Over the past several weeks, the East End’s waterways have been inundated with toxic red and mahogany tides resulting in die-offs of diamondback terrapin (turtles), bunker and alewives. Our local media have done a good job of not only reporting on these occurrences but also speaking with the experts to explain them. So I was infuriated when Riverhead Supervisor Walter, asked about these die-offs, was quoted as saying that previous rain “may have washed toxins into the water” and quickly backed away from the “toxic” idea, saying later when asked about scientists’ findings, “Yeah, well everybody has their own theory. Mine is that the bluefish are chasing them into the river.”
Yeah, the bluefish are to blame.
This reminded me of the mayor in “Jaws” who, when presented with facts and conclusions by a scientist, said, “I don’t think either of one you are familiar with our problems.” Denial doesn’t solve any problem. As Dr. Chris Gobler of Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences has reported, the observations, the measurements and the science tell us that the red and mahogany tides, and the nitrogen in the water that fuels them, is the root cause. Not one person’s theory. Fact.
Could some bluefish have chased some baitfish up a river or creek? Sure. But that’s not the problem. It highlights a symptom.
The problem is that our waterways are in terrible shape. Some of it could be due to natural factors. For example, warmer waters hold less dissolved oxygen, and warmer water may be the new norm as a result of climate change. But you can’t ignore more, larger, longer-lasting and more toxic red tides across the Peconic Estuary. Water and red tides don’t know town boundaries. We’re all connected and these are all of our problems.
These algal blooms, like the mahogany tide, inhibit surface water mixing and the absorption of dissolved oxygen, driving oxygen levels down at night. When these organisms die, they sink to the bottom and decompose, which uses up the remaining dissolved oxygen in these lower, colder waters. The result is the readings of no oxygen that have been recorded in so many areas this spring and which mean that fish and other aquatic animals die. Fact.
But at the heart of the problem is the growing level of nitrogen in our waters: nitrogen from the wastewater treatment plant – whose effluent is piped into the Peconic River – nitrogen moving from our septic systems into our waters and nitrogen from home and farm fertilizers.
You want to blame bluefish? The blame lies in building beyond what our land and current wastewater treatment systems can handle. Higher density building – like Summerwind’s 51 units on a third of an acre – and more large-scale retail and commercial space – like along Route 58 – being added to Riverhead’s municipal wastewater treatment system means more nitrogen going into our river and bays. It’s that simple.
Of course, the rebuttal is that the treatment plant meets EPA standards and isn’t to blame. EPA standards are outdated and based on meeting drinking water standards of 10 parts per million (ppm) of nitrate. That’s fine for people, but the threshold level of nitrogen for a healthy, self-sustaining marine environment is around 0.5 ppm — or 20 times lower than the drinking water standard. We’re nowhere near that level in many of our local waters and, as a result, we have greater problems like the ones we’ve seen these past weeks.
It’s not the bluefish. It’s us, the people. But just like in “Jaws,” where any shark caught meant that the problem was solved, I can see the posters for this year’s snapper tournament: Help stop fish die-offs. Catch a snapper and reduce the number of bluefish, making our waters safe again.
In “Jaws,” the mayor said, “… it’s all psychological. You yell barracuda, everybody says, ‘Huh? What?’ You yell shark, we’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.”
In Riverhead, you blame bluefish for the fish die-off and some people think, “I guess.” You tell them that our waters are polluted, that you can’t eat the shellfish or that you can’t swim our beaches and you have a panic. You know what? I think we may need a good panic so maybe residents and businesses will demand that something be done.
I’ve been here for 55 years. I used to marvel at the huge schools of bunker and bluefish filling our waters every day. I haven’t seen those sights during the past 35 years. Some of it is overfishing, but it’s also due to the state of our waters. That’s the problem and that’s what we need to fix, all of us.
And for our elected officials in Riverhead: Rising sea level, warmer water temperatures, stronger storms, greater flooding and increased shoreline erosion — all stemming from climate change — are not theory, but fact. We can’t blame the bluefish for that, either.
Bill Toedter is president of North Fork Environmental Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group based in Mattituck.