And Now, Welcome to the Anthropocene

Pictured Above: Dr. Gobler’s representation of the Four Horsemen of the “Anthropocene Ocean” Apocalypse. HABs are Harmful Algae Blooms.

The Peconic Estuary was very much on the minds of local environmentalists in April, with both Dr. Christoper Gobler’s annual “State of the Bays” address held April 1 and the Peconic Estuary Partnership’s biennial conference held over three days in late April.

The hot topics of both discussions were water quality, the effect of climate change on the estuary, and protecting habitats for wildlife.

Dr. Gobler’s lecture was titled “Welcome to the Anthropocene,” a term that is rapidly gaining traction as a potential name for a new geological age when the impact of humans (anthro) on the earth is the defining feature of the age.

Dr. Gobler, the chair of coastal ecology and conservation at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, focuses on harmful algal blooms in Long Island waters, and he’s had ample opportunity to study such blooms in recent years.

There are many types of harmful algae blooms found in Long Island’s waters, caused by an increase in nutrients, particularly nitrogen, that wash into the bays from surrounding land, principally on Long Island from private cesspools.

These blooms cause an array of problems, from preventing light from filtering through the water column, killing light-dependent species below the algae to intensifying oxygen deficiency during the decay cycle of the bloom, which has caused massive fish kills in recent years. Some harmful algae blooms also contain a toxin that can kill marine species and humans.

In Widow's Hole
The living shoreline at Widow’s Hole in Greenport

Dr. Gobler’s laboratory has also recently been collaborating with Stony Brook’s medical department to examine the effect high nitrogen levels in drinking water has on human health, which can increase the likelihood of bladder and kidney cancer.

“Suffolk County has higher [drinking water] nitrate levels than 95 percent of the United States,” he said.

“There’s a scientific consensus that earth has entered the Anthropocene, in which humans dominate the environment and climate,” said Dr. Gobler. “We can’t ignore climate change, and our bays, harbors and estuaries need to be viewed through the lens of climate change.”

Dr. Gobler said warming oceans will have lower oxygen content and become more acidic, and this is being seen here on Long Island.

“Our surface waters are warming above the global average, particularly during the summer. It’s a very strong trend,” he said. “Temperatures that used to be rare are now common in late summer. We’re seeing a statistically significant increase in temperatures in the Long Island Sound.”

Dr. Gobler added that the weather window for for warm water rust tide blooms has been increasing on average by two days per year since 1982, and now is up to two months.

Ocean acidification, he added, has been having an impact on local clam and scallop populations, and the geographic range of blue mussels continues to decline along the East Coast, with the species “pretty much vanished” in the region from North Carolina to Delaware. 

“We’re hearing massive reports from across Long Island that no one is seeing any blue mussels this year,” he said, adding that the trend the Peconic Bay scallop is following, with two seasons in a row of massive die-offs, is likely to continue.

“Locally things are collapsing,” he said. “That’s why I’m talking about Martin Luther King’s quote about the fierce urgency of now. Tomorrow is today. There is such a thing as being too late. There is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”

Dr. Gobler is putting a lot of hope into the work he’s doing with the Stony Brook Center For Clean Water Technology, which is developing nitrogen-reducing septic systems, which will be required by the Suffolk County Health Department for new construction beginning this July, and in the potential for growing kelp in the East End’s oyster farms, which also helps remove nitrogen and carbon from the water and atmosphere.

“A one-acre kelp farm could pull out the equivalent [amount of nitrogen] of 18 advanced septic systems,” from the water, he said, adding that kelp also outcompetes the harmful algal bloom alexandrium, which produces a powerful neurotoxin.

He added that kelp makes a great fertilizer — he and his kids have used it it in an experiment on their vegetable garden at home and found they’d gotten greater yields from the plants that were fertilized with kelp than those that were not fertilized.

The Peconic Estuary Program's new 10-year management plan, released in 2020.
The Peconic Estuary Program’s new 10-year management plan, released in 2020.

Meanwhile at PEP

At the Peconic Estuary Partnership‘s three-day virtual conference, the message was very similar, with speakers raising many of the same concerns and hopes for the future of the Peconic Estuary.

PEP, which last year rolled out its management plan for the estuary for the next 10 years, has been working on restoring fish passages to allow American eels and alewives to get upstream to spawn, particularly on the Peconic River, and on restoring habitat and returning shellfish to the estuary.

“The estuary is the heart of Long Island’s East End,” said Matthew Sclafani of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, who has been working on public policy regarding the estuary. “Our work includes keeping water quality high and resources as abundant as possible.”

He added that wetland restoration keeps coming to the top of priority lists for restoration in the estuary, including the use of “living shorelines,” new methods of restoring the natural contour to seaside areas, to help protect against the impacts of climate change.

Lauren Scheer of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County is also working with PEP on restoring salt marshes.

“We don’t restore them to a certain point in time. We restore natural processes,” she said. “Wetlands are vibrant and productive places.”

She added that there are five components for healthy salt marshes: a supply of mobile sediment (sand), clean water, tidal signal (an ability for water to move with the tides), room for the salt marsh to move, and human understanding of the value of salt marshes.

“We are so fortunate to have a very engaged public and local municipalities,” she said. “The situation is urgent. Both nature and people are depending on us to get this right.”

Dr. Stephen Tettelbach, of CCE’s Peconic Bay Scallop Restoration Program, spoke of the importance of eelgrass as habitat for bay scallops, which have faced a near total die-off in the past two years.

“Globally, our seagrass meadow populations are in decline,” he said. “Seagrass meadows have the highest rates of carbon sequestration. They’re a great tool to control our climate issues. Because eelgrass is below the water, we don’t think of it as a protective mechanism, but eelgrass slows wave momentum down. Those meadows really do a great job of reducing the energy that will be impacting our shorelines.”

“We’re losing all of these critical habitats, and will continue to do so,” he added. “Regardless of what ecosystem you’re talking about, biodiversity is essential to the functioning of these ecosystems. All the critters that live there are essential to the functioning of these ecosystems. Maintaining and restoring these habitats is critically important.”      — BHY

Beth Young

Beth Young

Beth Young built her first boat out of driftwood tied together with phragmites behind her family’s apartment above the old Mill Creek Inn in Southold. Nowadays, she spends most of her time kayaking, learning about shellfish, writing newspaper stories, trying to sail a Sunfish, and watching the way the bay changes from day to day. You can send her a message at [email protected]

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