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Setauket Harbor

The Town of Brookhaven and Highway Department are examining the sources of Setauket Harbor’s poor water quality through an extensive study by Cornell Cooperative Extension. Photo by Giselle Barkley

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) said it’s time to wake up when it comes to Long Island’s water.

Up until 10 years ago, Brookhaven residents could gather clams and oysters from bodies of water like the Setauket Harbor. But that’s not the case now, according to the Supervisor, who remarked on the closing of Mount Sinai Harbor for shell fishing.

“If that isn’t a wake up call, I don’t know what is,” Romaine said.

In light of Brookhaven’s declining water quality, on Tuesday, Oct. 27, the supervisor announced that the Town of Brookhaven would take on a study that will help officials pinpoint the sources of water contamination, starting with the Setauket Harbor. Romaine said the harbor was small enough for the town to examine and clean once they receive the results next year.

Romaine said the town planned on looking at the pipes leading to the harbor, road runoff, and all drains that run to the harbor. In response to this, the town hired Cornell Cooperative Extension to conduct this study and to use DNA testing to help identify the sources of water pollution.

While high levels of nitrogen were identified in the water, Brookhaven Town Highway Superintendent Dan Losquadro (R) said nitrogen could come from various sources, including leaching from underground septic systems, wild and domesticated animal feces and fertilizers, among other sources.

Last year, Losquadro said his department finished reconstructing the sea wall along Shore Road in Setauket by removing the concrete slabs that were used in the past to construct the wall. He added that the concrete released chemicals into the water, which further affected the water quality.

Town officials said they intended to continue the study across multiple seasons, especially in the winter months, when people use fewer fertilizers and when less wild and domestic animals are out and about.

Setauket Harbor and Mount Sinai Harbor, which includes Cedar Beach, are two of several impacted waterways on the Island. According to Romaine, Moriches Bay and the Great South Bay are also impacted.

“I’m greatly concerned because each year the waterways surrounding Brookhaven Town and Long Island have been declining,” Romaine said. “Many of our harbors and parts of out tributaries are considered impaired.”

Neither the town nor the highway department will know how much cleaning Setauket Harbor’s waters will cost until after Cornell Cooperative Extension conducts its study, Romaine said. The hope is that they will identify the sources of contamination before the town’s 2017 budget is approved.

The town isn’t only working with Losquadro, but also with members of the Setauket Harbor Task force led by George Hoffman, Moriches Bay Project and Friends of Bellport Bay.

Romaine also added that those who settled on the Island would not be impressed with Long Island’s declining water quality.

“The town was founded in 1655 [and] it was Setauket Harbor that the settlers … came to start the first European settlement in Brookhaven Town,” Romaine said. “I’m sure if they were here today, they would weep at the fact that the waters are so impaired — you can’t eat any of the shellfish from the water.”

A horseshoe crab no more than 4 years old. Photo by Erika Karp

The Brookhaven Town Board has officially backed Supervisor Ed Romaine’s push for a horseshoe crab harvesting ban at town parks and properties.

At a meeting on July 16, councilmembers unanimously supported a resolution that requests the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation close North and South Shore parks and underwater lands to horseshoe crab harvesting and recommends strategies to reduce the harvesting. State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) also spoke at the meeting and threw in his support for the effort, as it would help protect the crab population — which, according to some reports, has decreased.

“I support this resolution and encourage its passage and compliment the very fact that it has been initiated,” said Englebright, who chairs the Assembly’s Committee on Environmental Conservation.

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright, right, and a local fisherman, left, speak at a Brookhaven Town Board meeting. Photo by Erika Karp
State Assemblyman Steve Englebright, right, and a local fisherman, left, speak at a Brookhaven Town Board meeting. Photo by Erika Karp

In May, Romaine announced he would seek a horseshoe crab harvesting ban for areas within 500 feet of town-owned waterfront properties. Fishermen often use horseshoe crabs for bait, but the crabs are also used for medicinal purposes, as their blue blood, which is worth an estimated $15,000 a quart, is used in the biomedical and pharmaceutical industries to detect bacterial contamination in drugs and supplies.

Advocates for the ban have said the crabs, whose species is 450 million years old, play a vital role in the ecosystem, as birds like the red knot eat the crabs’ eggs.

Local parks covered within the town’s request include Port Jefferson Harbor; the western boundary of the Mount Sinai inlet; underwater lands and town-owned shoreline of Setauket Harbor; and Shoreham Beach.

The DEC already has bans in place at Mount Sinai Harbor and West Meadow Beach.

In addition, the town asked the DEC to consider mandating fishers to use bait bags and/or artificial bait; banning the harvesting of horseshoe crab females; and establishing full harvest bans several days before and after full moons in May and June — the crabs’ nesting season.

Those latter recommendations were not included in the original resolution, but were added after weeks of discussion on the issue.

Local baymen have said their livelihoods would be jeopardized by any further restrictions, and the seamen remained opposed to the resolution last Thursday. Many also disagreed with officials that the crab population was decreasing.

“If you were with us you would know the quantities are there,” Florence Sharkey, president of the Brookhaven Baymen’s Association, said at the meeting.

Sharkey added that alternative baits have been tried, but don’t work.

Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine holds a horseshoe crab as he calls on the state to ban the harvesting of the crabs within 500 feet of town property. Photo by Erika Karp
Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine holds a horseshoe crab as he calls on the state to ban the harvesting of the crabs within 500 feet of town property. Photo by Erika Karp

Despite the testimony, the Town Board moved forward with resolution, which had been tabled for nearly two months. Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) called the decision a difficult one.

During public comment, Englebright invited the fishers to speak before his committee, as the state is wrestling with the issue as well.

The assemblyman introduced legislation in March that would impose a moratorium on harvesting horseshoe crabs and their eggs until 2021. While the bill wasn’t voted on in the last legislative session, a different bill, which outlines similar recommendations to the DEC regarding crab conservation and management, was approved.

Englebright said the law would be revisited in two years. He said he hoped the DEC would get better data on the crabs in the future as well.

While the state continues to grapple with the issue, Englebright noted the town’s requested ban is different, as it pertains to parkland.

“This is a park and public expectation is different than [at] the general shoreline,” he said. “A park is usually a place that animals have the opportunity to have refuge.”

Setauket Harbor file photo by Rachel Shapiro

Setauket is harboring a working relationship with North Shore officials as advocates flood their offices with environmental projects.

The newly formed Setauket Harbor Task Force has been in talks with various elected officials, including Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) and Parks Commissioner Ed Morris, as the group continues its push to sustain the beauty of the North Shore spot. The group gathered for a walking tour of the town-owned Setauket Harbor properties on May 12 to highlight areas around the harbor that need attention.

Laurie Vetere, a North Shore-based attorney and president of the volunteer task force, said the meeting was a step in the right direction.

“The task force is encouraged by the town’s swift response in meeting with us and their receptivity to our concerns,” she said.

Some of those concerns included making sure the town pays attention to the road runoff retention basin and pond that forms near the inlet at Setauket Harbor, and maintaining park property just to the west of the area’s footbridge, Vetere said.

The group also urged town officials to keep their eyes on the beach and dock along Shore Road, where a combination of winter ice and 8-foot tides had severely damaged the dock, upending the pilings and twisting the aluminum gangplank, the group said. The town had already replaced both the pilings and the dock as the winter came to a close, and Morris confirmed the gangplank leading down to the dock would be repaired by the beginning of summer.

Charlie Lefkowitz, a board member and Setauket-based businessman, said the town was more than receptive to the task force’s concerns, and results were already tangible.

“We want to be partners with the town in improving the harbor and working with them to put in place corrective actions that will help water quality and enhance the general enjoyment of the harbor view-shed,” he said.

The Setauket Harbor Task Force was formed last year over concerns about the harbor and the deteriorating water quality, and it recently held a meeting about the health of the harbor that drew more than 60 local residents.

George Hoffman and Laurie Vetere overlook Setauket Harbor, which their new task force hopes to protect. Photo by Susan Risoli

By Susan Risoli

Setauket Harbor has a new best friend.

To speak up for this system of bays and ponds, residents have created the Setauket Harbor Task Force. Before the group met at the Neighborhood House Tuesday night, cofounders Laurie Vetere and George Hoffman said the task force can improve water quality and increase accessibility for all who love Setauket’s wetlands.

Stuck between Stony Brook Harbor and Port Jefferson Harbor, Setauket Harbor is an “orphan” that could use some of the attention given to its neighbors, Hoffman said. Stony Brook’s strong harbor advisory committee and vocal boating community, and Port Jeff’s commerce and ferry navigation, ensure that those harbors stay in good shape, Hoffman said.

“And in Connecticut, every harbor has an advisory group,” he said. “We want to be out there to help our harbor.”

Setauket Pond is the first order of business, said Vetere, chairwoman of the task force, and Hoffman, a trustee on its board. This area next to the Se-Port Deli on Route 25A has seen better days.

A walk across the footbridge spanning the pond revealed a silt-choked catch basin below.

The basin is supposed to protect the harbor by filtering oil and trash from storm water road runoff, they said, but it’s no longer doing its job.

Vetere gestured to debris and fallen trees littering the water. If the task force can clean up the pond, Vetere said, “I want to see increased boating, kayaking, paddle boarding. Maybe creating a blueway trail that could be historic,” in recognition of George Washington’s colonial spies, who snuck in and out of the harbor with secrets.The task force has formed a not-for-profit corporation so it can apply for federal and state grants, Vetere and Hoffman said.

The group also wants to train volunteers to become “water guardians,” monitors who would test Setauket waters regularly for bacteria and nitrogen levels. They said they want volunteers for a “visioning committee” on the harbor’s future.

Hoffman and Vetere said the task force could use volunteers to help with a planned “Setauket Harbor Day.” Getting a state-issued permit to cut back the phragmites — a non-native species of tall reeds that has all but taken over the shoreline — is another priority, Hoffman said.

About 45 people gathered Tuesday night at the Setauket Neighborhood House to learn about the task force’s plans and to hear what speaker Eric Swenson, executive director of the Hempstead Harbor Protection Committee, shared about successful efforts to restore water quality and shellfish harvesting there.

Hempstead Harbor is a success story, Swenson said, because its protection committee is a collaborative effort between citizens, villages, towns, county government, and scientists.

Advising Three Villagers to network in similar fashion, Swenson said, “You’re not a harbor unto yourself.”
Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) and Town of Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) were at the meeting.

“Know that I am an ally and I will continue to work towards us improving the harbor,” Cartright said.
Hoffman said the Setauket Harbor group hopes to meet several times a year. Their harbor has its challenges, he said, but “it’s not too late to fix this.”