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Our waters, climate, need more TLC

Peconic Bay scallops have suffered catastrophic die-offs.

Peconic Bay scallops have suffered catastrophic die-offs. Credit: Randee Daddona

Occasionally in my work as a marine scientist, I find a sparse patch of sea grass with a spatter of tiny, juvenile bay scallops tacked to the blades. Like misshapen brown buttons sewed to the foliage, they seem so precarious.

And after the sting of two consecutive summer bay scallop die-offs and the virtual elimination of the Peconic Bay scallop fishery, the value of these mollusks and their local habitat is evident. With the recent mass mortality events and intermittent reports of harmful algal blooms and fish kills, it can be easy to overlook the progress being made toward restoring our waters.

The recent policies geared toward fixing the nitrogen pollution problem fueling algal blooms and coastal degradation are encouraging. Suffolk County’s Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan, approved last year, will vastly improve the county’s leaky wastewater infrastructure via sewage and on-site wastewater treatment systems.

Complementing these actions, Long Islanders are adopting innovative approaches to revitalize our bays. Local oyster farmers, for instance, are collaborating with researchers to grow kelp on rope lines. Think of hop cultivation, but turned horizontally and submerged underwater. This win-win removes excess nutrients and carbon dioxide — ingredients for algal blooms — from the water, while also providing oyster growers a potential secondary stream of income.

Oysters, along with other bivalves such as hard clams, benefit our bays by filtering out excess algae that would otherwise die and decay, depleting dissolved oxygen. Efforts to improve water filtration in Shinnecock Bay have led to clam proliferation, three consecutive years without brown tide algal blooms, and an expansion of sea grass habitat. Moreover, hard clam landings in Shinnecock Bay have exploded to their highest level in more than 30 years.

Although addressing our water quality issues is key to injecting life and value back into our bays, it is only half a solution. The other half must involve climate change mitigation.

Four of the six hottest years on record for the Peconic Estuary have occurred since 2016, according to 18 years of satellite data. We are testing hypotheses on how high temperatures have contributed to the mass mortality of our bay scallops, be it through environmental stress, increased parasite susceptibility, and/or a new warm-water predator.

But identifying the cause of these die-offs alone will not guarantee more bay scallops. One recent study concluded that future ocean carbon dioxide levels under unabated climate change will exacerbate scallop population declines because young scallops struggle to create shells in waters with high levels of carbon dioxide.

To prevent further increases of heat and carbon dioxide to the ocean, climate action is vital. As we celebrate Earth Day Thursday, the White House will host a virtual global climate summit. Long Island can lead by decarbonizing our energy supply through solar photovoltaics and offshore wind power.

Last month, the state approved a cable for a proposed wind farm that would sit 35 miles off the coast of Montauk. Also last month, East Hampton Town adopted a resolution recognizing the climate emergency and affirming its commitment to a transition to clean energy by 2030. But why not all of Long Island? We have good reasons to, our shellfisheries being just one.

The ingenuity used to address our water quality issues should also be applied toward achieving a net-zero carbon future. Across many of our bays and estuaries we are seeing important gains, so let’s fully commit and see it through.

Stephen Tomasetti is a doctoral candidate at Stony Brook University and an adjunct at Adelphi University.

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