05/30/15 3:03pm
05/30/2015 3:03 PM
Dead bunker like these have been washing up on local shores since late last week. (Credit: Christopher Gobler)

Dead bunker like these have been washing up on local shores since late last week. (Credit: Christopher Gobler)

A recent die-off of bait fish in the Peconic Estuary has Riverhead Town rallying local fishermen to harvest as many bunker as they can before the fish die, according to Supervisor Sean Walter.

“It’s a critical situation,” Mr. Walter said. “We’re having a real problem.”

The die-off has been blamed on low oxygen levels in nearby waters caused by a recent algae bloom, said Christopher Gobler, a biologist at Stony Brook University who’s been investigating the kill.

“This may be the biggest fish kill I’ve ever seen and I’ve been working for more than 20 years,” he told the News-Review.

  • How a fish kill unfolds: Scroll down to see

The kill comes weeks after a separate massive die-off of diamondback terrapin turtles, which has also been linked to toxic shellfish likely caused by the algae — also known as red or brown tide.

Mr. Gobler said oxygen levels in the Peconic Estuaries began dropping Wednesday night as the algae became more dense. By Friday, readings from the County Road 105 bridge showed zero oxygen in the water for the fish to breathe.

When a school of bunker swam into this “dead zone,” they suffocated and died, he said. There have been reports of thousands of the dead bunker washing up along town and private beaches.

“This is a pretty remarkable size fish kill,” Mr. Gobler noted. “There were fished piled on top of each other on the shoreline.”

Mr. Walter said that may pose a public safety hazard. While the town is working with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Mr. Walter said they’ll need to dispose of the dead fish somehow.

11330023_10204170173286525_3614910240458071008_nIdeally, the fish would be cleaned up and moved to the Brookhaven landfill, if the DEC allows that, he said. Otherwise, Mr. Walter said he may declare a town-wide state of emergency to clean up the fish and bury them at the town’s own waste facility.

“We’re ready to take action, we just don’t know what action we’re going to take,” Mr. Walter said. “The next 24 hours will tell.”

While the town waits for DEC approval, Mr. Walter said local boat captains have been contacted to round up bunker in the Peconic Estuary before they continue to die off.

Nate Phillips, a commercial fisherman from Greenport, is one of those boat captains. Normally, fishermen are only allowed to take a certain quota of bunker, which are used by lobstermen and other fishermen as bait. Mr. Phillips said those restrictions may be voided during this crisis.

“Obviously, the ultimate goal is to get it cleaned up before they all die,” he said. “When they die they’re a terrible, stinky mess.”

Mr. Phillips told the News-Review he was rounding up a group of fishermen — as many as five or six boats — to harvest the fish using haul seines, scoop nets, or “basically whatever we can get them with.”

The harvest could begin as early as Saturday night.

Dead fish that turned up near the Riverhead Yacht Club Friday afternoon. (Credit: Melanie Drozd)

Dead fish that turned up near the Riverhead Yacht Club Friday afternoon. (Credit: Melanie Drozd)

Mr. Gobler said fish kills are not unusual, but they’re not seen as often in other parts of Long Island where the bunker group together to spawn.

“There’s very few places on Long Island where oxygen levels are going to zero for multiple hours,” he said. “That’s not normal.”

Mr. Gobler said nitrogen runoff likely fed this specific algal bloom, nicknamed “mahogany tide.” Shallow creeks and tributaries of the river are especially vulnerable to algae blooms because the nitrogen gets concentrated in one area.

Historically, the Peconic Estuary has had relatively low oxygen levels to begin with, Mr. Gobler said. With these blooms moving in, the River will “probably have oxygen problems through the summer,” he said.

“It’s going to hit low and no oxygen levels throughout the summer,” he said. “But there may not be the equivalent fish kills because … the fish will sense the low oxygen levels and turn around.”

psquire@timesreview.com

05/18/15 2:30pm
05/18/2015 2:30 PM
A view of Flanders Bay Saturday afternoon. (Credit: Rachel Young)

A view of Flanders Bay Saturday afternoon. (Credit: Rachel Young)

Update Monday 2:30 p.m.: A state pathology lab investigating the die-off of dozens of turtles in Peconic Bay has found marine biotoxins are likely the cause.

Though findings from a necropsy were “nonspecific” — meaning the turtle’s death could not be directly cited to the presence of the red tide byproduct saxitoxin — testing on the contents of the turtle’s intestines was inconclusive but revealed that saxitoxin may have been present, the state Department of Environmental Conservation said.

“Circumstantial evidence is consistent with the terrapins being poisoned with saxitoxin,” said state spokesperson Lori Severino. “If additional terrapin carcasses are found, [the] DEC will test them as well in an effort to confirm the cause of deaths in this terrapin die-off.”

Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons executive director Karen Testa had told the News-Review the group was hoping the turtles had been killed because of the harsh winter and not the toxin. She said the poisoned turtles may have been just coming out of hibernation when they ate the toxic shellfish.

“What that does is it paralyzes them and they would just drown. It’s a horrible death, “she said. “They get their first meal and its poison. It’s horrible.”

Original story: Flanders Bay and western Shinnecock Bay have been added to the list of local waterbodies where the harvesting of shellfish is temporarily prohibited due to unusually high toxin levels, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation announced Saturday.

Three area creeks were also shut down by the state in the last two weeks.  (more…)

05/07/15 9:58am
05/07/2015 9:58 AM
Meetinghouse Creek on Thursday morning. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

Meetinghouse Creek on Thursday morning. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

State Department of Environmental Conservation officials have closed two Riverhead water bodies to shellfishing after finding dangerous levels of marine biotoxins in shellfish and carnivorous gastropods, such as conchs and moon snails, which feed on shellfish. (more…)

05/05/15 8:00am
05/05/2015 8:00 AM
Southern Pine Beetles, which are devastating forests across the Northeast, have arrived on Long Island. (Credit: Courtesy photo)

Southern Pine Beetles, which are devastating forests across the Northeast, have arrived on Long Island. (Credit: Courtesy photo)

The Suffolk County Legislature may create a commission of state and local authorities to deal with the southern pine beetle, a rice-grain-sized insect devastating nearby woodlands, before the problem gets “too out of hand,” according to one legislator. (more…)

05/04/15 8:00am
05/04/2015 8:00 AM
Southern pine beetles have been confirmed in the above locations so far, officials say. (Eric Hod illustration)

Southern pine beetles have been confirmed in the above locations so far, officials say. (Eric Hod illustration)

The southern pine beetle, as it turns out, isn’t all that southern anymore.

The voracious and highly destructive insect — which decimates millions of cubic feet of timber across the country each year — has been making a slow expansion north over the past couple of decades. The beetle arrived in New Jersey in 2001, crossed the Great Egg Harbor River south of Atlantic City in 2008 and arrived on Long Island this past fall.

Now, authorities are trying to figure out how to contain the spread of the pest in the Pine Barrens and beyond. So far, it has infected trees at least a dozen state and county parks across Suffolk County (see map, above), not to mention on private land.

“We assume that all in all, we’ve lost a good thousand acres,” said John Wernet, regional forester with the Department of Environmental Conservation. The DEC, in conjunction with other agencies, is conducting aerial and ground surveys to determine the full extent of the damage. Results are expected in the next couple of months.


THE THREE STAGES OF A SOUTHERN PINE BEETLE INFESTATION


The levels of infestation are bound to affect the health of the Pine Barrens for years to come.

“It’s not possible to eliminate,” said Kevin Dodds, an entomologist with the U.S. Forest Service. “I hear a lot of people use the word ‘control,’ but ‘control’ implies you have the ability to knock things back. It’s better to look at this as managing it.”

CLIMBING NORTH

A few years ago, Rob Corcory, who had retired from a 37-year career with the New Jersey State Forestry Services Department, was asked to return as the state’s southern pine beetle project manager.

By then, however, scientists estimated that it was just too late to stymie the insect’s northward march.

“We tried to keep it in the southern half of the state, but it started creeping north. Everything was below the Mullica River [in New Jersey] until a year or two,” Mr. Corcory said.

R0430_beetle_C.jpgScientists have attributed the beetle’s northern migration to climate change. The coldest night of winter in New Jersey is now seven to eight degrees warmer, on average, than it was 50 years ago, said Matthew Ayres, professor of biological sciences at Dartmouth College. And warmer temperatures at night have allowed the beetle to survive the farther north it goes.

On Long Island, temperatures recorded this past winter at the National Weather Service in Upton dropped to -4 degrees on three nights in February, which helped suppress the beetle’s spread this spring and “bought us some time” to fight this year’s infestation, said Mr. Wernet of the DEC.

It remains unclear exactly how the beetle arrived on Long Island, but its presence has now been confirmed as far north as Hartford, Conn.

It’s been speculated the beetles washed ashore on Long Island during Superstorm Sandy, Mr. Dodds said. Or it “could have just spread in smaller infestations,” he said.

What is clear is that they’re here.

Caption: Researchers from Dartmouth College and the New Jersey Forest Service discuss southern pine beetle management in the New Jersey Pinelands. (Courtesy: Matt Ayres/Dartmouth College)

05/01/15 8:00am
05/01/2015 8:00 AM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO  |  Southold trustee and bayman Jim King harvests oysters and clams in Mattituck Inlet last year.

Southold trustee and bayman Jim King harvests oysters and clams in Mattituck Inlet last year. (Barbaraellen Koch file photo)

The East End’s baymen — at least what’s left of them — are getting a hand from local governments, which are trying to open up shellfish beds that were designated as polluted by the state but could actually be quite clean.

Due to a state regulatory agency that’s strapped for time and money, a new agreement from the Suffolk County Legislature and the Peconic Estuary Protection Committee will set up standard practices for the county and East End towns to test their own water under the state’s strict guidelines. (more…)

04/28/15 9:00am
04/28/2015 9:00 AM
Baykeeper_Web

Brady Wilkins in September 2014, after it was announced he’d be taking over as the face of the Peconic Baykeeper nonprofit advocacy group.

The search for the next Peconic Baykeeper is once again on.

Seven months after he signed on as the public face of the nonprofit water protection advocacy group, Brady Wilkins resigned from the Baykeeper position last Monday, said Brendan McCurdy, the organization’s chairman.

Mr. McCurdy said the split was amicable and that Mr. Wilkins plans to return to his teaching career.  (more…)