Thursday, July 6, 2017


Inshore fishing on Long Island hasn’t been too exciting this year.

Some of that was expected.  The winter flounder population collapsed long ago, and fluke—summer flounder—have experienced six years of below average spawns, which has left us with a handful of big fish, some shorts, and a very slow pick of just-legal keepers.

On the other hand, the weakfish season started off pretty well, with a fair number of small-to-medium fish—1 ½ to maybe 5 or 6 pounds—being caught in the bays during May.  But that fishery suffered a premature death after an early bloom of “brown tide” that turned out to be the most intense brown tide event in the history of Great South Bay.

Brown tide is caused by the microscopic alga Aureococcus anophagefferens, an organism so small that it cannot be captured by important filter feeders such as oysters, hard clams and bay scallops.  

Because such mollusks are unable to filter out and feed on individual bits of Aureococcus, when the algae is hyperabundant, it can prevent shellfish, particularly young-of-the-year shellfish, from obtaining enough of their typical foods, leading to starvation and death.  Entire year classes of both bay scallops and hard clams have been killed off by severe brown tides.

Brown tide also limits the amount of sunlight that can penetrate bay waters, and thus prevents eelgrass, one of the key components of the bay ecosystem, from photosynthesizing.  That has, in turn, led to the death of eelgrass beds located in somewhat deeper bay waters, and has weakened other beds that receive insufficient light to thrive.

Fish avoid severe brown tide blooms.  Researchers at Stony Brook University report that Aureococcus densities greater than about 50,000 cells per milliliter will have detrimental impacts on marine life.  Already this season, scientists sampling Great South Bay waters have reported densities as high as 2,300,000 cells per milliliter.  That’s more than two million Aureococcus cells packed into a cube that measures less than a half-inch on each side. 

That sample was taken close to one of my favorite weakfish spots, and pretty much explains why the weakfishing fell apart around Memorial Day…

The thing is, brown tide blooms only began to occur in Great South Bay during the mid-1980s; before that, they were completely unknown.  Scientists have linked the blooms to heavy influxes of certain nitrates that flow into the bays, largely from septic tank runoff and high-nitrogen fertilizers, both of which are a direct result of Long Island’s high population density
Despite some laws limiting the use of high-nitrogen fertilizers by both farmers and homeowners (but not, for obviously political reasons, by golf courses), any efforts to correct the problem will take a long time and will have to overcome a number of hurdles.

Yet as bad as the fertilizer may be for the bay, septic tank runoff is probably worse.  Suffolk County, the largest county on Long Island and the source of most of the septic tank runoff, has initiated a program to replace over 800,000 runoff-prone septic tanks with higher-tech units that will limit the amount of nitrates that flow into the bay.  However, any such replacement will take time.  It will also take a lot of money, so much money that the ultimate completion of any replacement program remains very much in doubt.

Until such replacement takes place, anglers can probably assume that Great South Bay’s waters will remain brown and largely fishless for most of each summer.

Unfortunately, Long Island’s water problems only reflect what goes on elsewhere along the coast.

One of the worst water quality events of recent years occurred last summer down in Florida, after heavy rains raised water levels in the badly polluted Lake Okeechobee to some of the highest levels on record, and the Army Corps of Engineers chose to release those waters into various canals and rivers and, ultimately, into Florida’s coastal waters, where the pollutants triggered a massive algae bloom.

“The green, putrid sludge coating south Florida’s usually scenic coastline and waterways looks a lot like what happens to leftovers abandoned in an unreachable corner of the refrigerator.
“In some places, the water seems to be growing thick, furry mold.  The goop has been likened to the texture of chunky guacamole and compared to a festering, infected sore…
“The mysterious blooms sprang up in June and seem to be spreading.  They’ve given south Florida residents rashes and coughs and are choking the oxygen out of the region’s wildlife-rich waters, threatening fish, birds, and the once-endangered manatee.”
That only made things worse in places such as the once fish-filled waters at the south end of the Indian River Lagoon which, like Long Island, had a serious problem with brown tide.  There, according to the Daytona Beach News-Journal,

“Decades of ditching, draining and pollution left the lagoon system vulnerable and tipped toward catastrophe, experts say.  Over the past three years, massive algae blooms have blocked light to the sea grasses, the foundation of the diverse ecosystem.  More than 60 percent of its sea grasses—at least 47,000 acres—are gone.  Scientists are looking into whether the algae blooms are a factor in the marine life deaths.
“Repairing the damage to the lagoon system will take years and agency wish lists for restoration projects total in the billions of dollars…”
The same discharges caused serious problems on Florida’s southwest coast, which was already suffering from a fish kill caused by red tide.

“Scientists expect this year’s summer Chesapeake Bay hypoxic or ‘dead zone”—an area of low to no oxygen that can kill fish and aquatic life—will be larger than average, approximately 1.89 cubic miles, or nearly the volume of 3.2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools.
“Measurements for the Bay’s dead zone go back to 1950, and the 30-year mean maximum dead zone volume is 1.74 cubic miles…
“The Bay’s hypoxic (low oxygen) and anoxic (oxygen-free) zones are caused by excess nitrogen pollution, primarily from human activities such as agriculture and wastewater.”
However, the dead zone in the Chesapeake pales before the one in the Gulf of Mexico, which is expected to include an expanse of water as large as the State of New Jersey this summer.  

“It’s caused mainly by nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrient pollution—largely produced by human agricultural activities—running into rivers that eventually empty into the Gulf.”
It’s pretty intuitive that “dead zones” aren’t good for either fish or for fishermen, and that nitrogen- and phosphorus-based pollution is causing fish and fishermen problems along the entire coast, from the Northeast down past New Orleans.  And it’s pretty clear that addressing that pollution problem is going to be a long, complex and expensive undertaking, one far too complex and far too expensive to be addressed on a local level.

Because water—and pollutants—cross many jurisdictional boundaries, and because the harm done to one state’s waters may result from actions taken a thousand miles away, only a comprehensive federal response can ultimately address the nitrogen pollution problem.

Unfortunately, the federal government doesn’t appear to be a reliable partner in the effort to clean up coastal waters.

“The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides categorical grants to help fund State environmental program offices and activities.  Many States have been delegated authority to implement and enforce Federal environmental laws including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act.  The Budget proposes to reduce many of these grants and eliminate others…
 “The Budget proposes to eliminate or substantially reduce Federal involvement in State environmental activities that go beyond EPA’s statutory requirements.  States may be able to adjust to reduced funding levels by reducing or eliminating additional activities not required under Federal law, prioritizing programs, and seeking other funding sources including fees.”
Which pretty much means that brown tide, other harmful algae blooms, and polluted runoff, are here to stay, unless Congress gets off their collective butts and adopts a budget that recognizes that an investment in clean water, and the resultant healthy ecosystems and the fisheries that they support, will pay dividends over the long haul.

And while the states won’t be getting any more federal funds, they will be getting a bigger share of the responsibility for enforcing things such as clean water laws, as the Administration’s 2018 Budget

“proposes to reduce the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) environmental enforcement activities…
“The Budget allows the agency to maintain a core enforcement oversight role to ensure a consistent and effective program, but eliminates duplications of enforcement actions carried out by the States, and focuses Federal enforcement efforts on those States that do not have delegated authority.” 
So it seems that the White House is forcing the states to choose between spending what dollars they have on either adopting pollution abatement programs that they can't afford to enforce, or retaining enforcement staff that will have few any anti-pollution programs to enforce.

Either way, they get to about the same place.

But while the Administration Budget may not do much to protect clean water or preserve coastal fisheries, it is doing what it can to protect and preserve the dead zone in Chesapeake Bay, claiming that

“State and local groups are engaged and capable of taking on management and clean-up and management”
of the Chesapeake and other water bodies.

Of course, details on how Maryland and Virginia will be able to prevent Pennsylvania corn farmers from letting too much fertilizer flow off their lands and down to the bay were not forthcoming…

The Environmental Protection Agency has also recently announced that it intends to roll back the so-called “Waters of the United States” rule, which extends Clean Water Act protections to headwater streams, marshes and other smaller waters that were not previously covered by that law.  

Assuming that the agency’s rollback is successful, pig farmers in Iowa will again be perfectly free to let manure from their holding pools flow into local freshets, thence into larger waters and finally into the Gulf of Mexico, in order to nourish the dead zone there and encourage it to grow, knowing that they will be in complete compliance with federal law.

That’s not very good for fish in the Gulf of Mexico, and it’s somewhat surprising that the same folks down on the Gulf who are willing to demand that the Administration lets them kill more red snapper aren’t doing more to protect the waters that those same snapper need to spawn, feed and—let’s be honest—just breathe

Anoxia is at least as deadly to red snapper as commercial and for-hire fishermen, so it’s somewhat strange that the people willing to castigate the latter when given the slightest opportunity are willing to bathe the former in benign neglect.

The bottom line is that anglers need fish, and fish need water clean enough to support their prey, shelter their young and otherwise allow them to survive in a functioning, intact ecosystem.

I spend a lot of time on this blog writing about biology, laws and regulations, but water quality is an important issue to.
It’s probably the most important issue of all.  And yet it’s the one that receives the least attention from the recreational fishing industry, the boatbuilders and the anglers’ rights crowd.

Maybe we all ought to stop and wonder why.

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