State of the Bays: Hope Amid the Toxin Clusters
With help arriving from New York State and a focus on improving septic systems on the East End, Dr. Christopher Gobler sounded a cautiously optimistic tone in his annual State of the Bays address on May 4.
But he began his talk, as every year, with an overview of the previous year’s harmful algal blooms in Long Island bays, creeks and freshwater bodies, and the data was not encouraging.
These algae blooms are fed by excess nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, from aging septic systems and residential and agricultural fertilizers.
Dr. Gobler, who leads a coastal ecology lab focused on the dangers of algae blooms at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, said an unprecedented number of locations were closed to shellfishing due to the algae that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning in 2017, while brown tides have become a solidly annual event in the South Shore bays. And rust tide, which is toxic to fish and shellfish, was again found in the Peconic Estuary and, for the first time, in the Long Island Sound off of Mattituck.
Dr. Gobler went so far as to call Mattituck’s creeks a “toxin cluster,” with several closures of creeks due to the algae containing saxitoxin, which causes paralytic shellfish poisoning.
“I don’t want to pick on Mattituck, but it’s just what the data is showing,” he said.
Deep Hole Creek and Halls Creek, just south of New Suffolk Avenue in Mattituck, were closed to shellfishing “for the first time ever,” he said, while James Creek, just east of Bay Avenue in Mattituck, was closed for the second consecutive year. He said Mattituck Inlet, which had been reopened for the past half-decade due to improving water quality, was also closed for a time in 2017, for the first time in five years. Blooms of the saxitoxin-containing algae Alexandrium tend to begin on Long Island in early May and continue for several weeks.
Mattituck’s Marratooka Lake has also faced frequent closures due to the liver toxin microcystin, which is found in the frequent blue-green algae blooms there.
“The Mattituck toxin cluster is an area that really needs attention,” said Dr. Gobler. “There are lots of homes here, as well as agriculture, and all the homes are not connected to sewage treatment.”
Dr Gobler said brown tide, which clouds the water column, preventing light from reaching eelgrass beds that provide vital marine habitat, “has taken up permanent residence” in the South Shore bays.
Brown tide algae blooms tend to intensify through June and into July, when water temperatures reach the mid-70s.
The tides are having a real impact on recreation in East End waters.
Dr. Gobler said he took his son to Southampton Town’s Snapper Derby at Tiana Bayside on Shinnecock Bay in Hampton Bays last August during a rust tide bloom, and attendees only caught five fish in four hours.
“When rust tides come in, fish go out,” he said.
Dr. Gobler said Dr. Andrew Griffith in his lab has been studying the climate’s impact on rust tide blooms, looking at the length of the tide blooms since 1982.
“There are 40 additional days of opportunity for rust tides since 1982, all driven by warming,” said Dr. Gobler. “We’re very convinced that, beyond nitrogen, temperature is a big issue here. We aren’t going to be able to control the temperature in our lifetimes. We need to double down on controlling nitrogen.”
Dr. Gobler added that the “swim” portion of the Mighty Montauk Triathlon, expected to be held in Fort Pond Bay, was cancelled last year due to a toxic blue-green algae bloom.
But, said Dr. Gobler, management efforts in the western Long Island Sound should give us hope for the future of East End bays.
Environmentalists working to revitalize Long Island Sound have met their target of reducing nitrogen by 60 percent, he said, and the Sound now has “large regions that are no longer a part of the dead zone,” an area that had for many years had nearly no oxygen.
Dr. Gobler also said he’s heartened by Suffolk County’s recent work to approve and begin issuing grants to help homeowners install new nitrogen-reducing septic systems, and by the work of Stony Brook’s Center for Clean Water Technology, which, boosted by a $5 million grant from New York State, has been working on developing innovative septic systems that remove not only nitrogen, but 30 different organic compounds, from pesticides to pharmaceuticals to personal care products.
Reseeding shellfish beds is also a key to helping the bays recover, since shellfish are filter feeders that eat algae and prevent blooms from getting out of control.
Dr. Gobler said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had personally called him last year and asked him an intense battery of questions about what could be done to improve Long Island’s water quality.
Not long after, the governor came to Southampton to learn about the Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program, which is reseeding shellfish beds in Shinnecock Bay.
“I figured it would be a press event, but the governor spent the first half of his time on the boat firing specific questions at me. When he was done asking me questions, he turned to the other politicians on the boat and talked about building hatcheries,” said Dr. Gobler.
“I was impressed by his environmental ethic, and I spent the summer working with his staff,” he added. “We now have a five-point, $10.4 million shellfish restoration project all across Long Island, with five different sanctuary locations.”
Dr. Gobler pointed out that the East End is a great place to see relatively rapid improvements as people begin installing nitrogen-reducing septic systems and as municipalities embark on reducing the nutrient load into the bays, because of the short amount of time it takes groundwater here to reach the bay.
For example, he said, on the North Fork, after two years 66 percent of the groundwater has traveled to the bays, and after 10 years, 84 percent has reached the bays. Nearly 43 percent of the groundwater on the South Fork reaches the bays within two years, while 74 percent reaches the bays within 10 years.
“Once we make these changes, we can see our watersheds change in very quick time,” he said.