By Tristan Manaloto and Sophia Ricco
A type of toxic algae that first appeared in mid-May is still polluting the Long Island coast, causing a loss of marine life and deteriorating the ecosystem, a study published September 12th by The Nature Conservancy reveals.
Brown tide, a marine algal bloom, caused by a species named Aureococcus anophagefferens, is a consequence of nitrogen pollution.
“When too much nitrogen flows to our bays, fast-growing plants outcompete and kill slower-growing beneficial plants,” Kara Jackson, the Director of Communications for Nature Conservancy said. “Decaying plants use up oxygen, which kills fish and other marine life.”
Heavy loads of nitrogen pollution from cesspools, septic systems and the application of fertilizer to lawns and farmland are the ultimate culprits, according to Jackson. They eventually make their way into Long Island shores through groundwater flow, causing pollution and harming marine life.
“Sewage goes through tunnels into treatment plants and then is released,” Aphrodite Montalvo, a spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Conservation, said. “These plants have to hit certain standards, which the DEC has been trying to improve in order to try and reduce nitrogen output there.”
A single reactive nitrogen atom is so destructive, that once it makes its way from the soil to the water, it can wreak havoc by polluting lakes with nitric acid Kevin McAllister, a Marine biologist who heads Defend H2O, said.
“We’ve reached a tipping point where the groundwater is enriched, threatening drinking water supplies and then inevitably flowing into the bays,” McAllister said. “Nitric acid causes environmental problems like “brown tide” and “dead zones” which affects marine life.”
During the months of May through August 2017, the longest recorded brown tide bloom on Long Island affected waters from Freeport to Southampton. Few brown tides have come close to the scope of this current one.
In Great South Bay, there was an unprecedented amount of brown tide cell densities, exceeding 2.3 million cells per milliliters, according to the Gobler Laboratory. Just 50,000 cells per milliliters of brown tide are enough to harm shellfish.
“As the harmful algal blooms are increasing, we are seeing more closed beaches, and loss of marine life,” Maureen Murphy, the Executive Programs Manager for Citizens Campaign, an advocacy group for clean water, said. “We are seeing a die off in horse clam and oyster population. This summer was particularly troublesome when we saw the largest, densest brown tide event that we have ever seen here on Long Island. ”
The ramifications of polluted waters could be disastrous Robert DeLuca, President of Group for the East End, a group that is a part of the Clean Water Partnership, said. “It’s critically important to recognize that clean water is essential to Long Island’s coastal way of life and vital to numerous industries like tourism, recreation restaurants, fishing, boating, etc. These industries are driven by clean water and healthy coastal ecosystems and the continued degradation of our waters could have a devastating impact on our economy.”
Suffolk County released its Reclaim Our Water campaign this summer, which includes grants to homeowners to upgrade their septic with new technology that remove nitrogen from their septic system. “For decades now, we’ve used conventional systems,” McAllister said. “These are basic hydraulic systems where the pipe is pitched downhill out of the house into a settling tank, collect the solids. I’ve been pushing for years for advanced treatment, systems that will effectively denitrify, remove the nitrogen from wastewater, before it’s ultimately released into the groundwater.”
This is a problem that needs to be addressed if Long Island wants to keep its waters from deteriorating further, Jackson said.
“There will continue to be degradation in Long Island’s water quality until new measures are implemented,” Jackson said. “However, failure is not an option. Our local economy and way of life on Long Island depends on it –both now and for generations to come.”