Waters of Long Island Sound: How Local Perspectives Inform Ecological Research

By sharing their day-to-day experiences and deep knowledge of the local environment, fishermen and residents of the Long Island Sound provide crucial information for researchers studying coastal ecosystems health.

Shangtong Li
February 01, 2023

I took a deep breath to take in the fresh briny smell of Shinnecock Bay while strong winds collided with my face. Standing on the deck of a whooshing 26-foot fishing boat on a clear sunny morning, my ears were bombarded by the roaring boat engine, and my body shook with its vibration. As a Chinese international student who grew up on the Tibetan Plateau, this was my first time on the waters of Long Island Sound. It was the summer of 2022, and I was a Columbia Climate School graduate student working at the Tzortziou Bio-Optics Lab, led by Professor Maria Tzortziou.

Research in the Tzortziou Bio-Optics Lab focuses on assessing the impacts of anthropogenic pressures and environmental hazards on inland, coastal, and open ocean biogeochemical cycles, ecological processes, and ecosystem services across temporal and spatial scales.

As the lab’s communications and community outreach intern, my focus was on interviewing Long Island Sound residents and gathering their observations on how the sound—an invaluable urban estuary—has been changing over the years.

The perspectives of Long Island Sound residents are a crucial part of the lab’s research, as people’s day-to-day experiences and intimate knowledge of the sound’s environmental challenges can uniquely inform field measurements. Observations of local communities are indispensable for a comprehensive understanding of environmental regulations and climate change impact communities in urban areas.

Tzortziou’s team has been visiting Long Island Sound waters in different seasons for more than six years to measure the water’s optical characteristics and biogeochemical properties across a range of environmental conditions. The goal is to improve remote sensing algorithms in order to enhance studies of the sound’s changing ecology and biogeochemistry from space.

In these field surveys, Tzortziou and colleagues Joaquim Goes and Helga Gomes at Lamont have been collaborating closely with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and New York City Department of Environmental Protection to study shifts in phytoplankton communities across the sound in response to climate change pressures.

people chatting on the deck of a ship
Captain Brad Reis sharing his stories with Tzortziou Bio-Optics Lab members in Peconic, NY. Photo: Shangtong Li

In the summer of 2022, the lab members visited Peconic Bay, Shinnecock Bay, and Great South Bay in Long Island Sound from June to August. We went out on the water with local captains who have been living, fishing, and working in the sound for most of their lives.

One of the captains we worked with was Captain Brad Reis from Someday Came Fishing Charters. Reis was born on the Jersey Shore, and the salty waters are his home. He moved to the Peconic Bay and Shinnecock Bay area more than 30 years ago and has built a family and a business.

During our trip with Captain Reis, he shared that many restoration activities are happening in Peconic Bay. The water clarity has improved with the addition of clams and seagrasses planted by the Shinnecock Indian Nation. “Some days, the water is so clear people can see 12 feet into the water [all the way to the bottom in some locations],” he said.

But locals remain concerned about the nitrogen level in the water due to the development of nutrient-rich conditions, low-oxygen zones, and recurring harmful algal blooms—including green, red, and brown tides. Harmful algal blooms occur when algae grow out of control, sometimes even producing toxins, thus negatively affecting fish, marine mammals, birds, and humans.

Captain Reis suspected the leaching of household septic systems as the culprit of the increased nitrogen level in Peconic Bay. With more and more houses being built near the shore, regulations now require a septic system for new homes to prevent effluence into the surrounding waters. “It costs more than $40,000!” Captain Reis said, and he reiterated his skepticism on how effective the new septic systems are.

Luckily, Shinnecock Bay and Peconic Bay did not experience a brown tide last summer.

Human population has been growing in Peconic Bay since the COVID-19 pandemic. Reis has noticed more people who left the city and made their summer homes their primary residence. “The offering prices on real estate are now often higher than the asking price,” he said.

Tucked in the multi-million-dollar houses and resorts in the Hamptons is the Shinnecock Indian Nation’s land. The tribe is proposing a casino and has installed two billboards to create revenue, but they have faced tremendous pushback from the wealthy Hamptons residents on these projects. Reis voiced his support for the tribe: “They gotta make a living somehow.”

People come to the area to enjoy the “summer in the Hamptons” lifestyle. But for locals, the window from mid-May to mid-September is the most critical time of the year for their livelihood. “We have four months to make it,” says Captain Reis. He also emphasized the importance of data for the bay’s health: “We need data to better monitor the water quality and study the marine life in the bay.”

As for the fish population in Peconic and Shinnecock Bay, Reis said, “the sea trout are making a comeback!’ with a big smile on his face.

Another Long Island Sound study area of the lab is the Great South Bay, a lagoon between Long Island and Fire Island. People have been clamming, swimming, and sailing in the bay for generations, but concerns about sewage and stormwater runoff pollution are rising. Residents of all walks of life have formed an organization—Save the Great South Bay—fighting to revitalize the bay.

Driven by the deteriorating water quality of the Great South Bay, the lab conducted two field visits to the bay, sailing from Captree State Park in Babylon, New York.

We boarded Patty Ann, a 35-foot downeast boat operated by Captain Greg Gargiulo of Patty Ann Charters.

Captain Gargiulo grew up around the Great South Bay. He was let go from his office job selling boat engines due to the pandemic. The summer of 2022 was his third season fish chartering full-time. “The business has been good,” he said while enjoying the view of his new office—the boat’s wheelhouse.

When asked about changes to the bay, Gargiulo said that the water was cleaner when he was young. Now he has seen red tides more frequently during summer, especially in July when the water is warmer. He suspects fertilizer runoff and increasing temperatures are responsible for the algal blooms.

As for the fish population in the Great South Bay, Captain Gargiulo shared that some species have made a comeback, such as the sand eel, while others have seemingly disappeared, such as the blackback flounder. He has been catching bountiful fluke, sea bass, and sea robin, as well as species not native to the New York region, such as blacktip, spinner sharks, king mackerel, and cobia.

According to Gargiulo, the blackback flounder is the best species and the reason the port was established, as it was abundant and delicious. “There were so many of them in the bay, and sometimes people could catch 20 per person!” But he has not seen them in the Great South Bay for a long time. Gargiulo thinks the blackback flounder’s disappearance is not due to overfishing but the expansion of residential complexes in the region.

Another polluter of the Great South Bay, Gargiulo suspects, is the Bergen Point Wastewater Treatment Plant — or the “chocolate factory,” as the locals refer to it. The plant discharges treated effluent through an ocean outfall that passes beneath the Great South Bay and underneath Jones Beach Island to the Atlantic Ocean.

According to a 2015 Environmental Assessment report by the New York Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, the wastewater pipeline has been determined to be in failing condition and needs replacement. The construction has been ongoing since, but Gargiulo is not confident that it will adequately prevent sewage from leaking into the Great South Bay.

Despite his concerns for the water quality, Captain Gargiulo shared some good news about the bay. “The water has been so clear!” he said. According to him, summer water in the bay usually looks like “chocolate milk,” and 2022 is the clearest water he has seen in the past five years. “It is definitely improving,” said Gargiulo. However, he thinks the water 10 years ago was even clearer.

Captain Gargiulo linked the cleaner water conditions in 2022 to the COVID-19 pandemic and increased diesel prices.

Noting Gargiulo’s observations, the lab applied observations from space to examine water clarity changes across the Great South Bay after the COVID-19 pandemic. They compiled data from January 2017 to August 2022, using satellite imagery from the European Space Agency Ocean Land Color Instrument and water measurements collected during the field surveys. Lab members found that the turbidity of the bay in the summer of 2020 — after the most stringent COVID-19 lockdown measures — decreased roughly 20% to 40% compared to average conditions pre-pandemic. This finding verified Captain Gargiulo’s theory correlating improved water quality of the Great South Bay with the pandemic.

The topic of storms came up naturally as we traveled through the shorelines. Reis and Gargiulo vividly remember the areas once submerged and destroyed by 2012’s Hurricane Sandy—the disaster that devastated Long Island Sound and its people.

When the Patty Ann stopped near the marshy wetlands of Great South Bay for lab members to collect water samples, Gargiulo pointed at the marshes and houses within our horizon and said, “These all disappeared [during Hurricane Sandy].”

Reis still remembers the smell of diesel fuels floating on the water, leaking from broken boat engines. “Bridges were destroyed, boats on boat stands drifted, some areas were completely flattened off, and water was 10 to 12 feet up and through houses… Everything was underwater,” he said.

Amid all the chaos and loss during Hurricane Sandy, both captains were thankful that their families were not affected.

Now the bridges are rebuilt, houses are fixed, and new ones are underway. Captain Reis and Gargiulo were happy to share that their businesses are doing well. But with rising global temperatures, the severity of storms and hurricanes that impact coastal communities the most is increasing.

Climate change is here and now, especially for coastal communities. Tzortziou Bio-Optics Lab members believe that community experiences should be incorporated into climate change and environmental research. We must collaborate with frontline communities. Their lived experiences and knowledge are a crucial part of the coastal systems research, informing satellite applications for better preparedness and action in the face of the climate crisis.