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NPS: Fire Island Breach made by Sandy in Mother Nature’s hands

Sandy cut three breaches along the barrier island, including the one that remains open in the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness Area.

A breach caused by Superstorm Sandy at the

A breach caused by Superstorm Sandy at the eastern end of Fire Island, as seen on March 16, 2016. Photo Credit: Doug Kuntz

The fate of the breach that Superstorm Sandy cut through a remote stretch of Fire Island National Seashore will likely be left to Mother Nature, under a draft plan by the National Park Service.

Should the breach close on its own, the Park Service will not seek to open it back up, despite evidence it has improved water quality in parts of the Great South Bay, the document, published Tuesday, said.

“The National Park Service wants these areas to evolve as naturally as possible,” said Kaetlyn Jackson, a park planner for the National Seashore.

When Sandy hit Long Island, it cut breaches in three places along the barrier island. Openings near Smith Point County Park and Cupsogue County Park were filled in with sand by work crews during the following weeks. The third was left alone because it was in the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness Area, a natural area that is supposed to remain “untrammeled or un-manipulated,” according to federal documents.

Under its preferred plan, the Park Service would continue to watch the breach and initiate more monitoring to evaluate if the opening creates flooding hazards or threats to safety. Tide gauges and water levels would be included among the factors studied, Jackson said.

“Human intervention to close the breach would only occur ‘to prevent loss of life, flooding, and other severe economic and physical damage to the Great South Bay and surrounding areas,’” the plan said.

Studies show tide levels have remained relative stable, salinity levels have increased and tides come about 30 minutes earlier in Bellport Bay. A study released earlier this year documented an increase in salt-loving and migratory species such as bluefish, mantis shrimp and lady crabs — findings that indicate a more resilient food web and mature ecosystem.

“The conditions of Great South Bay would continue to be influenced by the exchange of the bay and ocean water, which seems to be contributing to the recovery of system maturity, a benefit for the ecosystem,” the plan said.

Closing the breach would be considered a man-made creation diminishing the undeveloped nature of the area and construction equipment would degrade visitor experiences. Water quality would also be degraded because the flow of water between the ocean and bay would stop, possibly leading to an increase in brown-tide algal blooms, the plan said.

Water quality around Bellport Bay east to Narrow Bay has improved, said Chris Gobler, a professor at the Stony Brook School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.

“The level of algae are lower,” he said. “The level of nitrogen is lower. The water clarity is deeper. Clam growth rates are higher. All the things we want to see in that region have definitely been better with the new inlet in place.”

The management plan, published in the Federal Register, is pending a signoff by the Park Service regional director, which cannot happen until at least Jan. 22 due to federal regulations.

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