“Blooms like it hot,” said the East End’s algae bloom expert, Dr. Christopher Gobler of Stony Brook Southampton, acknowledging the role of climate change in the ongoing stresses to the East End’s water bodies at his State of the Bays address April 7.
Dr. Gobler said at his annual talk at the college’s Chancellor’s Hall that, not only was 2016 the warmest year on record on planet Earth, but new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research this past year shows that Long Island is one of the places where temperatures are warming more rapidly than the global average.
“There is hope, but we’re still at the brink,” he said. “We need to talk about climate change.”
“It’s a misnomer to think that just because the planet warmed by 1 degree, your part is warming by 1 degree,” he said. “Some areas have cooled over the last 40 years. Others are warming more than average. Unfortunately, we’re in the warmer category.”
Dr. Gobler said new NOAA research shows that summer temperatures on Long Island in July, August and September were averaging just below 20.5 degrees Celsius in 1980, but in 2016 they averaged 23 degrees Celsius.
He said this is particularly troubling for wildlife, because warmer waters contain less oxygen than colder waters, which can hasten fish kills in areas that are already facing hypoxic conditions due to other factors, including harmful algae blooms.
“Temperatures went from being below the thermal optimum for harmful algal blooms to being consistently at the thermal optimum” in that time, he said. “We’re now in a period of very rapid warming.”
For the past several years, Dr. Gobler has been one of Long Island’s most vocal advocates for reducing the amount of nitrogen entering the island’s waterways, due largely to the lack of sewage treatment in Suffolk County.
There have also been a record number of toxic blue-green algae blooms in freshwater bodies in Suffolk County in the past two years, and while extra phosphorus, another nutrient found in fertilizers, is often viewed as the culprit for blue-green algae blooms, Dr. Gobler said “nitrogen needs to be considered in fresh water bodies as well.”
Dr. Gobler also said this past year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has provided new guidance to scientists on taking both nitrogen and phosphorus into account in freshwater systems, and added that his lab’s research has showed that extra nitrogen increases the toxicity of blue-green algae blooms.
He added that new research in his lab has shown that the bacteria Vibrio parahaemolyticus, which causes shellfish poisoning in humans, feeds on decaying algae.
“Once we added organic matter, we had an explosion of toxic strains of vibrio,” he said. “That’s one of the unintended consequences of overloading organic matter. This was not expected. We have this unplanned experiment going on in our coastal waters.”
Dr. Gobler also said there is also new research being done by the EPA on continuous monitoring of dissolved oxygen in water.
In the past, he said, researchers would conduct their dissolved oxygen testing during working hours, but new machines are able to continuously monitor dissolved oxygen levels, with the researcher accessing the data remotely.
This is important because dissolved oxygen levels tend to be lowest in the wee hours of the morning, which is also the time that most fish kills happen.
Dr. Gobler said that, in a recent study, the EPA found that dissolved oxygen levels were within acceptable parameters 75 percent of the time when measured at 11 a.m., but were only compliant 39 percent of the time when taken at 8 a.m. When taken continuously, the levels were only compliant 3 percent of the time.
“The EPA, through the years, has done such a terrific job of protecting water quality, and let’s hope that continues,” he said.
In all those cases, the bait fish menhaden, known locally as bunker, was the victim.
Dr. Gobler said the kill in the Shinnecock Canal was caused by a “somewhat artificial situation” in which menhaden populations had another in a series of banner years, and were migrating out to sea for the winter when they got caught between the lock on the canal and the incoming tide when the lock was closed.
“We’ve been seeing more menhaden. Catches have been decreasing due to restrictions, and the fecundity (fertility) seems to be up,” he said. “There’s a reassessment of the stock in process now.”
He added that changes in seasonal patterns due to climate change could also be influencing the fish.
“The menhaden schools are coming into environments that no longer have oxygen levels they used to have,” he said. “The fish are encountering environments that were not present in the past.”
Dr. Gobler said he’s recently adopted the Alcoholics Anonymous mantra of “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,” when it comes to public policy on the environment.
He pointed to the regrowth of seagrass in areas where sewage pipes have been moved, changes in the Suffolk County sanitary code in 2016 to pave the way for individual on-site advanced nitrogen-reducing septic systems, the landslide victory of the East End’s Community Preservation Fund referendum, extending the program by 20 years and allowing 20 percent of the money to be used for water quality projects, as steps forward in the past year.
He also pointed out that, on the East End, most groundwater takes just a short amount of time to reach the bays, allowing the groundwater in this region to rebound faster than in the center of Long Island.
He also expressed hope for an effort by his lab, the East Hampton Town Trustees and a group of homeowners bordering Georgica Pond to harvest macroalgae from the pond for the first time in 2016.
The machines used in the program removed 60,000 pounds of seaweed from the water in 2016, accounting for 10 to 20 percent of the summertime nitrogen and phosphorus input into the pond.
“If we compare with the harvest and without, the water quality was much better afterward,” he said.
He added that there’s work underway to use harvested seaweed as fertilizer, replacing chemical fertilizers that leach nutrients into the groundwater and eventually the bays.
He also touted the Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program’s seeding of Shinnecock Bay with 2.2 million baby hard clams.
“People on the bay are saying that, in places where they never found anything but mud, they’re now starting to find shellfish,” he said.
Audience members were concerned about potential cuts in federal funding for the National Estuary Program and in the relaxation of EPA clean water standards.
“We don’t know where things are going with regard to future regulation,” said Dr. Gobler. “It certainly is concerning. Changes in the National Estuaries Program funding are certainly going to have an effect here and nationally. But then I harken back to ‘give me the serenity.’ I want to go after things that I can change. Until everything is concrete, I want to focus on things we can accomplish here.”
“We have a congressman and we have to let him know those are things that we value,” he added.