New Eyes and Ears for the Peconic Bays

Pete Topping has been hired to be the next Peconic Baykeeper. He comes to the job after close to eight years at the East Hampton Town Shellfish Hatchery. Courtesy of Pete Topping

Pete Topping spent seven and a half years as a bay management specialist with the East Hampton Town Shellfish Hatchery before being hired four months ago as the new Peconic Baykeeper, a clean-water advocate for Long Island’s Peconic and South Shore bays. In many ways, the job is a natural evolution for him, reflecting his first encounters with environmental threats as a boy growing up on the East End.

“I guess I was born in interesting times,” Mr. Topping, now 39, said over the phone this week. “My memories go back to when I was 4 and taking boat rides with my family, going into areas like Scallop Pond [in North Sea] and being able to look down, actually see the scallops lying there in the water, then take a net and pull them up to take a look at them. By the time I was 5 years old, which was the very next year, we started to have the first outbreaks of brown tide, and it was a turning point in my childhood. I remember seeing that and getting a very real, tangible idea ‘something’s wrong here.’ ”

“Over the next several years, we lost most of our scallops and a lot of steamer clams.”

Now, as then, these are interesting times when it comes to local water quality. Many legislators and environmental advocacy groups have named water pollution the number-one threat to the East End’s quality of life and commercial interests. Mr. Topping, who has a degree in marine science biology from Long Island University’s Southampton College and a master’s in teaching biology from Stony Brook University, has identified a range of issues that he intends to work on in his new job. 

His role is to be the nonprofit Peconic Baykeeper organization’s eyes and ears, and apply science, educational outreach, and legislation to defend local waters. With his hiring, Sean O’Neill, who preceded him as baykeeper, moves up to become Peconic Baykeeper’s executive director, and will work mainly on nitrogen-reducing initiatives.

Mr. O’Neill and Mr. Topping say their newly created division of labor seems prudent, given how much the protection of waterways has changed over the years. Both obstacles and solutions reveal themselves. Threats ebb and flow.

“When I was younger, it was fertilizer this, fertilizer that, which is still a major problem affecting our water,” Mr. Topping said. “People weren’t thinking about what we’re putting directly into the groundwater. But now, the waste that we need to get rid of has become a huge issue.” 

Mr. O’Neill said the organization was tackling the problem in various ways. Mr. Topping is helping to oversee a two-year-old aquaculture program that leases five-acre bottomland (underwater) parcels to local shellfish and oyster farmers. (Oysters filter water, with a nitrogen-reducing effect.) Baykeeper is also teaming up with North Sea Colony, a residential community of 62 homes in Southampton Town, on a project to replace all the septic systems in the community, rather than depend on individual homeowners to do so one by one.

The idea is a different but still complementary approach to the financial incentive programs currently offered by Suffolk County and the towns of East Hampton, Southampton, and Shelter Island for individual homeowners who install nitrogen-reducing septic systems at their residences.

“Wastewater nitrogen issues have been shown to be the single largest source of pollution on the East End as a whole,” Mr. O’Neill said. “And so, while we think it’s absolutely great to do these septic improvements home by home — that’s good — we’re not really going to solve this issue if we don’t start tackling it on a community basis. What we’re hoping to do by working with North Sea Colony is create a sort of model for how whole communities can get together, how they get the funding, how to get the permits, how to go through the whole process.”

These are interesting times for conservationists. “It can seem hard to be in the environmental world sometimes,” said Mr. Topping, who has three young sons. “You feel this mountain almost building to the top of you, with all the bad news — but then I look around and think of the good things happening, too.”

The new baykeeper thinks of the oyster and shellfish projects. He thinks of the education outreach programs his organization runs for kids, many of whom arrive with little awareness of nature and leave with a new appreciation of what they’ve been missing all around them. He says brown tide remains a concern, though the Peconic bays have been free of it for a while. The local ecosystem seems healthy enough for whale and dolphin sightings to become fairly commonplace, because their food supplies, bunker and alewives included, are doing well. (Mr. Topping and his crews are tracking the ongoing migration and spawning of alewives into Big Fresh Pond this spring.)

“In the last few years, I’ve seen more whales off the South Shore of Long Island than I have seen my entire lifetime, and since there’ve been more restrictions on local fishing of bunker, we’ve seen more dolphins off the South Shore, more dolphins in the bay,” Mr. Topping said. “It creates a lot of excitement.”

His former work in the hatchery, including the cultivation and seeding of millions of shellfish, oysters, clams, and bay scallops into town waters each year, was similarly rewarding, he said, in terms of public benefit. As a lifelong East Ender, Mr. Topping knows how the ocean and the bays have sustained local families for generations.

“In East Hampton we had a good relationship with some of the local baymen out there, and I’d see them coming in early in the morning from checking their pound traps out on Napeague. And in the afternoon I’d see the same guys going out, whether it was digging clams or harvesting shellfish, sometimes in areas which the hatchery seeded,” he said. “Most of them were very grateful. And it was so gratifying to me, because it felt like we were providing a valuable service, and helping to maintain some of the local cultural traditions in this area.”

“When you’re able to promote programs that have great environmental benefits and also economic benefits, it’s a way to create a win-win for everybody. And it shows the human dimension to this as well.”