By Rafael Cruvinel
As a sunny spring morning rises at Shinnecock Bay, workers start to load boats with equipment for the day, birds sing in the sky and a soft breeze cools the air. Clear aquamarine waters stretch to the horizon.
Years ago, it was possible to spot red tides polluting these same waters, as if blood had been spilled all over the surface. However, an intervention by scientists from Stony Brook University made the seaweed that grows in the bottom of the bay visible again.
The Shinnecock Inlet is part of a system of five inlets that connect bays to the Atlantic Ocean through an area that stretches from New York City to Southampton. According to a news article published by the university and to the Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program’s official website, in recent decades, the bay suffered from problems including harmful algal blooms, brown and red tides and poor water quality, which are associated with high nitrogen levels.
Such issues are harmful not only to the marine life of the bay but also to human beings who consume the water. During a recent lecture on the State of the Bays, Christopher Gobler, one of the program’s co-principal investigators, said that data from the New York State Department of Health showed that consuming nitrate-rich water is associated with diseases like kidney and lung cancer.
Thinking of these problems and of its consequences, scientists from the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and from the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science created together a restoration project for the bay in 2012.
Christine Santora, one of the project’s coordinators, said in an interview that the main cause of the problems in Shinnecock Bay is waste water. In most developed areas, she said, sewers take waste from individual households to treatment stations where all the pollutants are removed from the waste before the pipes dump it in the water.
But the communities surrounding Shinnecock Bay lack sewer systems.
Instead, Santora said, "It’s individual homes’ septic systems, which are having this untreated waste seep into the ground and make its way into Shinnecock Bay."
Santora explained that the best solution the research team came up with was to plant hard clams in the bay, creating a "higher water filtration capacity." Hard clams filter water through their digestive systems as they feed, and, because of that, they mitigate the impact of nitrogen coming from the septic systems.
Santora said that the group chose this solution because creating a sewer system for the households in the area would be too expensive for the owners. Moreover, she said, a sewer system would take too long to show results.
"Those solutions should be pursued, but we felt like we couldn’t wait," she said. "We didn’t want to wait to see the bay go downhill."
The project’s operation, Santora explained, had two parts.
The first was to design the project, raise money–which, in this case, came mainly from private donors –and get permission from the Town of Southampton and from New York State.
The second was to experiment with different strategies and see whether they worked. For example, she said, the team started by planting small clams, but they were unable to filter enough water and were being eaten by predators. Therefore, she explained, the scientists decided to plant bigger clams, which were more expensive but more effective. Santora highlighted that the species they used were normally found in the area.
"We would purchase the clams and keep them refrigerated, and then we would put them in the water," she said.
Now, 10 years after its creation, the project shows its positive impact.
Professor Gobler explained in his lecture that, since the project started, brown tides have disappeared from the bay and 400,000 square meters, roughly 74 football fields, of seagrass regrew. Moreover, clam populations grew in density by 2,000%.
Although this project worked, Santora said, there are still places on Earth that need restoration, but scientists in these places might not have the resources scientists at Stony Brook had.
"I think that in terms of our project, one limitation would be ‘how do you make it replicable in places that don’t have the resources that we have?’” she said.
For Shinnecock Bay, Santora said, the positive cycle will continue. She explained that the clams are not only filtering the water but also reproducing and making new generations of clams, which will keep the bay clean.
"We are giving the bay a chance to come back to life," she said.