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Some Signs Of Hope In Effort To Bring Shinnecock Bay Back From Brink

By Michael Wright

The Southampton

Two years into a $3 million effort to boost the ability of western Shinnecock Bay to absorb the abuse of development along its shores, scientists from Stony Brook University say they are hopeful that some subtle changes in environmental patterns could be the first small successes of their labors.

Millions of shellfish, deposited by the university as the main and first phase of the five-year effort, might have started to rein in the juggernaut of destructive algae blooms that have swept across Shinnecock Bay each summer for nearly three decades.

This summer the experimental research effort, known as the Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program, will move into its third year with a second new initiative, featuring new techniques, that scientists hope will restore ecologically important eelgrass beds on the bottom of the bay’s anemic western half. A third effort, still in the experimental stages though scientists hope it will become a reality someday, would tap natural processes to sop up the pollutants that feed the algae blooms seen as the main scourge in local waters.

The Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program was kicked off in the summer of 2012 on the back of the $3 million bequest by aquatic veterinarian Laurie Landeau, with the mission of taking on the torrent of ills that had beset East End bays since the mid 1980s, especially in the western half of Shinnecock Bay. A year earlier Stony Brook scientists had detailed the nearly barren conditions in the western bay that, they say, revealed connections between the loss of biodiversity and algae blooms, and spikes in nutrient levels sparked by effluent from residential septic systems in the neighborhoods surrounding the bays.

The mission of the program is to bring the wealth of knowledge of the university’s scientists regarding natural processes to assist in the fight against the problems that they had been documenting for more than two decades: smothering blankets of “brown tide” that starve bay scallops of nutrition and prevent eelgrass of absorbing sunlight; toxic blooms of red algae that kill fish and make shellfish poisonous to humans; and precipitously vanishing numbers of once valuable marine species.

The university’s scientists—five professors and a dozen graduate students have led the effort—have laid out a four-pronged approach: rebuilding dense shellfish stocks to increase the filtration of algae from the water; restoring eelgrass beds; developing a system for using seaweed to remove nutrients, like nitrogen, from the water; and embarking on a broad public outreach and education initiative to boost understanding among the general public about the threats facing the bays and convincing them that they must be fixed.

The bolstering of shellfish stocks is the cornerstone of the effort. Shellfish are prodigious consumers of algae and if their numbers were boosted to robust levels, on par with what they were in the decades before the first harmful algae blooms appeared, perhaps they would eat enough of the harmful cells to keep the destructive blooms from gaining a foothold.

Over the last two years, the scientists have overseen the creation of several shellfish sanctuaries in parts of the bay where water sampling indicated they should be able to survive, and in dense enough numbers to ensure their ability to spawn successfully. As their numbers grow, algae blooms should taper, the hypothesis goes. And the scientists hope that they are already seeing evidence that their theory is correct.

“There have already been some hopeful signs,” Stony Brook professor Dr. Christopher Gobler, Ph.D. said. “The bay this last year looked better than it had in prior years. It was the first time in three years that we hadn’t had a red tide leading to a [shellfish harvest] closure. Our monitoring showed that there were less bad [algae] cells, which is what we would expect if we’re enhancing the filtration capacity.”

Dr. Gobler is quick to add that a single year’s observations does not mean that their theory is correct. As a result, they intend to keep pumping up the shellfish numbers in local bays. “In the time frame we’re looking at,” Dr. Gobler added, “we’re hoping to plant more than 30 million shellfish in the system.”

The next effort to come fully online will be the restoration of eelgrass, the critical marine plant that once carpeted local bay bottoms, providing protective habitat for young shellfish and other marine species. The grass died off in vast swaths in the mid-1990s, the victim of thick brown tide blooms that blocked out sunlight. For a decade scientists from Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County in Southold have been trying to help the grass re-establish itself in its old haunts with mixed success.

This summer the Stony Brook scientists and students, with the help of community volunteers, will employ a method devised at Cornell of suspending eelgrass fronds above beds to release their pollen, spurring new growth.

“The furthest west into the bay we can go and find any surviving eelgrass is Tiana Beach, so we’re trying to jump-start the growth there,” Dr. Brad Peterson said. “We have found the plants have a very high ability to come back on their own if their seeds are successful.

“Transplanting shoots directly to an area—5 percent survival was kind of the standard, which is terrible,” he continued. “We saw 10 percent with this method.”

The restoration program’s public outreach initiative, led by Christine Santora, will be hosting a volunteer drive on Saturday, June 14, at the university’s Marine Sciences Center in Southampton, asking for help from members of the public in assembling the eelgrass seeding devices. And later this month Dr. Peterson and Dr. Gobler will meet with the Southampton Town Trustees about placing 50 of the eelgrass seeding buoys in select parts of the bay.

“They’ve been doing some very good work, we’re very pleased to be able to draw on such a wealth of knowledge in our own efforts with reseeding,” Southampton Town Trustee Eric Shultz said. “We’re going to ramp up our seeding efforts this year in line with what they’re doing in the western bay there.”

The third component of the restoration program’s approach, using seaweed to absorb excessive nutrients from the water column—items that are hazardous to marine life—and then compost them on land, is still in the conceptual phase, with scientists trying to devise ways to apply the potential they see in laboratories to real-life scales.

With its halfway point nearing the horizon, program leaders are already looking toward the sunset of the five-year bequest and the need to maintain the funding levels for the long-term effort that they say will be needed to make meaningful changes in the bay’s natural system. Advancement head Deborah Lowen-Klein says there has already been a good base of support from individuals and groups who see the restoration of the bay as a critical necessity.

“I think people really got inspired by Laurie Landeau’s generosity,” Ms. Lowen-Klein said, noting that in addition to the $3 million bequest there have been charitable gifts to the program from 40 different individuals and organizations since it got under way. “We’ve seen good community support ... from the strong belief that these are our waters and if we don’t take care of them now we’re going to look back in disbelief years from now and think: Why didn’t we take the time to do anything to save them.”

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