New York Legislature Approves Protection for Waters Surrounding Plum Island

Pictured Above: Plum Island Seals | Robert Lorenz Photography

In the span of just a few hours last Friday, June 14, the New York State Assembly and Senate unanimously passed legislation to improve protections for marine mammals and sea turtles in New York waters of eastern Long Island Sound.

The bill now awaits Governor Andrew Cuomo’s signature.

The Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Protection Area would be in New York State-owned waters around Plum, Great Gull, and Little Gull Islands, an important habitat for sea turtles, whales, porpoises, and seals.

The legislation also allows for the creation of a New York State bird conservation area.

Plum Island, located off Orient Point within the jurisdiction of Southold Town, is owned by the federal government, which maintains an animal disease research laboratory there. It is currently slated to be sold at auction after a new laboratory is completed in Kansas.

Great Gull and Little Gull islands sit just east of Plum Island and are major stopovers for birds following the Atlantic Flyway. Great Gull Island is owned by the American Museum of Natural History, which conducts field observations and habitat restoration there, rebuilding one of the largest tern colonies in the world.

The state bill creating the protection area directs the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to bring together an advisory committee of marine researchers, museums and academics, state agencies, and local governments.

This committee will be asked to consider how the archipelago and the waters surrounding it are interconnected, and then develop recommendations for protection measures.

The bill, originally written and sponsored by Assemblyman Steve Englebright, has been proposed for several years.

“This legislation will make the most of experts in marine life and birds, agency personnel and local officials, nonprofits, and others in considering the ecologically integrated relationship among Plum, Great Gull, and Little Gull Islands and the waters around them—and how to protect that area’s diverse and valuable marine resources, as well as traditional fishing activities,” said Louise Harrison, New York natural areas coordinator for Save the Sound. “We are grateful for the leadership of Assemblyman Englebright and Senator Martinez for their commitment toward protecting the special resources surrounding Plum Island. We know Governor Cuomo cares about Long Island Sound and Plum Island and we urge him to sign this legislation.”

Legislation to permanently protect Plum Island has been introduced in Congress several times. Save the Sound and The Nature Conservancy are in the midst of a multi-month stakeholder process to develop a viable and broadly supported vision for the future of the island.

“The bills point out the enormous significance of the habitats around these islands. Gray seals are known to breed there. Greater numbers of seals haul out to rest themselves there than anywhere in New York,” said John Turner, spokesperson for the Preserve Plum Island Coalition. “And shallow, nearshore habitat in clear waters exists around these islands, fostering vitally important submerged aquatic vegetation that in turn supports sea turtles, fish, and many other marine species.”  

“Plum Island is a key breeding and stopover site for thousands of birds, including at-risk and priority species, and a Long Island Sound ecological treasure worth preserving,” said Ana Paula Tavares, executive director for Audubon New York and Audubon Connecticut. “We are thrilled to see this bill pass the Senate, and look forward to seeing Governor Cuomo sign it into law.”

“The Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island, a member of the Preserve Plum Island Coalition with special emphasis on New York’s marine mammals and sea turtles, completely supports the recently passed amendments to the environmental conservation law in relation to establishing the marine mammal and sea turtle protection area in the critically important state-owned waters immediately around Plum, Great Gull, and Little Gull Islands,” said Arthur H. Kopelman, Ph.D., president, Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island. “We also fully support the establishment of a marine mammal and sea turtle protection area advisory committee and hope to be represented therein. This is a major step in the ongoing efforts to protect and preserve the ecosystems and ecosystem services on and around Plum, Great Gull, and Little Gull Islands. We strongly urge Governor Cuomo to sign this act into law.”

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

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