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Konstantine Rountos

From left, Isabella Colombo, Konstantine Rountos, and Mackenzie Minder with their research paper. Photo from Konstantine Rountos

By Daniel Dunaief

Good news for shellfish eaters on Long Island.

According to a baseline study conducted by recent St. Joseph’s University graduates in the lab of Associate Professor Konstantine Rountos, oysters and hard clams have less microplastics than they do in other areas in the United States and the world.

Caused by the breakdown of larger plastic pieces, pellets used in plastics manufacturing and from micro beads that can be a part of cosmetics, microplastics are found throughout the world and can float around waterways for extended periods of time.

Konstantine Rountos

Filter feeders like clams and oysters, which play a key environmental role in cleaning local water, could accumulate microplastics. Researchers don’t yet know the potential harm to humans from consuming shellfish with microplastics.

“I was optimistic that the concentrations are lower than with shellfish in other countries and definitely in other areas of the United States, so that’s a positive for Long Island shellfish growers,” Rountos said. “It’s good for seafood lovers, too.”

To be sure, Rountos cautioned that more research was necessary to explore the concentrations of smaller microplastics to provide a more complete understanding of the accumulation of these particles. Nonetheless, he described this step in the study as “positive.”

In other areas of the country, previous studies revealed a higher concentration of microplastics in local shellfish. In the lower Chesapeake Bay, researchers found concentrations of 5.6 to 7 microplastics per gram of soft tissue in eastern oysters, while other scientists found concentrations of 0.56 to 2.02 microplastics per gram in soft tissue in oysters and 0.38 to 1.99 microplastics per gram of soft tissue weight in hard clams.

By contrast, Rountos, Mackenzie Minder, who is the first author on the paper, and Isabella Colombo discovered in their study of 48 oysters at four sites on Long Island was 1,000 times lower with eastern oysters. They also discovered no microplastics in hard clams at two sites around the island.

The lower numbers on Long Island may also be a product of the sieve size Rountos and his students used, which may not have captured smaller particles.

In a paper published in Marine Pollution Bulletin, Mackenzie, Colombo and Rountos suggested that one potential explanation for the difference in microplastics concentrations could arise from the potentially lower levels of microplastics in the surrounding water.

Other proposed studies are exploring the concentration of microplastics in local waterways.

Gordon Taylor, Professor and Division Head in Marine Sciences and Director of the NAno-Raman Molecular Imaging Laboratory, has two grant applications pending to sample Long Island waters, including the Long Island Sound, Peconics, Great South Bay and the New York Bight. His plan is to sample true microplastics in the water, through beach surveys and microplastics eaten by zooplankton.

Taylor will combine these observations with physical oceanography to model where these particles originate and where they are going.

Bringing research to the classroom

From left, Isabella Colombo and Mackenzie Minder with their research paper.
Photo from Konstantine Rountos

For Minder and Colombo, both of whom are now teaching on Long Island, publishing their work offered a welcome and exciting conclusion to their college studies, while also giving them ways to inspire their students.

“This allows me to bring real life experience [in research] into the classroom,” said Minder. “It’s important to me to connect to children certain concepts of what they see in everyday life. Pollution could potentially impact our waterways to the point where it could be getting into our food supplies and could affect us physically and mentally.”

Minder said the study “opened my eyes to see how subconsciously we are putting plastics in the environment” through activities like washing synthetic fibers.

A fleece with synthetic fibers has “plastics that you wash and those fibers end up in the water,” Rountos said.

Some cosmetics such as exfoliators used to have microspheres that ended up in the water. Many cosmetic companies are now using bits of coconuts for grittiness.

Undergrad power

Rountos appreciated the reaction from Minder and Colombo, who earned degrees in adolescent biology education, when he suggested they could publish their research. He said his two former students “dove in head first” and the three had regular meetings to draft the manuscript and address reviewer’s revisions and recommendations.

Minder and Colombo are pleased with the paper “It’s shell shocking,” Minder said. 

A resident of Hauppauge, Minder, whose hobbies include crocheting and reading, appreciates how her family has been showing copies of the paper to their friends and enjoys seeing the paper on refrigerators in her parents’ and grandmother’s homes.

A resident of Sayville, Colombo is serving as a building substitute for students who are 10 to 14 years old.

The research experience taught Colombo the value of communication, dedication and responsibility, which she has brought to the classroom. When she tells high school students about the publication, her students ask for signed copies of the paper.

“It’s such an honor and a privilege to be a part” of such a research effort, Colombo said.

Colombo’s family, who is proud of her for her work, is also relieved that she didn’t find the kind of contamination that might cause anxiety about the seafood they eat.

“Considering how many times I eat it for the holidays I was very concerned” about what they’d find, Colombo said.

Despite the trace amount of microplastics, Colombo and her family will continue to eat shellfish. She plans to hang the framed copy of the paper Rountos gave her in a future classroom.

Colombo decided to go into teaching after taking a living environment class with Sayville educator Cindy Giannico. She is grateful to Giannico for captivating “my desire to learn more and appreciate how applicable science is to your everyday life.”

Colombo has since come full circle and has been a student teacher in Giannico’s class. Giannico was thrilled to welcome Colombo, whom she recalled as “hard working” and “helpful” with other students even as a tenth grader, back to the classroom.

Colombo has since taken a job as a science teacher on Long Island. Giannico believes Colombo has forged a strong connection with her students through her caring and consideration and her willingness to work with them.

“Most people feel comfortable around her,” Giannico said. “She’s really mature.”

Colombo’s published work has sparked student interest in conducting their own research studies.

Rountos is proud of Minder and Colombo’s contribution. He described Colombo and Minder as “rare gem” students.

A view of Shinnecock Bay. Photo by Christopher Paparo/Fish Guy Photos

By Daniel Dunaief

The Galapagos Islands, the Great Barrier Reef, Little Cayman and … Shinnecock Bay? Yes, that’s correct, the 40 square kilometer bay located on the southern end of Long Island recently joined a distinguished list of celebrated marine locations identified by Mission Blue, a non-profit international organization led by famed marine biologist Sylvia Earle.

Mission Blue named Shinnecock Bay a Hope Spot, one of 132 such locations in the world that it considers critical to the health of the ocean.

Shinnecock Bay has the distinction of being the only Hope Spot in New York State, the only one near a major city and one of three on the Eastern Seaboard.

“The idea that you could have a Hope Spot so close to a major metropolitan area is pretty significant,” said Ellen Pikitch, Endowed Professor of Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University and the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and Director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science.

The designation by Mission Blue not only puts Shinnecock Bay in elite environmental company, but it also completes a comeback story driven by scientists, their students, numerous volunteers, and other supportive groups.

“The point of Mission Blue designating this place a Hope Spot isn’t only to bring more people and attention to Shinnecock Bay,” said Pikitch, but is also to “send the message of hope that we can turn things around.”

Pikitch, Christopher Gobler, Endowed Chair of Coastal Ecology and Conservation at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, and Bradley Peterson, Associate Professor at Somas, led the efforts at the bay.

The scientists created clam sanctuaries in the Western Shinnecock Bay with strict no take rules for people, which helped jump start the restoration. The clams helped meet natural filtration goals.

The researchers also helped restore eelgrass, also called seagrass, which is a more effective natural way to sequester carbon per square inch than the rainforest.

Between 1930 and the start of the project in 2012, New York State had lost about 90 percent of its eelgrass. A task force projected that eelgrass would be extinct in the Empire State by 2030. The bay now has about 100 more acres of eelgrass than it had in 2012.

These efforts have created a “huge leap in the number of forage fish” including bay anchovies and menhaden, said Pikitch, who studies forage fish. “The bay is in a much healthier place now that it was when we started,” she added.

Tough beginnings

Indeed, in 2012, parts or all of the bay had to close because of brown or red tides. The tides sometimes “looked like coffee spilled across the entire bay,” Pikitch said.

The steps the researchers took to improve water quality took some time. “Harmful algal blooms didn’t disappear right away,” Pikitch said. “As the study progressed, the amount of time brown tides occurred got shorter and shorter. Ultimately we stopped seeing brown tides several years ago.”

Red tides, which can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning that could be fatal to people, had also been a problem in Shinnecock Bay. Nearly half the bay was closed to shellfishing in 2011, 2014, and 2015. In 2017 and 2028, about 1/4 of the bay was closed due to red tides. Since 2019, however, red tides haven’t threatened the bay.

On the water

Throughout the restoration process, scientists in training and volunteers contributed to various efforts. Konstantine Rountos, Associate Professor of Biology at St. Joseph’s University in New York, earned his Master’s and PhD and conducted his post doctoral research at Stony Brook University. He also served as the lead research scientist for the Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program trawl survey from 2012 to 2016. 

Rountos called the designation “remarkable and extremely exciting.” When he started working on the bay in 2005 as a Master’s candidate, he saw stressors such as eelgrass declines.

“Not only was the ecosystem showing signs of collapse (decreased seagrass, decreased hard clams, increased harmful algal blooms), but the Bay was supporting fewer and fewer baymen,” he said. The Long Island “cultural identity of ‘living off the bay’ was in serious danger.”

Rountos believes people often overlook the significant ecological importance of this area, driving past these environmental and ecological treasures without appreciating their importance. 

Amid his many Bay memories, he recalls catching a seven-foot long roughtail stingray. “It was very surprising to pull that up by hand in our trawl net,” he said.

A veteran of the bay since 2016, Maria Grima spent time on Shinnecok as an undergraduate at Stony Brook and more recently for her Master’s training, which she hopes to complete this August.

Grima has been studying the invasive European green crab that shreds eelgrass and consumes shellfish such as clams, oysters and mussels. In a preliminary analysis, the population of this crab has declined. Grima noted that it’s difficult to prove cause and effect for the reduction in the number of these crabs.

Rather than pursue a potential career in medicine, which was her initial focus when she arrived at Stony Brook, Grima decided to focus on “fixing the environmental issues that cause human health problems.”

She is “really proud that Shinnecock Bay” achieved the Hope Spot designation. 

One of her favorite Bay memories involves seeing an ocean sunfish, which is a distinctive and large fish that propels itself through water with its dorsal and ventral fins and is the world’s largest bony fish. Seeing the biodiversity on a bay that has had historically poor water quality “gives you hope when you’re on the boat,” Grima said.

When friends and volunteers have joined her on the Bay, she has delighted in watching them interact with seahorses, which “wrap their little tail around your finger.”

Looking toward the future

While Pikitch is pleased with the designation, she said the work of maintaining it continues.

“We can’t rest on our laurels,” she said. “Continued construction on Long Island’s East End and the growing threat of climate change may require additional restoration work. We need to keep a close eye on what is happening in Shinnecock Bay and be ready to take action if necessary.”