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Securing a Safe and Healthy Future for Shellfish in Long Island Sound

As the 2018 summer season heats up, shellfish are already experiencing difficult conditions across Long Island Sound. Biotoxins produced by harmful algae have been detected in Long Island’s harbors and bays; a reminder that, to protect our delicious local shellfish, there is an urgent need to reduce nutrient pollution in streams, rivers and coastal water bodies.  

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set a goal to reopen and upgrade 5% (about 17,000 acres) of Long Island Sound’s restricted or closed shellfishing areas by 2035. Unfortunately, this target is behind schedule, with shellfish beds recently downgraded in New York due to water quality concerns, and certain areas closing in Connecticut because they are difficult to frequently test and monitor.

Shellfish across Long Island Sound are affected by two main issues, naturally occurring pathogens and harmful algal blooms (HABs). Pathogens—disease causing bacterial or viral microorganisms—are often delivered to coastal water bodies through stormwater drains and pipes. As a result, communities across the Sound regularly close shellfish beds following a heavy rain to protect people from harvesting potentially contaminated seafood.

HAB’s, in contrast, are caused by nitrogen pollution in the coastal waters. Nitrogen from the atmosphere and from fertilizers and wastewater on the landscape makes its way into streams, groundwater, rivers and eventually the harbors and bays of Long Island Sound. Too much nitrogen in these coastal waters can fuel the growth of harmful, neurotoxin-producing algae that contaminates shellfish.  And data compiled by The Nature Conservancy and Stony Brook University show these harmful blooms have occurred across Long Island from 2013-2017.

According to the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission (NEIWPCC), the occurrence of toxic algae blooms is on the rise in the Northeast in both freshwater and marine environments. Algae blooms are fueled by nitrogen pollution entering water bodies, but they are also influenced by conditions enhanced by climate change. For example, the EPA suggests that warming temperatures, increased carbon dioxide and increased rainfall will create conditions to further fuel these blooms, which can seriously threaten public health.

Direct contact with toxic algae can cause skin rashes, gastrointestinal and respiratory disease, and liver damage. Consuming shellfish contaminated with biotoxins can result in paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) and amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP), both potentially fatal conditions that can cause major damage to the brain. In early May 2018, 1,600 acres of shellfish beds of Shinnecock Bay were closed due to the emergence of red tide. This June, brown tide returned for a sixth year to the Great South Bay, and this algae continues to hinder the recovery of the region’s shellfish industry, having already caused a 90% decline in clam landings since 1985. Similarly, in late May Huntington Harbor tested positive for marine biotoxins, resulting in 400 acres of closures in harvest areas. The biotoxins lasted for almost a month, but conditions eventually improved and the harvest areas were reopened.

To secure safe and healthy shellfish resources for future generations we must reduce nitrogen pollution now. There are clear, proven solutions available and they include: addressing failing sewage infrastructure, upgrading outdated septic systems, eliminating or reducing fertilizer use and capturing stormwater during intense rain events. Together, these steps can help keep our waters clean and healthy for the recreational and commercial harvest of shellfish, and preserve this important part of our coastal economy and way of life.

To stay informed about water quality across Long Island Sound and what you can do to make a difference, subscribe to our mailing list. For more information about shellfish closures in New York, visit the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (NYSDEC) Temporary Closures page. In Connecticut, the public should call their town Shellfish Commission or Health Department for more information. The contact information for shellfish harvesting in Connecticut towns are listed here.

2018-07-02T14:40:17+00:00 July 2nd, 2018|

Take Care of Your Lawn and the Sound!

Coastal Connecticut voters know that fertilizers and pesticides impact water quality, but what steps can they take to protect clean water and care for their lawns?

This Memorial Day weekend, you might be making your way to the shore to swim, boat and fish. Chances are, lawn care isn’t the first thing on your mind, but the actions you take in your yard can make or break your fun in the water.

Studies show nitrogen-rich fertilizer from residential lawns can cause serious impacts in Connecticut’s coastal harbors and bays.  Using too much fertilizer or applying at the wrong time can cause this nutrient-rich pollution to end up in streams and rivers and eventually Long Island Sound. Here, this nutrient pollution fuels blooms of algae can reduce water clarity or cause rampant growth of seaweed that interrupts swimming, kayaking and paddle boarding. They can also be harmful to humans and animal health, resulting in beach and shellfish closures.

In 2017, The Nature Conservancy conducted public perception research in southeastern Connecticut to better understand coastal residents’ beliefs about the causes of water pollution and their willingness to take actions to address the problem.   More than half of respondents we interviewed identified fertilizers and pesticides as pollutants that threaten water quality. Also, only about one-third of homeowners reported using fertilizer on their lawns, and of those, 65% stated they apply fertilizer one or two times per year.

The great news is, over 75% of respondents in our study indicated they are willing to reduce the amount fertilizers and pesticides they use. So how can people do that? The Niantic River Watershed Committee, New England Interstate Water Pollution Control and the Conservancy teamed up with  turf scientists at the University of Connecticut (UCONN) to identify three actions homeowners can take for a healthy lawn and a healthy river.

The first action is to leave grass clippings on your lawn. Clippings decompose rapidly, returning nutrients to the grass, maintaining moisture and reducing yard waste. Turf scientists have found that after a few years of leaving clippings behind, you can reduce the amount of fertilizer you use!

The second action is to use less fertilizer – or none at all. Many people choose not to apply fertilizer but you can test your soil to see what nutrients your lawn needs. If you fertilize, try using one-half to one-third the amount recommended on the fertilizer bag.  After two weeks, if you like the way your lawn looks, use that amount. If it’s not quite right, try applying a little more until you like the results. Think of the recommendation on the bag as a “super-size” meal – not every lawn requires so much food.

The third action, is to fertilize at the right time. If you apply fertilizer once a year, turf scientists suggest the fall around Labor Day or the spring around Memorial Day. If your lawn needs fertilizer twice a year, try to stick to those dates when grass is most able to absorb nutrients for a healthy green lawn.  Applying fertilizer during the dormant and semi-dormant seasons – late fall through early spring and during the hot summer months – is a waste of money because grass can’t use the nutrients. Also, it’s important to avoid applying fertilizer before a heavy rain.  You can learn more about the Niantic River Watershed’s project by visiting healthylawnshealthyriver.net.

You can also check out the Long Island Sound Study’s “Sound Friendly” gardening practices and tips for a healthy yard, like finding ways to reduce the area of lawn you need to fertilize and irrigate. Finally, if you hire a landscaping service, be sure to request that they not use toxic chemicals on your property, and if fertilizer is necessary, ask them to use low nitrogen, slow-release fertilizers. Otherwise, fast-acting fertilizers are easily washed into streams and rivers and eventually wind up fueling algal growth in the bays and coastal waters of Long Island Sound.

By taking a few simple actions, you can help keep nitrogen rich fertilizers out of Long Island Sound and protect your family, pets and wildlife. And studies show, people who try one action are more likely to try another. Consider spreading the word about these lawn care practices and see if a friend or neighbor will join you in trying something new.

Most people don’t realize their lawn management practices can affect others and the environment, but it is possible to enjoy a healthy lawn and healthy, clean water.

Check out our “Make Changes at Home” page for more tips on lawn care and wastewater maintenance to reduce nitrogen pollution to Long Island Sound.  Also, please join our mailing list for the latest news about nutrient pollution and water quality impacts around the Sound!

2018-07-02T13:30:52+00:00 May 25th, 2018|

How Can a Website Help Solve Nitrogen Pollution?

The first step towards solving a problem is learning more about it. This project, supported by a Long Island Sound Futures Fund grant, represents three years of collaborative effort. The Nature Conservancy brought scientists and local leaders together in the Saugatuck River area to better understand the sources of nitrogen pollution and the threats they pose to coastal waterways.

Many people are surprised to learn residential septic systems represent the largest source of nitrogen pollution to the Saugatuck River. Although conventional septic systems do a good job treating bacteria in wastewater, they aren’t designed to reduce much nitrogen. When it rains, nitrogen from fossil fuel emissions in the atmosphere and from fertilizers on land runs off into creeks and streams which flow into the river and Long Island Sound. Luckily, scientists and engineers have developed solutions to capture and treat nitrogen before it reaches waterways. Armed with this information and local knowledge, leaders in the Saugatuck River began to identify ways they could address nitrogen pollution and reduce the occurrence of water quality problems in their area.

This website not only describes nitrogen pollution and how it puts communities at risk, but also offers solutions that can help to alleviate the problem. Our solutions page offers information about the technologies and practices that reduce nitrogen, compares their cost and effectiveness, and helps determine whether they’re a good fit for your home or community.

We believe the Long Island Sound Clean Coastal Waters website will be a platform for citizens, community leaders and partners to access updates and information. We’ll highlight stories about nitrogen pollution problems and share examples of progress and success taking place around the Sound.  And sign up for our mailing list to stay informed and receive the latest water quality news and blog updates. Together, we can restore and protect clean coastal waters in Long Island Sound!

We’d love to hear from you! If you have a suggestion or stumble upon a great article, contact Rachel.lowenthal@tnc.org.

2018-04-27T20:26:07+00:00 April 26th, 2018|