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Nissequogue River

Dredging crew rescues five town employees from frigid waters after boat capsized

Gibson & Cushman dredgers Keith Ramsey and Che Daniels accept proclamations for helping rescuing five Town of Smithtown employees including Joseph Link, on right. Photo by Kevin Redding.

By Kevin Redding

A Bay Shore-based dredging crew sprung into action while working on the Nissequogue River in December when a boat capsized, hurling five Town of Smithtown employees into the frigid waters. For their heroic efforts, the seven-man crew, responding medical professionals and first responders, were honored by Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) during a special ceremony at town hall Jan. 30.

“A first responder’s primary duty is to protect all others before self,” Wehrheim said before presenting plaques to the heroes. “But, when unforeseen conditions put the lives of first responders at risk, who protects them?”

I was just trying to keep my head above the surface.”

— Joseph Link

It started out as a routine day for three bay constables and two parks employees as they steered their vessel around the head of the river Dec. 12 removing buoys. While attempting to pull a seventh buoy from the water, however, a rogue wave came crashing in from Long Island Sound. It flooded the boat, overturning it in a matter of seconds. All five employees struggled to swim the 40-feet to shore against the rough current.

“I couldn’t get anywhere, the waters were way too strong,” said Joseph Link, of one of the rescued employees. Link said he wasn’t wearing a life jacket at the time as it obstructed his work. “I was just trying to keep my head above the surface.”

Sgt. Charles Malloy, a senior bay constable, said he faced different dangers when he was knocked overboard.

“I was swimming away from the rear of the boat because the motors were still engaged and the propellers were still spinning and within arm’s reach,” Malloy said.

Luckily, members from Gibson & Cushman Dredging Company were about 500 yards away when the accident occurred, setting up equipment by the river’s bluff. Once they saw the boat capsize, the crew acted quickly.

“We just grabbed some lines or whatever else we could find and started throwing them out to pull them toward us,” said dredger Keith Ramsey.

They yanked four of the five stranded employees onto their boat. One member, Dan Landauer, managed to swim back to shore on his own.

“It was just our reaction,” said dredger Che Daniels. “We saw that people were in the water. The water was cold, like 40 degrees [Fahrenheit]. The wind was blowing. We were just doing what we would do for anybody on our crew if something were to happen like that.”

Upon reaching the shore, Kings Park volunteer firefighters and Kings Park EMS responders rushed to the scene. Two men were treated for hypothermia and exposure. All were transported to St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center and out of the hospital within an hour without any lasting injuries.

We were just doing what we would do for anybody on our crew if something were to happen like that.”

— Che Daniels

Paul Taglienti, director of emergency medical service at St. Catherine’s, was honored during the ceremony. He said his staff’s job had been about 95 percent done for them. “This was a circumstance where I think everything was done pretty much ideally,” Taglienti said. “They were rescued very quickly and we just kept an eye on them to make sure everyone was OK.”

Wehrheim was joined by town council members Lisa Inzerillo (R) and Tom McCarthy (R), to present proclamations to all seven members of Gibson & Cushman — Daniel Engel, Daniels, Michael Lake, Jordy Johnson, Joseph Johnson, Ramsey and Peter Wadelton — although only Ramsey and Daniels were on hand to accept them. 

“I was glad when I heard they helped out, but I also would expect that from them,” said Matthew Grant, supervisor of the dredging crew’s project. “If something happens, we help out. Not many people are out on the water at that time of year, so it was a good thing we were there.”

Those rescued echoed the sentiment.

“If it wasn’t for the dredge crew — use your imagination,” Malloy said. “The outcome would’ve been far more tragic.”

Landauer also expressed his gratitude.

“There wasn’t a hiccup in anything they did, they saw us and boom — they jumped right on it,” he said. “I hope they never have to do it again, but I’m very glad that they were there that day.”

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, center, and representatives from community groups, who work to improve the Long Island Sound, attend a press conference Dec. 4 announcing the distribution of $2.04 million in grant funds. Photo by Kevin Redding

The future of Long Island Sound is in very capable, and now well funded, hands.

Federal and state officials gathered Dec. 4 in East Setauket to officially announce $2.04 million in grants to support 31 environmental projects by local governments and community groups mostly in New York State and Connecticut actively working to restore the health and ecosystem of Long Island Sound. Of the 15 New York-based projects — totaling $1.05 million in grants — nine of them are taking place across Long Island, including Salonga Wetland Advocates Network in Fort Salonga and Citizens Campaign Fund for the Environment in Huntington, Smithtown and Riverhead. 

This year’s recipients of the Long Island Sound Futures Fund — a collaborative effort between the Environmental Protection Agency and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation  — were encouraged by a panel of guest speakers to continue efforts to monitor and improve water quality; upgrade on site septic systems for homeowners; protect vital habitats throughout the watershed; and engage other residents to protect the 110-mile estuary.

“This fund is supporting and celebrating real-life solutions — grassroots-based solutions — that make a difference in our quality of life, in our quality of environment and the overall fabric of our community,” said Peter Lopez, the regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, to a room of grant recipients at the Childs Mansion on Shore Drive in East Setauket, overlooking the Sound. “We have this amazing resource in our backyard and we have to support it.”

“It’s your spirit and hard work that got us to this point. It’s important we’re making our impact right now.”

— Lee Zeldin

The Sound, which was designated an estuary of national significance in the 1980s, supports an estimated 81,000 jobs and activities surrounding it such as boating, fishing and recreational tourism, which generates around $9 billion a year for the region.

Lopez stressed that community involvement is the key to its perseverance in the future. U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who has long fought for federal funding and support for the estuary, was in full agreement.

“Since I got to Congress at the beginning of 2015, I’ve been watching all of you and your advocacy is why we’re here today,” Zeldin said.

The congressman addressed members of the crowd whose phone calls, emails, social media blasts and trips to Washington, D.C., he said served to mobilize elected officials around the importance of the Sound and its watershed and boost the funding of the Long Island Sound program to $8 million in May.

“I just want to say a huge thank you for what you do,” he said. “It’s your spirit and hard work that got us to this point. It’s important we’re making our impact right now. What will be our legacy in these years to ensure the water quality, quality of life, economy and environment of Long Island Sound is preserved and protected? Because of all of you, the legacy will be that in 2017, we all gathered to celebrate more than doubling the funding for [Long Island Sound].”

The LISFF was started in 2005 by the Long Island Sound Study and has since invested $17 million in 380 projects, giving way to the opening of 157 miles of rivers and streams for fish passage and restoring more than 1,000 acres of critical habitat, according to Amanda Bassow, the Northeast region director of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

This year’s grants will reach more than 870,000 residents through environmental and conservation education programs, and will be matched by $3.3 million from its recipients. In New York, the $1.05 million in grant funds will be matched with $2.58 million from the grantees, resulting in $3.63 million in community conservation.

One of the grantees, Mike Kaufman of Phillips Mill Pond Dam fish passage project in Smithtown, plans to restore the native migratory fish runs from Long Island Sound to the Nissequogue River for the first time in 300 years.

“This is the final piece of the puzzle,” Kaufman said of the grant. “It’s an incredible, historic opportunity. We’re reversing 300 years of habitat destruction and these grants enable us to engineer the restoration.”

Students take samples from Nissequogue River to analyze. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

By Sara-Megan Walsh

Hundreds of students from Smithtown to Northport got wet and dirty as they looked at what lurks beneath the surface of the Nissequogue River.

More than 400 students from 11 schools participated in “A Day in the Life” of the Nissequogue River Oct. 6, performing hands-on citizens scientific research and exploring the waterway’s health and ecosystem. The event was coordinated by Brookhaven National Laboratory, Central Pine Barrens Commission, Suffolk County Water Authority and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Northport High School students analyze soil taken from the bottom of Nissequogue River. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

“’A Day in the Life’ helps students develop an appreciation for and knowledge of Long Island’s ecosystems and collect useful scientific data,” program coordinator Melissa Parrott said. “It connects students to their natural world to become stewards of water quality and Long Island’s diverse ecosystems.”

More than 50 students from Northport High School chemically analyzed the water conditions, marked tidal flow, and tracked aquatic species found near the headwaters of the Nissequogue in Caleb Smith State Park Preserve in Smithtown. Teens were excited to find and record various species of tadpoles and fish found using seine net, a fishing net that hangs vertically and is weighted to drag along the riverbed.

“It’s an outdoor educational setting that puts forth a tangible opportunity for students to experience science firsthand,” David Storch, chairman of science and technology education at Northport High School, said. “Here they learn how to sample, how to classify, how to organize, and how to develop experimental procedures in an open, inquiry-based environment. It’s the best education we can hope for.”

Kimberly Collins, co-director of the science research program at Northport High School, taught students how to use Oreo cookies and honey to bait ants for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s Barcode Long Island. The project invites students to capture invertebrates, learn how to extract the insects’ DNA then have it sequenced to document and map diversity of different species.

Children from Harbor Country Day School examine a water sample. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

Further down river, Harbor Country Day School students explored the riverbed at Landing Avenue Park in Smithtown. Science teacher Kevin Hughes said the day was one of discovery for his fourth- to eighth-grade students.

“It’s all about letting them see and experience the Nissequogue River,” Hughes said. “At first, they’ll be a little hesitant to get their hands dirty, but by the end you’ll see they are completely engrossed and rolling around in it.”

The middle schoolers worked with Eric Young, program director at Sweetbriar Nature Center in Smithtown, to analyze water samples. All the data collected will be used in the classroom to teach students about topics such as salinity and water pollution. Then, it will be sent to BNL as part of a citizens’ research project, measuring the river’s health and water ecosystems.

Smithtown East seniors Aaron Min and Shrey Thaker have participated in this annual scientific study of the Nissequogue River at Short Beach in Smithtown for last three years. Carrying cameras around their necks, they photographed and documented their classmates findings.

“We see a lot of changes from year to year, from different types of animals and critters we get to see, or wildlife and plants,” Thaker said. “It’s really interesting to see how it changes over time and see what stays consistent over time as well. It’s also exciting to see our peers really get into it.”

Maria Zeitlin, a science research and college chemistry teacher at Smithtown High School East, divided students into four groups to test water oxygenation levels, document aquatic life forms, measure air temperature and wind speed, and compile an extensive physical description of wildlife and plants in the area.

Smithtown High School East students take a water and soil sample at Short Beach. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

The collected data will be brought back to the classroom and compared against previous years.

In this way, Zeitlin said the hands-on study of Nissequogue River serves as a lesson in live data collection. Students must learn to repeat procedures multiple times and use various scientific instruments to support their findings.

“Troubleshooting data collection is vital as a scientist that they can take into any area,” she said. “Data has to be reliable. So when someone says there’s climate change, someone can’t turn around and say it’s not true.”

The Smithtown East teacher highlighted that while scientific research can be conducted anywhere, there’s a second life lesson she hopes that her students and all others will take away  from their studies of the Nissequogue River.

“This site is their backyard; they live here,” Zeitlin said. “Instead of just coming to the beach, from this point forward they will never see the beach the same again. It’s not just a recreational site, but its teeming with life and science.”

Sofia Pace of Smithtown shows off her catch of the day — an 18 inch largemouth bass caught at Willow Pond last summer. Photo from Paul Pace

By Rita J. Egan

Once the warm weather arrives, it can be a challenge when it comes to keeping children busy. Teaching them how to fish is a fun way to get them outside and have them connect with nature. Fortunately, for Long Islanders, in addition to water surrounding the region, the area is home to the Nissequogue River as well as other fish-filled waterways.

During fishing season, budding anglers can bring their poles and barbless hooks to the north side of Caleb Smith State Park Preserve in Smithtown and fish in the park’s Willow Pond, which empties into the Nissequogue.

The preserve’s environmental educator, Linda Kasten, said the park has offered children’s fishing since it opened in 1974, and little anglers can take home a fish depending on its size. A sign by Willow Pond lists the requirements that fish must be nine inches or larger, except in the case of a trout or largemouth bass, which must be more than 12 inches. Anglers who catch smaller fish are required to release them back into the river. 

Kasten said families who come to the preserve for a day of fishing are asked to sign in at the Caleb Smith House on the property and then return at the end of the session to let the staff know what fish they caught and how big.

From left, Sofia and Angelina Pace of Smithtown with a bluegill they caught last summer at Willow Pond. Photo from Paul Pace
From left, Sofia and Angelina Pace of Smithtown with a bluegill they caught last summer at Willow Pond. Photo from Paul Pace

When a child catches a fish, the educator said, “They think it’s the coolest thing.”

The park employee said she has seen children catch pumpkinseed fish, bluegills, largemouth bass and occasionally rainbow trout. Most of the fish that the junior anglers catch at the park are the panfish variety, which are small enough to cook in a pan yet still large enough to meet the requirements of fishers not having to release them back in the water.

Depending on the age of the child, fishing could keep them busy for a couple of hours or more, according to Kasten. “When they come with friends, they’ll sit out there for hours,” she said.

Last year the educator said there was a group of five young teenagers who would come to the park practically every weekend, and they always caught fish. “They were so excited just to be with each other, let alone fishing and catching stuff,” Kasten said.

Smithtown resident Paul Pace has been bringing his two daughters, Sofia (7) and Angelina (3), to fish at the park for the last two years. It was during a visit to the preserve, which features walking trails and a nature museum in the Caleb Smith House, that the father, a fisherman himself, saw the sign and thought it would be a great idea to teach his girls the sport.

Pace said his daughters will spend a good two hours fishing. He said he loves that, “it gets them away from computer-driven things. It’s real life. They breathe in the fresh air, see some animals, plants, birds, and do some exploring.”

However, he said they don’t find a lot of time to explore the preserve because they are very lucky fishing there. “We catch a lot of fish so there’s always some action,” the father said.

Pace said one day last year, his oldest caught an 18-inch bass, and they were able to keep it and cook it. He said his daughters are developing a love for the sport and can’t wait until they are older and can fish from a boat. “They get really super excited. They love it; they’re reeling them in. Especially that big one — they both freaked out!” he said.

Besides fishing being a fun family activity, Pace also believes that it can teach children some important life lessons. “To cast the line takes a lot of practice and patience and determination. Sofia, she was casting last year … really good. There’s always something to accomplish,” Pace said. 

’[Fishing] gets [kids] away from computer-driven things. They breathe in the fresh air, see some animals, plants, birds and do some exploring.’
—Paul Pace

Each year before the season begins, the preserve offers fishing clinics so young anglers can learn some useful tips. The Friends of Caleb Smith Preserve also hosts an annual Junior Angler Catch and Release Tournament at the park. For $15 per participant, children 12 years and under can compete for prizes for the most fish caught and largest fish reeled in. This year the event takes place this Saturday, June 11, when children  ages 5 to 8 will compete in the morning and kids ages 9 to 12 will cast their poles in the afternoon.

Fishing season at Caleb Smith State Preserve Park, 581 W. Jericho Turnpike, Smithtown, runs from April 1 to Oct. 31. There is no charge for fishing; however, a parking fee of $8 is in effect, except for Empire Passport holders. Children do not need a fishing license but are required to bring their own equipment. Fishing at Willow Pond is for anglers 15 years and younger, and children under 12 must be accompanied by an adult. For more information about fishing at the preserve or the Junior Angler Catch and Release Tournament, call 631-265-1054 or visit www.nysparks.com/parks/124/.com.

Water quality monitors take samples and check for bacteria. Photo from Sarah Ganong

It wasn’t pretty, but it was still pretty necessary.

More than 50 volunteers came together over the weekend to plant an acre of native Spartina cordgrass at Sunken Meadow State Park in Smithtown. The planting event was one of the first major public steps in a multiyear grant to restore river and marsh habitat and strengthen the park’s resilience to severe storms.

The $2.5 million project is funded by the Hurricane Sandy Competitive Grant Program and administered by Save the Sound with a team of governmental and nonprofit partners. Sunken Meadow State Park comprises 1,300 acres including the mouth of the Nissequogue River, salt and tidal marshes, dunes, coastal forest and three miles of Long Island Sound beachfront. Attracting over 2 million visitors a year, it is often dubbed the most popular state park in the New York City metro area.

Historically, Sunken Meadow Creek connected over 120 acres of marsh habitat with the Nissequogue estuary and the Sound, but in the 1950s, the Army Corps of Engineers built an earthen dike across the creek, restricting its tidal flow and fundamentally changing the marsh’s plant community, a spokeswoman for Save the Sound said. The Sunken Meadow Restoration team has been working since 2008 to restore tidal flow to the creek. Hurricane Sandy hit the park in October 2012. Its storm surge blew through the dike, fully reconnecting the marsh to the estuary for the first time in 60 years.

Volunteers take to Sunken Meadow State Park on Sunday to plant seeds for the future. Photo from Sarah Ganong
Volunteers take to Sunken Meadow State Park on Sunday to plant seeds for the future. Photo from Sarah Ganong

“Now that tidal flow is restored to Sunken Meadow Creek, we’re excited to combine marsh restoration, green infrastructure and public education to have an even greater impact,” said Gwen Macdonald, habitat restoration director for Save the Sound, a bi-state program of Connecticut Fund for the Environment. “It’s an amazing opportunity to show millions of people what a comprehensive program for a healthy coastal ecosystem can look like, with less water pollution, better tidal flow and vibrant marshes for thriving bird, fish and wildlife populations.”

Several environmental groups from state and local levels joined forces starting in 2012 to develop a plan to build on this reconnection and prepare the park’s ecosystem for future storms. The Sunken Meadow Comprehensive Resilience and Restoration Plan was established to manage stormwater, bulk up resilience of the marshes, explore improvements to riverine habitat and improve public knowledge and understanding of the ecological communites at the park.

“Today’s planting event is a first step in restoring historic tidal wetlands at Sunken Meadow State Park,” said Amanda Bassow, director of the northeastern regional office for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

“We are thrilled to be able to support this project in partnership with the Department of the Interior through the Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Competitive Grant Program. The project will provide many benefits including strengthening natural coastal buffers to large storms, increasing wildlife habitat and improving water quality in the park and the surrounding waters of Long Island Sound.”

Sunday’s planting was not the only activity at the park this summer. New York Parks Department and Save the Sound have hired a summer education staffer to engage tourists and local students around issues of native versus invasive species, stormwater runoff, climate change preparedness and other topics, with a focus on opening opportunities for young nature lovers to become citizen-scientists.

The next step in the project, according to Save the Sound, is designing green infrastructure solutions for a 12-acre parking lot that drains into Sunken Meadow Creek. Incorporating stormwater best management practices in the design will reduce the pollutants that run off the parking lot and allow water to percolate into the ground, improving water quality in the creek for the wildlife that calls it home.

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