In late November 2016, Seatuck submitted the following comments on the National Park Services's Draft Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement regarding the Wilderness Breach (Bellport Inlet?) on Fire Island. We applauch the NPS decision to let the breach alone!
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Mr. Chris Soller , Superintendent
Fire Island National Seashore
120 Laurel Street
Patchogue, NY 11772
RE: Comments on the Wilderness Breach Management Plan /
Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)
Dear Superintendent Soller:
These comments on the Wilderness Breach Management Plan / Environmental Impact Statement (Breach Plan/EIS) are provided on behalf of the Seatuck Environmental Association, which has had a longstanding interest in the ecological health and restoration of the Great South and Moriches Bay ecosystems. We have followed with interest the public discourse regarding the formation of the Wilderness Breach and the decision-making process the National Park Service (NPS) has undertaken regarding its management, culminating in the preparation of the Breach Management Plan and EIS.
We support the breach remaining open due to the numerous, scientifically documented, ecological and water quality benefits, many of which are explained in detail in the EIS. Therefore, we support Option 3, NPS’s preferred option to allow for the breach to remain open unless certain dimensional criteria are exceeded, at which point NPS would move to close it.
While supportive of NPS’s preferred option, we nevertheless note the fundamental difference in approach that exists between Option 3 and the breach management strategy outlined in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ proposed Fire Island to Montauk Point plan (FIMP). The FIMP creates three categories of breach management: one for areas where it seeks to prevent breaches from forming (Proactive Breach Response), one for areas where breaches that do form must be closed immediately (Reactive Breach Response), and a third for those areas where breaches can be permitted to exist temporarily, but only if a breach closure team decides the breach is “closing naturally” (Conditional Breach Response). NPS Option 3, on the other hand, allows a breach to remain open and act naturally, unless certain criteria are met that mandate closure.
This difference in approach between NPS and the Army Corps, while hypothetical with regard to the Wilderness Breach (since the FIMP is still in draft form and not controlling), is a divergence that should be addressed. The NPS Wilderness Breach Management Plan is, on its face, limited to the existing breach (and only necessary because of the lack of guidance provided by the current Breach Contingency Plan), but it is reasonable to expect that the well-supported document will be influential with regard to future Fire Island breaches, especially in the Wilderness Area. However, to the extent the FIMP is in place in its current form, the approach of the Wilderness Breach Management Plan will be superseded by the Army Corps’ approach.
We urge that this difference be resolved in favor of the NPS approach. We encourage NPS to push for its more reasoned breach management approach to be integrated into the FIMP during final negotiation over the plan in the coming year. In fact, in our comments on the FIMP, we urged the adoption of a genuinely nuance, science-based decision making process similar to what took place with the Wilderness Breach in 2012. There, NPS led an effort to convene a team of scientific experts to assess the situation, monitor the breach, gathered data (about impacts to tides, storm risks and ecological conditions), and offer advice on both storm risks and ecological benefits. We urge that a similar process be followed for all future breaches on Fire Island.
In addition, we have the following specific comments on the Breach Plan/EIS:
• To mitigate against the adverse effects of mechanical closure on Piping Plover breeding, the Breach Plan/EIS wisely stipulates that mechanical construction activities occur outside of the breeding season. We note that the Wilderness Breach also provides important stopover habitat for the Federally listed Red Knot (Calidris canutus). These birds refuel at the inlet, feasting on small mussels and invertebrates during bimodal migrations that peak in May and again in late October. We urge that efforts be included to limit construction activities from these migration seasons to avoid adverse affects on the Red Knot.
• The final sentence of the Executive Summary (p. xii) the authors use the word anthropomorphic; this should be replaced with anthropogenic.
Seatuck appreciates the opportunity to comment on the Breach Plan/EIS for the Otis Pike High Dune Fire Island Wilderness Area Breach. Please let us know if you have any questions or require additional information.
Very truly yours,
As anyone fishing or boating (or paying attenton to local news) in 2016 knew, it was a big year for Atlantic Menhaden (aka Bunker) in Long Island's estuaries. In fact, the past few years have seen increasing numbers of the ecologically important fish throughout their range. The Bunker boon, experts say, is largely the result of harvest limits put in place several years ago. In 2017, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will be finalizing plans for their future management. After particpating in hearings and a range of discussions and meetings about the issue, Seatuck submitted the following comments on the Commission's proposed amendments:
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January 4, 2017
Ms. Megan Ware
Fishery Management Plan Coordinator
Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission
1050 North Highland Street, Suite 200A-N
Arlington, Virginia 22201
Re: Comments on Amendment 3 of the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden – Seatuck Environmental Association
Dear Ms. Ware:
The Seatuck Environmental Association is a not-for-profit wildlife conservation organization whose mission is the protection of wildlife species on Long Island and the natural communities, habitats, and landscapes upon which they depend. One particular emphasis of Seatuck is the restoration of several species of anadromous river herring, most notably alewives, which spawn in the Island’s freshwater streams, through the removal of obstacles that block their path to spawning habitat. We appreciate the opportunity to comment on the above-referenced document and thank you for forwarding the power point presentation that was shown at the Freeport, NY public meeting.
Menhaden comprise one of the more important forage fish found along the Atlantic Coast as the species sustains many other species including humpback whales, dolphins, seals, numerous bird species, ranging from ospreys to gannets, and commercially and recreationally important fish such as Striped Bass and Bluefish. It clearly plays a critically important role in marine and estuarine food webs.
Before commenting on specific elements proposed in the Plan to manage Menhaden we’d like to offer specific comments on two aspects of menhaden management not presented in the Plan - the mandatory use of bait bags in other ASMFC regulated fisheries that utilize menhaden as bait and the creation of Menhaden spawning sanctuaries.
Mandatory Use of Bait Bags – Menhaden are used as bait in other commercial fisheries regulated by the ASMFC, such as American lobster and Blue Claw crab. Indeed, harvest of menhaden for bait in both commercial and recreational fisheries is a primary and growing component of the Menhaden Fishery. For those commercial fisheries which utilize menhaden as bait such, we urge that ASMFC mandate the use of bait bags, which can ensure a more efficient use of fish by using less menhaden per effort compared to not using bags.
Juvenile Development Sanctuaries – Juvenile Menhaden are known to develop in geographically limited, specific ranges within the overall area inhabited by the species; the Chesapeake Bay is one such area. Allowing for juvenile to develop into adults without the threat of harvest and therefore precluding their ability to contribute to the overall population, would provide benefits to the population at large.
COMMENTS ON PLAN ELEMENTS
Ecological Reference Points – The Plan discusses various options for establishing reference points to help manage the Menhaden stock. Seatuck strongly supports Option D - Use existing guidelines for forage fish species until ERPs are developed by the BERP working group, as we believe this will allow for the greatest amount of menhaden to be available to numerous species which utilize or depend upon them, as mentioned above, while also accommodating human demands for the fish.
Quota Allocation – Seatuck has no general comments regarding quota allocation except that it seems equitable to provide a fixed minimum quota to each state with a menhaden fishery.
Allocation Timeframe – we have no comment regarding this issue.
Quota Transfers and Overage Payback – We understand that Menhaden segregate by swimming in large schools of generally uniform size and age. One concern we have is that if a state wanted to transfer a certain poundage of unused quota to another state it could, depending on the states involved, result in many more fish being harvested due to the segregation of age classes mentioned above. If ASMFC believes this concern has validity, we would encourage any quota transfer system to be structured either geographically (i.e. involving nearby or adjacent states where the same age class of menhaden cohabitate) or some other way to prevent more fish, and potentially significantly more fish, from being harvested.
Quota Rollovers – the Plan contemplates allowing for unused quota allocations to be rolled over into subsequent years. Seatuck opposes this concept as it doesn’t seem fair and there is no analog in the recreational fishery. For example, if a recreational fisherman doesn’t meet his daily limit for Summer flounder of Striped Bass he cannot take twice the number the next day; the same should hold for commercial fishing. If for whatever reasons commercial fishers do not collectively take their quota in their prescribed time period, these fish should be kept in the ocean for the benefit of other species.
Incidental Catch and Small Fishery Allowance – According to current policy (page 16 of Amendment 3) menhaden captured after a state’s quota has been reached do not count toward the quota for that directed fishery but are considered by-catch, totaling from 1-2% of the total landings of fish or approximately 5.7 million pounds. In our view there is no reason to exclude bycatch fish from a state’s quota and we, therefore, strongly support the adoption of Option 3.
We will note, as was discussed at the ASMFC informational presentation in Freeport, NY it is illogical to contend that menhaden captured using either beach seines or cast nets can be considered by-catch as these fishing techniques are directed specifically at menhaden. At the very least Amendment 3 should contain a clear explanation as to why fish caught using these techniques should be considered bycatch.
Episodic Events Set Aside Program - We note that one unfortunate episodic event that occurred earlier this year in New York was the death of many millions of menhaden in the locks at the Shinnecock Canal on Long Island, due to an ill-advised closure of the canal locks while a vast school of menhaden was moving through. Entrapped in the locks the school of fish soon depleted oxygen levels, resulting in a large scale die–off. In the recent past there have been similar die-offs of menhaden in the mouth of the Peconic River. Seatuck strongly supports the harvesting and utilization of these fish for the bait industry so they are not wasted and should encourage states/companies/individuals to invest in this activity. One incentive might be to not count fish from these die-offs toward a state’s quota or make it some reduced fraction, so, for example, if 500,000 pounds of fish die from such an event it would only count for 250,000 pounds toward the state’s quota.
Chesapeake Bay Reduction Fishery Cap – we support the continuation of the cap.
Research Programs and Priorities – as mentioned in the section on Quota Transfers and Overage Payback menhaden are well known to segregate into age classes. Better understanding the geographic distribution and movement of the age classes would provide the ASMFC with information useful in their management.
It would also be worthwhile to assess how Menhaden spawning areas may change or be affected by global climate change and warming ocean temperatures.
John L. Turner
Conservation Policy Advocate
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NYS DEC - Office of Climate Change
Albany, NY 12233-1030
Re: Comments on Proposed Part 490
Dear Mr. Lowery,
We submit these comments on behalf of Seatuck Environmental Association, Inc. (“Seatuck”), a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving Long Island wildlife and the environment. The organization advocates for conservation policy across Long Island and operates two coastal, public nature centers: the Suffolk County Environmental Center in Islip, where Seatuck is based, and the South Shore Nature Center in East Islip.
On a global scale, tide gauges and satellite altimetry measurements have shown that over the last 100 years (1901-2010), global mean sea level has risen by about 7.5 inches (0.19 meters), with a mean rate of global sea level rise of 0.07 inches (1.7 mm) per year (IPCC 2015).
At the same time, since 1990, New York has experience a sea level rise of 12.1 inches (0.31meters) or a rate of 0.12 inches per year, which is nearly, doubled that of the global rate. The higher rates of sea level rise observed the New York region are attributed to the added local effects of subsidence, a sinking of the land.
In order to protect public and private structures, historic places, vital infrastructure facilities, and critical natural resources, the rate of sea-level rise observed along New York coastlines in the past, as well as the rate projected into the future must be considered.
The Part 490 projections, specific for New York State, are based on the scientific predictions for Montauk Point given in Horton et al. (2014) also called the ClimAID Report. The updated ClimAID Report is based on 24 detailed global climate model predictions for the region under varying greenhouse gas emissions scenarios (RPC 4.5, 8.5). ClimAID based projections compare well with those from the RISE Report (Zhang et al. 2015). Both agree for the lower projections but differ slightly for higher projection rates. RISE projections are based on more conservative, IPCC process-based models and slightly different conditions when considering accelerated melting of glacial ice and so, they yield slightly lower projected sea level rise predictions (NPCC 2015). This is a sound scientific method that facilitates inter-county cooperation, recognizing that New York City has already adopted the NPCC/ClimAID projections for planning purposes.
Barrier Islands naturally protect the south shore of Long Island, New York from storm surge flooding and are particularly susceptible to inundation from sea-level rise. The vast coastal, salt marsh ecosystems found all around the Island, act to filter seawater and to provide habitat for many marine animals, including juvenile fish, horseshoe crabs, and shore birds. These vital natural resources are in danger of disappearing as sea levels rise. It is imperative that we take steps to protect them.
Seatuck applauds the NYSDEC effort to develop science-based determinations of present and projected rise in sea-level in the State of New York and supports the Community Risk and Resiliency Act (CRRA). We recognizes Part 490 as a single piece of the larger CRRA and we understand that as such does not impose any requirements on any entity, however, the development of an accepted set of sea-level rise estimates is fundamental to the implementation of the CRRA.
We appreciate the opportunity to comment on the new proposed 6 NYCRR Part 490 and fully support its implementation in within the CRRA.
Water Quality Scientist
Horton, R., D. Bader, C. Rosenzweig, A. DeGaetano, and W.Solecki. 2014. Climate Change in New York State: Updating the 2011 ClimAID Climate Risk Information. New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), Albany,
IPCC, 2013: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis.
Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA. http://www.ipcc.ch/index.htm
New York State Sea Level Rise Task Force, 2010, New York State Sea Level Rise Task Force Report to the Legislature., New York pp. 1-93. http://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/administration_pdf/slrtffinalrep.pdf
NPCC 2015: Appendix IIB. Sea level observations and projections: Methods and Analyses. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1336(1):116-150. doi:10.1111/nyas.12593 http://nysrise.org/news/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/NY-SLR-Projection-by-RISE-May-2015-updated.pdf
Zhang, Minghua, Henry Bokuniewicz, Wuyin Lin, Sung‐Gheel Jang, and Ping Liu, 2014: Climate Risk Report for Nassau and Suffolk, New York State Resilience Institute for Storms and Emergencies (NYS RISE), NYS RISE Technical Report TR‐0‐14‐01, 49 pp. http://nysrise.org/docs/NYSRISE-SBU-ClimateRiskReportforNassauandSuffolk-August2014.pdf
The 2017 Work Plan for Suffolk County DPW's Vector Control Division is currently before the Suffolk County Legislature for Approval. The plan includes the controvrersial spaying of methoprene to control larval stage mosquitos. While Seatuck supports Vector Control's efforts to educate the public and to restore coastal marshes, we submitted the following comments in opposition to the methoprene component of the plan. The Legislature's Public Works, Transportation & Energy Committee approved the plan on Monday, December 12. The matter will be before the full Legislature on Tuesday, December 20. Written or in-person comments from the public are urged!
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December 12, 2016
The Honorable Al Krupski
Public Works, Transportation & Energy Committee
Suffolk County Legislature
William J. Lindsey County Complex
Dear Legislator Krupski :
On behalf of the members of the Seatuck Environmental Association – a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving Long Island wildlife – I am writing to urge your support for efforts to eliminate the use of the pesticide methoprene for mosquito control.
Suffolk County’s estuarine marshes – where methoprene is applied by airplane and helicopter – are, as you well know, a vital part of our coastal ecosystem and an invaluable resource to county’s residents. Once thought of as insignificant swamps, these coastal marshes are now recognized as one of the most ecologically productive habitats on the planet, even surpassing tropical rain forests. They provide habitat for countless marine and avian species, including both year-round residents and species stopping to rest and refuel during migration. They are especially important for many species’ juvenile stages. The sanctuary they provide for young blue crabs, fluke, and countless other species has earned them the moniker as the “nurseries of the sea.”
Salt marshes also provide important protection from storms, with their dense vegetation and soft substrate helping to dissipate energy from storm surges. This was a lesson many Long Islanders learned during Superstorm Sandy, when communities with intact marshes were spared some of the storm’s worst damage.
Public officials on Long Island have few more important obligations in maintaining the quality of life in our region than safeguarding –and, indeed, restoring– the health of our estuaries. At the same time, we also recognize the primary imperative to protect the health of the citizenry. To this end, we commend the work of the Suffolk County Department of Vector Control in protecting the health of Suffolk County residents from mosquito borne diseases, particularly West Nile Virus (WNV).
However, we are always cognizant of the fact that the mosquitos that inhabit salt marsh, particularly the Eastern Salt Marsh Mosquito (aedes sollicitans) are not primary WNV vectors. While capable of carrying the WNV virus, positive WNV tests for aedes sollicitans in the wild are rare. The salt marsh mosquito is a more effective vector of Eastern Equine Encephalitis, a rare disease that poses a limited threat (only five cases have ever been reported in New York). The more common carriers of WNV are mosquitos from the genus Culex, which are exclusively freshwater mosquitos (and cannot breed in the brackish water of the salt marsh). In fact, of the positive WNV mosquitos confirmed in Suffolk County this past year, all were from the Culex genus. The point is that the most serious WNV threat comes from Culex and other freshwater mosquitos, not the mosquitos of the salt marsh.
In the public’s mind, however, this is a distinction without a difference. Most people simply know that mosquitos can carry diseases and need to be controlled. To the extent they are even aware that different species of mosquitos exist, they perceive the disease risk as universal. In this regard, there is a conflation between public health and nuisance control. The fact that Vector Control is controlling mosquitos is good enough for most people, never mind why they are doing it. That salt marsh spraying is not generally advancing public health is not apparent to most citizens. And it is a distinction that is too often ignored, or not made clear, by public officials.
In the end, the issue of spraying methoprene comes down to a cost-benefit analysis. On one hand, as just discussed, the benefits to public health are limited. While the spraying may reduce the impacts of nuisance mosquitoes, especially for homeowners near the marsh, there is little evidence that the spraying of methoprene provides a significant public health benefit.
On the other hand, the costs may be significant. While some studies suggest that the low concentrations of vector control spraying have limited direct impacts on marine species, there are others that create concerns that even low concentrations of methoprene can have subtle impacts to everything from dragonflies to crabs to lobsters. There are also concerns about the cumulative impacts to the salt marsh ecosystem from multiple stressors. In an era of rising sea levels and increasing nitrogen pollution, our marshes and the species that rely on them are already under assault. In these conditions, it is wise to limit any and all additional stressors where possible. Other public officials, as you know, have already recognized this wisdom: The states of Connecticut and Rhode Island have been sufficiently convinced of methoprene’s risks that they’ve taken proactive steps to reduce use of the chemical in their vector control programs.
In the face of limited public health benefits and potentially significant (and still unknown) costs, we think it is prudent to cease the use of methoprene at this time.
Despite this position, we remain supportive of Vector Control’s other efforts to control mosquito populations, especially where they can have significant impacts to broad public enjoyment and beneficial economic activity. We are especially supportive of the department’s focus on educating the public about threats from freshwater mosquitos, including those that can be reduced by the prudent elimination of standing water around our homes and neighborhoods. We also support efforts to restore marsh health and reduce mosquitos through Integrated Marsh Management. The work conducted at the Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge has produced impressive results, both in mosquito control and wildlife benefits. Importantly, the results of the pilot project have been subject to careful scientific analysis and detailed in peer-reviewed journals, which goes a long way in boosting public confidence. We support efforts to steer funding away from costly methoprene spraying to these other efforts, which have permanent, long-term impacts.
Suffolk County has lost countless acres of invaluable salt marsh habitat. In some embayments the losses exceed 90%. The harm that the loss of this acreage has done to our coastal ecosystem is hard to overstate. The 17,000 acres of marsh that remain in Suffolk County are all the more valuable because of this historic loss. We urge the Committee to safeguard this precious remaining habitat in any and all ways possible, including by eliminating the direct application of chemical pesticides such as methoprene.
Very truly yours,
ENRICO G. NARDONE, Esq.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finally released their long-awaited Fire Island to Montauk Point (FIMP) plan earlier this year. The plan, which will (hopefully) come with more than $1 billion in funding, will have a significant impact on Long Island coastal policy for many decades to come. It is especially important for Fire Island and the Great South Bay. For these reasons, Seatuck invested a good deal time in reviewing the documents (thousands of pages worth!) and meeting with Army Corps and other public officials to fully understand the implications of the plan's various components. Read our full comments here.
Seatuck intern Julie Bozzo helped out with the Town of Brookhaven's annual clam survey this summer. She filed the following report on her experience on the clam survey barge:
The Town of Brookhaven has been conducting shellfish surveys, particularly for hard shell clams, for the last 31years, beginning in 1985. These surveys contain data on clam population demographics in a variety of geographic points in the Great South Bay. Unfortunately, due to poor water quality and overharvesting, the clam population sizes have severely decreased over the course of this survey. The hope is that clam numbers will rebound by restricting where fisherman can harvest them.
The surveys take place from a barge, on which is a crane used to sample the bay bottom sediment. The crane is dropped twice at each location. The sediment is classified based upon the amount of sand, silt, rocks, or mud it contains. The crane releases the sediment in to a metal sieve. The sieve contains three metal trays, each with progressively smaller openings to sort the material. The trays are about 5 feet in length, and 3 feet in width. The sides of the trays are raised approximately 4 inches to prevent anything from falling out. The sediment is rinsed away using a hose that has bay water pumping through it. When the trays are cleaned, they are removed from the sieve and searched for living hard shell clams, razor clams, soft shell clams, mussels, and predators, such as moon snails or crabs. Hard shell clams were measured for length and width; all other organisms were accounted for simply based on the total number present. After the trays were cleared of clams, the remaining organisms and empty shells were dumped back in to the bay. The removed clams were returned to the bay immediately after their measurements were taken. As the trays were being searched, the barge moved on to the next site.
I volunteered on the barge for two days in July, and found that the second day yielded a larger variety of clams in terms of size. On this day we were surveying near the Bellport Inlet. We found young clams the size of a fingernail, and older ones that measured a few inches across. This was a positive sign for us. The presence of young clams indicated that the water quality near the new inlet is able to support a developing population of clams, and other organisms for that matter. On the first day, we visited 27 sites and on the second day we visited 30 sites. The barge had a driver, a crane operator, 4-6 people pulling and sifting through the trays, one person hosing down the sediment, and one person measuring the clams and tracking our location.
This was a great experience to have had the opportunity to partake in. Considering how essential the shellfish harvest is expecting to become in the future, it was interesting to see the state that it is currently in so close to home. I am grateful that Seatuck Environmental Association enables me to attend such excursions, and I am thankful to the Town of Brookhaven for including me in their study.
Seatuck Environmental Association Intern
University of Rhode Island ‘17
R.E.: Introductory Resolution 1207 – A Local Law Prohibiting the Distribution of Plastic Carryout Bags Used in Retail Sales
- Submitted to Suffolk County Legislature, March 2016
On behalf of the several hundred members of the Seatuck Environmental Association (“Seatuck”), we are writing to express our support for I.R. 1207, which prohibits the distribution of plastic carryout bags used in retails sales. Seatuck is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization, founded in 1989, which is dedicated to conserving Long Island wildlife and the environment. In pursuing our mission Seatuck advocates for conservation policy, conducts citizen-science research projects and offer a wide-ranging environmental education program, including the operation of the Suffolk County Environmental Center and other public nature centers.
Our support of I.R. 1207 grows out of an awareness of the pernicious impact that plastics have on the natural world, and a recognition of the fundamental need to alter the throwaway mindset that pervades our collective lifestyles. Plastic bags are, of course, only part of the problem. But they symbolize a society that, in too many ways, is simply unsustainable over the long-term and which does not reflect an understanding of the fragility of the earth’s natural systems on which we rely. The proliferation of plastic bags in the environment are, frankly, a part of the problem that we should be able to solve. And in the process, we hope, educate and move the public towards a more sustainable future.
The adverse effects of intact plastic bags to wildlife are well documented. Most notably, the impacts to numerous species of marine turtles, mammals, fish and birds that ingest and get entangled with plastic bags, images of which have moved many people to action. These impacts are clearly identified in the proposal’s legislative intent and there is no need for us to reiterate them here. Instead, we would like to amplify one less-discussed and under-appreciated impact to wildlife: the effect from the countless small (even microscopic) plastic pieces that are generated as plastic bags break apart in the open environment.
Polyethylene, from which plastic bags are made, does not biodegrade in the natural environment. Generally speaking, bacteria and other microbes don’t “eat” plastic or break it down into its component parts. While recent studies have provided a glimmer of hope for microbes that may be able to partially biodegrade plastic, for now it only been found in the lab or under specific circumstance not found in our natural environment. Much more research is necessary before any such options will be realistically available. In the meantime, we’re left with photodegradation, the process by which the sun breaks down polyethylene.
In this process, ultraviolet light from the sun causes the long polymer strands in polyethylene to become brittle and crack, eventually breaking the plastic bag down into countless small plastic pieces. But photodegradation doesn’t eliminate plastic from the environment; it just breaks it down into endlessly smaller pieces. The increasingly small pieces of plastic have a negative impact on wildlife throughout the entire degradation process.
For example, a variety of studies have demonstrated that seabirds feed upon pieces of plastic in the mistaken belief that they’re fish, invertebrate eggs or large zooplankton floating on the water’s surface. This finding has been bolstered by numerous necropsies that have discovered large amounts of plastic in the stomach, gizzard, and intestinal gut of seabirds.
One such seabird example relevant to Long Island is the Wilson’s Storm-Petrel (Oceanites oceanicus), a common pelagic species often seen on local whale watching and fishing trips. This species feeds visually by pattering and dabbling on the ocean’s surface and picking off small food items. It often mistakes small plastic particles for food. One study of seabirds in the western North Atlantic found that “Ingestion of plastics is a primary threat to Wilson's Storm-Petrels, with a high proportion of adults and pre-fledged chicks reported to have plastic in their stomachs “(Moser & Lee 1992). A more recent study concluded that the impacts to Wilson’s Storm-Petrels are not unique; it predicted that the ingestion of plastics by seabirds will continue to increase, and that by 2050 nearly all seabird species will be similarly impacted (Moser, Van Sebille & Hardesty 2015).
As plastic bags continue to degrade, the pieces get smaller and smaller, eventually becoming microscopic. The process culminates in what scientists call “secondary microplastics.” The term is intended to distinguish these byproducts of degradation from “primary microplastics,” which are manufactured intentionally for use in cosmetics, clothing and industrial processes. Primary microplastics are most commonly produced in a form called “microbeads”.
Primary and secondary microplastics both persist in the natural environment and have similar impacts on marine, aquatic and terrestrial wildlife. Both can be ingested by wildlife, resulting in negative affects on physiology and health. Both often contain chemicals added during manufacture or absorbed from the surrounding environment that can be transferred to wildlife after ingestion. At the smallest size, both are capable of crossing cell membranes and causing tissue damage. In fact, the impacts of manufactured (primary) and degraded (secondary) microscopic plastics are so similar that when studying impacts and investigating solutions scientists simply group them together, referring to them generally as “microplastics.” (see, e.g., “Sources, fates and effects of microplastics in the marine environment - a global assessment”, Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection (GESAMP), 2015).
Importantly, in late 2015, the Suffolk County Legislature moved to reduce the environmental impacts of primary microplastics by banning products containing plastic microbeads. Given their identical impacts, logic supports parallel efforts by the Suffolk County Legislature to reduce the proliferation of secondary microplastics. As plastic bags are a significant source of microplastics in the local environment, the rationale that led this legislative body to take the worthwhile step of banning microbeads is every bit as germane to the proposal to ban plastic bags.
We wish the dangers of plastic bags in the natural environment were widely recognized. If they were perhaps Americans would more willingly embrace reusable bags. Or perhaps they would more effectively recycle plastic bags. Unfortunately, only a fraction of shoppers use reusable bags and, even by optimistic measures, only 15% of plastic bags are recycled. Against the backdrop of these regrettable realities, we support I.R. 1207 and encourage the Suffolk County Legislature to pursue any means available to educate, inspire and motivate the citizenry toward a more sustainable future.
- John Turner and Enrico Nardone
In January, NYDEC and the Long Island Regional Planning Council (LIRPC) released a Conceptual Draft Scope for the Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan that sets forth goals, planning structure and tentative schedules & tasks designed to reduce the levels of nitrogen in the waters around Long Island. A series of public meetings were held in early February to present the plan and take public comment. Seatuck recently submited its comments, which can be downloaded here.
One key component of Seatuck's comments is a recommendation that the NYDEC and LIRPC include an effort to increase circulation and ocean exchange in the Great South Bay and other estuaries. Such an effort would seek to mitigate the impacts of nitrogen in the interim period before nitrogen inputs can be fully reduced. The following is an excerpt from Seatuck's comments on the subject:
High levels of nitrogen and pathogens have severely impacted Great South Bay and the rest of the South Shore Estuary Reserve. Diminished clam populations, harmful algal blooms and closed swimming beaches evidence some of the worst water quality problems on Long Island. Against this backdrop, the positive ecological effects of the 2013 Bellport Inlet (and the 1993 Little Pike’s Inlet before that) have provided a glimmer of hope that these conditions are not permanent and can be reversed.
Inspired by the story that’s unfolded over the past three years in eastern Great South Bay, Seatuck has been exploring opportunities for expanding the positive effects of greater ocean exchange. While recognizing that the ultimate solution to improved water quality starts with eliminating pollution and mindful of the adage that the “solution to pollution isn’t dilution”, we nevertheless think there is ample reason to support a comprehensive effort to increase ocean exchange in Great South Bay and beyond.
First, work already underway, as well as many of the actions contemplated in the LINAP, won’t produce tangible benefits for years and decades in the future. Source reductions from sewage treatment plants and on-site treatment units, for example will take many years to achieve. And even if these inputs could be stopped today, our south shore bays will still be impacted by legacy nitrogen already in the ground for another 5 to 50 years. As Bellport Inlet has demonstrated, greater ocean exchange would help to mitigate these impacts in the interim.
Second, improving water quality through increased ocean exchange would give the estuaries a head start in recovering in the years and decades before the spigots of pollution could be turned off. Eelgrass beds, clam populations and schools of forage fish would benefit from the increased influence of clean ocean water. Lower overall nitrogen levels would also reduce adverse impacts to salt marshes, giving the precious remaining acreage a chance to hold (and gain) ground –especially in the face of rising sea levels– until nitrogen inputs can be reduced.
Finally, there is reason to conclude that even with nitrogen pollution under control the Great South Bay and other portions of the South Shore Estuary Reserve will continue to suffer water quality problems resulting from stagnation. Historically, breaches in the barrier islands regularly opened and closed, allowing greater ocean exchange and tidal flushing throughout the estuary. However, roadways, bridges and other infrastructure, as well as barrier island policies, now combine to nearly eliminate this natural process. The result is that some areas of the South Shore Estuary Reserve, including western Great South Bay and (until recently) Bellport Bay are flushed at rates far below historic levels.
For these reasons, we urge the State to conduct a comprehensive assessment of options for increasing ocean exchange and tidal flushing in the Great South Bay and other estuaries around Long Island. We encourage the State to consider and assess the following: Improve barrier island breach policy; Improve flow through Smith Point Bridge and Wantagh Causeway; Enhance circulation; Augment ocean input; and Increase efficiency of Fire Island Inlet.
Additional details about the proposed actions are contained in Seatuck's full comments.
"A blue jay with an acorn in its mouth, flying to locate a spot to store it for future consumption. Notice the distended throat, an indication the bird has stored a few more acorns in its gular sac, a special pouch in its throat used to store food".
Come the cooler weather many wildlife species begin to harvest and store as a strategy to prepare them for the oncoming winter, when food supplies are much reduced. Observing the interesting behaviors of animals as they undertake this critically important task can be a fun part of your autumn outdoor experience. The food gathering behavior of one specific animal - blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) - was recently on my mind as I sat in a third floor office during a business meeting.
At the meeting I had a clear view out the large double window situated behind one of the participant’s desk which provided an expansive view of the sky and hillside outside of the building situated upon a hilltop. About once a minute a blue jay would fly past the window moving from right to left carrying something large in its mouth. Just as frequently another bird, empty-mouthed would fly in the opposite direction. It took a couple of window passes before I realized what was going on - the blue jays were collecting oak acorns and carrying them away to cache them for future use.
Caching food is a common strategy a number of mammal and bird species employ to tide them through the winter. Squirrels and chipmunks are well known for harvesting large amounts of nuts and seeds and storing them underground to be drawn upon as needed on cold winter days. It is the same in the case with blue jays. A bird will pick a spot to its liking and place an acorn in the ground, typically in soft, moist soil which is more pliable to a jay’s bill. With their survival depending upon an adequate food supply they become industrious animals during the fall, especially the month of October. This industriousness was revealed in a 1986 study in which researchers documented 50 blue jays caching 150,000 acorns in a month - an average of about 110 acorns per bird per day. Moving this number of acorns is assisted by the fact that blue jays can transport several acorns at a time by storing a few in their gular sac, a storage pouch in their throat, and carrying a few more in their bill.
An unintended but unsurprising result of all this acorn caching are the growth of individual oak trees and the spread of oak forests. Blue jays have impressive memories as do all members of the Crow or Corvid family to which they belong. (In fact, their distant cousin, the Clark’s Nutcracker remembers the locations where it has cached thousands of pine nuts). But still, the bird cannot remember every nut or acorn. Or maybe a blue jay plants an acorn and on its way back to get more it becomes food for a Cooper’s Hawk. In any case some untouched acorns, stored a mile or more from the parent tree and having been planted in a good soil environment, sprout and grow.
Thus, we may have blue jays to thank for much of the oak forests of Long Island, the New England area, and the entire eastern United States. In fact, before acorn caching by jays was observed and described in the literature it was a mystery as to how, after the last glacier retreated, the oak forests in the northeastern United States and southern Canada became re-established so quickly. After all, unlike wind blown seeds that can be carried on the wind for great distances, acorns aren’t going to disperse very far from the tree they developed on. But blue jays with their acorn-caching habits greatly accelerated a return of our forests. When I learned this I never looked at Blue Jays the same way again.
- John Turner, Conservation Policy Advocate
Blue Jay photo - Luke Ormand (c) 2015