Sayville - U.S. Census Map

Can Sayville Save The Great South Bay? It Starts With a Moratorium On Pesticides and Non-Organic Fertilizers

Sayville - U.S. Census Map
Sayville – U.S. Census Map

Can one South Shore village help to save The Great South Bay, or at least their little corner of it?    Sayville High School’s Freshman Class has forced this question.   They decided to adopt The Great South Bay as the non-profit they would support this year.   They wanted to ‘go local,’ to focus on the needs of their community.   Arguably, The Great South Bay has been Sayville’s greatest asset, the reason it even exists.   The story goes that back in colonial times Seaville was misspelled Sayville.   I preferred to think Sayville’s Dutch settlers were saying Zee [sea, in Dutch, pronounced ‘Zay”] ville.    For centuries this enormous shallow lagoon 45 miles long and 1-3 miles wide,  thick with eelgrass, produced enormous amounts of oysters, then clams, and in Sayville and in other South Shore towns like Bellport, Patchogue, Blue Point, Islip, and Babylon built a way of life, the life of the bayman.   The history of shellfishing on the bay is long and varied, and a fascinating read in itself.

Brown Tide Threatens A Way of Life

But 1985 was the year when the life of the bayman on The Great South Bay effectively ended, with thousands left jobless.   A massive brown tide, a harbinger of many more to come, obscured the bay bottom, killing the eelgrass that once covered the bay bottom, destroying crucial habitat for the clams and the fin fish.   Today clam harvests are down 99%, and each year the brown tide arrives, usually larger and usually lasting longer.   Here is a graphic courtesy Prof. Christopher Gobler of Stony Brook and LICCRA (the Long Island Coastal Conservation Research Alliance) a global expert in algal blooms and their adverse effects on marine and aquatic life who helped to connect these algal blooms to the nitrogen in our groundwater from septic tanks.

The Collapse of Shellfishing in the GSB, Scallop Landings in NY
The Collapse of Shellfishing in the GSB, Scallop Landings in NY

The main culprit in generating these massive algal blooms are the 360,000 septic tanks in Suffolk County alone.   That’s where about 60% of the excess nitrogen in the bay water comes from.  Clearly that part of the problem won’t be solved any time soon, even as we are running out of time in The Great South Bay, and in all our waters.   The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation lists all Long Island’s waters as impaired; that the Great South Bay certainly is.

Fighting for a Heritage, Bringing Back The Oyster

Still Sayville is determined to fight for its heritage.   There are a lot of people around who would love to be baymen (again) if they could.    One person who became a bayman again is Chris Quartuccio of Blue Island Oysters.    He was a clammer as a young man, like so many of us.   He is now a major vendor of oysters grown right in The Great South Bay.   Oysters, as one would expect, do much better in clean clear water, but they are hardier than clams.    Nonetheless last year’s brown tide, which was particularly widespread and persistent, had an adverse impact on oyster health in the hatcheries and more generally.   It was at that point that Chris launched Operation Blue Earth — A grassroots Sayville-based effort to make all the lawns in Sayville chemical free.

Every lawn that is chemical free gets a sign like this:

Blue Earth Lawn Sign

Hopefully that we help to raise awareness in Sayville that what we do with our lawns has a direct impact on the bay.  It’s something Long Islanders don’t think enough about.   When you fertilize your lawn or spray pesticides, that goes two places –down toward our drinking water (maybe 20% of Long Islanders know that we live on top of our drinking water, in the form of a sole source aquifer left by the glacier), or it seeps from our lawns into our streams, ponds, and bays.    When there’s a good rainstorm we see the results of that in the bay soon after.  Polluted runoff going right into the bay.

But what if this one village could refrain from using these lawn and garden products, knowing they were harmful to marine life and an impediment to local oyster cultivation?  What if people of Sayville decided to act together and put a moratorium on these products?   Would the immediate bay become cleaner, and more conducive to oyster harvesting?   Would it help the oysters get more of a toehold in our bay and in the waters around Sayville?    That is Chris’ hope.   As part of what will be in effect a village-wide experiment, there will be marine scientists and student citizen-scientists on hand actively measuring water quality and measuring oyster growth extensively, just as they had last year.   How else will Sayville be affected, though> Will bug populations increase?   Will that bring more birds, or fish, or amphibians?   Mosquito larvae are food for many creatures, and dragon flies love to eat the adults.

But What About My Lawn?

Many will say, “Well I want to help, but I also want a green lawn, and I hate bugs.”    Long Island helped invent the modern suburban lawn.   Can it also help reinvent it for the 21st Century, where the issue is living sustainably?    There are many dozen landscaping companies that are certified by New York State’s Be Green Organic Yard Program.    There is also The Perfect Earth Project, an effort by renowned green landscape architect Edwina von Gal.   She and her organization is eager to advise people in Sayville as to how they can grow a bay friendly lawn, using as much as possible native plantings so that the 5 square miles that constitute the village can be revitalized and beautified.   There is a side benefit to a whole town going green.   Sayville will be that much more desirable as a place to live.   Revitalizing the bay will go a long way towards boosting Sayville’s fortunes; having vibrant local habitats — the marshes, ponds, streams, and woods — and lawns that welcomed life would only add to the economic benefits of going green.

An Emerging Grassroots Environmentalism

Increasingly, I have heard calls for moratoriums on pesticides,  with more and more organizations advocating organic lawn care.   Over the past six months, Save The Great South Bay, in conjunction with Grassroots Environmental Education, has been distributing these two double sided cards.   The Blue one pertains to water issues, The Green one pertains to pesticides and lawn care.   The freshmen of Sayville High have begun distributing Pesticides – What You Need to Know, The Organic Lawn Program, and on Jump In! Help Protect Our Water, and Our Aquifer.    They will also be available at store counters and and community locations throughout the village.    If your school or civic group wishes to order cards in bulk for your community, please use the contact form below:

Organic Lawn Care Program

Jump In! Help Protect Our Water!

Our Aquifers

If you would like to have these cards to distribute to your group, please email us here:

In the End, A Moratorium on Pesticides and Fertilizer is the Only Option 

Sewering / replacing the cesspools and septic tanks in Sayville is at least ten years away.   In the meantime, we must do everything possible to cut back on other sources of nitrogen and pollution in the bay if we want to have anything left to save in ten years.   That includes fertilizers, pesticides, runoff, unused pharmaceuticals and household chemicals, pet waste.    In the meantime, we need to have our cesspools and septics regularly maintained at the homes of the 16,000 people living in Sayville.   Given many people don’t even know where their septic tank is, that presents a problem.   Since there are costs associated with maintaining the tanks, many do nothing until the tank fails.   Here I would put it to the Town of Islip or Suffolk County to come up with a program that incentivizes home owners to maintain and in due time replace their cesspools with 21st Century denitrification systems.   Suffolk County is now seeking to qualify these on site systems, running pilots on 19 different systems from 6 companies.   After systems are certified for county use, people can begin installing them, but they won’t install them unless there’s an economic / legal incentive to.

In the meantime, while this is all sorted out at the policy level, we need to do everything we can to help the bay oysters get more of a toehold, for if Sayville is successful, if we are successful,   then we might just begin to turn things around in the bay, and buy the time we need to address the much larger issue of the cesspools because oysters are ‘filter feeders’ which in enough volume could themselves clean the bay and revitalize it.

Oysters To The Rescue?

Every oyster filters 50 gallons of water a day.  That’s a lot of water.   Back in 1976, at the peak of clamming, it was estimated that the clams were filtering 40% of the water each day, and thats with each clam capable of filtering only 1-2 gallons a day.       What if we brought in oysters by the millions?     Consider these efforts:

  1. The Billion Oyster Project proposes to clean New York Harbor with oysters.
  2. As part of a $60 million dollar grant to build coastal resilience, Staten Island is to be protected against future storms by artificial oyster reefs, designed by Scape Studios.
  3. It was Scape’s Kate Orff who opened up many people’s eyes to the potential of oysters to clean up polluted waters when she suggested using them for the Gowanus Canal, once long a great supply of oysters, but now a Superfund cleanup site.
  4. Cornell University Cooperative, in conjunction with our good friends at Friends of Bellport Bay, have been seeding oysters near to the breach i.e. Bellport Inlet, which opened during Sandy.   This last summer, they seeded 130,000 oysters (fingers crossed!)
Oct_26_2015 Bellport
Mosaic of ‘the breach’ aka Bellport Inlet from October 26th, 2015, courtesy Prof. Charlie Flagg of Stony Brook’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (SOMAS)

They are attaching the spat directly to old shells, and the oysters, near to the clean ocean water brought in by the breach / inlet, are doing quite well.   Ideally an emerging oyster reef will filter more and more of the water in Bellport Bay, and so bring it back to health.

Oysters Can Clean — and Generate Income

The oysters being grown in the southern part of Bellport Bay are not meant for consumption, though there are those looking at the possibility that oysters could be employed not only to clean the bay, but as part of a massive effort in aquaculture that could once again become a substantial business in The Great South Bay.    For instance  Prof. Jeffrey Levinton of Stony Brook University in a recent paper recommended growing oysters in Jamaica Bay and The Great South Bay at scale as a means of cleaning up both bays,  with the oysters in the Great South Bay growing in water clean enough for commercial shellfishing.   The oysters grown in Jamaica Bay, while cleaning the bay, would still contain industrial pollutants that would render them inedible.    The Great South Bay already has its oyster farms, small, but hopefully expanding, with the Towns of Islip, Babylon, and Brookhaven leasing more bay bottom for this purpose.      Prof. Levinton estimates that it would take 1500 acres of oysters or about 2.5 square miles of oyster cages to remove 148% of the excess nitrogen in the bay.     In other words, building what could be a billion dollar industry could save the bay.   Not a bad deal.   But much of the bay is starting out rather inhospitable to oyster growth.   It could also cost around $60,000 per acre to produce the oysters, or $90,000,000 to work a farm that could help save the bay, where if conditions were right could return as much as $120,000 per year per acre.

The Youth of Sayville Want a Better Fate For Their Bay

All said, so much traces back to the decision of 260 High School Freshmen to act on behalf of the bay they are now growing up on,  so that it can be revitalized for their children, and we need to take our inspiration from here.  Their Save The Great South Bay float, in a major upset over the seniors, won The Homecoming Parade competition, so there’s no denying their commitment:

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With these 260 Freshmen in a village of 16,000,  there is no doubt that they have the numbers to reach out to every person, every business, in the Sayville community and help them understand what is wrong with the bay and what each of us can do to help it recover.  We have in turn around 2500 members in The Save The Great South Bay Facebook Group, with 90% from The South Shore, either past or present.    Most of us remember the bay as it was, whether as clammers, fishermen, sailors, environmental scientists, or simply as kids growing up on the bay and on Fire Island.

Of all the towns represented in our group — Babylon, Lindenhurst, Massapequa, Bellport, Islip, Oakdale, Bayshore, Blue Point, Patchogue, etc,  Sayville has the most members, which is unsurprising because Save The Great South Bay was founded at The Sayville Class of ’77 35th Reunion in 2012.   Howard Ryan had been on the bay with his boat that day and was outraged at the amount of garbage; I’d walked from the house I grew up in to Sayville Beach with my then 11 year old son for a swim, and got out of that coffee brown mess as quickly as we could.    That was all we talked about that night at the Reunion, what had happened to the bay and our resolve to do something about it.

Flash forward three years, and  now we have these 14 year olds at Sayville High School taking on the cause.   That only makes us as an organization that much more committed to our mission.   It is for them and their descendants that we want to revitalize the bay.   How we remember the blue fish and blowfish, stripers, weakfish, bunker, flounder and mussels, the mounds of dried eelgrass piled on the shore, the horseshoe crabs massing on the beach in the full moon.  The baymen, fishermen, sailors, boaters, paddle boarders, surfers, the many thousands of beach goers want the bay back.

Save The Great South Bay, as an organization, hopes that Sayville’s actions will be adopted by other South Shore towns, and we look forward to developing best practices for such community engagement in Sayville.  This bay can be saved, if nothing else than because economically speaking, it is very much worth saving.   It really comes down to addressing the problem at scale, and that means every town’s involvement in time. Relieving the bay of fertilizer and pesticide pollution may just blunt the decline of the bay long enough where in turn we can introduce enough aquaculture to turn the bay around, even while awaiting sewering / denitrification technology.