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They aren’t unicorns, tooth fairies or fantastic creatures from the C.S. Lewis “Narnia” series. And yet, for a Long Islander who spent considerable time standing knee deep in the waters around West Meadow Beach, listening to the aggressive screech of territorial red-winged blackbirds, the sight of a green ruby-throated hummingbird moving forward and backward in North Carolina brought its own kind of magic.

By the time I got out my cellphone and clicked open the camera app, the bird had disappeared.

While there are hummingbirds that periodically appear on Long Island, the sight of one in Charlotte so soon after our move here seemed like a charming welcome from the nonhuman quarters of Southeastern life.

Behind a Chili’s and Qdoba — yes, they are side by side in a strip mall here — we discovered a spectacular lake with a small walking path over the water near the shore. Looking down, we saw numerous fish hovering below and, to our delight, a collection of turtles, who all clearly have an appetite for the leftovers from the nearby restaurant.

We have also seen, and felt, considerably more bugs and mosquitoes, while we’ve heard cicadas, which, unlike the 17-year kind on Long Island, emerge here every year.

So, what about the two-legged creatures?

After the initial shock from the level of consideration other drivers displayed, it’s become clear that:

(a) The Northeast hasn’t cornered the market on aggressive and anxious drivers.

(b) You can take the New Yorker out of New York, but you can’t take New York out of the New Yorker.

Until I get North Carolina license plates, I have been driving the speed limit on smaller, local roads. Other cars have tailgated me so closely that I can practically read their lips as they talk on the phone or sing songs.

I watched a woman in a Mustang convertible, with rap music shouting profanities, weave in and out of traffic as her long hair waved in the breeze behind her. From a distance, the music and expletives were one and the same.

We have also seen an extensive collection of tattoos. A young FedEx driver climbed out of her truck and rang the bell to deliver a package. Her arms were so covered in colors and designs that it was difficult to discern a theme or pattern.

I walked into a supermarket behind a young couple pushing a baby stroller. The father had tattoos along the back of his muscular calves, while body ink adorned the well-defined shoulders and arms of his wife. I wondered if and when their young child might get her first tattoo.

When they find out we’re from the Northeast, people in North Carolina frequently become self-deprecating about their inability to handle cold weather. They laugh that flurries, or even a forecast for snow, shuts down the entire city of Charlotte. They assure us that no matter how much we shoveled elsewhere, we won’t have to lift and dump snow by the side of the road.

They ask how we’re handling the heat, which is often in the mid-90s, and the humidity, which is fairly high as well. While the three H’s — hazy, hot and humid — are my least favorite combination, I have certainly experienced many warm summers on Long Island, where shade or a trip into the ocean or a pool provide small comfort in the face of oppressive warmth.

With birds and insects of all sizes flying around, and drivers weaving in and out of traffic, North Carolina has displayed an abundance of high-energy activity.

Russell Burke, a professor of biology at Hofstra University, shows how newly state-mandated terrapin excluder devices keep turtles out while crabs can still get in. Photo by Kyle Barr

It has been a slow crawl saving Long Island’s turtles, but local conservation groups are hoping new state regulations will speed up the process.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Long Island environmental groups gathered May 23 at the Suffolk County Environmental Center in Islip to celebrate new rules requiring crab cages — used in Long Island’s coastal waters including many of the bays, harbors and rivers that enter Long Island Sound — to have “terrapin excluder devices” (TEDs) on all entrances. As carnivores, terrapins are attracted to bait fish used in commercial, or what’s known as Maryland style crab traps or “pots.” As a result, male and female turtles of all sizes push their way through the entrance funnels and end up drowning.

John Turner, a conservation policy advocate for the Seatuck Environmental Association, shows the North Shore areas where turtles are getting caught and drowning in crab cages. Photo by Kyle Barr

“With each and every season these traps are not required to have TEDs, there are likely hundreds of terrapins that are drowning,” said John Turner, conservation policy advocate for Seatuck Environmental Association, which operates the Islip center. “To me, one of the signs of a real civilized society is how we treat other life-forms. We haven’t treated terrapins very well.”

He said in Stony Brook Harbor alone there are dozens, maybe hundreds of terrapins that will spend the winter in the mud, emerging once the water runs up high enough. Turner said many of the North Shore areas that are home to these turtles, like Setauket Harbor, Conscience Bay, Port Jefferson Harbor, Mount Sinai Harbor and Nissequogue River, play a key role in preserving the species.

“In contrast to where I am in South Jersey, I can go by the canals and I can see a dozen [terrapin] heads bobbing up and down,” said James Gilmore, director of the marine resources division at the state DEC. “Here, it’s very rare to see one. Hopefully these new rules will help us see more.”

Gilmore said the DEC began working on changing state regulations in 2013 but have known long before there was a problem.

Carl LoBue, The Nature Conservancy’s New York ocean program director, said it was in the late 1990s he’d witnessed recreational crab traps in Stony Brook Harbor. One day he lifted a cage out of the water while trying to move his landlord’s boat and saw it was filled with trapped terrapins. Two were still alive, but five
had already drowned.

“With each and every season these traps are not required to have TEDs, there are likely hundreds of terrapins that are drowning.”

— John Turner

“I’m sure the crabber wasn’t intent to kill turtles,” LoBue said. “But when I looked across the bay at the 60 or something crab traps this person had set, I was crushed thinking of the terrapins drowning at that very moment.”

In the early 2000s terrapins became a popular meal in New York, but the harvest of those turtles led to a massive decrease in population, especially the diamondback terrapin, which was identified as a species of greatest conservation need in the 2015 New York State Wildlife Action Plan. In September 2017 the DEC passed regulations banning the commercial harvest of diamondbacks.

Terrapin population has slowly increased since then, but researchers say there’s still little known about the population, like life expectancy or habits while in water. The species has a very slow birth rate, with low local clutches of 10 or so eggs — sometimes only one or two of which hatch and mature. 

Russell Burke, a professor of biology at Hofstra University, said terrapins could live very long lives, pointing to older specimens he has seen living to 60 years old, but he estimated some could be twice that age. While Burke said it’s hard to estimate the total population on Long Island, he said in Jamaica Bay alone, he knows there are approximately 3,500 adult females.

Terrapin, or turtles, are carnivores, attracted to fish typically used to catch crab. Photo by Kyle Barr

The TED devices are 4 3/4 inches by 1 3/4 inches, an exact measurement, to ensure that while crabs can get through, turtles cannot. According to Kim McKown, leader of the Marine Invertebrate and Protected Resources Unit at the state DEC, the small, plastic TEDs cost $10 for the three needed to secure a normal crab trap. The cost exponentially increases depending on how many traps a fisherman has, with some owning up to 1,000 traps.

Turner said his organization used its own funds and purchased 5,000 TEDs and gifted them to the DEC. The state agency is giving them to Long Island crab fishermen on a first come, first served basis.

Commercial crab fisherman Fred Chiofolo, who hunts in Brookhaven Town along the South Shore, experimented with TEDs on his own for years before the regulations were passed. He said the devices
even improved the number of crabs caught.

“It made a significant difference with the pots that had them versus the pots that didn’t,” Chiofolo said. “Last year I put them in every pot I had — about 200 of them. I’m not going to lie it’s a lot of work to put them in, but we don’t want to catch the turtle. I don’t want them, and [the TED] does keep them out.”

Volunteers hold the immobile sea turtles they discovered at West Meadow Beach, where Brookhaven Ranger Molly Hastings is working to nurse them back to health. Photo from Molly Hastings

December’s wacky weather made life more difficult for everyone — but sea turtles at West Meadow Beach had a particular struggle.

Recent outdoor temperatures were largely above normal, with some brief moments of frigid cold. Molly Hastings, who serves as Brookhaven’s environmental educator and park ranger, saw some of the environmental consequences of this when she received an unusual knock on her door on Dec. 20 after a volunteer encountered two immobile, or cold-stunned, sea turtles.

An immobile sea turtle discovered at West Meadow Beach is being nursed back to health. Photo from Molly Hastings
An immobile sea turtle discovered at West Meadow Beach is being nursed back to health. Photo from Molly Hastings

Hastings said the knock came from Celeste Gorman, who was taking a hike along West Meadow Beach as a volunteer in search of turtles rendered immobile by the cold weather. She ended up finding two in a very short span of time.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration described sea turtles as cold-blooded animals with circulatory systems that can slow to the point of immobility when exposed to extremely cold temperatures. Various factors have helped contribute to the higher prevalence of cold-stunning, like more shallow bodies of water and more dramatic temperature changes, NOAA said.

Hastings said she was well aware of the impact an unpredictable climate has on the wildlife living not only at West Meadow, but across the town and country. She said this small, isolated incident with the sea turtles should serve a greater purpose.

“Hopefully, the turtles will recover from this climate change-caused incident,” Hastings said. “Regardless of their individual fate, let it serve as a gentle reminder that we all are charged of fixing what we’ve done to the great outdoors.”

Stony Brook University grad student coordinator of the 2015 Diamondback Terrapin study Martana Edeas has her hands full. Photo from Nancy Grant

It’s hot. It’s muddy. It’s dirty. But it’s exciting work, if you like that sort of thing.

That was how Nancy Grant of the Friends of Flax Pond chose to describe her group’s latest initiative this summer tracking Diamondback Terrapin turtles at West Meadow Beach. And while they may move slowly, the Friends have been acting quickly to spot the four-legged reptiles at the height of their nesting season and working to preserve their species.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize we actually have turtles here,” Grant said of the program, which has been in operation annually since 2004. “You think you have to go someplace exotic to observes them, but you don’t.”

From the third week of June through the entire month of July, the Friends of Flax Pond has set out to conduct its annual six-week search for evidence of nesting turtles, documenting the population numbers and behaviors of what Grant called an important keystone species. The group meets every Sunday at West Meadow Beach at the park ranger sign at 9:30 a.m. and is accepting volunteers on an ongoing basis.

The Friends of Flax Pond have been keeping a vigilant eye on the shorelines of West Meadow Beach and Flax Pond with hopes of spotting the exotic creatures, as Grant referred to them as a vital way of keeping a finger on the pulse of the North Shore’s environment.

“They determine the health of the area,” she said. “It’s important to protect them because their numbers have gone down. They used to be over at Flax Pond, but we haven’t seen any there since 2009, with the exception of one recently.”

The Friends have spotted on average between nine and 10 nests a year, depending on the number of volunteers, Grant said. Once they find the nest, volunteers dig around it, put a cage over it and hold it in with tent stakes to keep predators away.

They’ll even go as far as using cayenne pepper to deter animals from some nests, but Grant admitted the nearby threats like foxes and birds were becoming privy to their methods and becoming less deterred by them.

From an educational standpoint, the group has also been working to launch its own Flax Pond Summer Research Institute this summer. For a $100 fee, the Friends is offering up an internship program at the Flax Pond Lab and salt marsh as well as West Meadow Beach that links up with academic marine scientists to gather data to document changes in the marshes there. This year, the group said it planned on documenting the status of species prior to a possible dredging of the Flax Pond inlet — a 146-acre tidal wetland on the North Shore — which the Friends has been adamantly advocating for.

Earlier this year, Old Field Mayor Michael Levine and the board of trustees called on legislators from the county, state and town levels to join with Stony Brook University and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to see the pond dredged and protect the fin and shellfish populations known to once thrive there.

“If you don’t have a marsh there, you have nothing between you and those major waves,” Grant said. “It protects real estate. As much as having a dock is nice, it won’t matter if you don’t have those plants there.”
The application deadline for the institute is July 13 and an application can be found at flaxpondfriends.org.

The cars lined up along the drive to Earl L. Vandermeulen High School, and besides the sounds of running motors, the graduating seniors could express nothing but awe. The entire front face of the high school was dressed in a shawl of ’90s and early 2000s nostalgia. Above the entrance, dressed on a large orange blimp calling back to the classic Nickelodeon channel logo, was a sign reading Royalodeon. 

The parents of the Port Jeff graduates and members of the prom committee spent hour upon hour of their own time to help construct the pieces to the prom in the months leading up to graduation, and the entire final construction, bringing it to the high school, was done over the previous weekend.

Port Jefferson residents got to experience their efforts the evening of July 1, before the students saw it for the first time. Inside was a splattering of ’90s cartoons, from “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” to “The Wild Thornberrys” to “Rugrats,” and the entire dining area designed around “SpongeBob SquarePants.” Lanterns were dressed like jellyfish, hanging from the gym ceiling, and to one side a fully stocked glass case filled with candy was accompanied by cardboard stands of the characters from “Drake & Josh.”

Students arrived awed, not only by the design of the prom but also the number of parents who came to watch their kids walk the red carpet. Kids came ferried in sports cars, but some came in more outlandish style, arriving via boat, the Port Jefferson Jitney, a Qwik Rides Car and even a rickshaw.

From left, Brian X. Foley, Leg. Kara Hahn, Adrienne Esposito, Robert DiGiovanni Jr. and artist Jim Swaim
Environmental sculpture to highlight the plastic pollution crisis

By Heidi Sutton

The community came out to Sunken Meadow State Park in Kings Park last Sunday morning to celebrate the unveiling of Shelley the Sea Turtle, a six-foot metal sculpture that was installed at Field 1 to serve as a teaching tool to bring attention to the plastic pollution crisis around the world. It is the first of its kind in New York state.

The installation was made possible by a grant from The Long Island Futures Fund, an organization that supports projects that aim to protect and restore the Long Island Sound and unites federal and state agencies, foundations and corporations to achieve high-priority conservation objectives.

From left, Robert A. DiGiovanni Jr., Leg. Kara Hahn, Adrienne Esposito and Brian X. Foley at the unveiling;

The unique 3-D piece was created by artist Jim Swaim of Environmental Sculptures who attended the June 2 event. Based in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, the company designs and builds large metal renditions of animals with the sole purpose to create art that inspires action. The sculptures are hollow and the community is encouraged to fill them with plastic items that would otherwise litter the landscape or waterways.

Since 2014, the company has installed over 20 environmental sculptures across the country in the shape of pelicans, whales, fish, frogs and a buffalo to, according to its website, “Serve as visual symbol of why we should protect the environment we enjoy.”

The unveiling, which was preceded by a beach cleanup, was hosted by Citizens Campaign for the Environment, the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society and the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

“This outstanding metal sculpture was undertaken for a very, very important reason — to highlight the importance of combating plastic pollution in Long Island Sound and all our waterways throughout the state, throughout the country and indeed throughout the world,” said Brian X. Foley, deputy regional director of the Long Island region for the state’s park system at the unveiling.

Plastic pollution is a global epidemic and considered one of three top concerns for ocean health. According to National Geographic, 73 percent of all beach litter is plastic and includes filters from cigarette butts, bottles, bottle caps, food wrappers, grocery bags and polystyrene containers.

“Today’s event is about combining art with the environment in order to fight plastic pollution.” Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, concurred. “Seals, turtles, whales, dolphins unfortunately are eating all of the plastic pollution that humans are leaving on the beach that washes out into the sea and when they ingest that plastic pollution it kills them,” she said.

Christina Faber of the Northport High School E Team deposits a plastic bottle into the sculpture.

George “Chip” Gorman, deputy regional director for New York state parks spoke about how the new sculpture complements the recent environmentally sensitive renovations to the park and a new environmental education center. “[Shelley] is going to educate people as they walk by that eliminating plastic will protect the environment but will also protect sea mammals and it’s a great project,” he said.

Chief Scientist Robert A. DiGiovanni Jr. of the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society was hopeful for the future. “We are seeing more sea turtles and humpback whales in the Long Island Sound. We can make a difference about marine debris. There’s no reason why it needs to be there and to pick it up and move it off the beach is pretty easy,” he said.

“Clearly there has been a sea change in public attitude about plastics and it’s because of people like you who are taking a stand,” said Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Port Jefferson).“We were successful in our plastic straw ban, our polystyrene ban, in reducing water bottle use and the plastic bag ban that now is statewide because people like you have said ‘No more.’ We don’t want to litter our landscape. We want to take care of what we have and we need to continue that fight,” she said.

The event concluded on a symbolic note, with children and students from Northport High School filling Shelley with plastic debris.

“Shelley will be a symbol for how important it is to remove the plastic that you bring onto the beach and maybe never bring any more the next time you come,” said Hahn.

Photos by Heidi Sutton

Many of Madagascar’s iconic lemur species such as this black-and-white ruffed lemur are critically endangered. Photo by Daniel Burgas

By Daniel Dunaief

As a part of an ambitious reforestation plan announced in March, Madagascar’s newly elected president Andry Rajoelina explained that he wanted to change the way his nation off the southwest coast of the African continent was known, from the Red Island to the Green Island.

An international collection of scientists, including lemur expert and award-winning scientist Patricia Wright of Stony Brook University, recently weighed in on other ways Rajoelina can help conservation goals for the country through a five-step solution they outlined in the journal Nature Sustainability.

“We are all very concerned” about the fate of biodiversity in Madagascar, said Wright. “We know that only with a collaborative effort can we push things in the right direction.”

Madagascar, which has numerous species endemic to the island nation, including many of the lemurs Wright studies, is known as the island of red clay in part because deforestation has exposed much of the clay underlying the country. This clay has eroded into rivers, which have washed into the ocean.

“If you flew over the whole island, it would be very sad” because of all the exposed red clay from deforestation, Wright said.

She remains optimistic about Rajoelina’s goals and the potential for achieving them. The president “talked about going on the offensive and reforestation is one of his platforms,” she said. “It’s most important to reforest with endemic species,” as opposed to eucalyptus and pine.

Unlike in other countries, where politicians sometimes view conservation and economic development as forces pulling in opposite directions, Malagasy leaders acknowledge and recognize the benefit of preserving unique habitats that are home to the rare and threatened species of Madagascar.

“If you destroy all the forests, you destroy all the water and they will no longer be able to farm,” Wright said. “The natural wildlife and habitats are closely connected to their well-being. One of the biggest industries is ecotourism, which supports many industries on the ground. It’s not like there’s a line between people and wildlife.”

Indeed, the scientists acknowledge the importance of financial growth for the country that dovetails with their conservation goals.

“Conservation needs to contribute to, and not detract from, national efforts targeting economic development,” Julia Jones of Bangor University, in Wales, who led the study, said in a press release. “It must not make situations worse for the rural poor who are so often marginalized in decision making.”

The people of Madagascar have many of the same needs as those in other countries, as they seek jobs, health care, and good schooling, Wright said. “These families are closer to not having enough food to eat and they are much poorer if the natural resources are all destroyed.”

Concerned about the fate of biodiversity in Madagascar, Jones contacted Wright, who suggested the team enlist the help of Jonah Ratsimbazafy from the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar.

“It was just a matter of bringing together some of the key players in conservation for 20 years,” explained Wright.

The group generated a list of five priorities.

First on the list is tackling environmental crime. The scientists suggest using new technologies, including remote sensing and rapid DNA barcoding, to allow forest rangers and others to identify protected species. To improve this effort, however, the Ministry of Justice also needs to enhance the way it reacts to environmental crimes.

The researchers suggest prosecuting and fining those who traffic in rosewood or the critically endangered species for the pet trade. They see progress in this arena in the northeastern part of the island nation, where prosecutors have effectively charged some people who have sold rosewood.

Second, the group recommends investing in protected areas. The researchers urge greater investment in policy, legal and economic conditions that encourage additional investment in nature, which could include improving infrastructure to develop tourism around protected areas, payment for ecosystem services and debt for nature swaps.

Critically endangered species such as these ploughshare tortoises may be extinct in the wild within the next few years if illegal collection isn’t stopped. Photo by Chris Scarffe

Third, the scientists urge that major infrastructure developments limit the impact on biodiversity. The current environmental impact assessment law is over 20 years old and needs an update to require the use of environmental assessment. This component also includes a greater commitment to enforcement.

Fourth, the scientists suggest strengthening tenure rights for local people over natural resources. Most farmers can’t get certification for their land, which reduces the incentive for them to invest in settled agriculture and potentially exacerbates forest clearance. A review of tenure laws could help local landowners and biodiversity.

Finally, researchers recognize a growing crisis in fuel wood. They urge an investment in reforestation efforts, which could provide environmental and economic benefits.

While these steps are important for Rajoelina and the government in Madagascar, Wright suggests several ways Long Islanders can help. She urges school teachers to cover Madagascar in their classes. Teachers in the area who are interested in gathering information about the island nation can write to Wright at Patricia.Wright@stonybrook.edu.

She also urges people to become involved through social media, which they can use to have fundraisers through organizations like PIVOT, an organization committed to improving health in developing nations like Madagascar and strongly encourages people to visit Madagascar, where they can enjoy the benefits of ecotourism.

Visitors to Madagascar would have the incredible opportunity to witness the varied biodiversity for themselves.“We have charismatic lemurs,” Wright said, although many of them are critically endangered. Even if they can’t travel that far, people can support students who wish to study abroad.

“I don’t think health and wildlife are separated,” Wright said. “The health of the people depends on us preserving natural resources.”

She is looking forward to the Annual Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation meeting in Antananarivo, Madagascar, from July 30 through August 3. “Hopefully, we will be going forward with the next step during or shortly after that meeting.”

Compliments of Anita Jo Lago

Hometown: Stony Brook

Day job: Production Manager for Marketing and Communications at Stony Brook Medicine.

“The rapid pace of invention in photography technologies has changed what we are capable of capturing. The art in photography is expanding and nothing seems impossible in terms of imagining what a photo can be of, look like or what camera (or mobile device) it can be taken with. Creativity has no boundaries and is never ending. To be riding that wave at this moment is very exciting.”

Photographer: “I started taking photos back in the late ‘80s on film cameras. I got more serious in 2002 when I started travelling and wanted to capture what I saw during walks around cities. After my office changed locations in 2014, I found myself passing the Frank Melville Park in Setauket daily. That sparked my curiosity in nature and started my latest adventure in photography.”

Favorite camera: “I find the Nikon D850 and the Canon 5D Mark 4 to be very challenging and rewarding cameras.”

Favorite lenses: “For macro photography (extreme close-up photography), Nikon 200mm f/4, Voigtlander 125mm f/2.5 and Canon 65mm f/2.8 are all fantastic lenses. They have taught me a true test of patience. Zoom lenses like the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G, Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 and Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E have a great range for capturing wildlife near and far.”

Favorite location: “Frank Melville Park is a hidden treasure. The environment and “vibe” of the park is peaceful. The Red Barn, Mill House and Bates House give the sense of history of the land and community. The North and South Ponds, the trails, the gardens, all contribute in ‘packing a punch’ when it comes to the beauty of nature and wildlife. Experiencing rare bird sightings, watching eggs hatch, nestlings learning to fly, bird migrations, reemerging turtles after winter hibernation, beekeeping … there are millions of happenings, hours of enjoyment, something for everyone. Every visit is a memorable one. Imagine taking photos there!

Other hobbies: “Besides spending time watching wildlife year-round, I enjoy computer technology, learning about mute swans, craft beer and finding a great slice of pizza!”  

Best advice to get that perfect shot: ‘Take photos of things that you’re immersed in, that you feel a deep connection with and that you love being around. If you shoot often enough, there comes a point where you don’t realize you have a camera in your hands and that your eye is looking through the viewfinder. There, you are in the zone — you found the sweet spot. Those are the photos that you will cherish as perfect.”

Favorite aspect about taking photos: Getting lost looking through the viewfinder. The excitement of seeing what I’m seeing is astonishing. There is so much discovery unfolding in nature that goes unnoticed. To have an opportunity to share those photo stories with others is extremely gratifying. It’s fulfilling to connect others to things they may never have an opportunity to experience and see firsthand.” 

Microplastic scooped from the surf off Kamilo Beach, Hawaii, where there seems to be more plastic than sand. Photo by Erica Cirino

By Daniel Dunaief

Erica Cirino sails the South Pacific to cover the story of microplastic pollution in the oceans with Danish sailors and scientists. Photo by Rasmus Hytting

A specialist in investigating plastics pollution, Erica Cirino recently shared an email exchange about her concerns over a growing environmental threat. Cirino, who earned a bachelor of arts in environmental studies and a master’s of science in journalism from Stony Brook University, is a Kaplana Chawla Launchpad fellow at the Safina Center. A guest researcher at Roskilde University in Denmark and a freelance science writer and artist, Cirino is also a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

How significant are plastics as a source of pollution in the oceans? Is the problem becoming more pronounced each year? 

Plastics are a significant source of marine debris, entering the oceans at an estimated rate of 8 million metric tons per year. However, experts don’t have a great idea of exactly how much plastic is entering the oceans because it’s so hard to quantify once it gets in the environment. 

What can people on Long Island and elsewhere do to help prevent plastic pollution?

When it comes to preventing plastic from getting into nature, including in the oceans, reducing one’s use of plastic is most certainly the answer. There are many recyclable products on the market, but these only encourage the use of more plastic — and then there’s the actual act of recycling that’s necessary for the plastic to be reused. 

To reduce your plastic use, you should make use of reusable containers such as bags, bottles and food boxes, ideally made from natural materials like wood, metal or glass. Hard plastics can be reused, but they do release small particles of plastic into the environment, particularly when washed. 

You should also pay attention to your clothing labels, because much of our clothing today is made from plastics. Opt for organic cotton, bamboo, wool and other natural fibers over plastic-based polyester, nylon and acrylic. Every time you wash synthetic plastic-based clothing, thousands of tiny plastic pieces wash off and into the wastewater system. That’s not good because water treatment can’t remove plastic (yet) and it goes directly back into the environment. 

Has recycling helped reduce the problem in the oceans or landfills?

Based off of production, waste management and pollution data, experts estimate 8,300 million metric tons of virgin plastic have been produced to date, and only 9 percent of that plastic has been recycled. The vast majority has been tossed in landfills or littered into the natural environment. 

Above, a deceased herring gull surrounded by plastic litter on Venice Beach, California. Photo by Erica Cirino

How has plastic affected individual organisms and ecosystems? 

In the oceans, plastic breaks down from intact items into microscopic pieces over time, from weeks to months to years. Because there are so many different sizes of plastic in the oceans, wildlife is affected in different ways. Large pieces of plastic may injure or entangle larger animals like whales and sea turtles, while the tiniest pieces of plastic may block the digestive tracts of microscopic marine crustaceans. What’s more, the tiniest pieces of plastic (microplastic), while they sometimes pass through the guts of the animals that eat them, often contain toxic chemicals they’ve absorbed from seawater. Animals that eat microplastic tend to accumulate high levels of toxins in their bodies that can cause disease, behavioral abnormalities and even death. 

Where do plastics that wash ashore on Long Island originate?

Based on my years of walking Long Island’s beaches, I can tell you the plastics that wash ashore along the Sound tend to come mostly from New York City and Connecticut. For example, I once found a message in a plastic water bottle that someone had sent from Connecticut, according to the note inside. The note also contained a phone number and I lightly scolded the person who sent it off for tossing a plastic bottle into the Sound. But on the South Shore and the East End, there’s a lot of plastic that comes in from far off places via the Atlantic Ocean as far as Europe and Africa, even. 

What are some of the positive steps you’ve seen individuals and/or companies take to address the plastics problem? 

There are individuals doing things large and small to address the plastic pollution crisis. Some examples include the formation of beach cleanup groups, political mobilization and pushes for legislation to reduce or prohibit use of plastic items like plastic bags, expanded polystyrene food containers and plastic bottles. Others have created companies that reuse cleaned-up plastic marine debris to make clothing and other items. But the issue with that is that microplastic will shed off these items. I think the most effective efforts revolve around community projects and political action to address the core issue: which is using plastic. 

Are there any popular misconceptions about plastics?

The biggest misconception is that recycling is a solution to the issue of plastic pollution. 

Is there a plastics message for consumers, companies and policy makers that you’d like to share on Earth Day this year?

Let’s rethink our fast and hurried plastic lifestyles this Earth Day and think about all the problems we’re causing by using fast, easy and cheap plastic. If we love nature, we need to do more to preserve it, and that involves a less consumeristic lifestyle. Let’s value the things that really matter, like friends, family and community.

Aidan Donnelly, an Eagle Scout from Troop 362 in Selden, spearheaded a project to have fishing line resource recovery/recycling containers installed near Suffolk County fishing spots . Photo from Aidan Donnelly

By Karina Gerry

A Centereach High School senior and Eagle Scout has dedicated much of his time to protecting Long Island beaches and wildlife.

During a terrapin turtle project, Aidan Donnelly searched, tracked, monitored, measured, weighed and coded turtles to take environmental data and GPS location of the turtles. Photo by Aidan Donnelly

Aidan Donnelly, 17, joined his local Boy Scout troop when he was in fifth grade after he was inspired by his older cousin’s Court of Honor ceremony, the highest rank a Scout can earn. Donnelly saw all the volunteer projects his cousin was involved in and wanted to make a difference as well. Now an Eagle Scout himself, Donnelly has planned and been the leader of four different wildlife projects since 2014.

“I really can’t describe it,” Donnelly said. “I just love seeing my projects make a positive difference. I love seeing the difference I was able to make through my projects and knowing I’ve helped the beach and so many people.”

Donnelly has been volunteering since he was nine years old, when he joined an educational program at West Meadow Beach called Beach Rangers, a program that teaches young kids about West Meadow Beach and the ecosystem there. He credits Beach Rangers and the cleanups he participated in as inspiration for the many wildlife projects he has started.

“I was pretty sad the first time to see how much garbage was left at the beach,” Donnelly said. “Which sort of sparked my interest in wanting to help out. So, I did beach cleanups every year from then on, and once I got into Boys Scouts, I got my troop involved in the cleanup.”

Through his Eagle Scout project, which he completed in 2015, Donnelly led, designed and planned the building and installation of an osprey nest platform at West Meadow Beach, when he was just 13 years old. In order to complete the project, Donnelly had to work with local politicians, such as Town of Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station), who recognizes him as a true asset to the community.

“I was pretty sad the first time to see how much garbage was left at the beach.”

— Aidan Donnelly

“Aidan has an obvious sense of loyalty and duty to his community,” Cartright said. “He goes above and beyond in all that he does, and his dedication is reflected in academic honors, high achievements in scouting, and his organization of community activities. In my role as a town council member I have met hundreds of outstanding young people in our community, but Aidan is exceptional even among that elite group.”

Out of the many projects he has been involved in, Donnelly said he felt particularly proud of his most recent one — a fishing line resource recovery/ recycling project that he just completed this past December. The project is a countywide sustainable fishing line recovery and recycling project that is installed at West Meadow Beach, Stony Brook Harbor, Port Jefferson, Caleb Smith State Park Preserve, Deep Pond Conservation Area, Lake Ronkonkoma, South Haven County Park, Bubbles Falls, Rattlesnake Brook near Oakdale and West Brook Pond. The project required Donnelly to work with many outside sources, such as community members and an out-of-state recycling facility.

“I needed to find somewhere that would take the line and recycle it,” Donnelly said, “rather than it ending up in the trash or in landfills. I did find a Midwest company, and they sent me postage-paid shipping boxes to give to the organizations.”

Bill Schwalback, scoutmaster of Donnelly’s BSA Troop 362, has known him since 2016 when his son joined the troop where Donnelly was serving as troop guide. He has seen the growth and drive of the 17-year-old since then and notes that Donnelly has always jumped on the opportunity to take on a leadership role and enjoys passing on his knowledge to others.

“Aidan does not deflect an opportunity to teach others,” Schwalback said. “He thrives on the ability to share his knowledge and his passion with others, and it is great to see a young adult fill with pride when he sees something to completion and knows that it will make a difference to the targeted population or species.”

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