By Kevin Urgiles and Arielle Martinez
A new report card for the Long Island Sound’s ecological health sparked debate among marine experts on Sept. 17 about how to better represent the health of the estuary.
The report, which shows the results in letter grades ranging from A to F, was reviewed at a meeting at Stony Brook University for members of the Long Island Sound Study, a coalition of New York and Connecticut agencies and nonprofit organizations that work to restore and protect the Sound. Most scientists suggested using a numbers system would be less confusing.
“Coming out of this, people are like, ‘Well geez, can I eat the oysters and clams out of Oyster Bay?’” Paul DeOrsay, the executive director of Friends of the Bay, said. “And the answer is ‘Yes you can.’ It’s very closely monitored.”
The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science published the first report card for the Sound in June and has published others for the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico in the past.
Members from citizen advocacy groups approved of the letter grades that the report card used to evaluate ecological health benchmarks, whereas marine scientists tended to favor publishing actual numerical measurements, R. Lawrence Swanson, associate dean of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, said.
The Sound faces many problems that have adverse biological effects on the species that live in it, according to the report card.
“It’s almost impossible to overestimate the importance of the Sound, ecologically, economically, and culturally, to the region,” Caroline Donovan, a project manager for the Maryland center, said.
Nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, which come from human sources like wastewater and fertilizer, cause too much algae to grow in the water. When the algae die and decompose, they lead to a lack of dissolved oxygen, which fish need to survive, according to the report card.
Researchers at Stony Brook have looked into the causes of dissolved oxygen depletion, or hypoxia, in Smithtown Bay, Swanson said.
“It has to do with the relatively poor flushing of the bay, weather and so forth,” he said. “Groundwater is a potential source of nutrients that contribute to hypoxic conditions in the bay.”
The report card also measures water clarity. It is difficult for fish to find prey and for underwater plants like eelgrass to grow without clear water, according to the report card.
“The closer you get to the city, the more problems you have,” DeOrsay said. “And the problems are wastewater, sewage is a big one, and then chemical toxins and those sorts of things.”
The report card gave the Sound’s Western Narrows an “F” grade for ecological health, but the easternmost region of the Sound, beyond of the mouth of the Connecticut River, got an “A.”
Oyster Bay is lucky that its water is cleaner than the rest of the Sounds’ Eastern Narrows, which received a “D+,” DeOrsay said.
The report card also mentions climate change, which leads to rising sea levels, increasing water temperatures and decreasing populations for coldwater fish species.
Donovan said funding and staff capacity will determine when the next report card will be published.
The report card is a work in progress and feedback is necessary to make improvements for the next report card, Tripp Killin, the executive director of the Jeniam Foundation, said.
“It relates to a very complex issue of ‘How do we communicate what it is that we want?’” Killin said. “But I think that doesn’t change the fact that doing some sort of grand synthesis and grand integration of all the data that’s being collected over time, putting it together and setting a benchmark and a visual component for a large, generally nonscientific audience is a valuable, valuable tool.”