Recent tests that revealed the presence of a dangerous form of marine plankton in shellfish taken from Sag Harbor Cove have prompted the East Hampton Town Trustees to invite the scientist responsible for the testing to share his knowledge.
Dr. Christopher Gobler of Stony Brook University will give a talk tomorrow at 5:30 p.m. in the East Hampton Town Hall meeting room on “Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning and Red Tides in East End Waters,” addressing the causes, effects, and distribution.
Earlier this month, the State Department of Environmental Conservation imposed a ban on shellfishing in Sag Harbor’s upper cove after tests conducted on a hunch by Dr. Gobler discovered clams containing a dinoflagellate known as Alexandrium. The plankton produces a neurotoxin that can lead to serious illness and even death.
Stephanie Talmage Forsberg, an East Hampton Town trustee and also a doctoral candidate in marine science at Stony Brook, worked in Dr. Gobler’s laboratory. She said on Tuesday that because the culprit Alexandrium had shown up in Maine and had “trickled down to Long Island Sound” causing bottomland closures in Northport Harbor, Dr. Gobler thought it important to do some testing on the East End. He was able to secure a grant to do so.
Ms. Forsberg said the trustees wanted to educate the public, both as a warning and to reassure baymen and others that tests in Three Mile Harbor and Lake Montauk have come up negative for the plankton.
Although red in color, Alexandrium is not the same organism as the alga that causes red tide. It is more dangerous. Ms. Forsberg said as soon as Dr. Gobler’s findings were reported to the D.E.C., the agency put out a press release that said the organism produced a “biotoxin.” While accurate in a broad sense, Ms. Forsberg said, it was not specific enough. “There are poisons and there are poisons,” she said, and this one, a neurotoxin that can interrupt vital biological functions, can be deadly.
The dinoflagellate was potentially even more dangerous, she said, because during its cyst phase it settles to the bottom only to erupt when conditions, including increased levels of nitrogen from septic systems or sewage treatment plants, are right. “Once it blooms the cysts can settle to the bottom.”
“The levels were alarmingly high,” she said of the tests from Sag Harbor Cove. “It shines a light on the need for more testing. Dr. Gobler took the initiative to begin with. Heaven forbid there were fatal consequences. We thought it was important to educate people.”