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Western Shinnecock Bay Is Sterile, Thanks To Human Proximity, Scientists Say

The whole of western Shinnecock Bay has effectively become a dead zone for shellfish and other marine organisms, according to marine biologists from Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.

A variety of shellfish species, many of them placed in the bay specifically with the hope that they would spawn and augment wild populations, are not producing any offspring because the water quality in much of the bay has become too poor to support them during the fragile first weeks of their lives, a report issued by the university’s scientists shows.

At a presentation at the university’s Southampton campus on Friday, Dr. Christopher Gobler and Dr. Brad Peterson will present the findings of a year-long study of the bay, which showed that shellfish spawn are simply not surviving in the bay’s waters.

The scientists are unambiguous about what they believe is at the root of the problem: high nitrogen levels, spurred by pollution of groundwater and tidal areas by septic systems in densely populated neighborhoods within the bay’s watershed.

“I’m not going to pull any punches—there are some major problems,” Dr. Gobler said. “Shinnecock Bay, western Shinnecock Bay in particular, is in deep, deep trouble.”

The report, compiled by Dr. Gobler and Dr. Peterson from a broad range of studies done by the biologists and their graduate and doctoral students at Stony Brook’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, builds on the forboding conclusions of last year’s report, which was the first to lay out a concrete connection between human development within the bay’s watershed and the steadily growing number of harmful afflictions to befall the bay since the 1980s.The darkest of the revelations from this year’s analyses was evidence that the shellfish that live in the western part of the bay are not reproducing, while their cousins that live east of the Ponquogue Bridge in Hampton Bays appear to be reproducing normally.

“We put out bags to collect different types of larval shellfish at a number of sites around the entire bay,” Dr. Gobler said this week. “In the eastern part, we found bay scallops, southern mussels, slipper shells—everything you’d expect. In the western basin of the bay, nothing settled at any of the sites. There were no [larval shellfish] at all. That is a sign that the water quality is very poor.”

Dr. Gobler is recognized as one of the nation’s leading experts on the devastating marine algal bloom known as “brown tide,” which nearly wiped out the East End’s once prodigious shellfish stocks in the 1980s and 1990s. His doctoral students were the first to discover the organism Alexandrium, a reddish-colored creature that appears in dense blooms known as “red tide” and produces a neurotoxin that can be deadly to humans if ingested in shellfish taken from western Shinnecock last year, prompting state officials to close of all shellfishing from miles of the bay’s waters.

“It turns out that was just the beginning of the fun for Shinnecock Bay,” Dr. Gobler said. “That was May. Then, in June, you had the brown tide come back again. And in August, the other species of red tide [known as cochlodinium]. Obviously, that is not good.”

The state again issued a mandatory embargo on shellfishing in the entire western half of the bay this week after the toxin was once again detected in shellfish there.

In a sprawling report issued last year, Stony Brook scientists showed evidence of direct correlations between the density of residential development in the watershed of tidal bays and increasing instances of harmful algae blooms. Their study, conducted in tidal waters across the entire island, showed a steady increase in water quality problems as one moved to the west, where development grows denser and denser, starting in western Southampton Town’s half-acre zoning districts of Hampton Bays, East Quogue and Westhampton Beach, and progressing to Nassau County’s suburban communities that line the shores of Jamaica Bay and other tidal estuaries.

The primary culprit, the scientists said, is nitrogen, a natural byproduct of human waste, injected into groundwater through septic systems. When residential density gets too great, the high levels of nitrogen that reach tidal waters through seeping groundwater can spark a host of environmental issues.

Quick solutions to the problem simply do not exist, Dr. Gobler said. The fix can only come through a wide range of long-term policy changes and sweeping, costly preventative measures. Moving development out of watersheds entirely, implementing costly upgrades to septic systems, connecting as many houses as possible to municipal sewer systems feeding to sewage treatment facilities, and tightening the reins on development are the only clear steps that can cut down the nitrogen loads, Dr. Gobler said. Preventing more development, on a handful of large vacant parcels in northern East Quogue in particular, also should be a priority, he said.

“We have to address the root cause here, and there are a few things that can be done,” he said. “East Quogue can go the way of Hampton Bays, or you can at least halt it where it is. There are ways to decrease nitrogen loads, with sewage treatment plants or alternate [septic] systems. Restoration of the ecosystem is also a possibility—rebuilding eelgrass beds, building the capacity of shellfish stocks. But those things have to be done in conjunction with improving water quality.”

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