top of page

Scientists Target Nitrogen Reduction In Stagnant Waters

By Michael Wright

The Southampton

Climbing nitrogen levels in local waters not only are spreading destructive algae blooms across the region, they are making them grow faster and more toxic to marine species, as well as spiking acid levels in water that can kill larval shellfish, according to the results of research over the last year by Stony Brook University.

The silver lining, albeit faint, to the nitrogen problem is that even in areas with heavy influxes of nitrogen from ineffective residential septic systems, the ill effects on waters are substantially muted if the area receives good circulation with clean ocean water.

That understanding, say the scientists, could help public officials embarking on the Herculean task of trying to address the deluge of human waste that is seeping into local bays from outdated, failed or inadequate septic systems in communities near bays and harbors. Areas where waters are stagnant and receive little or no exchange of ocean water, like Quantuck Bay near East Quogue, should be at the top of the priority list for making steep reductions in the amount of nitrogen released, the scientists say.

These and other conclusions about the state of the East End’s bays and the impacts of high nitrogen levels will be the subject of a report issued by the leader of the university’s far-reaching water quality monitoring program, professor Christopher Gobler, Ph.D., at the Southampton campus on Friday night.

Dr. Gobler, one of the nation’s leading experts on harmful algal blooms, said this week that Stony Brook has also launched a new scientific research and public outreach group, the Long Island Coastal Conservation and Research Alliance, which will seek to apply the catalog of research the school’s water quality teams have been developing to the real world of political and social action.

Additionally, the new alliance will be expanding the focus of the university’s water quality efforts from the East End to all of Long Island, as well as expanding its efforts to apply the findings of its research to the real world in real time. It will look to disseminate conclusions on how the impacts of humans might be dampened, to everyone from public officials tailoring regulations to fishermen looking to dodge blooms of toxic algae.

“We’re trying to make science count,” Dr. Gobler said in an interview on Monday. “Not just science for science purposes but so that it can be more helpful and constructive for the masses.”

Among the findings of the last year, Dr. Gobler said, is the discovery that in areas where nitrogen “loads” are highest, some species of toxic red algae grow faster and carry more toxins that can kill fish and shellfish that come into contact with them, or make humans sick if they eat shellfish contaminated with the toxins.

At least two species of algae found in local waters carry neurotoxins that can be harmful, or even fatal, to humans. A third species has been shown to be deadly to fish and has been blamed for die-offs of bunker and other fish caught in traps or small harbors and is suspected of being the cause of a massive die-off of bay scallops in 2012.

New data this year, Dr. Gobler said, showed that the acidifying effects of algae blooms, which suck oxygen out of water and crash pH levels when they die in the fall, could be a greater threat to shellfish stocks than global warming. Highly acidic water is low in carbonates, which larval shellfish need to grow their hard protective shells.

“The data show that the acidification that we’re getting now from nitrogen levels is likely worse than what is going to come from climate change,” Dr. Gobler said. “We have already reached levels that are dangerously high.”

It was Dr. Gobler’s army of student scientists and professors who drew conclusive direct links between the growth of residential development, rising nitrogen levels and the proliferation in the last 30 years of a series of destructive algae blooms.

Since Stony Brook’s 2011 report detailing the role of residential development in declining water quality, public support has grown for sweeping overhauls of Long Island’s residential waste collection systems. But the costs associated with the kind of comprehensive upgrades needed are gargantuan, in the several hundreds of millions of dollars. Southampton Town and Stony Brook have led a push for a regional initiative to develop new technology and science that could speed up, and economize, the battle. But that effort is still years in the making.

So scientific groups have been developing formulas for targeting the upgrade efforts to have the maximum effect, focusing on regions with older development, close to tidal waters and with very shallow and fast-flowing water tables. Along those lines, last week Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone announced plans to expand sewer systems in three communities on Moriches Bay and Great South Bay, which he said would provide a lot of “bang for the buck” and could reduce the amount of nitrogen flowing into those bays by 25 percent.

The evidence to be presented by the Stony Brook team this week could add another degree of magnification, looking at areas near water bodies far from ocean inlets.

“What we’ve discovered is that nitrogen loads the gun but the flushing rates pull the trigger,” Dr. Gobler said. “If you have really high nitrogen rates but also very good flushing, the negative effects from the nitrogen don’t have time to manifest themselves.”

Dr. Gobler pointed to Quantuck Bay in East Quogue and the Forge River area in Moriches—one of the regions proposed for new sewerage by Mr. Bellone—as prime examples of the problem. Dense development, aging and wholly inadequate septic containment and waters many miles from the nearest inlet have led to chronic annual blooms of “brown tide” algae blooms.

In contrast, he pointed to western shores of eastern Shinnecock Bay, where development in the Cormorant Point region releases high levels of nitrogen into the waters but strong currents of water roar in from nearby Shinnecock Inlet and no regular algae blooms have been seen. The eastern and northern ends of Shinnecock Bay, farther from the inlet, have seen blooms of harmful red algae that have killed fish corralled in pound nets.

Recent Posts

See All

Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program Hits Milestone

by Greg Wehner Those behind the Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program, an initiative that seeks to cleanse the water in the western side of the bay through the introduction of shellfish, recently celebra


bottom of page