On Friday, October 14th, 2022, Save The Great South Bay, 501(c)3 presented its third annual Speaker Series on the State of the Great South Bay held at the View in Oakdale where Dr. Christopher Gobler spoke about current environmental events affecting the health of the Bay. You can view the full, in-person presentation here.
Gobler, the head of the Gobler Laboratory at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, presented his findings which included multiple impairments that appeared over the span of just four months during this past summer resulting in temporary beach and shellfish closures across the South Shore.
A Different Type of Algal Bloom
These impairments included Gymnodinium, a different type of harmful algal bloom (HAB) than normally seen, which was persistently present in the Great South Bay. Different from brown tide, Gymnodinium forms in patches which were most commonly seen in the Sayville area. Not a new species, Gymnodinium has a notorious history including as the cause of a massive fish kill in 2015 on Long Island’s East End of over 500,000 fish through gill damage ending in suffocation.
An Invasive Seaweed
A second event occurring in the Great South Bay this year was the recurring appearance of Dasysiphonia japonica, also known as Dasy (day-zee), an invasive red seaweed native to Japan which leaches red pigment as it starts to decay. This is not to be confused with Red Tide which is caused by an algal bloom.
Dasy’s growth is fueled by high levels of nitrogen in the Bay with wastewater runoff being the main culprit for the explosive growth of this organism. As a decaying seaweed, In high concentrations, Dasy poses a human health hazard as it releases toxic gas. Dasy is also highly toxic to fish and clams.
An Unknown: Seaweed or HAB?
Gobbler pointed to a third, to date unidentified, scourge in the Bay spotted over the summer from the east end of Fire Island to Amityville. Multiple samples of the substance were collected by both concerned citizens and researchers from Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences where scientists are currently conducting research using DNA sequencing to determine the exact species.
Excessive Nitrogen to Blame
The main culprit behind these disruptive environmental events is excessive nitrogen. Over the past several decades, population growth has led to increasing levels of nitrogen in our groundwater. Most nitrogen comes from wastewater runoff from outdated septic systems. According to Gobler, one Duke University study showed Suffolk County public water is in the top 5% of nitrate levels in the U.S. at 3.8 mg/l.
While that is below the EPA standard of 10 mg/l set to prevent blue baby syndrome, studies show that even moderate amounts of nitrogen in drinking water have been found to have an association with different types of cancer. This is bad news for human health as well as the health of the Bay.
Water Quality & Home Values
We all have an economic stake in the health of the Great South Bay. It affects our local economies including tourism, recreational opportunities and the entire marine industry. Additionally, it has an impact on home values with one study demonstrating that for every foot of increase or decrease in water clarity, waterfront homes can change by tens of thousands of dollars. And it’s not just waterfront homes that are affected. The value of homes a half mile or more away from the water, are also greatly affected.
What Can We Do?
That is the 400,000 septic tank question, according to Gobler.
In 2020, Suffolk County passed the Subwatershed Wastewater Plan – Reclaim Our Water – and set a goal of upgrading 200,000 septic systems by 2050 in a targeted way with the highest priority areas located primarily in towns along the Great South Bay. This program encourages homeowners to upgrade their outdated cesspools for more efficient innovative and alternative wastewater treatments systems (IA/OWTS).
At the Center for Clean Water Technology, Gobbler and his team of researchers are harnessing science to engineer clean water using sand and wood chips to treat wastewater. Their methods have shown very promising results including removal of nitrogen as well as the toxic emerging contaminant 1,4 dioxane.
Additionally multiple municipalities are connecting thousands of homes to existing and/or new public sewer systems.
In-Water Solutions – Shellfish & Seaweed Restoration
A decade of shellfish restoration projects have demonstrated great success as seen in Moriches Bay with an increase of 1,700% in hard clam landings, growth of 100 acre of sea grasses and most importantly no brown tide for the last 6 years.
Seaweeds can also help. They take up CO2, nitrogen and give off oxygen. Kelp is an example of a high performing seagrass. Kelp can remove up to 100-220 pounds of nitrogen per acre. In comparison, that is the equivalent of upgrading septic systems on up to 18 homes. Kelp helps regulate Ph levels and CO2 levels and can support oyster and mussel growth and help fight HABs.
For our part, Save The Great South Bay has recently launched the Great South Bay Oyster Project which aims to restore shellfish across the Great South Bay.
There’s More To Be Done
Excessive nitrogen loading from wastewater is a major, ongoing threat to the Great South Bay, coastal ecosystems, local economies, pets and human health. Upgrading septic systems is the primary mitigation strategy for reversing water quality issues and removing organic contaminants and other carcinogens from drinking water. Seaweeds hold the promise to locally mitigate water quality impairments such as harmful algal blooms and acidification. Additionally homeowners can reduce, or better yet, eliminate the use of nitrogen-laden fertilizers and plant natives to help reduce stormwater runoff.
The health of the Bay, and with it our communities, depends on it.
About Save The Great South Bay
Save The Great South Bay, 501(c)3 is a local, environmental non-profit that actively works to restore Long Island’s Great South Bay and with that strengthen our South Shore communities. We advocate for programs and policies that help protect the Bay for future generations to enjoy, and educate the public on how they can Start Where They Stand to be local stewards of our waterways.
Our Speaker Series is a quarterly breakfast conference that brings together scientists, environmentalists, public officials, community leaders, educators and more, to connect and share ideas on ways we can work together to protect and preserve the Great South Bay. This program is made possible through the generous support of the Lessing’s Hospitality Group and Winters Bros. Waste Management.