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Fish, turtle die-offs signal a Long Island crisis

Thousands of dead bunker fish cover the shore

Thousands of dead bunker fish cover the shore at Indian Island County Park Beach in Riverhead on Sunday, May 30, 2015. Credit: Randee Daddona

The photos are appalling. Dead bunker fish by the thousands in the Peconic Estuary, their carcasses massing in the waters and piling onto shores. The culprit, experts say, was excessive nitrogen that fueled algal blooms, which reduced oxygen in the water to the point that the fish could not survive. The die-off came a month after some 100 diamondback turtles washed ashore in the same general area of the East End, killed by a biotoxin produced by a different nitrogen-related algae. Shellfish that eat the algae poisoned the turtles that ate them.

The twin mass die-offs scream for urgency. This nitrogen crisis is killing our waters. Long Island -- whose waters are the very essence of its identity -- has no time to waste.

Bunker fish, used mostly for bait and fertilizer, often are chased by predators into shallow waters and deplete oxygen on their own. But this die-off was massive and coincided with a spike in nitrogen in the water.

The current state budget contains $5 million to study the sources and effects of nitrogen contamination and come up with a plan to reverse it. That's good. But that effort is just beginning, and studies and plans often get mired in years of bureaucracy and political wrangling. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and our legislative leaders must give the state Department of Environmental Conservation the resources it needs to do the work as quickly as possible.

In the meantime, many others can play a role. Homeowners, farmers and golf courses could reduce fertilizer use on their own. Suffolk County is testing high-tech septic systems and working to make them affordable to homeowners. Riverhead Town is upgrading its sewage treatment plant in the area. But we need a comprehensive plan.

This is not just a problem. It's an emergency. And that's how we need to respond.