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Conscience Bay

Above, a view of Conscience Bay from the shoreline of the Besunder property. Photo by John Turner

By John Turner

One of the great joys of living in the Three Village area are the plethora of parks and preserves to be explored and enjoyed. These public spaces, true community assets, include the Frank Melville Memorial Park/Three Village Garden Club complex and Lee Koppelman Nature Preserve in Setauket; Patriots Hollow State Forest in East Setauket;  and Forsythe Meadows County Park, the Town of Brookhaven’s West Meadow Beach, and the rambling, privately owned Avalon Preserve in Stony Brook. 

We can now add another public property to the list to be savored: the small (7 acres) but beautiful state-owned property at the entrance to Strongs Neck. Offering commanding views of the eastern shore of Conscience Bay, it was purchased on our behalf by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation last summer.  

Above, a small salt pond surrounded by a tidal wetland fragment in the middle of the Besunder property. Photo by John Turner

The entrance to the preserve is through a split rail fence along North Road. Here you’ll see the rock placed to recognize the contribution of the Besunder family who sold the property to the state. The trail passes by the plaqued rock and a small coastal salt pond on the right that is connected to the bay through a series of ditches in the salt marsh. Here I recently watched a great blue heron hunt for fish with zen-like patience, remaining perfectly still for minutes on end, lest it give away its presence due to some detectable movement. 

The red cedars, along with pitch pine, the two more common coniferous trees native to Long Island, form thick stands throughout the property, growing in areas that are a few feet above the elevations of the surrounding marshland and only a few more feet above the high tide levels of Conscience Bay.   

Thinking about the low-lying condition of this coastal forest caused a strong feeling of melancholy to usher over me, for I knew this forest, consisting of many hundreds of trees, will not likely survive more than two or three decades more. The cause for its ultimate demise? Elevated coastal waters due to sea level rise fueled by global warming. 

In New York, sea levels are projected to rise, under the most optimistic conditions, 8 inches by the 2050s and, if the worse occurs, by 30 inches in the same period. Since 1900 they have already risen a foot due to the warming of ocean water with 8 inches of this rise having occurred over the past 50 years, indicating this rise is accelerating. 

Given these projections, it is a certainty the property will lose its forests and very likely evolve into a salt marsh or into open water if the sea levels continue to rise. If this happens Strongs Neck will become “Strongs Island” and dozens of homes and businesses in the Three Village area will no longer be inhabitable. 

The culprit for this unwanted change? Our stubborn refusal to enact the needed policies to limit carbon emissions by the amounts necessary and at a pace that’s rapid enough and a refusal colored by some “leaders” who still throw out the canard that global climate change is a myth. 

Well, the best science is telling us that this “myth” is an incontrovertible “reality wall” that we will, with certainty, drive into with devastating consequences for us humans and the other living forms that share our planet — if we do not, very soon, begin to change course.    

Soon I came out to the shore and my spirits brightened considerably, bathed as I was in this beautiful coastal scene of a gentle and sheltered harbor. Small wavelets lapped on the shoreline. Plus, seeing birds always helps the mood. 

An adult male bufflehead. Photo by Luke Ormand

Along a distant shoreline a snow white American egret flew along, presumably heading to or from a feeding episode, and 150 yards from where I stood on the shore was a loose flock of buffleheads, a duck that is the definition of cuteness. The males are distinctive with their uniquely patterned heads — heads dominated by a white patch such that, if the duck’s head was a clock face, it would be white from 9 to 11 o’clock. The rest of the “clock” is dark and flashes iridescence from green to purple depending on the angle to the sun. 

Flocks of buffleheads often dive synchronously leading to a “now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t” phenomenon as they dive below the surface to feed, before bobbing like released corks back to the surface. Where there were no ducks two seconds before, suddenly half a dozen are floating on the surface together. 

Small as ducks go, their heads are large and that explains their common name. They were once called buffaloheads — shortened to buffleheads — since their heads were disproportionately large, just like the American buffalo (more accurately the American bison). 

Buffleheads grace our coastal waters during the winter months.       

As I walked out of the preserve and past the rock, I read the plaque and under my breath said, “Kudos to the Besunder family for committing to conservation and to the DEC for helping them to fulfill that commitment.” The images of buffleheads disappearing and re-emerging in the frigid waters of Conscience Bay, cavorting unconcerned about the elements, snug as they are in their feathered garb, stayed with me for the ride home. 

A resident of Setauket, John Turner is conservation chair of the Four Harbors Audubon Society, author of “Exploring the Other Island: A Seasonal Nature Guide to Long Island” and president of Alula Birding & Natural History Tours.

SBU’s Christopher Gobler, with Dick Amper, discusses alarming trends for LI’s water bodies at a Sept. 25, 2018 press conference. Photo by Kyle Barr

Long Island’s water is facing a dangerous threat — not a mythical sea monster, but harmful and poisonous algal blooms. Recently released data showed the problem was more far reaching this summer than years past.

The Long Island Clean Water Partnership, an advocacy collective supported by the Rauch Foundation, that includes members from Stony Brook University and the Long Island Pine Barrens Society headed by Dick Amper, released an annual water status report Sept. 25 that showed new harmful algal blooms in Port Jefferson, Northport and Huntington harbors and in North Shore ponds and lakes.

“Every single water body across Long Island, be it the North Shore or the South Shore, East End, Suffolk County, Nassau County, all had significant water impairments during this time frame,” said Christopher Gobler, endowed chair of Coastal Ecology and Conservation at the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. “We would call this a crisis.”

“We are the nitrogen pollution capital of America.”

— Kevin McDonald

The Island-wide study, which was conducted from May through September, showed Northport Harbor suffered a bloom of Dinophysis, a type of algae that releases a powerful neurotoxin that can affect shellfish. Both Northport and Huntington harbors showed a rash of paralytic shellfish poisoning in other marine life from eating shellfish.

In May, shellfish fishing was temporarily banned in Huntington and Northport harbors by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation because of PSP. The harmful poison began to wane in June, Gobler said, and those bans have since been lifted, according to an automatic message put out by the state DEC.

Stony Brook University’s Roth Pond has been experiencing for years summer blooms of poisonous blue-green algae, a type that is harmful to animals. This past summer the researchers saw the algae spread into neighboring Mill Pond in Stony Brook. In 2017, Suffolk County had more lakes with blue-green algal blooms than any other of the 64 counties in New York, according to the report.

The summer also saw the rise of a rust tide in Port Jeff Harbor and Conscience Bay caused by another poisonous algae, which, while not dangerous to humans, is dangerous to marine life. Gobler said while it did not necessarily lead to fish kills along the North Shore, places like Southampton saw the deaths of tens of thousands of oysters and fish due to rust tide. If the problem persists, Port Jeff might start to see a fish die-off, which could have lasting implications to the local ecology.

The algal blooms and hypoxia were both exacerbated by a particularly warm summer, a trend expected to continue due to climate change. In coming years, Gobler said he expects the number of dangerous algae to spread because of this trend.

“We’re expecting that temperatures will rise 5 or 10 degrees this century, so we need to make changes or things will get significantly worse,” Gobler said.

The prognosis looks grim, with multiple other places across Long Island experiencing harmful algal blooms, but the source is already well known. This year’s study cites heavy loads of nitrogen pollution from sewage and fertilizers as the ultimate source of the algal events, particularly the nitrogen waste from old cesspool systems leaking into local waters.

Suffolk County and several state and local politicians have been advocating for changes, either for creating sewer systems — such as Smithtown’s projects in Kings Park, Smithtown Main Street and St. James — or by creating financing programs for property owners to overhaul waste systems.

In 2014 Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) called nitrogen pollution the county’s “environmental public enemy No. 1.” Since then the county has worked with local scientists and engineers to craft technology that could replace Long Island’s old cesspool and septic tanks, but some of those replacement systems have been very cost prohibitive. Suffolk has made some grant money available to those interested in upgrading.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed legislation in April that put $2.5 billion toward clean water protection and improving water infrastructure, including $40 million for the new sewer systems in Smithtown and Kings Park, and adding a rebate program for those upgrading outdated septic systems. Suffolk County and scientists from Stony Brook University are currently working on cheaper nitrogen filtration systems, but commercial availability of those systems could be years away.

“Technology and governmental policies are rapidly changing to address our island’s water crisis, but we need to increase our pace of change.”

— Adrienne Esposito

Kevin McDonald, the conservation project director at The Nature Conservancy, said that there is a strong impetus for all of Long Island to change its waste standards.

“We are the nitrogen pollution capital of America,” McDonald said. “We can’t reverse climate change by ourselves, but with the right support and engagement and leadership we can aggressively respond to this problem at a faster pace than at present.”

Many of these areas now experiencing algal blooms were only encountering hypoxia, or a depletion of dissolved oxygen in water necessary for sea life to survive, in the same report released back in summer 2017. Last year Mount Sinai Harbor was spared from severe hypoxia, but now has seen a decrease in necessary oxygen levels this past summer. Gobler said it wouldn’t be out of the question that Mount Sinai Harbor could experience a potentially dangerous algal bloom next summer.

One thing is for sure, according to Gobler: Long Island will experience more hypoxia and harmful algal blooms until new waste systems can catch up to the amount of nitrogen that’s already in the water.

“Technology and governmental policies are rapidly changing to address our island’s water crisis, but we need to increase our pace of change,” said Adrienne Esposito, the executive director of the environmental advocacy group Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

SUNSET ABLAZE

‘I could see the beautiful reds and orange from my kitchen window,’ writes Collette Huber of Strong’s Neck before taking a walk down to Conscience Bay and capturing this gorgeous sunset on Jan. 25.

Send your Photo of the Week to leisure@tbrnewspapers.com.

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