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EcosystemsHow Local Perspectives Inform Ecological Research

How Local Perspectives Inform Ecological Research

Waters of Long Island Sound: How Local Perspectives Inform Ecological Research

Shangtong Li
|February 1, 2023

I took a deep breath to absorb the fresh briny smell of Shinnecock Bay while strong winds collided with my face. Standing on the deck of a whooshing 26-foot fishing boat on a transparent sunny morning, my ears were bombarded by the roaring boat engine, and my body shook with its vibration. As a Chinese international student who grew up on the Tibetan Plateau, this was my first time on the waters of Long Island Sound. It was the summer of 2022, and I used to be a Columbia Climate School graduate student working on the Tzortziou Bio-Optics Lab, led by Professor Maria Tzortziou.

Research within the Tzortziou Bio-Optics Lab focuses on assessing the impacts of anthropogenic pressures and environmental hazards on inland, coastal, and open ocean biogeochemical cycles, ecological processes, and ecosystem services across temporal and spatial scales.

Because the lab’s communications and community outreach intern, my focus was on interviewing Long Island Sound residents and gathering their observations on how the sound—a useful urban estuary—has been changing over time.

The perspectives of Long Island Sound residents are a vital a part of the lab’s research, as people’s day-to-day experiences and intimate knowledge of the sound’s environmental challenges can uniquely inform field measurements. Observations of local communities are indispensable for a comprehensive understanding of environmental regulations and climate change impact communities in urban areas.

Tzortziou’s team has been visiting Long Island Sound waters in several seasons for greater than six years to measure the water’s optical characteristics and biogeochemical properties across a spread of environmental conditions. The goal is to enhance distant sensing algorithms so as to enhance studies of the sound’s changing ecology and biogeochemistry from space.

In these field surveys, Tzortziou and colleagues Joaquim Goes and Helga Gomes at Lamont have been collaborating closely with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and Latest York City Department of Environmental Protection to review shifts in phytoplankton communities across the sound in response to climate change pressures.

Captain Brad Reis sharing his stories with Tzortziou Bio-Optics Lab members in Peconic, NY. Photo: Shangtong Li

In the summertime of 2022, the lab members visited Peconic Bay, Shinnecock Bay, and Great South Bay in Long Island Sound from June to August. We went out on the water with local captains who’ve been living, fishing, and dealing within the sound for many of their lives.

One among the captains we worked with was Captain Brad Reis from Someday Got here Fishing Charters. Reis was born on the Jersey Shore, and the salty waters are his home. He moved to the Peconic Bay and Shinnecock Bay area greater than 30 years ago and has built a family and a business.

During our trip with Captain Reis, he shared that many restoration activities are happening in Peconic Bay. The water clarity has improved with the addition of clams and seagrasses planted by the Shinnecock Indian Nation. “Some days, the water is so clear people can see 12 feet into the water [all the way to the bottom in some locations],” he said.

But locals remain concerned concerning the nitrogen level within the water on account of the event of nutrient-rich conditions, low-oxygen zones, and recurring harmful algal blooms—including green, red, and brown tides. Harmful algal blooms occur when algae grow uncontrolled, sometimes even producing toxins, thus negatively affecting fish, marine mammals, birds, and humans.

Captain Reis suspected the leaching of household septic systems because the perpetrator of the increased nitrogen level in Peconic Bay. With increasingly houses being built near the shore, regulations now require a septic system for brand new homes to forestall effluence into the encircling waters. “It costs greater than $40,000!” Captain Reis said, and he reiterated his skepticism on how effective the brand new septic systems are.

Luckily, Shinnecock Bay and Peconic Bay didn’t experience a brown tide last summer.

Human population has been growing in Peconic Bay because the COVID-19 pandemic. Reis has noticed more individuals who left town and made their summer homes their primary residence. “The offering prices on real estate at the moment are often higher than the asking price,” he said.

Tucked within the multi-million-dollar houses and resorts within the Hamptons is the Shinnecock Indian Nation’s land. The tribe is proposing a casino and has installed two billboards to create revenue, but they’ve faced tremendous pushback from the rich Hamptons residents on these projects. Reis voiced his support for the tribe: “They gotta make a living by some means.”

People come to the world to benefit from the “summer within the Hamptons” lifestyle. But for locals, the window from mid-May to mid-September is probably the most critical time of the 12 months for his or her livelihood. “We have now 4 months to make it,” says Captain Reis. He also emphasized the importance of information for the bay’s health: “We want data to raised monitor the water quality and study the marine life within the bay.”

As for the fish population in Peconic and Shinnecock Bay, Reis said, “the ocean trout are making a comeback!’ with a giant smile on his face.

One other Long Island Sound study area of the lab is the Great South Bay, a lagoon between Long Island and Fire Island. People have been clamming, swimming, and sailing within the bay for generations, but concerns about sewage and stormwater runoff pollution are rising. Residents of all walks of life have formed a company—Save the Great South Bay—fighting to revitalize the bay.

Driven by the deteriorating water quality of the Great South Bay, the lab conducted two field visits to the bay, sailing from Captree State Park in Babylon, Latest York.

We boarded Patty Ann, a 35-foot downeast boat operated by Captain Greg Gargiulo of Patty Ann Charters.

Captain Gargiulo grew up across the Great South Bay. He was let go from his office job selling boat engines on account of the pandemic. The summer of 2022 was his third season fish chartering full-time. “The business has been good,” he said while having fun with the view of his latest office—the boat’s wheelhouse.

When asked about changes to the bay, Gargiulo said that the water was cleaner when he was young. Now he has seen red tides more regularly during summer, especially in July when the water is warmer. He suspects fertilizer runoff and increasing temperatures are answerable for the algal blooms.

As for the fish population within the Great South Bay, Captain Gargiulo shared that some species have made a comeback, equivalent to the sand eel, while others have seemingly disappeared, equivalent to the blackback flounder. He has been catching bountiful fluke, sea bass, and sea robin, in addition to species not native to the Latest York region, equivalent to blacktip, spinner sharks, king mackerel, and cobia.

In accordance with Gargiulo, the blackback flounder is the perfect species and the explanation the port was established, because it was abundant and delicious. “There have been so lots of them within the bay, and sometimes people could catch 20 per person!” But he has not seen them within the Great South Bay for a very long time. Gargiulo thinks the blackback flounder’s disappearance just isn’t on account of overfishing however the expansion of residential complexes within the region.

One other polluter of the Great South Bay, Gargiulo suspects, is the Bergen Point Wastewater Treatment Plant — or the “chocolate factory,” because the locals confer with it. The plant discharges treated effluent through an ocean outfall that passes beneath the Great South Bay and underneath Jones Beach Island to the Atlantic Ocean.

In accordance with a 2015 Environmental Assessment report by the Latest York Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, the wastewater pipeline has been determined to be in failing condition and wishes substitute. The development has been ongoing since, but Gargiulo just isn’t confident that it’s going to adequately prevent sewage from leaking into the Great South Bay.

Despite his concerns for the water quality, Captain Gargiulo shared some excellent news concerning the bay. “The water has been so clear!” he said. In accordance with him, summer water within the bay normally looks like “chocolate milk,” and 2022 is the clearest water he has seen prior to now five years. “It is certainly improving,” said Gargiulo. Nevertheless, he thinks the water 10 years ago was even clearer.

Captain Gargiulo linked the cleaner water conditions in 2022 to the COVID-19 pandemic and increased diesel prices.

Noting Gargiulo’s observations, the lab applied observations from space to look at water clarity changes across the Great South Bay after the COVID-19 pandemic. They compiled data from January 2017 to August 2022, using satellite imagery from the European Space Agency Ocean Land Color Instrument and water measurements collected throughout the field surveys. Lab members found that the turbidity of the bay in the summertime of 2020 — after probably the most stringent COVID-19 lockdown measures — decreased roughly 20% to 40% in comparison with average conditions pre-pandemic. This finding verified Captain Gargiulo’s theory correlating improved water quality of the Great South Bay with the pandemic.

The subject of storms got here up naturally as we traveled through the shorelines. Reis and Gargiulo vividly remember the areas once submerged and destroyed by 2012’s Hurricane Sandy—the disaster that devastated Long Island Sound and its people.

When the Patty Ann stopped near the marshy wetlands of Great South Bay for lab members to gather water samples, Gargiulo pointed on the marshes and houses inside our horizon and said, “These all disappeared [during Hurricane Sandy].”

Reis still remembers the smell of diesel fuels floating on the water, leaking from broken boat engines. “Bridges were destroyed, boats on boat stands drifted, some areas were completely flattened off, and water was 10 to 12 feet up and thru houses… Every thing was underwater,” he said.

Amid all of the chaos and loss during Hurricane Sandy, each captains were thankful that their families weren’t affected.

Now the bridges are rebuilt, houses are fixed, and latest ones are underway. Captain Reis and Gargiulo were completely satisfied to share that their businesses are doing well. But with rising global temperatures, the severity of storms and hurricanes that impact coastal communities probably the most is increasing.

Climate change is here and now, especially for coastal communities. Tzortziou Bio-Optics Lab members imagine that community experiences ought to be incorporated into climate change and environmental research. We must collaborate with frontline communities. Their lived experiences and knowledge are a vital a part of the coastal systems research, informing satellite applications for higher preparedness and motion within the face of the climate crisis.


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