The School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences is taking an on ambitious project to restore the ecological health of a long-troubled Southampton bay, with the aid of $3 million in grants announced Monday.
Donated by the Laurie Landeau Foundation and Simons Foundation, the millions will enable SoMAS marine scientists to carry out the first phase of the project, which includes planting eelgrass beds and seeding shellfish in the areas of the bay where they will be most likely to flourish.
According to SoMAS scientists, by adding more live organisms to the bay to use up excess nutrients — which are mostly the result of groundwater pollution from septic systems — the bays can be rid of an overabundance of algae that are threatening to marine life and human health.
Shellfish populations have declined in Shinnecock Bay for decades, with one culprit being the algae bloom known as brown tide, a murkiness that blocks sunlight from reaching eelgrass beds, where juvenile clams grow and fish forage.
The project calls for sanctuaries where there can be no fishing or destruction of habitat.
In addition to eelgrass beds for hardshell clams, SoMAS also aims to bring back the oyster population by creating oyster reefs out of rock and clamshells.
Laurie Landeau, whose foundation is dedicated to philanthropy for scientific institutions and science museums, said that the restoration project will show what science and a little thoughtfully placed financial support can do.
"Too often when nature goes awry, we try to fix it with wishful thinking, when she should be fixing it with science," she said, adding that Shinnecock Bay will serve as a microcosm that proves out SoMAS's methodology.
"The strategy for bay restoration seems perfect," said Bob Maze, Ph.D., Landeau's husband. He said while other bay restoration plans have overreached, the "petri dish" of Shinnecock Bay is limited, and the best and brightest are tackling the problem.
"Bring back the bay, pretty soon other things will follow, such as commercial and sports fisheries," said Maze, who operates an oyster aquaculture farm in Maryland with his wife.
SoMAS Professor Chris Gobler, Ph.D., said that back in the 1970s, South Shore clams comprised most of the clams eaten on the entire East Coast, and eelgrass beds extended from Southampton to Westhampton.
But now, things have changes drastically. After years of brown tide and, more recently, red tide, Gobler said more than 4,000 acres of western Shinnecock Bay are essentially uninhabitable for shellfish.
In fact, Gobler said Shinnecock Bay has more intense brown and red tides than anywhere else in the world. And as shellfish populations deplete, there are less clams and oysters to filter the water, he said — creating a worsening cycle.
But Gobler said that "through a decade of science, there is hope.
"We have the great potential to reverse this negative trajectory and restore the ecosystem of Shinnecock Bay."
Rich Gelfond, the Southampton Brook Foundation president and a resident of Southampton Town, praised the project. He said that he is a survivor of mercury poisoning, which is typically caused by eating contaminant laden fish, and he noted that red tide toxins, too, can accumulate in shellfish and be harmful to humans.
"As someone who really loves to eat oysters, especially Long Island oysters ... I'm incredibly grateful that we're going to have the Shinnecock oysters back," Gelfond said.
Associate Professor Brad Peterson, Ph.D., during a tour Monday on a SoMAS research vessel, said the plan includes two oyster sanctuaries of 1 acre each, and just 1 acre is enough habitat for tens of millions of oysters.
"Oysters are the workhorse as far as filtration," he said.
To demonstrate how effective oysters can be at clearing the bay, Peterson displayed two bottles of water he collected Monday morning, one from the Shinnecock Inlet area, which was clear, and one from Quantuck Bay in Westhampton, which was green and murky with phytoplankton. At the beginning of the boat trip, four oysters were put inside the gallon or so of Quantuck water. An hour later, the murky water had become almost as clear as the inlet sample.
"In Great South Bay, in 1976, there were enough hard clams on the bottom that the entire volume of the Great South Bay went through the gut of a hard clam every three days," Peterson said. "Now, given the the current densities, it takes 110 days."
He said the goal for Shinnecock Bay is to bring the rate down from 80 days to four.
SoMAS has built a website on the project at shinnecockbay.org.