A New Look at the Underwater World Surrounding Plum Island

Pictured Above: Pagurus pollicaris (flat-clawed hermit crab) was found in the Plum Island survey. | InnerSpace Scientific Diving photo

As the U.S. Senate Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee is poised to discuss repealing the congressional requirement to sell Plum Island, divers have embarked on a marine biodiversity survey of the waters surrounding the island.

Plum Island, which is owned by the federal government, is home to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Plum Island Animal Disease Center, a laboratory whose functions are being moved to a new facility in Manhattan, Kansas.

The 2008 federal appropriations bill authorizing the Kansas lab also required Plum Island to be sold to the highest bidder after the Kansas facility opens, as it is slated to do in 2022. A bill to repeal the requirement to sell the island has already passed the U.S. House of Representatives.

Environmentalists are seeking to preserve the 840-acre island in its natural state, and Southold Town in 2013 zoned the island so that it can only be used for a research facility and a wildlife preserve.

Diadumene sp. (anemone) was found in the Plum Island survey. | InnerSpace Scientific Diving photo.

As part of the preservation effort, Save the Sound’s Soundkeeper program and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation have supported the underwater survey, which was funded by an anonymous donor and led by the New York Natural Heritage Program.

“For 33 years, I’ve wanted to dive to conduct a survey of this area,” said Steve Resler, with InnerSpace Scientific Diving. “What I have seen this past week surpasses what I had expected, and I am thrilled to be a part of this project.”

According to Save the Sound, flourishing wildlife and vibrant habitats fascinated the team of divers during their five-day marine biodiversity survey of underwater habitats.

The survey will help describe natural communities and begin to document marine species, as well as provide important data to guide a larger study in future years, according to Save The Sound.

A 2016 Plum Island Biodiversity Inventory report conducted by the New York Natural Heritage Program included a brief survey of the eelgrass meadows on one side of the island, but the marine habitat and underwater species around the island have been largely unknown.

 Diver Dan Marelli collecting data inside a quadrat. | InnerSpace Scientific Diving photo

“In our 2015 inventory of Plum Island, we focused primarily on terrestrial, freshwater, and nearshore ecosystems, plants, and animals,” said Matt Schlesinger, chief zoologist with the New York Natural Heritage Program and leading coordinator of the dive project. “This year’s offshore surveys will allow us to begin to describe, for the first time, the offshore habitat and biodiversity of this unique place. We are fortunate to be able to partner with Save the Sound and InnerSpace Scientific Diving to conduct a scientifically rigorous look at Plum Island’s marine environment.”

“The dives this week in the marine waters around Plum Island will serve both science and conservation,” added Louise Harrison, New York Natural Areas Coordinator with Save the Sound. “The New York Natural Heritage Program’s diving team is confirming how rich the state’s waters around Plum Island are in biodiversity—exceeding previous forecasts.”

The survey found several New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Species of Greatest Conservation Need, including harbor porpoise, Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, American lobster, tautog (blackfish), lined seahorse, white shark, and the roseate tern, which may be relying on habitats around the island for protection and food.

The researchers would like to do additional fieldwork to produce a detailed map of sediment type to understand which underwater communities and at-risk species can be supported in the waters surrounding the island..

“The federally and New York State-endangered roseate tern, and other threatened species, depend on Plum Island’s waters as an important source of forage fish,” said Jillian Liner, director of bird conservation with Audubon New York. “To save birds and protect the places they need, Audubon depends on sound science. We look forward to seeing the results of NYNHP’s surveys and to learning more about these critical feeding grounds. The more we learn, the better the case for permanent protection of Plum Island.”

The researchers are now preparing a draft report to be released early in 2020.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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