Thursday, August 31, 2006

Stepping Stones Lighthouse Is For Sale

The Coast Guard is selling its lighthouse at Stepping Stones rocks, off Kings Point, and has had six offers to buy, restore, maintain and open it (at least somewhat) to the public. The federal government though isn’t saying who the six potential buyers are, at least not yet. From Newsday:

Meta Cushing, a General Services Administration realty specialist, said the six entities that submitted letters expressing interest by the deadline will be given an opportunity next month to visit the lighthouse to get a better sense of potential restoration and maintenance costs.

Then they will have 90 days to file an application, including a plan for restoration and reuse that retains the historical and architectural integrity and allows for at least limited public visitation. The National Park Service will decide which, if any, of the applicants will get the lighthouse.

"Stepping Stones is offshore so it's a little more difficult to put together a program," said Cushing, who refused to provide the names of the nonprofit groups until they file a formal application.

If you're not sure where it is, you can look it up here, map number 12366.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

How Warm Is The Water, Exactly?

Don't Go Near the Water, Unless You Want To Risk Getting Sick

Bacteria, viruses and other pathogens that drain into our waterways when it rains have forced the closing of shellfishing areas on Long Island and beaches in Connecticut, according to the newspapers, here and here. I'd be shocked if beaches on Long Island and shellfishing areas in Connecticut remain open either.


At this time of this particular year, I've been reading this blog occasionally, and by occasionally I mean not more than six or seven times a day.

And it turns out the Sam Wells, Sphere's most prolific commenter, has his own blog, from South Padre Island, Texas, where you need a hyper-immunity to humidity in order to survive. Here's Sam's blog.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Why We Don't See More Manatees Up Here

We rarely see manatees off southern New England in summer, which must mean that southern New England is just too far outside their range for them to come here except on the rarest of occasions.

That’s what I had been assuming, until I read the Providence Journal story that I linked to yesterday. A better explanation for why we don’t see many manatees up here might be that there aren’t many manatees. The Journal quoted a U.S. Geological Survey researcher:

"In previous centuries it was probably common for manatees to migrate up the coast," said Catherine Puckett with the geological survey. Sightings of "sea monsters" in Chesapeake Bay were probably migrating manatees. "But there are so few of them now" -- a few thousand -- "that fewer of them migrate at all anymore."

This USGC press release has the “official” chronology of sightings of the manatee that was here this year.

And today’s Times has a long story about manatee research in Florida. Today’s infuriating fact: Manatees are an endangered species, with only a couple thousand left, and yet each year 80 manatees are killed by speed boats in Florida.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Tropical Waters

How warm has the water in our area been this year? Jean Bambara, who maintains an aquarium for Save the Bay in Rhode Island, seines about once a week to collect fish. This summer her aquarium has turned tropical:

Among her catches so far this season have been juvenile orange filefish, snowy grouper and lookdowns -- "all the pretty tropical ones that people pay a lot of money for." Often she will catch banded rudderfish, spotfin butterflyfish, grey triggerfish, bandtail puffer fish and bicolor damselfish.

Larger tropical fish such as crevalle jacks, permit and sennets -- which are a smaller version of a barracuda -- are also being caught in Rhode Island waters, said Torgan.

Bambara said she received a phone call from a local lobsterman the other day who wanted to donate to the center something he caught in one of his traps: a large trigger fish.

Dave Beutel works as a sustainable fisheries specialist at the University of Rhode Island, where he is often talking to commercial fisherman, several of whom run fish traps off the Rhode Island coast.

Among the fish caught in those traps so far this summer, he said, have been cobia, which looks like a cod with a flatter head, red drum, which rarely travel north of Virginia, a pilot fish and a sheepshead, a fish common off Florida and Georgia that looks like a giant scup and eats barnacles off pilings.

"I'm going to bet that somebody will call any day with a report of a barracuda," Beutel said. "That usually happens around now."

Tarpon were reportedly caught off Newport a few weeks ago, which was not the first time.

The Providence Journal explained how they got there (via the Narragansett Baykeeper’s blog):

All seemed to have hitched what for most will be a one-way ride on the Gulf Stream. For once the local waters, now in the 70s, start to cool, swimming home won't be an option.

The Gulf Stream is a warm and powerful current that originates in the Gulf of Mexico and swings around Florida before flowing north along the eastern United States and Newfoundland. Its strongest current is usually found over the continental shelf that sits about 90 miles off Rhode Island's coast.

Often in summer or the start of autumn, winds or storms will force a bubble or eddy of warm Gulf water to split off from the stream. As the Gulf Stream heads northeast, the eddy will spin off, continue traveling north, and get trapped between the islands of Southern New England and arm of Cape Cod.

I spent a few minutes this morning looking through Long Island Sound fishing reports and saw nothing that indicated the tropical fish have moved into the Sound, but those reports concentrate on the fluke, blues and stripers that fishermen like to catch and probably wouldn’t pay much attention to the occasional tropical species. But it would be interesting to hear if tropical fish have turned up in the nets of any researchers.


Still more on the lobster situation, the v-notch program, the population rebound (Connecticut landings were up 13 percent last year), and the worries of lobstermen. From the Stamford Advocate.

Friday, August 25, 2006

How Long Has Hypoxia Been A Problem In Long Island Sound -- A Further Explanation From Varekamp and Stacey

While I was writing yesterday’s post about how long hypoxia has been a problem in Long Island Sound (and, by implication, elsewhere), I sent off e-mails to the two guys I was preparing to cite as experts, Paul Stacey, of the Connecticut DEP, and Joop Varekamp, professor of earth sciences at Wesleyan University. Basically I asked both for further explanations.

Joop responded first. He conducts his studies by taking core samples of sediments, identifying what the core samples contain, figuring out which time period each layer of sediment represents, and then making inferences. Here’s what he said:

… in general, we find in our records that evidence for eutrophication and possible hypoxia start in the early 1800's, much earlier than thought by most people. However, our cores from near Execution Rock [off New Rochelle] show evidence for low level eutrophication going back much further, suggesting that the narrowest section of the Sound may have suffered from summer hypoxia for most of its life time.

Another interesting side issue for the extreme western Sound is that the east river was blasted out in the mid 1800's to improve ships’ passage through Hell's Gate, which would have increased nutrient fluxes from the Hudson into the Sound but also may have ventilated the extreme western Sound a bit better.

We have been somewhat puzzled by the early onset of eutrophication, given that population densities were much lower at the time and so sewage input must have been much more modest as well. We are currently pursuing the idea that the large scale harvesting of oysters may have played a role as well. Before the early 1800's there were many more oysters than during the 1800's (large scale harvesting) and since these are filter feeders, removal of oysters may show up in the records as eutrophication of the water column (more little organisms that settle to the bottom to be oxidized instead of ending up in 'oyster flesh'). We still have a way to go there, but this was inspired by the book 'Oysters' that we recently laid our hands on.

[Here's what I wrote about Mark Kurlansky's Book "Oysters." And here's what I wrote about oysters and water quality.]

So Professor Varekamp thinks that the far western end of the Sound might have been troubled by hypoxia (roughly 3 or 3.5 milligrams per liter of oxygen or less) of a greater intensity and for far longer than is indicated by Paul Stacey’s calculation from 1990 that dissolved oxygen levels never fell below about 5.5 milligrams per liter.

Later in the afternoon Paul responded as well, prefacing his remarks with a note that his work is old and that he happily changes his mind when newer and better data come in. Here’s what Paul said:

I've always been a little concerned that the natural condition of the Sound may have been more hypoxic than the LIS 3.0 model [the one he relied on 15 or so years ago -- TA] determined. The environmental "historians" have sometimes referred to legends from Native Americans suggesting that crab jubilees and hypoxia fish kills may have occurred before the European invasion in some estuaries. I don't have anything substantive on that, though. Kent Mountford who writes for the Chesapeake Bay Journal (Past is Prologue column) might have some more info on that if you'd like to follow up.

The SWEM model [one that’s in the works, I guess -- TA] does (preliminarily) suggest that natural conditions for hypoxia may have been in the 4-5 mg/L range. And there are likely to have been some harbors and embayments that would have been more susceptible to low DO. Shallow areas that got pretty warm in the summer and had high carbon inputs from a tributary that were not well flushed would, I think, always have experienced some hypoxia. Offshore, though, maybe not.

That reminded me that in 1679, a Dutch fellow (not Joop Varekamp) was exploring the shore of Staten Island. He found what sounds like a pretty good bunker kill:

“Lying rotting upon the shore were thousands of fish called marsbancken, which are about the size of a common carp. These fish swim close together in large schools, and are pursued so by other fish that they are forced upon the shore in order to avoid the mouths of their enemies, and when the water falls they are left there to die, food for the eagles and other birds of prey."

About 150 years later Henry David Thoreau was on Staten Island and found the same thing.

All this of course is interesting but also dangerous. I’m not suggesting that that the possibility that hypoxia is an old phenomenon should in any way diminish our efforts to control contemporary hypoxia. I don’t think either Paul Stacey or Joop Varekamp are suggesting that dissolved oxygen levels routinely fell close to zero in the western end of the Sound, or that hypoxia extended as far east as the Housatonic River and beyond. Nor do historical anecdotes of crab jubilees or bunker kills in any way equate with the devastating fish kills of 1987, when pretty much any fish in the western half of the Sound died. The really bad hypoxia that we have now is still our problem to fix.

Going Where No Manatee Has Gone Before -- To Cape Cod

Apparently the wandering manatee got as far as Falmouth, Massachusetts, last week (where a fellow who was snorkeling in search of his lost wallet encountered it) before turning around and entering Narragansett Bay. It was last seen on Tuesday, off Rhode Island, and is presumed to be heading south again. The Times quotes a biologist with the U.S. Geological Service as saying that no one’s ever heard of a manatee being as far north as this one – approximately 10 miles south of Kingston, in the Hudson; in Greenwich Bay, in the Narragansett; and off Falmouth, on Cape Cod (all are essentially the same latitude, assuming I’ve manipulated my Google Earth map to the right places).

What’s more interesting is not that it made it so far north but rather that it swam east, past Point Judith, which is at the southwest tip of Narragansett Bay. The Times:

Mr. LaCasse [that is, Tony LaCasse, a spokesman for the New England Aquarium] said tropical species often made it to the Point Judith area but then turned around, as that is the point where tropical-type waters distinctly break off into the colder water of the North Atlantic.

“For this guy to get up around the corner, that’s significant,” he said.

Sewer Taxes Rise For Lots Of Reasons, Some Good, Some Weird. Take Fairfield, For Example...

Water conservation is a good thing, yes? In Fairfield, town residents cut their water usage by 5.6 percent last year; low flow plumbing was the main reason. That meant that less wastewater went to the town’s sewage treatment plant.

But apparently a homeowner’s sewer taxes are based are water consumption. So with less water going to the sewage plant, sewer tax revenues went down. The result is that the sewer district needs to raise taxes this year to compensate.

Got that? You save water and therefore you pay less in taxes; the sewer district’s tax revenues therefore fall, requiring them to raise taxes to compensate.

I learned that in this story in today’s Connecticut Post. It does a good job of explaining all the reasons – and there are several – why sewer taxes are rising in Fairfield.

One of the reasons is nitrogen reduction, which is part of the overall plan to end hypoxia in Long Island Sound. I like the attitude of Ed Bateson, chairman of the town’s Water Pollution Control Authority:

Bateson said taxpayers should know the town is well ahead of the state's nitrogen-removal goals for wastewater that ends up in Long Island Sound.

"Maybe I'm not happy about the rate, but at least I know I am generating a beneficial product to the public," he said.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

How Long Has Hypoxia Been A Problem In Long Island Sound? A Long Time, But Not Forever

Before I get on with today’s hypoxia post, I thought it wise to remind myself and anyone else who reads this why hypoxia is important. Nitrogen inputs and low dissolved oxygen concentrations mean nothing unless you remember this: Long Island Sound is an estuary that is supposed to be crammed with sea life of all kinds, but when hypoxia hits, when dissolved oxygen concentrations drop, marine life – fish, lobsters, crabs, whatever – can’t live in the Sound. They either die or are forced elsewhere, leaving a void. And, as Penny Howell, a fisheries biologist with the Connecticut DEP once told me, stating the obvious with simple eloquence: “Marine systems aren’t supposed to be voids. There’s supposed to be something there.”

Which leads me to Sam Wells, the transplanted Nutmegger who comments here so frequently from Texas that my wife thinks he’s on my payroll. Sam asked an interesting question in the comments to yesterday’s post about hypoxia. He wrote:

I've been thinking about this for a long time ... but can anyone tell me when the summertime waters closer to New York were anything but hypoxic?

The answer for Long Island Sound is yes, and it can be found on page 119 of this book. I’m immune to copyright violations on this, so I’ll summarize and quote: 15 or so years ago, Paul Stacey of the Connecticut DEP asked the same question. He figured that one way to come up with an answer was to determine how much nitrogen flowed into the Sound 400 years ago, before there were any sewage treatment plants or developed areas that contributed nitrogen.

“The key to that calculation was finding waterways that could be presumed to be carrying the same amount of nitrogen as they had four centuries ago …. He found two streams that met those qualifications: Burlington Brook, which flows through the town of Burlington, into the Farmington River and then into the Connecticut River and the Sound; and the Salmon River, a tributary of the Connecticut that cuts through East Hampton and Glastonbury.”

The USGS had been testing and keeping records of the amount of nitrogen per liter of water in those streams. Stacey was able to apply that amount to the flow rate of all the Sound’s tributaries.

“He discovered that, four centuries ago, about forty thousand tons a year of nitrogen had flowed into the Sound from its tributaries. Stacey had that number plugged into a computer model of the Sound and came up with another estimate: in a typical year before the Sound’s watershed was settled by European colonists, dissolved oxygen in the western end of the Sound never fell below about 5.5 milligrams per liter, which was plenty to keep even the relatively shallow waters … habitable for marine creatures.”

Today, in addition to that baseline of 40,000 tons, sewage treatment plants release an additional 29,000 tons a year (which is down from 38,700 about a decade ago) and an uncalculated amount reaches the Sound through stormwater runoff, which accounts for the awful conditions that beset the Sound each summer.

Johan Varekamp, the Wesleyan professor of Earth Sciences who spoke at April’s Long Island Sound Citizen Summit, seemed to be confirming Stacey’s analysis when he said at the conference that his research shows a striking increase in the amount of nitrogen that reached the Sound as long ago as the early 1840s, which he attributed to increased development and land use changes.

So to answer Sam’s question: there was no hypoxia 400 years ago, and hypoxia probably wasn’t all that bad 170 years ago. But it’s bad now, and not just in the Sound.

Oyster Bay Should Tell AvalonBay What Kind of Development Is Acceptable to the Community

It was only about seven weeks ago that AvalonBay was abandoning its development plans for Oyster Bay because of public opposition (led to a great extent by Friends of the Bay) to its proposal to put 300 townhouses on the site of an old car dealership. Now though the company has announced that it has actually bought the property and will be back with some other development proposal.

Newsday quoted AvalonBay vice president Matthew Whelan thus:

Over the past three years we repeatedly heard from numerous residents, business leaders and local representatives in the Oyster Bay community about the challenges and need for an expanded variety of housing in the community," Whelan said in a statement. "Long Island continues to face a housing crisis with property values that are making it increasingly difficult for young professionals and seniors to remain part of the community.

I don’t live in Oyster Bay, obviously, but I have no problem with more housing being built there.

I do have a problem with developers who try to shove unwanted proposals down the throats of a community, hoping to outspend and outlast the opposition.

And I have an equal problem with a community that does nothing but say no instead of sitting down and firing out what it wants and then working with the developer to get it.

Organizations like Friends of the Bay can’t do everything but it would be nice to see them organize some community workshops that include as many legitimate stakeholders as they can think of (including the developer and some local officials and some professional planners), and work out a use for the property that everyone can live with. If they need some advice on how to do it, call the Pace University Land Use Land Center, in White Plains.

The property is going to be developed. The question is, what will it be developed as and who will decide. The answer to the second half of that question is that the community of Oyster Bay should decide.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Water Quality in the Sound Got Significantly Worse in Early August As Compared to Mid-July

How difficult is it to figure out and then make generalizations about water quality conditions on Long Island Sound at any one time? For me, very. Here’s an example: Three weeks ago I wrote in a post:

Don’t ask why because nobody knows, but water quality in Long Island Sound, as measured by dissolved oxygen concentrations, seems to be better this year than at similar times in the previous four years, and conditions actually improved in mid July when compared to the first 10 days of the month.

I based that assertion on dissolved oxygen data collected and then disseminated by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. Almost immediately afterward we had a spell of really hot weather, which always makes hypoxia – that is, low levels of dissolved oxygen in the water – worse.

Yesterday the DEP sent out its data from early August and they show has fast conditions can change.

In mid July, 54.4 square miles of the Sound had dissolved oxygen concentrations below 3.5 milligrams per liter, which is the minimum Connecticut water quality standard.

In early August, 346 square miles were below 3.5. That’s more than one quarter of the Sound, by the way.

The DEP report, which was written by Katie O’Brien-Clayton, indicates that things very well could get worse:

Unless conditions change radically, data to date suggest the extent and duration will continue to be above average. [By “above average,” I assume she means worse than usual.]

On the other hand, we’ve had a number of cool and breezy days lately, which are exactly the kind of conditions that can inject oxygen into the Sound and ease hypoxia. Whether those conditions constitute a radical change, time will tell.

The DEP report also includes a chart comparing early August DO levels from 2002 through 2006.

Here’s what it shows, in square miles:

Under 0.9 milligrams per liter: 2002 – 41.7 square miles; 2003 and 2004 – 0 square miles; 2005 – 18.7 square miles; 2006 – 17.5 square miles.

0-1.99 mg/l: 2002 – 61 square miles; 2003 – 13.1 square miles; 2004 – 0 square miles; 2005 – 71.7 square miles; 2006 – 61 square miles.

0-2.99 mg/l: 2002 – 128.7 square miles; 2003 – 106.2 square miles; 2004 – 20.5 square miles; 2005 – 177.4 square miles; 2006 – 198.9 square miles.

0-3.99 mg/l: 2002 – 286.4 square miles; 2003 – 274.5 square miles; 2004 – 283.4 square miles; 2005 – 418.8 square miles; 2006 – 481.3 square miles.

Any trends to be remarked on or conclusions drawn from those numbers? I think I’ll hold off.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Expanding Salt Marshes

Eight or nine years ago I wrote a newspaper story about a young researcher who was studying why salt marsh grasses seemed to be disappearing at Marshlands Conservancy, a nature preserve owned by Westchester County, in Rye. I remember it because when I called the fellow who was the county parks commissioner at the time to get his thoughts on it, he was flummoxed because he hadn’t heard of the project: “It can’t be happening because I know everything that’s going on in the parks and I don’t know about this!”

About six weeks ago I went back to Marshlands for the first time in years, to wander around with some terrapin researchers. I mentioned the marsh dieback and the study to Alison Beall, the longtime curator at Marshlands, and she told me that amazingly enough the marsh grass – Spartina alterniflora, in particular – has rebounded and is colonizing new areas. Marshes are still fading elsewhere (in Jamaica Bay, for example), but in Rye they’re growing again, she said. Today’s Journal News has a story about it.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Providence Journal Has the First Photo of the Manatee

A fellow in Rhode Island managed to get a picture of the manatee yesterday in one of Narragansett's bays. The Providence Journal put it online, here.

No one got a shot of the manatee that had been in the Hudson, so if this is the same animal, it's the first look we've gotten.

A Manatee (Maybe THE Manatee) Is In Narragansett Bay

A manatee – maybe the same one that was in the Hudson River earlier this month, maybe not – was spotted in Narragansett Bay, near Warwick, Rhode Island, which is almost as far north as Providence. Links to my previous manatee posts are on the right.

In the meantime, Ken Emerson, whose record reviews I used to read in Rolling Stone back when I was a callow youth, wrote an op-ed piece in the regional sections of yesterday’s Times arguing that the manatee’s appearance in the Hudson is yet another indication of global warming.

I’m dubious. One manatee visited the area a decade ago; another is here this year (maybe two). To me, those are mistakes, the equivalent of visits by a rare bird, rather than a trend. Here’s the piece.

Use Save the Sound's Report Card to Prod Your Local Officials To Do Better On The Sound Cleanup

Government officials absolutely hate it when the public is shown that they (the officials, that is) are not doing an adequate job. Elected officials hate it because they think it will make it harder for them to get re-elected; appointed officials hate it because the elected officials blame them for the lapses.

Given that, community activists all over should be reading Save the Sound’s report, out last week, on how diligent the towns and cities bordering Long Island Sound have been in preventing contaminated stormwater from reaching the Sound.

Written in the form of a report card that addresses other issues as well, the Save the Sound report indicates that stormwater efforts have been mediocre:

Results were mixed, with only two receiving a grade of “very good” overall, and most did not have strong programs to address polluted runoff.

Here’s how Courant reporter David Funkhouser termed it:

The group gave only two communities - Brookhaven and Smithtown, N.Y. - a grade of "very good" for addressing storm-water runoff, and said most municipalities do not have strong programs to control runoff.

The results of the survey are hard to interpret: Many communities simply did not reply, and not every town answered every question. What is clear is that efforts to control runoff are still mostly in the talking stages. And, the money to fix the problem just is not available. …

"By far the biggest obstacle to implementing effective storm-water management and smart growth practices is the lack of available funding," said Robin Kriesberg, Save the Sound's interim director of Long Island Sound Restoration and Stewardship.

Some federal money is available. But programs have been cut back. In Connecticut, the state's annual contribution to Clean Water Act programs has yet to be approved, and environmental groups say the $50 million in proposed funding is crucial to keep the state on track for the long term.

The Connecticut Post used the report as an occasion to prod Connecticut officials to get back to work and put that $50 million back in the state’s Clean Water Fund:

However, to effectively reduce pollution carried by wastewater and storm run-off into the Sound, the state must recommit itself to increased funding to aid municipalities.

Such an investment, in the long run, leads to cleaner Sound waters and improved environment for state aquaculture and recreational opportunities.

The full report is here, in the left column. Look up your town’s score. Praise them for what they did right; but make sure they know that you know what they did wrong.

Connecticut Set to Start Lobster Conservation Program

Connecticut will start paying commercial lobstermen to cut a notch in the tails of legal-sized female lobsters and then throw them back into Long Island Sound, in the hopes that giving the females another couple of years to reproduce will increase the overall population. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission approved the program last week.

The program works as a conservation method because if a lobsterman catches a lobster with a notched tail, he has to throw it back. The tail grows back after the lobster molts twice, which gives it more time to reproduce.

This Connecticut Post story about the program quotes a Bridgeport lobsterman named Louis Gomes:

Gomes is catching a few lobsters in each of the 400 traps he sets out, but most are below legal size. They are pulling about 100 pounds of legal lobster from the traps — down from 400 pounds before the die off.

In 1998, a record-high 3.7 million pounds of lobster was landed in the Sound, but a year later the industry was devastated by a die off that killed more than a million lobsters in the western Sound. In 2004, Connecticut lobstermen landed about 658,000 pounds of lobster, according to preliminary figures from the state Department of Environmental Protection.

No one knows of course what number constitutes a sustainable lobster harvest from the Sound, but my guess is that 3.7 million pounds is unrealistically high. Lobster fishing in the Sound has for decades been a crude form of fish-farming or ranching: the bait in the lobster pots would attract lobsters of all sizes but the ones that were too short to keep were thrown back after they ate, so the lobstermen were essentially feeding them until they reached legal size. From what Gomes says above, that’s happening again, which I suppose is good news.

Friday, August 11, 2006


On vacation. Back in a week or so.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Lobster Boats On Rescue Missions

A lobster boat in Norwalk headed out early yesterday morning and, before it could haul a trap, came upon a man who had fallen off his boat the night before and then, after climbing onto a buoy, lashed himself to it with his belt so he wouldn’t fall off.

The lobstermen – Gary Olewnik and Cliff Shannon – rescued the man, 58-year-old Thomas Brown of Norwalk, who was rather nonchalant about the episode, at least from what I infer from the Stamford Advocate story:

After the lobstermen dropped him off at the South Norwalk Boat Club, Brown walked home and took a shower.

Last week in Narragansett Bay a lobster boat from Warren, Rhode Island, rescued a man who went into the bay at midnight because “the Lord told him to swim with the dolphins.” The fellow swam for more than five hours before the lobster boat came along.

Two unfortunate men rescued by lobster boats. I guess that’s an indication that the lobster population hasn’t plummeted as low as has been reported.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Are Conditions Right For A Bad Month On The Sound?

The hot weather, and the fact that it can be a precursor of poor water quality, is starting to concern those who work on Long Island Sound. The Greenwich Time has a report today. There’s no real news in it but it’s good to know someone is paying attention.

The Hudson's Manatee Seems To Like the Croton-Haverstraw Bay Area

The manatee that’s been visiting the Hudson River lately apparently made it almost as far north as Kingston on Saturday before retreating to the Croton area, where a number of people encountered it on Sunday.

The Journal News interviewed Julika Wocial, a biologist with the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, on Long Island:

Wocial said all of the reports described the animal as 10 to 12 feet long. One caller said the creature had barnacles on its back.

"We have a pretty good description but so far we haven't been able to get any photo or video of it," she said. The organization has contacted U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorities in Florida, she said.

"As long as the water temp stays warm, they're really not that concerned about it," she said.

Manatees are rare in this area, to say the least. Wildlife experts in Florida, which the mammal generally calls home, counted 3,116 manatees there in February. They migrate in warmer months, but generally not farther north than Virginia…

The Times, quoting Nicole Mihnovets, coordinator of the New York DEC’s marine endangered species program, pointed out that manatees are, indeed, endangered:

“… it is against the law to even get close to it. It could be considered harassment.” She said that the mammal could head back south on its own. “It should be fine if nature takes its course.”

The Croton Bay-Haverstraw Bay area of the Hudson is shallow and extremely rich biologically – lots of fish and, for a manatee, lots of vegetation to eat. It could be that as long as water temperatures are suitable, the manatee will hang around there.

Portuguese Men-of-War Are Still Hanging Around Block Island

A man swimming at the municipal beach on Block Island on Sunday mistook a Portuguese man-of-war for a football that had gotten away from some boys. From the Providence Journal:

"I thought, if I got there first I could toss it" to them, [Joe] Filippone said. As he got closer, he felt something wrapping around his left arm and leg and stinging him.

Filippone, who wasn't too far out in the water, said he walked ashore and started pulling off the tentacles.

"It's a sting like a bee sting, a heavy, heavy bee sting," Filippone said of the pain. …

Lifeguards treated Filippone at the beach's first aid center, applying vinegar to relieve the pain and a mixture of soap and shaving cream. A credit card was used to scrape away tentacle remains.

Filippone was taken to the Block Island Medical Center, where he was treated and released.

Filippone said when he arrived at the center his blood pressure had jumped to 210/90 and he was shivering. Doctors applied vinegar and baking soda and gave him Benadryl.

"I still have the strings and scars on my leg, but no more itching and no more burning," he said.

The use of vinegar on man-of-war stings is controversial; some say it aggravates the sting.

The winds shifted and apparently blew the creature, and others if they were there, to the east.

Portuguese men-of-war are generally rare in the northeast. Supposedly they’re drifting north this year because of warmer water temperatures and then spinning out of the Gulf Stream toward New England in warm water eddies.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Meandering Manatee

It seems like the manatee in the Hudson slowly moving north. Tom Lake, of the state's Hudson River estuary program, tells me that he's had an unconfirmed report that it's been seen in Haverstraw Bay, north of Croton Point, about 40 miles north of the Battery.

I mentioned in a previous post that a manatee had been up this way (in Long Island Sound, in fact) at least once previously, in 1995. I didn't remember this at all but it must have caused a stir because a former colleague of mine at the Journal News saw the post, checked the paper's morgue, and turned up seven stories in the Westchester paper in August of 1995 -- all of which she wrote herself (and which she said she barely remembered doing).

How do we measure interest in the manatee in 2006? This blog has been averaging 222 page views a day. As of now, today's total is 454 page views, and 101 in the last hour alone.

Hypoxia is Strangling Narragansett Bay

Conditions are bad on Narragansett Bay. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management tested dissolved oxygen concentrations in the bottom waters at 53 locations recently and found that all of them were below 3 parts per million, which is too low for fish to survive. The Providence Journal:

All water below 12 feet was hypoxic, meaning that it did not have enough dissolved oxygen to support fish and crabs. …

The state's director of Environmental Management, W. Michael Sullivan, said that global warming was one of many factors contributing to the Bay's depleted oxygen levels. Sullivan said the annual average temperature of the Bay had increased by 3 degrees in 50 years, which, combined with nitrogen from sewage and a cut in tidal flow due to sedimentation, had stimulated the growth of algae and plankton. When that plant growth dies and decays, it consumes oxygen.

I suppose every environmental problem can be tied, one way or another, to global warming, but it’s a bit of a cop-out to say that it’s to blame for hypoxia, in Narragansett Bay or Long Island Sound or anywhere else. Enough nitrogen from sewage plants and runoff enter those estuaries (and Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico) to push them over the edge every summer anyway. I can easily envision people saying that global warming requires such a long-term, planet-wide response that it’s useless to try to solve the bay’s problems.

I should also note that even when all of Narragansett Bay is involved, the area beset by hypoxia is still smaller that the hypoxic area of the Sound. The Sound is about 1,100 square miles and its hypoxic area often covers 300 square miles; the entire Narragansett Bay is 147 square miles. The average depth of the Sound is about 79 feet; the average depth of the bay is about 26 feet.

Last week there was also a big die-off of clams in the upper part of Narragansett Bay.

The Connecticut DEP sampled the Sound in late July-early August; the results should give us a good idea about whether the Sound will be in as bad shape as the Bay.

Warm Temperatures Bring Dangerous Bacteria to Northern Waters

Warmer than usual waters are carrying dangerous organisms north. Portuguese men-of-war have been found throughout Rhode Island and Massachusetts. And the Rhode Island Health Department reported recently that dangerous strain of bacteria, Vibrio vulnificus, which is usually found in much warmer areas, infected a man who was shellfishing in Narragansett Bay. He didn’t get ill from eating the shellfish (which is a risk if you eat them raw) but rather because he had an open cut and was infected while in the water:

[The health department] yesterday suggested that Rhode Islanders avoid exposing open wounds to saltwater and avoid eating raw or undercooked shellfish. (The shellfish advisory is always in effect, Gifford said, because of the potential dangers of eating raw shellfish.) [That’s David R. Gifford, director of the state Department of Health.]

Of particular concern to the state are the warmer waters of the upper Bay -- from Greenwich Bay north to Providence -- and inlets, shallow areas and coastal ponds such as Ninigret Pond and the Great Salt Ponds.

Gifford said the bacteria needs warm saltwater to survive, but he would not rule out the possibility of its presence in cooler parts of the Bay or in the ocean.
Nationally, there are about 100 cases of Vibrio infection a year, a third of which are fatal, Gifford said.

… Gifford said a man in his 50s or 60s was collecting shellfish near Warwick's Conimicut Point early last month. A wound on his leg became infected, leading to a serious hospitalization. The man is now recovering, Gifford said. He refused to release more information, saying he did not want to jeopardize the man's privacy.
"He got adequately treated and he's recovering fine," Gifford said.

The state does not routinely test the water for Vibrio, inasmuch as it is normally found in warmer waters, Gifford said.

But after learning of this man's case, the waters and shellfish around Coniicut Point were tested. On Thursday night, the results came back showing low levels of the bacteria. Gifford said the levels were high enough to issue the advisory.

The department is now testing shellfish and water in the upper Bay and other warm saltwater areas, including the inlets and coastal ponds. Results could take a few weeks because of the complexity of the bacteria, Gifford said.

The department was not sure how the bacteria got to Rhode Island waters, but Gifford speculated that either the Gulf Stream carried it up here or a ship in the Gulf carried it up here in water in its ballast tank.

The excerpt is from the Providence Journal, by the way, which is doing a terrific job of covering conditions on the Bay and in the state's coastal waters this summer. If only we had its equivalent on Long Island Sound.

Manatee Still Lingering in the Hudson

The manatee that swam up the Hudson River late last week has been seen as far north as Sleepy Hollow, just above the Tappan Zee Bridge.

The Times had a short piece in today’s Metro section. The Poughkeepsie Journal wrote about it last Wednesday.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Manatees in the Hudson and in Long Island Sound

I haven’t heard anything further about the manatee that’s been seen in the Hudson River, but I just learned that when I wrote this morning that “Obviously a manatee in the Hudson is extremely rare, if not unprecedented,” I was half right.

They are extremely rare, but they are not unprecedented.

Steve Stanne, of the New York State Hudson River Estuary Program, told me that a young man named Dan Zinder, who is working on the Hudson under the auspices of the Student Conservation Association, found a website that refers to a previous visitor, a manatee dubbed Chessie that in 1995 was tracked north through New York Bay and past the Statue of Liberty (that is, through the Hudson River estuary), through Long Island Sound and as far east and north as Point Judith, in Rhode Island, where it was seen on August 16, 1995.

Here he encountered cooler water and turned around to return to the warmer waters of Long Island Sound. His radio tag broke free on 22 August in New Haven, Connecticut, but public sightings were received as he continued his journey south.

Manatee in the Hudson, Dead Clams in the Narragansett

There’s a manatee in the Hudson River and clams are dying en masse in the upper reaches of Narragansett Bay.

Here’s the text of an e-mail I got late yesterday afternoon:

Manatee Sighting Alert!

We had a bona fide manatee sighting in the Hudson River heading North. This particular animal has been making his way North up the coastline with sightings reported in Delaware, Maryland & NJ. The sighting was reported first at 23rd Street and then later at 125th Street (40.81826 N -73.96201 W). On both occasions it was observed logging at the surface adjacent to the bulkhead and appeared to be heading further North up the river. As you can imagine we are very anxious about hearing about our wayward visitor. I have contacted the USFWS in Jacksonville to inquire about whether they wish to attach a transmitter to him/her. The animal has been described as approx. 10 ft in length and has barnacles on its dorsal surface.

If you could both spread the word to anyone who may be in the vicinity to keep their eyes open. We are looking for photo-documentation of the animal and wish to be advised of any sightings immediately.

Thanks again,

Kimberly Durham
Rescue Program Director
Riverhead Foundation for Marine
Research and Preservation
467 E. Main Street
Riverhead, New York 11901
631-369-9826 Fax
631-369-9829 Hotline

Obviously a manatee in the Hudson is extremely rare, if not unprecedented. Here’s what a website called Save the Manatee says about their range:

Manatees can be found in shallow, slow-moving rivers, estuaries, saltwater bays, canals and coastal areas. Manatees are a migratory species. Within the United States, West Indian manatees are concentrated in Florida in the winter, but they can be found in summer months as far west as Texas and as far north as Virginia. However, these sightings are rare. Summer sightings in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina are common.

As for the dead clams, they’re piling up in the Providence River, at the head of Narragansett Bay. The Providence Journal went out yesterday with John Torgen, the Narragansett Baykeeper:

Torgan anchored his 18-foot skiff, then crunched across the dead clams littering the tide line. He walked along the north side of Gaspee Point, observing, "I'm smelling them, too. Briny. I can smell some recent death."

As he walked, the dead clams beneath his feet grew deeper, till they covered his shoe tops and rose above his ankles.

The likely cause is unusually high water temperatures, perhaps combined with low dissolved oxygen concentrations. Torgan worries that the conditions are a precursor to a fish die-off, like the one that hit the bay three years ago.

"The soft shell steamer really is the canary in the Bay," Torgan said, and right now it could be portending trouble ahead -- much as a clam die-off in 2003 signaled a subsequent fish kill in Greenwich Bay.

"Conditions are similar this year," to what they were in 2003, Torgan said: record rains in May and June flushed nitrogen into the Bay from sewer treatment plants, septic systems, and fertilized lawns, just as heavy mid-summer rains did in 2003. Now, as then, there is a half moon and the Bay is in its "neap tide" cycle, when tides don't flush as much water as they do during spring tides near the full and new moons.

If winds slacken as they did in 2003 then oxygen from the air won't be mixed into the Bay, causing further depletion.

"People really don't get it when it's clams [dying], for some reason," Torgan said. "When it was fish, and people could see them gasping and suffering, it really galvanized public attention."

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

It's The Public's Right To Use Long Island Sound, Despite What Some Shorefront Landowners Might Think

Those of us who live in New York or Connecticut own Long Island Sound. I don’t mean that figuratively. The waters of Long Island Sound below the mean high tide line belong to the people of New York and Connecticut, and are held in trust by the government for everyone to use.

Unfortunately for a fellow from Massachusetts, police in Branford were unaware of that basic fact and told him to get out of the water near a condo development. The good news is that the Massachusetts man, Larry McCarthy, knew what he was doing and is using the opportunity to educate the local cops and others. From the New Haven Register:

He said police were not aware of the "high-water mark" rule that gave him the right to go fishing near the neighboring Turtle Bay condominiums. They forced him out after a resident complained.

He is in the process of filing a formal complaint and plans to attend an upcoming Board of Police Commissioners meeting.

"I told (the officer) that I have every right to be here," McCarthy recalled, after being asked to leave or face arrest. "I said, ‘No, you won’t. I can walk from here to Jersey and you can’t do a damn thing about it.’"

The Connecticut DEP website explains the public trust doctrine, here. I suggest asserting your right at every opportunity, especially in places (Greenwich and now Branford come to mind) where the locals make it clear that they don’t want us.

Portuguese Man-of-War Blowing in the Wind

A news account last week quoted someone from the Connecticut DEP, I think, opining that it was unlikely that a Portuguese man-of-war would be able to make it into Long Island Sound because the Race – the Sound’s connection to the Atlantic – was too narrow.

Plenty of these planktonic siphonophores are around this summer, but so far they’ve been limited to the coasts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and their offshore islands. Portuguese men-of-war rely on the winds and currents for mobility, so for one to reach the Sound, a wind would have to funnel it through the Race.

The unlikelihood of that seemed reasonable to me, until I read this story, in the Block Island Times. Two Portuguese men-of-war have been found on the island – one in Dorry’s Cove, an open cove on the west side, the other the island’s Great Salt Pond, the inlet of which is almost narrow enough to throw a stone across. (The Great Salt Pond is the big blue water body on the accompanying map; the inlet is on the west side.) Obviously it took a combination of luck and favorable winds, but if a man-of-war can make it into the Great Salt Pond, it can make it into Long Island Sound.

The personal bad news is that the winds blew the creature to the north, where it ended up on a beach near a dirt road called Andy’s Way. That part of the Great Salt Pond is one of the most benign and beautiful locales I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been planning to spending a fair amount of time there in two weeks, digging clams, watching shorebirds, and feeling the minnows swim over and around my feet.

Another Ferry On The Way Maybe

The fellow who for years gave boat tours of the Norwalk Islands is now hoping to start what amounts to a boutique ferry service for affluent passengers traveling between Stamford and Glen Cove. His name is Barry Natale, and he’s negotiating to buy a “practically unsinkable” boat to serve as his ferry, according to the Stamford Advocate:

Natale's target would be "upscale" clientele who are tired of driving from Long Island to Stamford every day and can afford the service.

With companies such as Royal Bank of Scotland opening corporate headquarters in Stamford, Natale thinks he can get the clients he needs.

"It's a pain for these people to drive from Long Island to Connecticut," Natale said. "I want to solve that problem."

He doesn't think his business will be a substitute for the Bridgeport to Port Jefferson, N.Y., service that carries cars and significantly more passengers or the long-talked-about Stamford ferry service that would take commuters to lower Manhattan.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Inside A Whaler's Trunk

A trunk filled with letters, logbooks, sextants and other possessions of George Elliott, the first mate on whalers that embarked from Stonington, has turned up in Cheshire, Connecticut, and is being auctioned next week. The Hartford Courant reported:

As first mate on many of his voyages, Elliott maintained the daily logbooks and apparently kept them after returning home to Stonington. Entries on some pages include tiny hand-drawn whales, indicating the ship had killed one. Each is followed by the number of barrels of oil the creature produced.

The Courant quotes a maritime historian as saying the contents of Elliott’s trunk are interesting but not extraordinary. Whaling was so commonplace in the region – not just from New Bedford and Nantucket but also from New London, Mystic, East Haddam, New Haven, Bridgeport and even Hudson, New York, way up on the Hudson River – that logbooks and other old items turn up every few years.

One of the passages from Elliott’s logbooks that the Courant quoted caught my eye:

I should have observed that there is always such a current getting down this river that it is impossible for a vessel to sail up against it except it be with a fair wind.

It reminded me of this observation about the Connecticut, from the account of Adriaen Block’s first journey up the river:

The reaches extend from northeast to southwest by south, and it is impossible to sail through them all with a head wind.

Sailing is sailing, I guess, whether it was in 1613 or 1833.
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