Sunday, October 23, 2016


Almost always, when we think about coastal fisheries issues, we concentrate on the fish themselves.  Is recruitment adequate?  Are too many fish being killed?  Has the population become too small?

Those are all important questions, but sometimes we seem to forget that fish live in water, and that coastal waters need to kept in a condition conducive to life.  We also tend to forget that fish that need not only good water, but an intact habitat that provides adequate places to spawn, to grow, to feed and to shelter.

We’ve recently been reminded of that here on Long Island, in both positive and negative ways.

On the down side, Long Island waters are becoming increasingly threatened by nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from both fertilizers and septic systems.  Such runoff is leading to algae blooms that suck oxygen out of the bays they occur, creating hypoxic conditions that have led to massive fish kills.

The runoff, perhaps paired with warming waters, has also caused the emergence of a new threat, blooms of a phytoplankton capable of producing saxitoxin.  While such blooms have not led to fish kills, they have the potential to kill people, as the saxitoxin concentrates in shellfish, and can cause anyone who eats such contaminated shellfish to contract potentially fatal paralytic shellfish poisoning.

Even when such extreme events do not occur, blooms of the so called “brown tide” and “mahogany tide” can reduce oxygen in the bay enough to force fish out into the inlets and oceans for most of the summer.  They also disrupt the bay ecosystem by cutting off the sunlight that submerged aquatic vegetation such as eelgrass needs to survive and, by the sheer numbers of minute phytoplankton involved, make it difficult for mollusks such as clams and scallops to feed effectively.

There’s an old saying that “the solution to pollution is dilution.”  While that was probably never true, at least once people started congregating together in large villages, much less in huge urban/suburban complexes such as Long Island, once pollution of any sort enters the waterway, the only two options are to try to contain it, or to dilute it as quickly and as completely as possible.

The nitrates and phosphates that run into our waterways will hopefully, in time, be curtailed, but once in the groundwater or in the creeks and rivers feeding into the bays, they can’t be effectively contained, leaving dilution as the only option.

In the fall of 2012, we learned how well that worked, as “Superstorm”, nee Hurricane, Sandy swept across Long Island and cut three new inlets through the barrier beach.  

Two of those inlets were quickly filled in and closed by the Army Corps of Engineers, pursuant to New York’s Breach Contingency Plan.  The Corps wanted to close the third inlet, too, but that one carved its way through the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dunes Wilderness Area, where the provisions of the Breach Contingency Plan do not automatically apply.

The third breach allowed ocean water to feed into Bellport Bay, the easternmost section of Great South Bay, for the first time in almost 200 years, when another inlet in about the same place was closed by natural forces.

Historically, Bellport Bay had the highest dissolved oxygen levels in Great South Bay.  There was little exchange of water between Bellport Bay and the ocean, resulting in phytoplankton blooms and low dissolved oxygen levels.  From an angler’s perspective, Bellport Bay was effectively a dead sea for most of the fishing season.

However, once the ocean broke through at Old Inlet, all of that changed.  Tom Schlicter, the outdoor columnist for the Long Island newspaper Newsday, described what happened next.

“…the past several summers have seen a nice influx of fluke and summer school weakfish inside bay waters adjacent to this stretch.  For the past few springs, big blues and striped bass have followed schools of bunker into the area, and returned again each fall in numbers on one remembers ever being present this far back in the bay.
“It’s hard to say if the bait and predator species came rushing through the new gap in the barrier island or if the flushing action of the breach has attracted some fish while also making the waters more inviting to predators entering from Moriches and Fire Island inlets.  Either way, it’s pumped a lot of life into the estuary here—much of it along the mainland shore where anglers can cast from local docks and bay beaches.”
That shouldn’t be surprising, because the life in the bay evolved as part of the dynamic barrier system, composed of barrier islands, inlets and lagoons, where new inlets were regularly opening while old inlets closed, as the barrier islands reshaped themselves to fit the demands of wind and tide.

When people try to interfere with that dynamic system, in order to protect their investments in island marinas and summer homes, you end up with dead seas such as Bellport Bay before it was rescued by Sandy.

Even so, there are continuing rumors that the Corps of Engineers is still trying to convince people to close it.
Such effort flies in the face of other information that the Corps has had on hand for some time.  

In conjunction with its multi-billion-dollar Fire Island to Montauk Storm Damage Reduction Reformulation Study, the Corps interviewed Long Island baymen in 2000, on issues that included the impact of new inlets cut by storms.  The baymen’s comments were consistent.

“The breach agreement allows the government to fill in any breach, but breaches are the best thing for the bay, and hopefully they will continue.  Pike’s and Little Pike’s Inlets were the two breaches.  After the breach in the fall of 1992, water quality improved tremendously in Moriches Bay, and the scallop population soared.  Without a doubt the breach made the water cleaner and clearer, breaches also make a very productive bottom.  The Brookhaven Baymen’s Association fought to keep the breach open because of the excellent water quality in the west end of Moriches Bay…”
“’No flushing makes a dead sea.’  Quantuck Bay, between Moriches and Shinnecock Bays, is always brown.  There is no flushing in Quantuck Bay, and in the summer the brown tide percolates and turns the water brown.  There is seasonal shellfishing in the winter months, but you can’t make a day’s pay, and the clams don’t look healthy.  There is not enough oxygen for the clams on the bottom.  Clams need to have a frequent flushing over them, and a soft and clean bottom without silt build-up…”
“…there is no water flow in Great South Bay.  After the breach there was good clamming and fishing.  There is no flushing now.  There was flushing and growth during that time, but there’s no flushing now.  Well-flushed areas support life, but stagnant areas do not…”
“The change in water quality occurred after Pike’s Breach.  Fishing improved at that time, and the fish were plentiful…more inlets are needed increase flushing and diffuse and dilute pollution levels.”

“One bayman said that he never saw the bottom of Bellport Bay until the breach occurred.  The last good year for water quality and harvesting shellfish was 1994.  You could find quahogs, scallops, and razor and soft-shell clams.  There were massive amounts of clams.  One bayman got approximately 20 bags of shellfish in 45 minutes.  He couldn’t scoop them up fast enough.  Fishing was also good for approximately 1 year after the breach.”
The breaches referred to in the comments were cut through Pike’s Beach in Westhampton after two severe nor’easters raked Long Island in late 1992.  Despite the breaches’ obvious benefits to the water quality and life in the bays, and the baymen’s effots to keep such breaches open, they were closed by the Army Corps of Engineers nearly a year after they were opened.  

Such breaches, and their eventual closing, gave birth to the aforementioned Breach Contingency Plan, which mandates the closure of new breaches as soon as they occur.

No one knows for certain why the closures originally took place, or why the Breach Contingency plan “had to” be drafted, but one bayman interviewed by the Corps put the blame on local real estate interests, saying

“…consultants for West Hampton Dunes [a community cut off from the rest of Long Island by the Pike’s Beach breaches] threatened [the West End Baymen’s Association’s] president by saying if you support the baymen we’re going to publicize that Moriches Bay is loaded with transformers that fell off the telephone poles and put PCB’s [sic] (polychlorinated biphenlyls) in the water.  The pressure to fill in the breach and build houses back on the beach was so great that anything was said to make that happen, and not to make the area part of the National Seashore…”
The bottom line is that the Army Corps of Engineers were clearly told that storm-cut breaches in the barrier beach benefited life in the bay, and that closing such breaches did significant harm to shellfish, fish and the industries that depend on them.

Thus, today, the Corps of Engineers is planning to spend over a billion taxpayer dollars to better assure that such lifegiving breaches don’t occur again, so that Long Island’s bays might enjoy a fishless stagnation for much of the year.

To that end, it’s worthwhile to look at one old-time baymen’s comments with respect to Shinnecock Bay and Shinnecock Inlet, which inlet began its existence as a “breach” cut by the great hurricane of 1938.

“Before the 1938 hurricane created Shinnecock Inlet, Shinnecock Bay’s only source of salt water was Moriches Bay.  It was like Mecox Bay.  There wasn’t much flush here.  It used to stink from the lack of flushing.  There were also crabs because of the brackish water before the 1938 hurricane.  The trouble is getting the crab spawn to survive.  After the breach you could get 30-40 bushels of blue crab/day…”
When reading those words, it’s worth remembering that if the Breach Contingency Plan had b een in place back then, and if the Army Corps of Engineers had the same attitude in 1938 that it has today, Shinnecock Inlet would have been closed as soon as humanly possible once the hurricane had passed.  

Instead of the clear, vital Shinnecock Bay that we have today, which supports many commercial and recreational fisheries, we would have a still, stinking, fetid pool that, given the nearby housing activity, and accompanying septic tank construction, that has occurred in the last eighty years, would have all of the attraction of an open sewer.

So it’s not hard to argue that the whole premise of the Contingency Plan, that breaches be closed as quickly as possible, might run contrary to both experience and common sense, and is in need of substantial review…

Yet the Corps’ sand-pumping (I had originally mistyped that “sand-pimping,” and still wonder whether that might be a better description) efforts don’t only cause harm to fish habitat inside the bay.  They damage oceanfront habitat as well.

That has been a big issue down in New Jersey, where the Corps’ sand-pumping efforts have turned into a sort of double-whammy that plagues both fish and fishermen.  

First, the Corps is pumping sand from offshore ridges that have long been considered essential fish habitat and important fishing grounds.  Tom Dillingham, director of the American Littoral Society, a venerable marine conservation group, notes that

“They’re sacrificing the health of fish habitat for the protection of housing developments along the beaches.”

“The best sand is often in areas with the most fish, or at least the healthiest benthic communities—those with shellfish, worms, invertebrates and other marine organisms that live on the ocean floor and attract fish.”
Ken Warchal, a vice-president of the Jersey Coast Anglers Association, observed that

“The Army Corps of Engineers’ own environmental assessment shows that Manasquan Ridge prime, essential fish habitat.”
However, the thought of severely damaging essential fish habitat doesn’t deter the Army Corps from their sand-pumping mission.   In the words of the Corps’ Keith Watson,

“When we were approved to use those areas, they were not essential fish habitat.  It’s the approved borrow area for the hardest-hit reach from Sandy.  Everything else is not compatible for [sand] grain size or has other issues.”
In the true manner of bureaucrats everywhere, the Corps seems resistant to changing a course that has already been decided, regardless of whether the latest scientific information now suggests that moving forward is not a good idea.

And once the sand gets to the beach, it does more harm, burying inshore structures and the ecosystems that they support.  

To be fair, much of that structure comes in the form of jetties created in earlier beach stabilization efforts.  However, much like the Hudson River piers in Manhattan, which frustrated the Westway project years ago, New Jersey’s jetties have now become the focus of a host of marine organisms, and so have integrated themselves into the marine environment.  Burying them would do environmental harm.

New Jersey anglers are quick to point out the problem.  An article in the Asbury Park Press explained their concerns.

“What’s even worse, said [Joe] Pailotto, [Chairman of the Asbury Park Fishing Club,] is that the project will effectively turn a thriving ecosystem into a desert.
“One area that will receive tons of sand is known as ‘jetty country,’ a stretch of rockpiles and groins that act as a nursery for a wide variety of fish and marine life, and offers some of the best recreational fishing along the Atlantic coast.
“’Would you bury a coral reef?’ asked Greg Hueth, president of the Shark River Surf Anglers.  ‘All that habitat will be filled in and destroyed and won’t come back.  It’s like burying someone alive.’”
Yet burying ecosystems alive is what the Army Corps does, and has been doing for a very long time. 

Although I’ve tried to limit this essay to the areas that I know best—Long Island’s South Shore Bays and the coast along the New York Bight—it’s impossible to ignore the damage that the Corps has done to coral reefs off southern Florida, smothering them with silt from channel dredging operations.

And it was typical of the Corps that, instead of admitting its culpability, it argued that the coral damage was caused by disease, and not by its dredging efforts, perhaps to better assure that its future dredging plans, near other reefs, will not be reexamined.  

Such claim was easily dismissed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration which, unlike the Corps, is legally responsible for keeping corals, and other marine organisms, healthy and alive.

One could, in fact, easily argue that, rather than being responsible for keeping marine organisms that are affected by its operations alive, the Army Corps of Engineers far exceeds any other federal agency when it comes to the damage done to a wide array of marine life, and the damage wrought to marine ecosystems.

Thus, I was somewhat perplexed not long ago, when I was reading a new report issued by the Center for Coastal Conservation, entitled A Vision for Marine Fisheries Management in the 21st Century, and subtitled, Priorities for a New Administration.

I’ll undoubtedly discuss that report, in excess detail, in future blog posts.  It provides a lot of grist for the mill.  But the statement relevant here is that

“the recreational fishing community supports a strongly funded US Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) with a robust recreational fishing and boating program.  The Corps’ protection and restoration programs seek to re-establish the natural functions of America’s rivers, lakes, wetlands and coasts.  In addition, the Corps’ navigation and development projects mitigate important aquatic habitats and provide access for recreational boaters and anglers.”
While the Corps does play a significant role in dam removal, and in that way arguably contributes to “re-establish[ing] that natural functions of America’s rivers, (although it probably also played a role in damming them up in the first place) ” its history of channelizing rivers and destroying much of their ability to support anadromous fish runs and other forms of aquatic life, alone, more than offsets any good done elsewhere.

As far as the rest of it goes, well, Long Island’s baymen, quoted above, tell us all we need to know about what happens when the Corps engages in projects to “mitigate important aquatic habitats.”  “

“Mitigate,” as used here, is just another word for “degrade,” if not for “destroy.”

Thus, it seems very curious that an organization that tries to convince the public that it stands for “conservation,” and even has that word in its name, would want to provide more funding to the Corps of Engineers.

Of course, these are the same folks who want to weaken the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, so that anglers can continue to overfish and not worry about rebuilding once-overfished stocks.

Maybe when you take that sort of thing into account, supporting the Corps makes some sort of sense.

Or at least, has a certain consistency…

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