by Mary Morgan
Gazing across the bay, it looks so pure, pristine and you may think that all is well, the water is clean, safe, healthy.
Think again. Our coastal waters are a living resource. What we cannot see, but science has charted, is that life in our bays is in rapid decline.
That hurts. Like so many of us, I love our bays and beaches, their natural beauty and abundance. I’ve been a locavore all my life, a love affair that started with seafood — from childhood summers on my grandfather’s farm, delighting in whatever fish or shellfish my uncle Ed brought in from his boat. From them I learned the value of conservation: be good to the sea and it will be good to you.
Like so many of us, I’m now keen to understand what’s going on with climate change, what I can do to reverse it and how I can care for our common home. I’m learning that converging vectors are creating conditions for out-of-control life-killing tides like another devastating brown tide. This is the consequence of an ever-increasing population, translating into more household “nutrients” seeping into our coastal waters, more pollutants like fertilizers and animal waste carried by stormwater into our estuary. Add in the consequence of warming waters and sea level rise caused by climate change. Put all together and you have the recipe for never-ending algal blooms, fish kills and beach closings, like what is happening in Tampa, Florida. It’s making its way up the East Coast.
We’ve seen some of this before. The 2019 die-off of Peconic Bay Scallops resulted in a loss of 90 percent of adult scallops and the collapse of a commercially and recreationally important industry, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. I’ve heard it said that the scallop is the “canary in the coal mine” — it dies first, other deaths follow.
Science has solutions. Many are best practices commonly available and economically viable. Members of our community have worked to secure legislation leading to cleaner, safer, healthier water. Collaborative groups like the Peconic Estuary Partnership have made progress on sewage treatment plant upgrades, homeowner sustainable-landscaping rewards programs, a fertilizer reduction law, and a county-wide remediation effort — growing millions of oysters, clams and scallops, which are seeded into the estuary. This program has proven to be an excellent tool both to enhance water quality and to bring back our traditional local shellfish industry.
Warming waters and population rise continue, however — powerful converging vectors. We have to up our game. Our local economies, livelihoods and well-being all depend on our most precious asset: nature.
We have to up our game to save what’s left.
Some good news: nature herself can help us, if we engage with her wisely. Consider the oyster. (Food writer MFK Fisher would surely approve). It reduces the threat of algal blooms by sequestering carbon and nitrogen, keeps the water clean for eelgrass and other marine life and is a food source for fish — all boosting a return of life to our bays.
We’ve lost so much over the years. The official count over the past century is 85 percent of oyster reefs lost globally.
Filter-feeding oysters are good. More are better. On the good news side, Suffolk County has been proactive with an economic development program that includes 11 shellfish hatcheries seeding our bays. The county supports a community shellfish restoration (SPAT — Suffolk County Project in Aquaculture Training), where participants grow shellfish and build oyster reefs, helping regenerate more marine life.
The country’s aquaculture lease program, which began 10 years ago, has issued over 50 leases in Peconic and Gardiners bays for shellfish farmers. Together these farmers have hugely improved our waters and local economy. Oyster growing and harvest have increased by 177 percent, with $9.3 million in economic activity generated and tons of nitrogen and carbon removed from the bays.
I recently heard a warning that these remedial efforts are not enough to hold back the fish, shellfish and eelgrass die-offs that are happening in climate-warming waters.
“We have to increase our efforts in an accelerated rate to mitigate what is heading our way” former NOAA scientist Jason Masters told me. He now operates an oyster farm off Southold and is part of an experimental kelp study.
“We have to work with nature, not against it” he said.
If we want to save what’s left, including our local economy, we have to accelerate our engagement with Nature. Some East Coast entrepreneurs are taking the lead.
“We are putting our American blue-collar ingenuity to work to not just enhance but regenerate” our bays and oceans, said the Maine fisherman-turned-oyster-and-kelp-farmer Bren Smith, founder of Greenwave, during the Regenerative Ocean Solutions session at a recent Drawdown science conference.
Kelp is key. A super-fast grower, kelp, like oysters, stores carbon, cleanses water, reduces excess nitrogen and provides habitat for marine species. Native sugar kelp can be grown on the same leases that our growers hold for shellfish. (Stay tuned for more on kelp.)
What can I do? Commit to care about regenerating life in our Peconic Bay. How? Join a shellfish restoration program like SPAT, support our local regenerative businesses, like oyster farms. Buy local oysters! Enjoy their fresh briny taste and your new role as a “solutionary” in our bays’ Regeneration.
Climate Local Now is a partnership between the East End Beacon and Drawdown East End, which is working to implement the local and personal goals of “Project Drawdown,” a comprehensive plan to stop climate change.
Locavore, sailor, beachcomber Mary Morgan lives in Orient with her husband Tom, naturalist and mushroom forager, early founders of the East End chapter of Slow Food in 2004. Two years ago Mary co-founded a grassroots effort, Drawdown East End, to inspire local solutions to reverse global warming. DrawdownEastEnd.org