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An 'in the water' solution

Water quality impairment is unfortunately all too common in coastal environments. Excess nitrogen, harmful algae blooms, and lack of natural filtration from shellfish are the result of unchecked human activity over years and decades. This was the situation in Shinnecock Bay in the early 2000’s. Brown tides were intense annual events, turning the water a coffee-colored brown for weeks at time, killing fish and shellfish, and shading out the light that eelgrass needed to grow. These conditions were also persistently reducing quality of life for recreational users of the bay and surrounding communities.

In 2011, professors at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences came together out of desire to remedy this problem. The idea was to create an “in the water” solution that could address deteriorated water quality and reverse the trajectory in an immediate way. 

The Gobler, Pikitch, and Peterson labs thoughtfully and strategically created a plan to restore natural filtration of the bay by replenishing hard clam populations on a large scale, through what is called a “spawner sanctuaries” approach.

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Planting millions of adult hard clams in close densities has two-fold benefits: it introduces high levels of filtration capacity right away; and it jump starts natural reproduction, which then creates new generations of clams. This approach is the foundation of the restoration strategy in western Shinnecock Bay and was the model for an expanded effort in New York State called the Long Island Shellfish Restoration Program


What makes the ShiRP program unique, however, is that it is about more than just hard clams. It is an ecosystem-level approach, where multiple components of the estuary are considered as part of a whole, functioning system. The hard clam restoration was complimented by additional activities including: building oyster reefs, restoring eelgrass beds, assessing water quality, and measuring fisheries


Executing the restoration strategy, including the necessary laboratory work and field monitoring, relies upon a large team of people, especially graduate students. As a Research University, part of SoMAS’s mission is to train the next generation of scientists. 52 grad students have earned their Ph.D. and Master’s degrees working under the Gobler, Peterson, and Pikitch labs. These former students have used Shinnecock Bay as their proving ground, and their theses and dissertations have directly supported the success of the ShiRP program.  

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