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Clams and Grass to the Rescue

New York Times Editorial

Shinnecock Bay, a wide stretch of water on the south shore of eastern Long Island, is lovely to look at but sicker than you’d think. Pollution from fertilizer and septic runoff feeds frequent algae blooms that block oxygen and sunlight. Generations of shellfishing have scoured the bottom of clams, scallops and oysters. Once-lush beds of eelgrass, shelter for the little fish that feed bigger ones, have largely disappeared from the western part of the bay.

Waters all around Long Island, and the world over, are stressed by pollution and the slow-motion calamity of climate change. What Shinnecock Bay has going for it are scientists working to restore its waters and tidal flats to health. The Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program, run by Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and its Institute for Ocean Conservation Science, means to fix the problem, not just study it.

The institute’s executive director, Dr. Ellen Pikitch, said a big part of the job was as simple as replanting eelgrass and seeding the bay with clams and oysters, which filter the water clean and make the bay better able to fend for itself. “We as scientists can’t do as much about the septic systems,” she said, “but we can do something about restoring shellfish.” Local officials were doing their part by agreeing to close sections of the bay to shellfishing.

Her team has already covered the bottom with two million seed clams, 500,000 seed oysters and 150,000 adult clams in the hopes of building self-reproducing populations. More ambitious tactics, like building artificial reefs for oysters to grow on, are a possibility. The program was cut short for the year because of Hurricane Sandy and the onset of cold weather; clams need time to burrow down for the winter. The team will spend the coming months studying data and will be back on the water in the spring, tossing clams, planting grass, adding seaweed.

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