Community Viewpoint

Toxic Algae Blooms
Dear Editor:

Scientists at Stony Brook University have completed their assessment of water quality in Long Island’s estuaries in 2017 and the news is not good –the announcement was made at a press conference at Fire Island National Seashore Visitor’s Center. During the months of May through August, every major bay and estuary across Long Island was afflicted by a toxic algae blooms or oxygen starved waters or both. Heavy loads of nitrogen from sewage and fertilizers have been cited as the ultimate cause of these disturbing events.
It began with paralytic shellfish poisoning events in May and ended with a harmful rust tide that continues today across the east end Long Island. In between, the longest and most intense brown tide bloom in recorded history, toxic blue-green algae in 14 lakes across the Island, seaweeds on ocean beaches, oxygen depleted waters found at more than 20 locations from Hempstead to East Hampton. The confluence of all of these events in all these places across Long Island in a single season is a clear sign of things being amiss.
The brown tide bloom in 2017 began in mid-May and continued into August and through that time covered waters from Freeport to Southampton. While only a few brown tides have been this extensive and extended, none have been as intense as the 2017 event as brown tide cell densities exceeded 2.3 million cells per milliliters in Great South Bay, a level never recorded by any entity on Long Island. As little as 50,000 cells per milliliters of brown tide can be harmful to shellfish, a level sustained for more than 10 weeks this summer.
Another disturbing occurrence was the widespread nature of dead zones across Long Island. Dead zones are regions of low or no oxygen and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation mandates that marine waters should never go below three milligrams of dissolved oxygen per liter to allow fish to survive. Through the summer, the majority of sites sampled did not meet these criteria. The data reveals that that many sites are not suitable habitats for sustaining fish and shellfish.
Equally alarming was the large number of new water bodies with toxic blue-green algal blooms discovered in 2017. While several of the locations such as Long Island’s largest lake, Lake Ronkonkoma, have had chronic problems, some of the 15 sites with toxic blue-green algal blooms experienced these events for the first time. In 2016, Suffolk County had more lakes with blue-green algal blooms than any other of the 64 counties in New York State, a distinction that is likely to be repeated in 2017. Blue-green algae make toxins that can be harmful to humans and animals and were linked to dog illnesses in multiple years and a dog death in 2012.
And all of these events can be traced back to rising levels of nitrogen coming from land and entering Long Island’s surface waters. The largest sources of nitrogen are household sewage and fertilizers which are washed into groundwater that seeps in bays, harbors, and estuaries. Nitrogen stimulates toxic algal blooms that can, in turn, remove oxygen from bottom waters as they decay.
Our water quality is degrading before our eyes. Our bays are dying and the science clearly shows us why. Doing nothing is not an option. The problem will not fix itself. We need to rapidly move forward with advanced innovative septics, expansion of sewers, and creation of the Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan.
The occurrence of these events such as brown tide, have led to the collapse of critical marine habitats such as seagrass, major fisheries on Long Island such as scallops and clams, and the coastal wetlands that help protect waterfront communities from the damaging impacts of storms. Groups such as The Nature Conservancy have been working for more than a decade to revive and restore these habitats and shellfish, but have been challenged by algal blooms such as those witnessed during the summer of 2017.
Although this year’s research paints a bleak picture of the scale of Long Island’s water quality crisis, recent investments in advanced sewage treatment projects and programs mark the beginning of measurable water quality action by local, county and New York State governments. These are critical first steps, but the data tell us there is far more to be done.
The quality of our local bodies of water is not only vital to the region’s important tourism industry, but is vital to the way of life that so many Long Islanders have grown accustomed to and have come to love. It is our hope that the Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan will play a critical role in reversing the trend of worsening algal blooms that has been observed in recent years.
The map generated by the report shows precisely where on Long Island various algal blooms and low oxygen zones developed during the summer of 2017. Events depicted include algal blooms caused by Alexandrium causing paralytic shellfish poisoning and shellfish bed closures, rust tides caused by the algae Cochlodinium, brown tides caused by Aureococcus, toxic blue green algae blooms commonly caused by Microcystis, and seaweed blooms caused by Ulva. The map also depicts hypoxic or low oxygen zones which are dangerous to marine life in Long Island Sound, Smithtown Bay, and more than 20 other locations across Long Island.

The Long Island Clean Water
Partnership (LICWP)

Filed in: Community Viewpoint

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