Co-Founder Save The Great South Bay
Co-Founder Save The Great South Bay

A Passion For The Bay (Via Suffolk County News)

James Bertsch Interviews Marshall Brown, Executive Director, Save The Great South Bay:



At your Sayville High School class reunion, you and your classmates decided to start Save the Great South Bay.  Who participated in the conversation what did you talk about?

We were all descending on our hometown.  I had just come back to Long Island some nine months previously after 35 years.  We’re all coming back witnessing what happened to our bay because it’s a reunion, after all.  Howard Ryan comes rolling in from New Jersey and we’re seeing all this trash in the bay.  I came back to the parental home on Candee Avenue. I walk to the end of the street with my then and 11-year-old son and we hopped in the water at Sayville Beach, where Mr. Dougood was the lifeguard since forever. We were in the water for approximately half a second.  The best analogy is that it was like being in a coffee urn.  It was disgusting.  It was warm.  It was dark and there were little flecks of everything, dead things, dead seaweed.   We got out of that soup as quickly as we could.  And that’s all we could talk about at the reunion that night, Howard, me, Frankie Urban.  We grew up on the bay, some were still trying to eke out a living as a bayman.  What happened was we said we have to do something and then realized the “we” was us.  It’s one of those things that comes sideways in life and womps you up the side of the head.  My God, we were the last resort.  We decided that night we had to start an organization.  It was a matter of passion.  That’s how things should happen in life.  Something needs to grab you on a really profound level and force you into action.   The next day Howard bought and we started a Facebook Group.   That was 10 weeks before Sandy to the day.  That of course made the situation even more urgent.

This is Save the Great South Bay’s third year organizing the Creek Defender.  Why is local stewardship so important to the model?

We’re here to learn.  We’re here to learn how to create a movement that will bring back our bay.  We’re finding new things day by day.    Yesterday we were in Babylon for a clean up and for a planting, today there was a clean-up in Blue Point, next week is Lindenhurst, on April 20th, and in Sayville as well.  People are just fierce and passionate about where they’re from.  What we do is we provide a platform and a megaphone for these local organizations.  We can’t presume to come in from above and tell people how they ought to do something in their community.  They are already committed to local stewardship.  If a lot more people show up, if a part of that is our methodology—our Bay-Friendly Yards program and our Creek Defender Program — by which we can improve the quality of local waters, we are here.  We are here informationally and strategically.  The local passions are already there.  We’re just trying to support that.   Nobody is going to save the bay except The South Shore itself, community by community.

Can you identify this year’s Creek Defenders and their towns? 

Massapequa, Tom Dempsey, teaches 9th grade and Advanced Placement Environmental Studies

Copiague, Joe Mannix, teaches Environmental Science there.   Led clean-up of Santapogue Creek, Lindenhurst.

Amityville, Todd Brice, Founded The Great South Bay Society, which runs annual marsh island cleanups, and runs a boat yard.

Amityville, Adam Ansanelli, running a clean-up and planting this Spring around Avon Pond

Lindenhurst, David Schrader, fifth-generation Lindy resident with deep roots in the community

Babylon, Todd Shaw, President of STGSB’s board and chairs the Creek Defender

Bayshore , Tom Kain, deeply invested in his community

Sayville, James Bertsch along with Bob Person

Bayport, Bob Draffin, President of the Bayport Civic and Sayville Rotary

Blue Point, Jason Borowski, President of the Bluepoint Community Coalition

Patchogue, Andrea Stolz, a local activist, and Keith Smith, who seems to know every pond, creek, river, and stream throughout the estuary.

Islip, Oakdale and Bellport, planning is underway and projects are in formation

—West Islip, East Islip, and Brookhaven, seek Defenders

How did the Creek Defender grow from one Defender (year 1, Babylon) to three Defenders (year 2, Babylon, Sayville and Blue Point) to fourteen and perhaps seventeen this year (year 3)?  What made you grow?

Sometimes when you confront things that are far larger than you are, you have to be humble around them.  You need to be part of a movement.    Quite often we find people whose families go back generations in a community.  Everyone has a stake in their own community.  All we’re trying to do is respond to their passion.  It’s astounding and we’re deeply moved by what we find every time we begin a conversation with anybody in their communities. They want passionately to save what was once; it’s been years that we’ve been working at developing a model by which communities can empower themselves.  We look to help, whether on the technological side, the social media side, and or the biological side.   We seek to heal the bay by recreating habitat along the creeks—what plants and animals actually belong here, what insects:  how can we put back what was?


If your dream of saving the Great South Bay came true, what would the bay look like?

This is not rocket science.  We’re fond of saying that the mainland is sick and the bay is a symptom.  How do you cure the mainland?  Habitat restoration through responsible local stewardship, through commonsense initiatives like getting away from plastics, and generally, form things that don’t belong in our environment.  It’s about returning what would be a billion dollar shell fishing industry.  We’re localists.  We don’t care about anything else but we’re from, The South Shore.  My vision is building a sustainable Long Island starting with the Great South Bay.  The bay traditionally is the source of our wealth.  It has to continue to be.  People come to Long Island by the hundreds of thousands as tourists.  It’s a $6 billion dollar industry (Note: Tourism is Long Island’s biggest industry).  There are all sorts of important economic reasons why a health bay matters.  And so my vision would be where people and nature can live densely together so that we can do something that really hasn’t been accomplished before.  We can create a sustainable community out of this densely populated suburb which, if it were its own country, would be as dense a Bangladesh.  It’d be number four in the world.  Consider the amount of people that live in Nassau and Suffolk and yet it’s such a beautiful place.   We must leverage what’s here, keep it here, bring back more of it, go native, rebuild habitat.  What future do you want to live in?   One with clean water, air, and soil, one with a vibrant local environment, where people can live within nature’s beauty? Let’s work intentionally towards that goal.

About James Bertsch

James Bertsch grew up in Sayville and continues to live there with his children and wife. James grew up on the Great South Bay, working for the Sayville Ferry Service, and his children sail at Wet Pants. James studied philosophy and history at St. John’s University in Minnesota before serving children in the Archdiocese of Chicago as a volunteer. James studied American history, culture and literature at Colorado State University. There, he also taught composition before teaching English and Social Studies in Long Island high schools. For the 17 years, James has served as building administrator in the Connetquot and Patchogue-Medford Schools and now in the Special Education division of Nassau BOCES. James earned his doctorate in Education from St. John’s, N.Y. James’ goal as an activist is to bring the civility and inquiring nature of the classroom to the public sphere. James is one of the founding members of the Greater Sayville Civic Association. He also works on teams to support local charitable causes and writes periodically for the Suffolk County News. Joining with others to create environments that encourage citizens to take a more active role in civic, political and community life continues to direct his efforts.

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