As someone whose been involved in conservation in many different corners of the world, its easy to see how people might feel removed from the important work that’s happening, particularly in the arctic and equatorial regions where the scenery feels unfamiliar. However, the most important piece of land that you can help protect is your own. This blog seeks to show what conservation looks like in a local setting.
To some people it’s a small, fluid compound composed of two hydrogen molecules and an oxygen molecule. To most people it’s life. Fishermen rely on it for fish, farmers rely on it for crops, coastal communities rely on it for tourism, and we all rely on it to provide food, clothes, and –of course– water for our families.
There are many different ecosystems on Long Island, each of them diverse and unique in their own ways. The most important one, in my humble opinion, are the southern bays that stretch all the way from Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn out to Montauk. Not only are these bays home to a unique collection of human communities, these bays are also home to a complex system of marshes which act as nurseries for all types of fish and also as a home to an incredibly diverse amount of sea birds. These marshes also act as a first line of defense in storms, slowing down the punishing tide from destroying our homes. In the winter, you’ll be able to spot our seasonal residents the seals, and during the summer if you look out just offshore you’ll be able to spot whales jumping and pods of dolphins cruising the shoreline. All these species rely on the marshes to spawn the bait fish they feed on.
Full disclosure- I grew up exploring the southern bays. I’ve been fishing for years, unintentionally monitoring the species that live here and have watched fish species disappear over time. When I was a kid going after snappers on mid-August afternoons I used to catch puffer fish, needlefish, and young weakfish, too. These days it seems even the snappers’ numbers are low. This isn’t to discount the work that many groups on Long Island are doing, and in fact there are many who are improving them every day. In the past few years we’ve had a major increase in the number of whales and dolphins in our offshore waters, and that’s a direct result of the improvements being made in the southern bays. But with all the work being done, there’s still a lot of work to do.
I recently spoke to Helen Roussel, the enthusiastic Conservation Chair for the Long Island group of the Sierra Club. She points to over development of coastlines and marsh lands as one of the main issues out in the eastern bays. Over development leads to marshland being destroyed, and when marshland is destroyed, it leaves behind puddles that are the perfect breeding place for mosquitos.
The knock-on effects of this are mind blowing. Since there’s a mosquito problem, the local government has taken to using pesticides, specifically the pesticide methoprene, in the waterways to control the mosquitos. Methoprene does exactly what its used for very well, and that’s kill mosquitos. Mosquitos are at the very bottom of the food chain and many animals rely on them for nourishment, including birds. The problem with pesticides is that they don’t have the ability to target just one species and instead kills other populations, in this case the dragonflies. The food chain is like a building, if you build on a faulty foundation the whole building will fall. In this case, the whole foundation was pulled out from underneath. Slowly but surely the other levels of the food chain will start to go, and already the birds and dragonflies are already gone or leaving. According to the National Pesticide Information Center out of Oregon State University, methoprene “…can prevent normal molting, egg-laying, egg-hatching, and development from the immature phase (i.e. caterpillar) to the adult phase (i.e. moth). This prevents the insects from reproducing.” In the environment, methoprene is moderately toxic to some fish and low in toxicity to others and can accumulate in fish tissues. Due to the biomagnification, where pollutants become more and more concentrated in animals as they go up the food chain, small trace amounts of methoprene in bait fish can become extremely high in predatory animals. Its slightly toxic to crustaceans such as shrimp and crayfish, and highly toxic to freshwater invertebrates. When these predatory animals die their remains sink to the ocean floor, where scavengers like crabs, shrimp and crayfish will eat them. The highly concentrated pesticide is then reintroduced to the food chain at a lower level, gradually accumulating more as it heads back up. Studies done on dogs show that when given 10g of methoprene per kilogram of animal, the dogs showed signs like vomiting, dilated pupils, changes in behavior, breathing, and body movements.
To help deal with the mosquito problem, and to help bring back our first line of defense, the marshes need to be brought back to their original state. This, however, is not so simple.
A red path lines the edge of the shoreline and serves as the sidewalk for Bay Drive, a beautiful road that’s flanked on one side by homes and the other by Reynolds Channel. While Long Beach is known to most for its amazing beaches on the south side, the north side is bordered by the bay, separating the barrier island from an intense maze of marshes unique to the southern bays of Long Island. This beautiful scene is broken up, if so slightly, by an inconspicuous cement block just off the other side of the channel. That cement block has been a point of frustration for many Long Beach residents.
After watching this video taken by local resident and highly visible environmental activist Scott Bochner, it becomes clear why the cement block is so controversial. That block contains a pipe, and that pipe is connected to Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant.
Opened in the 1940’s with the population boom on Long Island, the plant has been subject to years of neglect and failed maintenance. This has lead to the plant spitting out 55 million gallons a day of water that should be treated, but due to the status of the plant, is not. This water is brown and is made up of biosolids, or “sludge.” What sludge really is, is whatever has been sent down a drain. This could be shower water and dirty dish water but is also urine and fecal matter.
Besides the fact that it’s just gross, this constant pumping of untreated sewage inundates the water with undissolved nutrients. This includes nitrogen, which in low levels is vital for the success of ecosystems, but in elevated levels is very toxic.
Scott Bochner owns a house on Bay Drive, where the video was taken. Since 2010 he’s been actively involved in cleaning up the local waterways, co-creating an environmental group called the Sludge Stoppers and working with groups like the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Operation SPLASH, and The Nature Conservancy. Bochner and the rest of the groups have made major progress in cleaning up Reynolds Channel and thanks to these groups and their advocacy they’ve been able to bring the Bay Park plant back to code and raise enough money to re-route the pipes out to the deep ocean.
One of the advances they’ve made has been getting scientists in to do studies on the water. One of them involved a study by Stony Brook University. “The nitrogen levels, it’s like right here,” explained Bochner, pointing at a graph. “This is like the dead zone of dead zones. So, what happened was they put nano robots in the water for 30 days, and then they would follow the stream. They would send out 100 of these things a day and maybe 13 would make it out of the inlet, and the rest would come back in and shoot up all into the back bays, so nothings flushing.”
The effects of this on the channel and the greater bay ecosystems could not be more obvious during low tide. During
low tide you can see a unique phenomenon where the mud underneath the marsh grasses should be solid but is actually falling out like a cliff, and the roots from the grasses are poking out the side.
These roots should be growing straight down, anchoring the mud to the earth, and keeping the land in place. However, these roots are growing sideways into the water reaching for the nitrogen because it’s a fertilizer, and this change in direction means that it doesn’t hold onto the earth as well. When a massive storm comes, it easily rips the marshes from their place and makes it easier for the storm to tear into our communities.
A study done in 2017 and published in the journal Scientific Reports, the open-access part of Nature, has come up with the final conclusion that “…these results show that coastal wetlands provide significant risk reduction services even where their distribution has been heavily impacted by human activity. Furthermore, these ecosystems provide additional benefits such as fish production, nutrient cycling, and carbon sequestration which will increase the economic value of these habitats. However, across the northeastern USA, development over wetlands together with rising sea-levels place critical facilities and infrastructure at great risk. Rising sea-levels will further influence, and in many cases threaten, the future of these natural defenses.”
If concentrated levels of pesticides and human waste in the water we swim in and the fish we eat makes you feel sick to your stomach, there are things to do.
Back out east, Helen Roussel from the Sierra Club says to get involved. There’s plenty of citizen science projects and clean ups to join on with the Surfrider Foundation and the Sierra Club.
For Bochner the answer lies in everyday choices. “Start carrying your own bags, stop using straws, stop using plastic, start washing wash cloths again. Everyone has to take responsibility for themselves in order to help keep Long Beach clean. Everyone has to take care of themselves.”
So, there it is. When these ecosystems hurt, we hurt.
All graphs retrieved from https://www.citizenscampaign.org/PDFs/WesternBays%20Presentation%20FINAL%2012-7-11.pdf