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Long Island Sound

Setauket Harbor file photo by Rachel Shapiro

Setauket Harbor’s closest friend circle just got a lot bigger.

The newly formed Setauket Harbor Task Force has been appointed to the Long Island Sound Study Citizens Advisory Committee, bulking up the group’s ability to preserve water quality across the North Shore and beyond. George Hoffman, a board member with the Setauket Harbor Task Force, said his group’s new spot on the advisory committee should provide them with greater resources to achieve their goals of protecting the waters of Three Village.

“We are pleased to be named to the bi-state commission,” he said. “Being a member of the CAC will benefit Setauket Harbor and provide us an opportunity to collaborate with other harbor protection committees on both sides of the Long Island Sound.”

From left, Sean Mahar of NY Audubon, George Hoffman of the Setauket Harbor Task Force, Curt Johnson of the LI Sound Study CAC and state Assemblyman Steve Englebright meet at a recent meeting of LISS. Photo from George Hoffman
From left, Sean Mahar of NY Audubon, George Hoffman of the Setauket Harbor Task Force, Curt Johnson of the LI Sound Study CAC and state Assemblyman Steve Englebright meet at a recent meeting of LISS. Photo from George Hoffman

The Long Island Sound Study was established in 1985 under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to restore the health of the Sound and coordinate water quality activities among the various entities. Since 2005, the study has utilized collaborative funding to distribute more than $11.7 million to regional municipalities, environmental organizations and research institutions to improve the Long Island Sound’s water quality and coastal resiliency.

“The LISS CAC welcomes the Setauket Harbor Task Force as a member and is happy to

have new representation from New York and the central basin,” said Nancy Seligson, co-chair of the CAC and supervisor of the Town of Mamaroneck in Westchester County, “We look forward to working together to restore Long Island Sound.”

Since it was formed last year, the task force has been expanding in size and reach with help from volunteers across the North Shore, including Port Jefferson and Setauket. Hoffman and the task force attended a press conference alongside U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) late last month to announce the Long Island Sound Restoration and Stewardship Act, a congressional bill that would allocate up to $65 million each year for Long Island Sound initiatives that include various water quality projects, cleanup projects, waste water treatment improvements and nitrogen monitoring programs.

Hoffman also said the group recently took some comfort in a Long Island Sound Founders Collaborative report, which found some improvement in the Sound’s harbors and bays, but also exposed what he called concerning levels of hypoxia — the lack of dissolved oxygen in the water — that threatens fish and shellfish. The same symptom found itself at the forefront of Long Island media over the month of June after several hundreds of dead fish surfaced in waters surrounding the Island.

The Setauket Harbor Task Force most recently met with Brookhaven Town officials to discuss the maintenance of the town’s major stormwater basin that drains directly into the harbor. They also met with marine scientists from Stony Brook University to call for greater restrictions on the removal of horseshoe crabs from town beaches.

Activists, politicians, volunteers taking closer look at declining population of Long Island’s ocean life

Horseshoe crabs have been on Earth for almost 500 million years, but their future is uncertain. Researchers like Matt Sclafani, a marine educator from the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Riverhead, said he believes that the species is in an alarming decline.

“It’s a very important issue for a lot of reasons,” Sclafani said during a horseshoe crab monitoring session at West Meadow beach in Stony Brook on Monday night.

Horseshoe crabs are a valuable species to human life, Sclafani said. Their blue blood is used for pharmaceutical purposes. Fishermen use them as one of the most effective sources of bait that exists.

Sclafani called Delaware Bay the epicenter for horseshoe crab spawning activity, with Long Island coming in as a close second as one of the most important areas to the species on the East Coast, he said.

Sclafani and his team of volunteers take to the local shores when the tides are low, usually in the middle of the night, to count and tag horseshoe crabs that come up to the shore to spawn. On Monday, Sclafani was joined by Frank Chin, the regular site coordinator for West Meadow beach, along with Grace Scalzo, a volunteer, and Karen Papa and her sons — 12-year-old Zachary and 8-year-old Jonah.

North Shore activists take to the waters to learn more about the area horseshoe crabs. Photo by Alex Petroski
North Shore activists take to the waters to learn more about the area horseshoe crabs. Photo by Alex Petroski

“We get a lot of volunteers for this program,” Sclafani said. “That’s the part I think is really great, too. We get people involved in their backyards. There’s not a lot of marine life that you can get involved with and handle this directly — that comes right out onto the beach for you without a net or fishing pole.”

In all, the team tagged 55 horseshoe crabs over the course of the night, though that is nothing compared to the night on the South Shore when Sclafani said he and a team of about 35 volunteers tagged about 800 crabs. The process requires measurement, drilling a small hole into the shell, and then applying a round tag that has tracking information on it which is recorded.

“I think the entire population up and down the East Coast is in trouble,” Larry Swanson, associate dean of the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, said of the horseshoe crab population in an interview last week. “It’s in trouble for a variety of reasons including people overfishing the population, but also certain birds, including the red knot, are particularly prone to using them as a food source.”

Sclafani said the consequences could be dire, if the crabs are not saved.

“Their eggs are really important to the ecosystem,” Sclafani said. “A lot of animals feed on them, including migratory shore birds.”

Town of Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) divulged plans to urge the Department of Environmental Conservation to expand restrictions on harvesting horseshoe crabs in May, to the chagrin of fishermen. Those plans have since been tabled.

“I’m just a man, but I’m a vital part of the food chain and I think I’m at the top,” Ron Bellucci Jr. of Sound Beach said in an interview last month.

Horseshoe crab harvesting is a vital part of his income, he said. Local fishermen have also questioned the validity of claims about the declining population.

North Shore activists take to the waters to learn more about the area horseshoe crabs. Photo by Alex Petroski
North Shore activists take to the waters to learn more about the area horseshoe crabs. Photo by Alex Petroski

The idea that the species may not be declining is not an encouraging sign to Malcolm Bowman, professor of physical oceanography and distinguished service professor at SoMAS, Stony Brook. He is also the president of Stony Brook Environmental Conservancy and the Friends of Flax Pond, two environmental advocacy groups.

“We know in nature that things go up and down, and up and down, but you have to look at long-term trends; 10 years, 20 years,” Bowman said in an interview last week. “I’ve worked with fishermen a lot. They have to make a living, I understand that, but it’s important to keep communications between the scientists and say the fishermen with mutual respect, and that way we can learn a lot from them. We scientists are trained to have a long-term view. It’s not just this season, this summer, this breeding season. It’s a long-term view. I think that’s so important.”

More restricted areas, which Romaine is pushing for, could simply result in overharvesting in areas without restrictions, both Bowman and Sclafani said.

There has also been some experimentation with extracting the blue blood while the animal is still alive, then rereleasing them into the water. This process is called biomedical harvesting.

“That’s becoming a more and more controversial topic,” Sclafani said. “The biomedical companies have maintained that it’s a low mortality rate — about 10 percent … they might even be as high as 40 or 50 percent.”

He also mentioned that there are concerns about the horseshoe crabs’ spawning activity after this process is completed.

Bowman stopped short of saying that the extinction of the horseshoe crab would have a drastic impact on human life, but it’s not a good sign.

“I was reading some very important news that’s coming out about the extinction of species on the planet,” Bowman said. “Species are going extinct at a huge rate. The cumulative effect is going to have a very bad effect on human civilization, far greater than we can imagine. We only see a little piece of it.”

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Overview of the slave trade out of Africa. Photo from Yale University Press

By Beverly C. Tyler

A book titled “The Logbooks: Connecticut’s Slave Ships and Human Memory,” by Anne Farrow, uses a log of three voyages over a period of 20 months in the first half of the 18th century, recorded by a young Connecticut man who went on to captain slave ships and privateers, to tell a much wider and disturbing story.

Farrow’s book connects Dudley Saltonstall, the Connecticut man who kept the log books, to the unknown slaves who were transported from Africa, then to the men in Africa who first enslaved them, to the ships that transported them across the Atlantic, and finally to the men who purchased them to work to death in the Caribbean sugar plantations and in the rice plantations of America’s southern colonies.

Farrow, a former Connecticut newspaper reporter, said the story of African-American people must be told over and over, from the beginning. She said she believes that it has not yet been absorbed into the family of stories told and retold about America and that the story of injustice and suffering still has not made its way into the national narrative.

Unknown to most Americans is the fact that colonial Connecticut had been a major hotbed of British West Indies plantations where slaves were growing and processing sugar in a monoculture that yielded huge profits to England. In addition, Rhode Island men were at the helm of 90 percent of the ships that brought the captives to the American south, an estimated 900 ships.

Farrow noted that over the course of two centuries an estimated three million Africans were carried to islands in the Caribbean to grow sugar.

Farrow’s book, compact enough to be read in just a few days, is an engaging, local and personal history. The story of the Connecticut and Long Island Sound men who took part in the slave trade is disturbingly real.

It brings into focus the way many of our own prosperous and influential Long Island families made their fortunes. It doesn’t change who they were or who we are, but it provides us with a clearer understanding of the pain and suffering caused by their actions.

Farrow emphasizes that we should acknowledge what was done and keep it as a reminder of man’s inhumanity to man and how we are continually striving, often unsuccessfully, to make our lives better for all.

The book is also the story of her mother’s declining memory due to dementia, the memories her mother would never recover, and the log books, the story she did recover.

Farrow wrote, “I couldn’t avoid the contrast between what was happening to my mother’s memory and the historical memory I was studying, which seemed so fractured and incomplete.”

It is again and again evident from Farrow’s research and gripping prose that slavery was not just a southern problem. Slavery served white people in the north and in the south. Farrow notes that the killing uncertainties of life as a captive were linked to the state of bondage not geography.

In spite of the federal law prohibiting the importation of slaves from Africa, slaves were still being transported from Africa across the Atlantic until at least the beginning of the American Civil War. The story of one of our own East Setauket slave ships, Wanderer, was detailed in my column two weeks ago. I must apologize that the name of the primary author of that article, William B. Minuse, was omitted from the opening credits.

Beverly Tyler is the Three Village Historical Society historian.

Marine Bureau officers rescued two teens from an overturned boat and brought them and the boat back to shore. Photo from SCPD

Police and a good Samaritan had to step in when a boat overturned in the Long Island Sound on Saturday, leaving two teens floating on the upside-down craft for more than an hour.

The good Samaritan located the 19-year-olds at about 11:30 a.m., when they had already been floating on the boat’s hull for roughly 90 minutes, the Suffolk County Police Department said. The person used a VHF radio to contact the department’s Marine Bureau and provide the boat’s location.

According to police, Smithtown residents Douglas Botto and Eric Damn were wearing life jackets after the 16-foot Hobie Cat catamaran they were sailing overturned on the Long Island Sound, between 2.5 to 3 miles north of the Nissequogue River. The waves in that area were 3 to 5 feet high, preventing the teens from righting the boat.

Police said Marine Bureau officers David Goldstein and Michael Cappiello aboard Marine Delta and officers Keith Walters and Paul Carnival aboard Marine Bravo responded to the scene and rescued the adrift pair, bringing them back to Long Beach in Smithtown and towing in the boat.

U.S. Coast Guard personnel were also on the scene, police said.

Environmental advocates call for the banning of microbeads in order to protect waterways like the Long Island Sound. from left, Adrienne Esposito of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Dr. Larry Swanson of Stony Brook University, Dr. Artie Kopelman of Coastal Research Education Society Long Island, George Hoffman of Setauket Harbor Protection Committee, Rob Weltner of Operation SPLASH, Matt Grove of Surfrider, Enrico Nardone of Seatuck Environmental, and Katie Muether of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society. Photo from Maureen Murphy

When it comes to water pollution, size does not matter.

That’s why a group of environmental advocates gathered along the shoreline of the Long Island Sound in Stony Brook last week to call for state legislation that would ban the tiny but potentially harmful microbeads in personal care products.

The rally was organized to coincide with June 8’s World Oceans Day and zeroed in on the Microbead-Free Waters Act, which would ban personal care products made with the tiny plastic pellets called microbeads, which advocates said are hurting waterways and wildlife because New York’s wastewater treatment plants are not equipped to filter them prior to the water’s release into the environment.

The legislation passed the Assembly in April but has remained idle in the Senate.

The bill is sponsored in the Senate by Republican Environmental Conservation Committee Chair Tom O’Mara (R-Big Flats), with 37 cosponsors — a total that surpasses the 32 votes it needs to pass.

William Cooke, director of government relations for the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, helped orchestrate the rally and called on Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) to use his new role as majority leader to help ensure a microbead ban passes before legislative session ends June 17.

“While microbeads are small, the problem they are creating is very large,” Cooke said. “The solution is unbelievably simple and absolutely free. The answer is to take them out of our products now. This legislation currently has more support than is needed to pass. The only question is will the new Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan allow it to move forward.”

The New York State Attorney General reported that 19 tons of plastic microbeads enter the wastewater stream in New York annually, and the tiny beads are passing through treatment plants on Long Island and throughout the state. Plastic microbeads in state waters accumulate toxins, are consumed by fish, and can work their way up the food chain, putting public health at risk.

“The Microbead-Free Waters Act has a clear pathway to passage. If it’s not brought up for a vote, it’s a clear sign that industry has once again silenced the majority of New York’s state senators,” said Saima Anjam, environmental health director at Environmental Advocates of New York, who was at the rally. “New Yorkers expect more from new leadership. … Senators Flanagan and O’Mara need to allow a simple up or down vote on bills supported by a majority of members.”

Flanagan’s office declined to comment on the matter.

Late last year, Suffolk County committed to studying the health and economic impacts of banning microbeads on the county level to the praise of county Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), who argued that Suffolk needed to follow the likes of municipalities like Illinois, which was the first state to outright ban the sale of cosmetics containing plastic microbeads.

“On a macro level, there is no doubt that microbeads are finding their way into our nation’s rivers, lakes and oceans,” said Hahn, chairwoman of the Legislature’s Environment, Planning and Agriculture Committee. “What we need to know is to what extent, locally, these additives [impact] our environment and, if corrective action is needed, what ramifications would be expected.”

Harbormaster Peter Koutrakos observes the water from his patrol boat. File photo by Elana Glowatz

The Port Jefferson Harbor Complex is just that — a complex cluster of waterways that needs diligent eyes watching over it.

Those eyes belong to Brookhaven Town Harbormaster Peter Koutrakos and the others in his department, who are all working to keep the water safe this boating season.

The harbor complex includes Port Jefferson Harbor at its center, where Koutrakos is based, as well as Setauket Harbor and the adjacent Little Bay; Pirate’s Cove; Conscience Bay and the Narrows that lead into it; and a small section of water immediately outside Port Jefferson Harbor on the Long Island Sound that is bookended by Old Field Point to the west and Belle Terre’s Mount Misery to the east. Between these sections, the complex has more than 2,000 acres of surface water, and that area sees thousands of boats every season.

Peter O’Leary, the town’s commissioner of public safety, said between moorings and slips in the area, there are more than 1,200 spaces for boats, and that doesn’t include the ones just passing through.

On any given summer weekend, “the place is bedlam,” O’Leary said. “It creates quite a bit of traffic.”

With heavy traffic comes risk.

For Koutrakos, who has been harbormaster for 14 years and has jurisdiction in all town waters, it was the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 — an al-Qaida suicide attack in Yemen in which a small vessel next to the U.S. Navy ship was blown up, killing 17 Americans — that made him realize boats could be used as weapons.

Things also changed after the 9/11 terrorist attack. Officials became aware of the harbor’s vulnerability, as possible targets for terrorists include power plants, oil terminals and ferries — and Port Jefferson Harbor has all of them. Long Island has also been a concern in national security discussions because it is close to New York City and at the same time is remote: Ferries would be the only way off the island if an emergency event were to shut down transportation into the city.

The view of Port Jefferson Harbor from the harbormaster's patrol boat. File photo by Elana Glowatz
The view of Port Jefferson Harbor from the harbormaster’s patrol boat. File photo by Elana Glowatz

To keep the complex safe, the harbormaster works on a number of security exercises. One program, Operation Shield, involves coordinating with other agencies to randomly check foreign vessels for travel documents.

Though Operation Shield only runs on certain days, Koutrakos said he regularly does checks on his own. If the vessels do not have the proper documentation, he calls in customs officers to board and search them.

Another exercise he occasionally works on is search and rescue training with the U.S. Coast Guard, which helps prepare for an emergency situation, for instance if the ferry were to sink due to a mechanical problem or a bomb.

Koutrakos explained that the exercise group determines how to respond to an incident and who would take command of the scene. In the case of the ferry, officers also talk to the captain to learn how he would respond under certain circumstances and discuss a strategy for saving as many lives as possible, “before something really happens.”

The harbormaster also meets every few months with a Long Island security committee whose members range from the local to the federal level.

To boost security all over, O’Leary said, the town is working to install security cameras on its properties, and Port Jefferson is slated to receive some of that surveillance.

However, one of O’Leary’s concerns in protecting town waters is linked to the economy. He said budget cuts have meant cutbacks on seasonal employees, so there are fewer bay constables on both shores and they are working a shorter season. There are also fewer workers to pump out waste from the boats so it is not discharged into the water.

On Koutrakos’ end, he has an assistant harbormaster year-round and two seasonal harbormasters during the summer.

Most summer days, Koutrakos spends his time patrolling the waters and helping people who call him for assistance.

‘The place is bedlam. … It creates quite a bit of traffic.’
— Peter O’Leary

Born and raised in Port Jefferson, Koutrakos has a name people might recognize — his family owned the Elk Hotel and Restaurant on Main Street before it went out of business. He wife, Carol, works for the Port Jefferson ferry.

He has been around long enough to see security at the harbor change over the years. Before 9/11, if someone were to leave a bag at the ferry terminal, an employee would grab it and ask if anyone had left it behind. Now there are security protocols in place to handle such a situation. Before, there weren’t any restrictions on taking photos or video of the harbor. Now officials keep an eye out for people capturing the ferry terminal or other sensitive areas.

One thing that hasn’t changed is Koutrakos’ “only gripe with the job” — he isn’t permitted to carry a sidearm while he is on duty, though he is licensed to carry.

Other marine law enforcement agents carry a sidearm, including those from the Coast Guard, the Suffolk County Police Department’s Marine Bureau and the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

The harbormaster said he never knows what situation he will find himself in and “should we get put into a lethal force situation, the fact of the matter is we have no way of defending ourselves or the public.”

Despite this sticking point, another thing that hasn’t changed is Koutrakos’ playful personality and his passion for all things marine.

He has said he enjoys his job because he gets to be on the water and he gets to help people: “At the end of the day, tired or not, it makes you feel better.”