Brown tide threatens South Shore bays

The dreaded brown tide is back in some South Shore bays, threatening everything from eelgrass to scallops, but Great South Bay has been spared so far thanks to superstorm Sandy, a marine scientist said Friday.

Levels of the tiny algae causing the destructive blooms have reached densities of 800,000 cells per milliliter in western Shinnecock Bay, said Christopher Gobler, a professor with Stony Brook University's School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. Densities above 50,000 cells can be harmful to marine life.

Other areas badly affected by brown tide are eastern Moriches Bay and Quantuck Bay. The latest tests were conducted June 1.


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"It's not good news," Gobler said. "It's still a little early. Things could ramp up further through the month of June."

So far at least, the current levels are not as high as last year, when they hit 2 million cells per milliliter.

While not harmful to humans, brown tides are a problem for eelgrass and bay scallops, and to a lesser degree other shellfish and finfish. It first appeared in large amounts in Long Island waters in 1985. Its main cause is nitrogen emanating from septic systems, Gobler said.

"I'm fishing in the western Shinnecock Bay and the water is terrible," said Edward Warner Jr., a Town of Southampton trustee and a professional bayman. He said it had been that way for the past two years "and it's progressively gotten worse."

"Every year the brown tide seems to appear at the same time the shellfish spawn," he said.

The situation in the Great South Bay is better, Gobler said. There, levels are between 10,000 and 20,000 cells per milliliter.

The creation of a new inlet on the eastern end of Fire Island after Sandy is probably helping to "flush out" the brown tide from the bay, Gobler said.

Carl LoBue, a senior marine scientist with the Nature Conservancy on Long Island, said that could be good news for his group's efforts to revive the bay's clam population.

"The Great South Bay has looked better than I have seen in years," LoBue said.

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