.
Turn left after passing Jessup Neck and make sure you don’t get hung up on the sandbar spitting out of Paradise Point in Southold. Turn right and thread your way through the South Ferry race between North Haven and Shelter Island.
Either way you choose, you’ll soon come face to face with the East End’s twin Peconic Estuary ports — Sag Harbor and Greenport — each promising an easy cosmopolitanism only found in port towns that are gateways to the entire world. People get along with people who are different from themselves in these places, because people from other places are familiar here. We are all connected by water.
Some mornings, the bay is a mirror, often fuzzy early from fog, which burns off to reveal a clear glassine surface. Wait a little bit and you will see bands of different colored water appear, a smooth light blue stretch followed by a darker stretch with a little bit of chop in it, followed by another smooth stretch. These striations are called Langmuir circulation, caused by a steady light wind that creates a series of counter-rotating vortices in the water. You’ll likely see these lines only briefly, as the wind picks up later in the day and fills the bays with a steady chop or a rolling, oceanic fury.
In the back harbors and creeks, you’ll find respite from this afternoon wind, amid tufts of spartina grass crowded with blue mussels, empty clamshells littered on shallow sand flats, herons and egrets taking flight while seagulls use concrete bridges as shell-crackers, dropping shellfish from great heights onto the man-made spans that they’ve learned through years of experience are the hardest surfaces around.
Each of these creeks is a world unto itself — each faces unique challenges of nutrient enrichment, bacterial contamination, tidal flushing and human disturbance. Each nurtures us, but what do we offer to nurture these wild lands in return?
Last summer, the jewels of the Peconic Estuary, the Peconic Bay scallops, faced an unprecedented die-off — about 90 percent of the adult, two-year-old scallops within the estuary died, likely while under the stress of spawning in warmer-than-usual waters.
Though the bays are still filled with juvenile scallops that could reach harvestable size by next season, we still don’t know enough about what killed their parents to ensure that these juveniles don’t meet the same fate.
Back in December, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo asked the U.S. Department of Commerce to issue an emergency declaration for the scallop fishery, which would allow federal funding to flow for economic assistance to shellfishers, and to help monitor and restore the fishery. As of this writing in late January, no such declaration has been issued.
The Peconic Estuary is an economic engine that drives our home, it is a sanctuary for humans and a nursery for marine life. It is a sailor’s best training ground, filled with enough topography to constantly be interesting, yet it is small enough that you will never feel lost once you learn a little bit about the contours of its shores. It is the heart of the East End, beating every day for us, whether we take the time to notice it or not.
What do you love about the Peconic Estuary? You can share your love with the world by tagging your social media posts at #iheartestuaries, and share your love with The Peconic Bathtub’s readers using the hashtag #thebaytoday.