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Shinnecock Bay Restoration Project Moves Forward

By Emily Toy

Marine scientists and directors from Stony Brook University, state, town and village officials, and environmental advocates gathered last Friday morning for a boat tour on Shinnecock Bay to observe prevailing research efforts and to better understand the current state of the waterway.

"Our research is largely field-oriented and utilizes traditional, molecular, and experimental techniques to contrast the dynamics and ecological niche of harmful algal blooms with those of co-occurring, non-harmful species," said Christopher Gobler, professor with the university's School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.

"Estuaries represent some of the most productive, biodiverse, and important ecosystems on earth . . . [with] 100 percent of Long Island townships being located on coastal water ways, a series of environmental problems have arisen in these systems in recent decades," he said.

Particularly over the last decade, the aquatic environment of Shinnecock Bay has been deteriorating. The rapid decline in fish and shellfish populations, water quality, and habitat conditions has had a dramatic effect not only on the marine life but also the people that live near the body of water.

Several problems plague the Shinnecock Bay such as algal blooms (which occurred every year for the past three years), red tide (which was first observed in Shinnecock Bay in 2008 and again last year), loss of eelgrass beds and a decline in fish and shellfish populations.

In 2010, the Shinnecock Bay Restoration Project began, with the project now already moving into its second phase and third year.

"The pilot studies undertaken by SoMAS during the summers of 2010 and 2011 have provided valuable information to inform future restoration projects," Gobler said. "The goal is to eventually reach a 'tipping point' where the natural populations of shellfish will begin to recover and eelgrass beds will expand within the bay."

Friday's boat tour found Gobler and members of his team gathering data from measured and evaluated water temperatures, nutrient levels, water clarity, algal densities and more. In seeking to enhance the natural filtration capacity of the ecosystem with shellfish, the team restocked multiple species of shellfish with wild plantings, caged plantings that they monitor regularly.

The bay's nutrient levels are being measured with seaweed. The aquatic plants absorb large amounts of nutrients, and by removing nutrients, the plants can have an inhibitory effect on harmful algae, including red and brown tide.

Expanding the eelgrass beds is another important area of interest for the Stony Brook and Southampton teams.

Not only were shoots of eelgrass planted, they also focused on releasing seeds and genotyping eelgrass to ensure that specific strains of eelgrass are properly matched with the prevailing conditions of the bay. Abundant eelgrass beds also promote more sustainable habitats for fish.

Now that fall is here, it's time for assessment after the passed two year's efforts.

So far, according to Gobler and his team's findings, results show that both juvenile and adult stage oysters were more resistant to the effects of high temperature and brown tide than other shellfish. Also a water sample taken from eastern Shinnecock Bay was clear, while a water sample taken from the western Shinnecock Bay was yellow and murky, resulting from being plagued by a brown tide bloom. The samples were taken from both sides on the same day.

Since the restoration project received $3 million this year in two $1.5 million philanthropic gifts from the Laurie Landeau Foundation and the Simons Foundation, coming up with funding for the project has been less of a strain. Continuing on with the proposed five year plan for the project will no doubt be easier since funding is now firmly in place.

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