Big Changes for Baykeeper

The Peconic Baykeeper organization, which has been working to protect and restore the Peconic Estuary for 21 years, is undergoing big changes this winter.

Sean O’Neill, who has been the Baykeeper since 2016, has become the Executive Director of the organization, while Peter Topping, a longtime aquaculturist and nature educator, is taking over the day-to-day responsibilities of being the Baykeeper.

In the midst of this transition, the Baykeeper moved its offices in late February from its longtime space in an industrial complex in Quogue to wild lands donated by a one-time board member overlooking Red Creek in Hampton Bays.

We sat down to talk with Mr. O’Neill and Mr. Topping in mid-February as they began to move into their new headquarters, a modest cottege in the depths of the oak-pine forest hugging the Great Peconic Bay.

“Last year we started our net nitrogen reduction policy, and decided we should be dedicating most of our time to eliminating nitrogen pollution,” said Mr. O’Neill. “That’s in addition to the normal jobs the Baykeeper does — pollution control and education. The board decided we needed to invest in a full-time Baykeeper, who can handle the day-to-day, while I’ll handle the nitrogen reduction program. We’re lucky to have the resources to expand.

The Peconic Baykeeper’s current good fortune also extends from the goodwill of longtime board member Haris Wehrmann, a former tree climber for the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation who bequeathed three acres of his 13-acre property on Red Creek Road to the Baykeeper upon his death in 2013. Southampton Town purchased the remaining 10 acres through the Community Preservation Fund.

Mr. Wehrmann had called the land “Tranquility.”

The Baykeeper property and its surrounding preserved acreage includes some unique habitat — upland areas are filled with prickly pear cactus, with a short walk through the woods to Wehrmann Pond, a freshwater pond across Red Creek Road that is home to the endangered eastern mud turtle. It also gives the Baykeeper organization something it couldn’t get in Quogue — access to the Peconic Bay.

“He was a great man, a conservationist, who was dedicated to water quality improvements in the Peconics,” said Mr. O’Neill of Mr. Wehrmann. “This is really a blessing. It’s the nicest thing anybody’s done for us. We hope to use this space as an education tool for environmental programs, summer camps and schools. You can see four different habitats from the window.”

The Baykeeper had just finished working with Advanced Wastewater Systems to put a new, nitrogen-reducing septic system in on the property, and is working to make Mr. Wehrmann’s house handicapped accessible for public use.

Mr. Topping, who grew up in Southampton, started working as the Baykeeper Jan. 15. He had most recently worked for East Hampton Town’s aquaculture program, which has a hatchery in Montauk and a nursery on Three Mile Harbor, for seven years. Prior to that, he’d been a nature educator for the National Park Service in the Florida Keys and in California.

But his foundational experiences with the environment were fostered right here on the Peconic Bay.

“I knew we needed to do something about water quality since I was five years old,” he said. “On family boat rides when I was very young, the water was crystal clear, and I could see scallops. When I was four or five years old, the brown tides began. I knew I needed to do something positive.”

Mr. Topping’s mother worked at Southampton College, and he would spend his formative years hanging around the college’s marine station and science labs, always knowing he wanted to do something to directly improve the habitat around his home.

This spring, Mr. Topping is going to start out with educational efforts surrounding the spring alewife run, when these migratory fish make their way up tributaries surrounding the Peconic Estuary to spawn. The run usually starts in mid-March and runs through early May.

The Baykeeper is planning an Alewife Run 5K in early May, starting and ending at Emma Rose Elliston Park on Big Fresh Pond in North Sea, where Alewife Creek is one of the most well-known alewife runs on the East End.

“It’s a little bit of a fundraiser, and also education,” said Mr. Topping, who added that the race course will go over footbridges over the creek, where attendees may get a chance to see the fish. 

He’s also planning to do a census of the alewives using that run, in part because Southampton Town is planning to shore up a culvert over Alewife Creek on Noyac Road. He hopes to get baseline data this year to compare with data after the culvert is repaired.

“People drive over that culvert every day, and they have no idea what’s going on,” he said.

The Baykeeper organization is also working this year on attracting shellfish growers to its 50-acre plot of underwater land in the Great Peconic Bay just off of Squires Pond in Hampton Bays.

Mr. O’Neill says that project, which will give 10 shellfish growers access to five-acre plots to grow their oysters, will be an effort to help oyster growers work on their business models, while also helping toward the Baykeeper’s nitrogen reduction goals — oysters are filter feeders that are excellent at removing excess nitrogen from the water.

Mr. O’Neill, who has a background in fisheries economics, said part of his mission is to ensure that the fishing industry and environmentalists are working toward the same goals.

“The environment, local jobs and a traditional way of life can coexist,” he said.

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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