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Nature Notes: It’s the Water, Stupid

Tue, 08/13/2019 - 16:39

We have reached a point in the world’s development when species will be lost at a faster rate than evolution can compensate for. Since the 1950s, zoos, botanical gardens, and good Samaritans have brought back species such as the California condor and the whooping crane to self-replicating levels, but wars and senseless acts of trophy hunting and poaching have reduced populations of rhinos, right whales, orcas, African wild dogs, and many bird and plant species to such dangerously low levels that very few of them will make it into the 22nd century.

While the impact from another asteroid like the one that was responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs 125 million years or so ago cannot be ruled out, climatic events and foolish acts of humans will largely be responsible for the next major die-off. It may be that one day in the not too distant future there will be more species of animals and plants in zoos and botanical gardens than will be found in nature.

You may have read recently of the blooms of blue-green algae which have been progressively taking over the world’s waters or of the various massive poisonous phytoplankton blooms that have been sinisterly coloring our waters. The largest lake in New Jersey is now coated with blue-green algae from shore to shore, and so many other fresh and tidal waters are headed for a similar fate. Yet we keep on developing the landscape, almost every bit of which serves as watersheds for ponds, rivers, bays, and sounds down-drift. We keep applying poisons to our crops, chlorine to our drinking water, salt to our snowed-on roads, and so forth in greater and greater amounts. The air here on eastern Long Island, so far from major metropolitan areas, has some of the highest ozone levels in New York State because of the vehicular traffic that has been ever increasing since the end of World War II.

Let’s face it, artificial intelligence may beat us in chess and other games, but it is not going to be able to stem the tide of destruction now underway. Each year another local pond is put on New York State’s impairment list. Three years ago it was Wainscott Pond, two years ago Sagg Pond, last year Little Poxabogue. There is finally a committee assembled to deal with one of the worst ponds on the South Fork, Lake Agawam in Southampton Village, perhaps only because the wealthy landowners around it are unhappy with the pond’s ever deteriorating condition.

Oyster culturing and oyster seeding are being praised. But will they work? All sorts of attempts to bring the hard clam population back in the Great South Bay, which used to produce more clams per acre of bottom and more clammers harvesting them than any other tidal waters along the East Coast. It wasn’t the clammers who decimated the clam population, it was the condition of the waters. Ironically, perhaps, the same body of watear once was the oyster capital of New York State, but opening so many channels to the ocean made it much more saline. Now it is neither the oyster nor hard clam capital, but just another body of water. However well intentioned the oyster culturers and seeders are, there is a very good probability that the oysters will not be able to keep the Great South Bay and the rest of the Atlantic coastal waters from further deterioration.

Shellfish culture, whether it be oysters, clams, or mussels, is a rather new endeavor on Long Island, having started in the 1920s and 1930s, but not peaking until after World War II. Islip was one of the first townships to take on shellfish culture. Indeed, when East Hampton Town started its aquaculture operation in the late 1980s, Islip was used as a kind of a model. The town was, indeed, lucky! It got a large structurally sound ex-military building on Fort Pond Bay in Montauk for nothing after the Montauk Marine Lab shut down. In the mid-1980s the brown tide struck and scallop landings fell almost to zero. Montauk hardly suffered at all.

Having a free building on Fort Pond Bay and Block Island Sound and marine waters practically untouched by brown phytoplankton or any of the other destructive phytoplankton species that followed was a godsend. For an entire year we searched East Hampton’s coastal waters east of Montauk for the right spot, one free of pollution and fouling organisms, one next to a large body of salt water with almost no septic wastes entering it, and finally, we found it, or I should say, it found us.

In choosing a spot for intense shellfish culturing one has to look for that sort of spot. Some former students in my aquaculture class at Long Island University’s Southampton College, one of whom was John Finger, found one on the northern coast of California, in Tomales Bay near Point Reyes National Seashore, and began growing oysters in 1985. Their business has thrived and now it supplies oysters to much of the West Coast.

It’s the water, stupid, someone once shouted out. That is why, if I were still director of natural resources for East Hampton Town, I would  be very wary of putting so many eggs in a new basket — in Three Mile Harbor, that is. That harbor is so badly polluted at its south end that the area has been declared impaired by the state. The water has suffered many bouts of colored phytoplankton tides since 1984. After all, it is a harbor for boats of all sizes and while you can still find hard clams there, I wouldn’t want to take a chance on a major investment, especially not next to a major marina or two, and downhill from Gann Road, where there is not only considerable runoff after a rain but where numerous boats launch and land from the town’s concrete pad at the end of the road.

In my opinion, it is better to find a quiet place where the water will always be good. When I started the Montauk aquaculture facility, I dreamed of solar panels on the roof and a working wind turbine. Methinks it would be better to take some of the $4 million or $5 million the town is considering spending on a new facility on Three Mile Harbor and make the existing facility’s energy needs carbon-free.


Larry Penny can be reached via email at Larrypenny9@gmail.com.

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