Rising Tides and a Dying Bay

[Guest posted by Jack Bonner, from East Islip and now a student at Loyola, Maryland]

It is 5:30 a.m. and I’m leaving my home port headed out towards the Robert Moses Causeway. There is dew on my windshield, and I can taste the salt air as the sun rises over my back. Where am I? The Great South Bay. However, I am not the only one who calls this bay home for the summer.  As New York State’s largest shallow saltwater bay, it is home to over 80 species of fish, as well as many fishermen, beachgoers, and the like.1  Although it seems that this summer paradise will return year after year as it always has, if changes are not made to help preserve the biodiversity in the bay, it will be nothing but a memory. To be specific, the eelgrass and shellfish that preserve life in the bay are threatened by the annual brown tide, and therefore, there needs to be a solution to this algal bloom. The complexity of the legal solutions therein has provided serious obstacles to remedying this otherwise preventable occurrence. Thus, non-profits such as “Save The Great South Bay,” have emerged in an effort to put pressure on politicians and encourage the mainland to do their part. That is to say, if the elected officials cannot change, then the bay relies entirely on personal initiatives.

Before discussing the solutions, however, I must prove that there is actually a problem, and more importantly, that it can be remedied. Thus, I will first prove that the Great South Bay needs eelgrass and shellfish to preserve itself and promote the biodiversity it once held; and second, the Great South Bay has seen a significant decrease in the amount of eelgrass and shellfish as a result of the brown tide. Ergo, as a result of the proof of both premises, the brown tide must be stopped in order to preserve the Great South Bay’s biodiversity.

Pertaining to the first premise, the Great South Bay has organisms that function at the bottom of the food chain that are necessary for its prosperity, the hard clam and common eelgrass. First, just as any other plant does, eelgrass oxygenates the water. Obviously, without this function, the Bay is not capable of supporting life. Such a thought made itself manifest in 2016, when approximately 300,000 Atlantic Menhaden suffocated to death in the Shinnecock Canal, Peconic River, as well as in other estuaries as a result of a lack of oxygen: “The study by state and Suffolk County officials and Stony Brook and Cornell universities says rising water temperatures and a spike in algal blooms, spurred by increased nitrogen levels, depleted oxygen and caused many fish to suffocate.” 2 Moreover, eelgrass does our dirty work; the excess nitrogen and phosphorus that runs off into the bay from fertilizer, cesspools, and other pollutants is happily extracted by eelgrass, essentially cleaning the bay: “Eelgrass is able to extract a portion of these nutrients [nitrogen and phosphorus] directly from the water column and use it to grow, helping to keep our waters clear and healthy for all marine life.”3 Lastly, eelgrass is a great food source. Many smaller fishes feed upon it, while also using it for protection. Without the prosperity of these smaller species, the larger gamefish that populate the Bay would starve and leave our shallow estuary a barren sandflat. Additionally, on eelgrass, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation states,

“New York seagrass beds function as vital habitat and nursery grounds for numerous commercially, recreationally and ecologically important fish and shellfish species. Seagrasses also serve a major role in the nutrient and carbon cycles, provide an important food source for fish and waterfowl, and stabilize bottom sediments. Aside from providing many essential and invaluable ecosystem services, their presence is often used as an indicator of estuarine health and quality.”4

Second, the hard clam and oyster are integral to the bay because they are filter feeders. Clams specifically “improve water clarity by reducing sediment loads and turbidity and removing excess nutrients from inshore coastal waters. Clearer water allows more sunlight to penetrate, which aids in the growth of important seagrasses and increases oxygen. ‘Filter feeding’ clams may also potentially prevent harmful algal blooms.”5 Naturally, when water is filtered, it makes for better living conditions, not only for the eelgrass but also for fish and birds. At the rate of 24 gallons a day for adult clams,6 it has been suggested that the decline in water quality of the bay has been due to the dying off of clams. The more efficient filter feeder happens to be the oyster, however (adult oysters can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day).7 Additionally, clams indirectly filter nitrogen out of the water because they feed on phytoplankton (phytoplankton need nitrogen to survive). Hence, when the clams eat phytoplankton, they inevitably consume nitrogen that leads to algal blooms.

As one may think, the organisms in the bay are interconnected. That is to say, when the clams are not able to clean the bay water, it makes it more difficult for the eelgrass to grow because of the lack of sunlight able to penetrate the water. Furthermore, due to an increased turbidity of the bay from the brown tide and pollutants, the shallow depths at which these plants are able to grow is being restricted even more: “Over time, as water quality in the Bay has been impaired, the depth at which seagrasses can grow has been successively reduced, limiting not only the amount of seagrasses in the Bay, but also the productivity of the organisms that depend on them for reproduction and nutrition.”9 As a result, fish lose shelter, and the eelgrass is not able to pull the nitrogen and phosphorus out of the water. When eelgrass die, the bay is worse off in preparation for next year’s algal bloom. This cycle continues and continues, getting worse every year.

What exactly is the algal bloom, or brown tide? According to the NYS DEC,

The ocean is full of phytoplankton, small plant-like organisms (algal) that are invisible to the human eye and form the basis of the aquatic food chain. Most are harmless and are important for their role as food for certain marine species. Yet, there are some species that, if given the right conditions, can grow rapidly, creating a widespread “bloom” that overwhelms marine habitats and wreaks havoc on the ecosystem. Scientists refer to these “blooms” as harmful algal blooms (HABs). Additionally, of the various species that may cause these HABs, there are a handful that can produce dangerous toxins (marine biotoxins) that are harmful to the health of marine organisms and humans. Harmful algal blooms may color the water red or brown, and are often referred to as “red tide” or “brown tide.” The discoloration of the water is caused by the millions of microscopic phytoplankton that bloom. However, some algal blooms that color the water may have no harmful impacts. 10

Furthermore, the brown tide (the common term for the algal bloom in the Great South Bay) is classified by NYS as a harmful algal bloom or HAB. This algal bloom is able to prosper in the Bay because of harmful nitrogen runoff, mostly from cesspools and fertilizer. Thus, seemingly every year, when the water warms at the beginning of the summer, the algal bloom occurs, and the Bay turns an unhealthy, brown-grayish color until the water becomes too hot for the bloom, and it dies off. Additionally, the sentiment towards the Brown Tide amongst Long Islanders is negative. It makes the water ugly and kills shellfish. That is to say, it is common knowledge that the brown tide is bad. But it seems to be the case that the severity of the brown tide is unknown, especially to those who were not around to experience the glory days of the Great South Bay prior to the bloom.

Ryan Bonner, a Long Island native, puts the effects of the brown tide in a way that perhaps most people from the mainland have not grasped:

“The brown tide alga, Aureococcus anophagefferens, has been notorious on Long Island, having caused the demise of the largest bay scallop fishery on the East Coast in the Peconic Estuary, the loss of eelgrass across Long Island and the inhibition of hard clam recovery efforts in Great South Bay.”11

Aside from the theory behind the brown tide’s effect on eelgrass, and shellfish, the proposition that the brown tide is the prominent destroyer of our Bay’s ecosystem stands on more than reason alone. There is much data to support the claim that the algal bloom is the cause of the decreased population of both clams and eelgrass. First, pertaining to clams, “The annual harvest of hard clams has fallen by over 99 percent from its peak of over 750,000 bushels in 1976.”12 If the peak number of clams taken in the bay was in 1976, and the first brown tide was in the mid-1980s, how can the connection be made? The large initial decline in the clam population that occurred was blamed on mass dredging in the Great South Bay. Furthermore, in 1986, the number of bushels taken in the Bay was approximately 100,000; in 2012, the number had dwindled to a mere 20,000.13 The decline of about 80% of the clams since 1986 is still a big pill to swallow. Second, the NYS DEC has published a report in which it cites the tremendous decline in eelgrass acreage in New York since the 1930’s:

“While historic seagrass acreage in New York has not been documented, historic photography and records indicate that there may have been 200,000 acres in 1930; today, only 21,803 acres remain. Although some loss can be attributed to natural events such as disease, the majority of seagrass loss has been triggered by anthropogenic activities. Several simultaneous impacts have contributed to seagrass declines in New York and throughout the world. These impacts include increased nutrient loadings, decreased water quality and clarity, large phytoplankton blooms, habitat degradation, fishing gear and boating activities, and climate change. Currently, the overall highest threats for seagrass in New York include excess nitrogen (affecting water quality), persistent and sustained algal blooms, and fishing and shellfishing gear impacts.”14

Again, the DEC suggests the interdependence of the Bay’s organisms. The shellfish need eelgrass for protection; the eelgrass need shellfish for their ability to clean the water.

Now that it can be asserted that the brown tide is to blame, why hasn’t one of the most liberal state governments in the country acted on an issue they claim to be so passionate about—the environment? It seems out of character. Nevertheless, the primary initiative to combat the brown tide has been the Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan: “LINAP is a multiyear initiative to reduce nitrogen in Long Island’s surface and ground waters by DEC, the Long Island Regional Planning Council (LIRPC),15 and Suffolk and Nassau counties, with input from multiple partners and stakeholders.” The problem is that while NYS appears to be working on a solution, in reality, the LINAP is going nowhere fast. First, fertilizer, which is a leading contributor of nitrogen to the Bay, is used by four main entities: golf courses, landscapers, agriculture, and average consumers. Golf courses, landscapers, and farmers all have lobbyists who have fought tooth and nail to prevent a solution from coming forth. 16 Since NYS cannot possibly handle big businesses despite the state’s so-called care for the environment, all that is left is the fight to fix the amount of nitrogen in fertilizers that Long Island residents use on their lawns. Scotts has been the enemy on the personal use front. They claim that if consumers used the fertilizer correctly and measured exactly how much they were applying, this would not be a problem. They feign unawareness of the overarching problem, which is that even if consumers measured the exact amount of fertilizer, which nobody does, the soil on Long Island is different from other parts of the country. It is easier for the nitrogen to runoff through the sandy Long Island soil than other areas. Through all this, the NYS government moves at a snail’s pace to a problem that could easily devastate the Great South Bay in the coming years.

The other target of the LINAP is the elimination of nitrogen that results from the runoff of wastewater of septic tanks and cesspools. Specifically, it is known that cesspools and septic systems sometimes fail and cause runoff. Why then are these systems being built in such proximity to the Bay? Replacing old and faulty systems are expensive. On the whole, pertaining to both fertilizer use and septic systems, the issue is not government regulations on business. It is that if we do not make a change fast, The Great South Bay will be finished off. At that point, politicians will sit around and point fingers, but who cares about pointing fingers when the Bay is gone anyways?

This being said, what is there to do for the residents of Long Island who wait idly by the NYS government? Personal initiatives.17 One of the social issues pushed in 2018 is that oftentimes, what is natural is beautiful. Then why can’t we let lawns do what they will without using fertilizers loaded with nitrogen? If they are altered with fertilizer, they aren’t beautiful; they are destructive—the notion of what a healthy lawn looks like needs to change. Once, that is done, we can again reap the benefits of a healthy bay.

Other initiates have been proposed by the 501(c)3 non-profit organization “Save the Great South Bay” such as the Habitat Restoration,” “Creek Defender,” and “Bay Friendly Yard” initiatives. The “Habitat Restoration” program is designed to restore oysters in the bay to filter the water; “The Creek Defender Program” focuses on removing pollutants from the creeks that flow into the Great South Bay, while also planting native species that absorb nutrients that would otherwise run off into the bay.   Lastly, “The Bay Friendly Yard Initiative” encourages native lawns, without fertilizers or pesticides. However, one does not need to coordinate with any organization to do their part. Reducing the usage of nitrogen-loaded fertilizer is something anybody can do, as well as picking up the litter that oftentimes finds its way into local waters.

In 2012, we may have received a kickstart to our mission of reviving the bay. Hurricane Sandy, which was destructive for many, opened up a breach in the Fire Island National Seashore, what is now known as “New Inlet.” New Inlet is located west of Smith Point, south of Bellport.  As a result, the eastern part of the bay received clean and cool ocean water: Chris Gobler, a professor of marine science at Stony Brook University, said that “since the breach opened, nitrogen levels and water temperatures had fallen, while oxygen levels and water clarity had risen — all healthy trends.”18 The Bay saw a glimpse of life. As an avid fisherman and boater myself, I can say that the water clarity improved tremendously.   Furthermore, The Great South Bay contains areas where the water takes longer to flush out into the Atlantic because of the distance from the inlets along Fire Island.

Fishing improved as a result of the faster circulation of bay water. Some Long Island and Fire Island residents want the breach closed. They think that the Bay is more vulnerable in the event of future storms. Others hope that the breach will remain open to continue to flush the Bay clean for years to come. Undeniably, however, is that the breach is helping the Bay. Nevertheless, in the years following Sandy, the Bay cannot be saved by keeping the breach open alone. Long Island residents need to do their part. So, now what? A gorgeous shallow estuary home to many remains in trouble. Will it be healed before the hourglass runs out of sand?


1 Drago, William J. “The Great South Bay, Long Island, New York.” Loving-Long-Island.com. 2004-2018. http://www.loving-long-island.com/great-south-bay.html.

2 Associated Press. “Scientists identify causes in mass Long Island fish kills.” PIX11. February 6, 2016. https://pix11.com/2016/02/06/scientists-identify-causes-in-mass-long-island-fish-kills/.

3 Cornell Cooperative Extension Marine Program. SEAGRASS.LI. 2018. http://www.seagrassli.org/ecology/importance/nutrients_popup.html.

4 “Final Report of the New York State Seagrass Task Force: Recommendations to the New York State Governor and Legislature.” December 2009. https://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/fish_marine_pdf/finalseagrassreport.pdf.

5 Baker, Shirley, Kelly Grogan, Sherry Larkin, Leslie Sturmer, Angelo Spadaro, and Jorge Avila. “‘Green’ Clams: Estimating the Value of Environmental Benefits (Ecosystem Services) Generated by the Hard Clam Aquaculture Industry in Florida.” Online Resource Guide for Florida Shellfish Aquaculture. July 2015. http://shellfish.ifas.ufl.edu/environmental-benefits/.

6 Koenig, Erin. “Can Clams and Oysters Help Clean Up Waterways? Survey shows potential for shellfish to reduce excess nitrogen.” OceanUS Magazine. January 22, 2018. https://www.whoi.edu/oceanus/feature/can-clams-and-oysters-help-clean-up-waterways.

7 Koenig, Erin. “Can Clams and Oysters Help Clean Up Waterways? Survey shows potential for shellfish to reduce excess nitrogen.” OceanUS Magazine. January 22, 2018. https://www.whoi.edu/oceanus/feature/can-clams-and-oysters-help-clean-up-waterways.

8 Baker, Shirley, Kelly Grogan, Sherry Larkin, Leslie Sturmer, Angelo Spadaro, and Jorge Avila. “‘Green’ Clams: Estimating the Value of Environmental Benefits (Ecosystem Services) Generated by the Hard Clam Aquaculture Industry in Florida.” Online Resource Guide for Florida Shellfish Aquaculture. July 2015. http://shellfish.ifas.ufl.edu/environmental-benefits/.

9 Peterson, Brad, and Brad Furman. “Effect of water quality on the distribution of seagrasses within Great South Bay.” Great South Bay Ecosystem Study. https://you.stonybrook.edu/greatsouthbay/research/effect-of-water-quality-on-the-distribution-of-seagrasses-within-great-south-bay/.

10 “Harmful Algal Blooms and Marine Biotoxins.” New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. https://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/64824.html.

11 Bonner, Ryan. “Damaging Brown Tide Emerges Across Great South Bay.” Patch. May 30, 2018. https://patch.com/new-york/patchogue/damaging-brown-tide-emerges-across-great-south-bay.

12 Kassner, Jeffrey. “A HISTORY OF OYSTERS AND HARD CLAMS IN THE GREAT SOUTH BAY.” http://www.longislandtraditions.org/southshore/sights_sounds/fishing/pdf/kassner_essay.pdf.

13 Kozak, Andrew. “The Great South Bay’s Clam Crisis.” Clamming Up Long Island Clams. http://longislandclams.com/?page_id=93.

14 “Final Report of the New York State Seagrass Task Force: Recommendations to the New York State Governor and Legislature.” December 2009. https://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/fish_marine_pdf/finalseagrassreport.pdf.

15 “Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan (LINAP).” New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. https://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/103654.html.

16 Conversation with president and co-founder of “Save the Great South Bay,” Marshall Brown

17 “Take Action.” Save the Great South Bay. https://savethegreatsouthbay.org/take-action/.

18 Foderaro, Lisa W. “On Fire Island, a Scar From Hurricane Sandy Is Seen as a Good Thing.” The New York Times. Last modified October 3, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/04/nyregion/on-fire-island-a-scar-from-hurricane-sandy-is-seen-as-a-good-thing.html.

Leave a Reply