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Christopher Gobler

Port Jefferson Harbor. File photo by Alex Petroski

Port Jefferson Harbor is currently undergoing an alarming phenomenon that an expert called “uncharted territory” locally.

The harbor is currently experiencing a rust tide, or an algal bloom, caused by a single-celled phytoplankton. Rust tides don’t pose any harm to humans but can be lethal to marine life.

Christopher Gobler, endowed chair of Coastal Ecology and Conservation at the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, said rust tides are spurred by hot air, water temperatures and excessive nutrients in the water, especially nitrogen. The Gobler Laboratory at SBU, named for the chairman, is monitoring the situation, performing research into its specific causes, and is looking for solutions to reduce nitrogen loading and thus the intensity of events like these, according to Gobler. He said he has been studying the phenomenon on the East End of Long Island for about 12 years, but this is only the second time it has occurred in Port Jefferson Harbor.

“We never had these blooms even on the East End before 2004,” Gobler said. “Now, they occur pretty much every year since 2004 or so.”

Blooming rust tides typically start in late August and last into mid-September.  However, as water and global temperatures continue to rise, Gobler said there are a lot of unknowns. He said this is one of the hottest summers he has ever witnessed regarding the temperature of the Long Island Sound, adding that temperatures in the local body of water have increased at a rate significantly faster than global averages.

“The big issue is temperature, so these blooms tend to track very well with warmer temperatures,” Gobler said.

George Hoffman, a co-founder of Setauket Harbor Task Force, a nonprofit group which monitors and advocates for the health of the harbor, said his organization saw some early evidence of a rust tide in Little Bay while conducting biweekly water testing Aug. 24. Little Bay is located within Setauket Harbor, and within the larger Port Jefferson Harbor complex. Hoffman said the task force’s readings suggested salinity levels and water temperature were within the parameters needed for the growth of a rust tide.

Rust tide is caused by cochlodinium polykrikoides, according to a fact sheet compiled by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. The single-cell phytoplankton may harm fish and shellfish because it produces a hydrogen peroxide-like compound that can damage their gill tissue. Fish can avoid these dangerous blooms by simply swimming away. Fish and shellfish harvested in areas experiencing rust tides are still safe for human consumption.

Gobler said the installation of septic systems capable of removing more nitrogen in homes, especially that fall within watershed areas, would go a long way toward reducing hazardous algal blooms. Suffolk County has taken steps in recent months to increase grant money available to homeowners interested in installing septic systems with up-to-date technology capable of reducing the amount of nitrogen discharged into local waters. In addition, members of the New York State-funded Center for Clean Water Technology at SBU unveiled their nitrogen-reducing biofilter April 26 at a Suffolk County-owned home in Shirley.

From left, Christopher Gobler with his research team Andrew Griffith, Theresa Hattenrath-Lehmann and Yoonja Kang. Photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

Christopher Gobler searches the waters around Long Island for signs of trouble, which can appear starting in April. This year, he found it, in Shinnecock Bay. Monitoring for a toxin carried by algae called Alexandrium, Gobler recently discovered levels that were three times the allowable limit from the Food and Drug Administration. His finding, along with measurements from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation of toxins in shellfish in the bay, have caused the recent closure of shellfishing in the bay for the fourth time in seven years.

While Gobler, a marine science professor at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, watches carefully for the appearance of red tides from these algae locally, he recently completed a much broader study on the spread of these toxins.

Gobler led a team that explored the effect of ocean warming on two types of algae, Alexandrium and Dinophysis. Since 1982, as the oceans have heated up, these algae have become increasingly common, particularly in the northern Atlantic and Pacific oceans, according to a study Gobler and his colleagues recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. When they become concentrated in shellfish, these algae can lead to diarrhea, paralysis and even death if people consume enough of them.

Over the course of the study, algae have begun to form “denser populations that are making shellfish toxic,” Gobler said. Temperature is one of many factors that can affect the survival, growth and range of organisms like the algae that can accumulate toxins and create human illness. “As temperatures get higher, they are becoming closer to the ideal for some species and out of the ideal for other species,” Gobler said.

The strongest effect of changing temperatures are at higher latitudes, which were, up until recently, prohibitively cold for these types of algae. The biggest changes over the course of the study came in the Bay of Fundy in Canada, in Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland and Alaska. The toxic algal blooms increased in frequency between 40 and 60 degrees north latitude, according to the study. These are places where toxic algae lived but weren’t as prevalent, but the warming trend has created a more hospitable environment, Gobler said.

Raphael Kudela, a professor of ocean sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz who wasn’t involved in this research, explained that other papers have suggested a similar link between temperature and the movement of these algae. “We’ve seen the expansion of ciguatera fish poisoning, as the temperature range has moved poleward for those algae,” Kudela wrote in an email. NOAA biological oceanographer Stephanie Moore has documented an expanded window of opportunity for paralytic shellfish poisoning linked to changes in temperature, Kudela said. “While we can point to specific events, and it makes intuitive sense, the Gobler paper actually documented these trends using a long time series, which hasn’t been done before,” Kudela continued.

R. Wayne Litaker, a supervisory ecologist at NOAA’s National Ocean Service, collaborated with Gobler on the project. He said small differences in temperature are significant for the growth rate of these toxic algae. Extending this to other organisms, Litaker explained that fish are also extending their ranges amid a rise in global temperatures. “There’s been a general movement of temperate species toward the poles,” Litaker said. He’s seen tropical fish, such as butterfly fish, off the docks of North Carolina that he hadn’t seen that far north before.

Gobler and his colleagues estimate that the need to close shellfish beds, the increase in fish kills, and the health care damage to people has exceeded a billion dollars since 1982. The largest problem for people in areas like Alaska is their lack of experience with red tides.

“Communities are being exposed to these blooms where they had not been in the past,” Gobler said. “[The blooms] can be most dangerous when they take a community by surprise.” Gobler said this happened in Alaska during the study. In the last decade, shellfish toxins that are 1,000 times more potent than cyanide caused illnesses and were suspected in two deaths in Haines, Alaska.

Litaker said he gave a talk several years ago at a conference. Gobler approached him and asked if they could work together. “One of the wonderful things about these meetings is that you see things that trigger possibilities and whole new projects are born,” Litaker said.

Litaker described Gobler as a “major player in the field” who has done “fantastic work over the years.” Litaker said he was “quite impressed with what he’s done.” Litaker explained that the climate is changing and urged fisheries and shellfish experts to prepare to respond throughout the country. “As we get warmer and more run off of nutrients, toxic cyanobacteria [algal blooms] are causing problems in all 50 states,” Litaker said.

Kudela suggested that the “new records every year for the last several years … will undoubtedly continue to impact the range, duration and toxicity of blooms.”

Locally, Gobler continues to monitor dozens of sites on Long Island, where he suggested that Alexandrium could become less prevalent with warming, while Dinophysis could become more common. Temperature and other factors favorable for algae growth have led to red tides in the past.

In oceans across the world, Kudela said the next logical step would be to explore the interaction of temperature and nutrients. “We know both are changing, and they are likely to have additive or synergistic effects, but we haven’t done the same careful study as the Gobler paper looking at how the trends are interacting,” he explained.

Dr. Hal Walker, co-director of the New York State Center for Clean Water Technology, speaks during a symposium at Stony Brook University Thursday, June 23, 2016. Photo by Barry Sloan

By Daniel Dunaief

Water, water everywhere and Harold “Hal” Walker is making sure there’s more than a few drops on Long Island to drink. The head of the new Department of Civil Engineering at Stony Brook is one of two co-directors of the Center for Clean Water Technology. The center received a $5 million commitment from New York State to pilot test a variety of ways to remove contaminants from drinking water.

“The center will be working with water authorities and water utilities to do pilot testing of new technology to deal with emerging contaminants,” Walker said. “One goal of the testing will be to collect information needed to assess new technologies and, if they are effective, to get them approved so they can be used by water utilities.”

Contaminants the center will explore include 1,4-dioxane and perfluorinated compounds, which have “turned up in some regions of Long Island,” Christopher Gobler, the co-director of the center and an associate dean for research and professor at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, explained in an email.

’One lesson we have learned is that it is critically important to protect the environment, since the environment serves as a natural buffer to these large storms.’ — Harold Walker

The technologies the center will test likely include novel membrane processes, advanced oxidation, novel absorbents and advanced oxidation processes. The center will explore “how these compounds are removed in conventional drinking water treatments processes,” Walker said. “If they are not removed sufficiently, what do novel technologies use and are they ready for the pilot stage?” Walker acknowledges that staying ahead of the curve in being prepared to protect drinking water requires an awareness of numerous new compounds that are a part of modern manufacturing.

Gobler said the center’s findings would be made public. New York State had previously committed $3.5 million from the Environmental Protection Fund to support the center. With an additional $5 million in funding, the center will develop new technologies to improve drinking water and wastewater quality on Long Island, according to the State Department of Environmental Protection.

The center was formed originally to focus on innovative alternative individual onsite treatment systems for reduction of nitrogen and pathogens. That was broadened this year to focus on the impact of emerging contaminants on water supplies, a representative from the DEC explained in an email.

Walker has built an expertise in developing and applying membrane processes for drinking and wastewater. At Ohio State University, where he worked from 1996 until 2012, when he came to Stony Brook, he spent considerable time analyzing drinking water in the Great Lakes. Gobler appreciates Walker’s expertise.“

He has worked with many federal and state agencies on these topics across the United States,” Gobler explained. “He is also well-versed in wastewater treatment technologies.”

Jennifer Garvey, the associate director for the center, meets with Garvey and Walker at least once a week. She also connects weekly for a call or meeting to discuss administrative and strategic issues. Walker is “at the leading edge of water treatment approaches and he understands where opportunities and obstacles lie,” Garvey said. The center has a sense of urgency about the work because “there is such a clear and immense need for wastewater infrastructure improvements,” she continued. The targeted and strategic work emphasizes near-term solutions. A leading focus is a nonproprietary passive system known as a nitrogen removing biofilter that they will be piloting in Suffolk County soon. “Our hope is that we can make systems available for widespread deployment within the next two to three years,” she said.

Apart from his work at the center, which Walker estimates takes about a third of his time, he is also a professor and the founding chair of the Department of Civil Engineering, which conferred bachelor’s degrees on its inaugural 13 undergraduate students this summer. Those students have all found engineering jobs within their field of interest or continued to pursue additional schooling. The civil engineering department has 10 faculty and is at the end of the first phase of its growth and development, Walker said.

Phase II will include building out the faculty and staff, developing new research and teaching labs and enhancing the recently approved master’s of science and doctoral programs in civil engineering, Walker explained. Resiliency of the coastal communities is a major thrust of his department. He said he recently hired a number of faculty in this area and launched an Advanced Graduate Certificate in Coastal Zone Management and Engineering in partnership with the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. “One lesson we have learned is that it is critically important to protect the environment, since the environment serves as a natural buffer to these large storms,” he explained.

Apart from water and the resilience of the coastal community, the civil engineering department is also involved in transportation. The department works with Farmingdale State College in a new Infrastructure, Transportation and Security Center. In that effort, the department collaborates with the Department of Computer Science, among others at Stony Brook, to bring new approaches to “improving the efficiency, sustainability and safety of our transportation system.”

For his part, Gobler welcomes the talent and expertise the civil engineering department brings to Stony Brook. “This is a tremendous asset” for Stony Brook, Gobler explained in an email. “Civil engineers solve complex problems and I have found that [Walker] and the people he has hired have the skill set and mind-set to address many environmental problems that are important on Long Island.

A resident of Port Jefferson, Walker lives with his wife Alyssa, who is a writer, and their three children, Abby, 14, Halliway, six, and Northie, who is five. They enjoy visiting the beach and traveling east to go apple and pumpkin picking. A native of Southern California, Walker started surfing at the age of 10. He was a four-year varsity letterman in surfing when he was in high school. He has surfed in Hawaii, Costa Rica, Japan, Portugal and Mexico.

As for the department, he said he feels excited by the responsibility for building only the second civil engineering program in the SUNY system. “I’d like the department to quickly become nationally recognized and be the leading source of expertise for the state on infrastructure issues, especially in the downstate area,” he said.

Suffolk officials discuss environmental issues facing Long Island after thousands of dead fish washed ashore in Riverhead. Photo by Alex Petroski

The estimated nearly 100,000 dead bunker fish that have washed ashore in Riverhead may seem astounding, but it wasn’t all that surprising to the panel of experts brought before the Suffolk County Health Committee on Thursday.

In late May, the thousands of dead bunker fish, formally known as Atlantic menhaden fish, began appearing in the Peconic Estuary, an area situated between the North and South Forks of Long Island. According to a June 2 press release from the Peconic Estuary Program, the bunker fish died as a result of low dissolved oxygen in the water. This shortage of oxygen is called hypoxia.

Walter Dawydiak, director of the county’s environmental quality division, who serves on the panel, which was organized by the health committee chairman, Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport), testified that the number of dead fish was at or approaching 100,000.

“This one is bigger and worse than any,” Dawydiak said.

According to the PEP, which is part of the National Estuary Program and seeks to conserve the estuary, bunker are filter-feeding fish and an important food source for many predatory fish, including striped bass and blue fish.

Alison Branco, the program’s director, said the fish are likely being chased into shallow waters by predators, but are dying because of low dissolved oxygen levels in the waters. In addition, an algae bloom is contributing to the low levels and is fueled by excess nitrogen loading. Much of that nitrogen comes from septic systems, sewage treatment plants and fertilizer use.

“We’ve reach a point where this kind of hypoxia was run of the mill. We expect it every summer,” Branco, who also served as a panelist, said following the hearing.

While magnitude of the fish kill was astounding, the experts said they weren’t so surprised that it happened.

“I definitely thought it could happen at any time,” Christopher Gobler, a biologist at Stony Brook University, said in a one-on-one interview after the panel hearing. “There’s been an oxygen problem there all along.”

Gobler called it largest fish kill he’d seen in 20 years.

According to panel members, the worst of the fish kill occurred between May 27 and May 30.

Branco did suggest that this shocking environmental event could be turned into a positive if the right measures are taken sooner rather than later.

“It’s always shocking to see a fish kill,” she said. “As much as we don’t want to have things like that happen I think the silver lining is that it did capture the public’s attention.”

Prevention of a fish kill this large is possible, according to Branco. While preventing the harmful algal blooms is not possible, reducing the frequency and severity can be done if the amount of nitrogen in the coastal water supply is controlled.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, an environmental policy advocacy group, agreed that curtailing the amount of nitrogen in the water is the easiest and most impactful way for prevention of a fish kill of this magnitude.

“The journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step,” Esposito said in response to a question about the daunting task of fixing the Island’s sewage treatment techniques and facilities on a limited budget.

Esposito described the roughly $5 million from New York State, which was allotted to Suffolk County to deal with cleaning the coastal water supply, as seed money. Esposito and Branco both said they believe the commitment of time and money required to solve the nitrogen problem in the water supply will be vast.

“We can do this,” she said. “We have to do it. We have no choice.”

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