Friday, May 30, 2008

Striped Bass, PCBs, General Electric, Unsafe Fish, the Maritime Aquarium

If I had more time and patience, and lived closer to the shore, maybe I'd learn how to fish. One of the guys who works at our local grocery store caught an enormous stiped bass the other day and was selling fillets from the fish counter. We bought one. It was good. I'd love to be able to go to the beach, cast into the surf, and catch a striper or a bluefish, or even a fluke, assuming you can catch fluke from the beach.

Now would be a good time to try it. Blogs (like this one) and newspaper fishing columns are reporting that things are picking up. This from Newsday:

The City Island open boat, Island Current, has used bunker chunks to hammer bass to 48 pounds, along with tons of bluefish, halfway between Manhasset Bay and Rye Beach. Mark Gurleski, a mate with R & G Charters in Port Washington, confirmed the hot bass action. His trips have seen several stripers in the 25- to 30-pound class caught each day in 25 feet of water between Hempstead and Manhasset harbors.

Aside from the over-writing (why "hammer" bass? "Catch" or "hook" are perfectly good words), that sounds pretty good to me.

Of course both the New York and Connecticut Health Departments have permanent health advisories warning women of childbearing years, and children, to eat no striped bass -- none -- because of PCBs.

Most of the PCB problem, of course, was caused by General Electric, which dumped enormous amounts of the compound into the Hudson and Housatonic Rivers.

Which brings me to news about a forum about the future of Long Island Sound, being held on Sunday at the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk. One of the panelists will be General Electric environmental counsel Mark Stoler (click here).

I wonder if any of the Maritime Aquarium people who invited him will have the guts to remind him that 30-plus years after his company stopped dumping PCBs into our rivers, our kids still are advised not to eat fresh fish from Long Island Sound.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Direct from Norwalk: Lovejoy's White Rock and Grassy Hammock Oysters

Terry Backer read my earlier post about oysters, in which I referred to an old sign I had seen at his headquarters. I remember making note of what the sign said, but that notebook is long gone. But Terry remembered and sent me this, in an email:

That was a sign from the the Fredrick Lovejoy Oyster company. It advertised White Rock and Grassy Hammock oysters both place names in the harbor. I own one of those pieces of oyster ground now. The sign was from the 20s and 30s. It was and is common practice to name certain oysters after where they are grown. The location can contribute to the flavor of the oyster considerably thus by branding them with their place name can help people Id what they have had before.

Thanks, Terry!

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The Fish Are Spawning in the Mianus in Greenwich Again This Year

About 90,000 anadromous fish -- alewives, mainly, but blueback herring as well -- made it over the fish ladder on the Mianus River in Greenwich in the spring of 2007. That number amazed fisheries biologists, because river herring populations have been dropping all over, and it's illegal to catch them in Connecticut.

Back in March, at the Long Island Sound Citizens Summit conference in Bridgeport, Steve Gephard, the director of inland fisheries for the Connecticut DEP, made a presentation and said that there were 44 fishways -- passages to help spawning fish make it over dams -- in Connecticut, and a 45th being built in Darien.

By coincidence he sat down next to me after his talk, and I asked him about Greenwich. He said the incredible number of fish on the Mianus was an eyebrow-raiser but that for reasons they don't understand it might also be an anomaly, a one-time surge that they can't explain.

But that does not seem to be the case. The Greenwich Time ran a Q&A with Brian Eltz, an assistant in Greenwich's conservation department whose job it is to coordinate the river herring count. Here's an excerpt:

What's been going on over at the fishway?

At the fishway, we've had a tremendous herring run this year. We've passed about 82,000 river herring so far and about 77,000 of the alewives and the bluebacks just started coming out. We have about 20 volunteers there who have been helping, so we've been able to collect good data.

How is our fishway unique?

Well, it's got the best run in the state of herring at a fishway.

What does that mean?

We have the highest number. What it is is that we have a lot of good habitat like the pond and being so close to the coast. It's good access for fish to come in and spawn in that habitat.

So it's not an anomaly. But it's still hard to explain.

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Local Oysters

I'm not sure that naming oysters after the specific place they are grown and harvested is as new as this Times story suggests. I remember once, about 20 years ago, visiting Terry Backer in his old Soundkeeper office in Norwalk, and he showed me a sign he had salvaged from, if I remember correctly, the 1930s, that advertised oysters taken from the vicinity of one of the smaller Norwalk Islands. And Mark Kurlansky, in The Big Oyster, says that Saddle Rock oysters were so big that in the 1800s, 25 of them made up a bushel, which obviously suggests that in the 1800s, oysters were named after a specific place.

But that's a quibble. The Times story is fascinating, with lots of goood information about oyster growers, mainly on eastern Long Island, many of whom are Native Americans. Reading it made me want to go back to the Fish Cellar, in Mount Kisco, and eat a dozen Pine Islands from Oyster Bay.


Coastal Forests are the Most Important Habitat for Birds Around Here, an Ornithologist's Study Finds

An ornithologist named Robert J. Craig has been studying southern New England's birds year-round for years. His conclusion: coastal forests are the most important habitat, so we should do all we can to protect them.

On a more controversial note, he says that if competition for land preservation funding is intense, it makes no sense to spend money protecting birds like the grasshopper sparrow, whose grassland habitat is dwindling in the east. Grasshopper sparrows are common in regions where grasslands are common, so forget about them here and work to protect birds that rely on the eastern forests. The Courant wrote about it, here.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

What to Do About Great Neck

In Great Neck, they're still trying to figure out how to meet their obligation to upgrade sewage treatment plants, which they are required to do under the state- and federally-approved plan to clean up Long Island Sound. Do they consolidate two existing treatment plants and upgrade to reach the 58.5 percent nitrogen removal goal, or do they close the plants down and divert the sewage to the south shore, thereby achieving almost 100 percent nitrogen removal.

I had written here that it seemed as if the consolidate-and-upgrade plan was the preferred option. But this Newsday story makes it seem as if diversion is still alive, which perhaps could lead to a nitrogen trading program that might help Westchester County solve its big nitrogen removal problem.

So Far, Jamesport's New State Park is Used Mainly By Illegal ATV Riders

It's been years since New York State bought an unbelieveably beautiful piece of Long Island Sound waterfront property on eastern Long Island for a new park. This story, in the Suffolk Times, points out that despite all the fanfare that surrounded the purchase of the Jamesport State Park and Preserve, the park still has no-trespassing signs up and the only users are ATV riders who without question, in my opinion, are damaging the dunes and bluffs.

The Pataki administration bought the park and then left it up to the next administration to figure out what to do with it. The state parks department now says the park is on the top of its list for a new master plan to help them get it ready for public use.

Except for the ATV use -- which should be stopped -- I don't think there's any big scandal here. Buying the land and protecting it was obviously the right thing to do. But with public access to the Sound such an important issue, it would be nice to see the Jamesport park opened.


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Legislative Help for Anadromous Fish in Wallingford

More spawning news: Wallingford has approved construction of a fish ladder at the Wallace Dam on the Quinnipiac River, here.

There are two amazing things about this:

1) for years, the executive director of the Quinnipiac River Watershed Association has been netting fish and lifting them over the dam, so they can continue upstream to spawn (of course spawning is one thing; getting back down to the salt water later is another). They call this a fish rodeo.

And 2) the executive director of the Quinnipiac River Watershed Association is Mary Mushinsky, who also happens to be a member of the Connecticut State Legislature and the assistant majority leader.

That means the state legislature has two professional environmentalists in its ranks. Here's the other. America is a big country and I'm sure Connecticut isn't the only state where this is so. Nevertheless, it's encouraging.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Plenty of Shad in the Connecticut

The news from the Hudson lately has been bad -- the state has further restricted shad fishing and at least one shad festival didn't even serve shad this year.

So what do we make of this: the shad run in the Connecticut River is excellent in 2008. Almost 63,000 have been counted at the Holyoke Dam, in Massachusetts. This page, from the Fish and Wildlife Service, summarizes the number of anadromous fish counted in the Connecticut. Some dams have fish ladders or other passageways to help fish get upstream; at Holyoke, apparently, they ride a sort of elevator:

Holyoke lifted 7,871 Shad on Friday, 11,619 Shad of Saturday and 11,901 Shad yesterday.

None of this means everything is right with the world, of course. Look, for example, at the number of alewives and blueback herring that have been counted.

To me, what it shows is that the one thing we can be sure of is that when we think we know what's going on in the natural world, there's a good chance we're wrong.

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Slow Down

Gas is $4.17 a gallon in my neighborhood, which really is amazing. Unfortunately there's not a whole lot I can do to drive less. I drive to and from work, a round trip of 24 miles, occasionally have to leave the office for meetings or field work, and then on weekends do what every suburban parent does -- drive my kids around. I drive a 1997 Subaru with 112,000 miles that gets a bit over 20 miles to the gallon, not a great gas-saver but not a hog either.

I saw a link on Chris Zurcher's headlines blog about how much gas you can save if you simply drive more slowly:

The Union of Concerned Scientists tells us that dropping from 70 to 60 mph improves fuel efficiency by an average of 17.2 percent. Dropping from 75 to 55 improves fuel efficiency by 30.6 percent!

Put another way, in a family sedan, every 10 mph you drive over 60 is like paying 54 cents per gallon more for gas you bought at $3.25 a gallon. (4) That extra cost is even higher for big SUVs and other less-efficient vehicles.

And the time you save by going easy on the accelerator may not add up to as much as you thought. On a 300-mile trip, driving 65 instead of 70 mph would cost you only 20 minutes -- but save money and spew less carbon.

That reminded me of my brilliant idea from January (here and here): State departments of transportation should begin campaigns to persuade drivers to slow down. One way to get the message across is to use those flashing signs that tell you when there's a traffic jam or roadwork ahead. If there are no problems to tell us about, put them toanother use: Flash a message that says, "Slow down to save gas and fight climate change. Driving 55 can save up to 30 percent."

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Looking at the Fish

Connecticut DEP has sent its research trawler out for fish for 25 years and has been keeping close track of what they find. Back in March, Penny Howell of the DEP's marine fisheries bureau, explained that while some species are less common (winter flounder and lobsters, for example), others are more common, and that overall there's no trend up or down.

Wynne Perry, a reporter for the Stamford Advocate, went out with the DEP crew not long ago and filed a good report. Here's an excerpt:

Fish dominated the catch - four species of flounder, three types of herring, two of hake and some whiting. A drab spider crab with a missing claw sat among the fish like a dead insect.

"They move so slowly sometimes so it's hard to tell if they're dead," said Deb Pacileo, a fisheries biologist who sorted jellyfish and seaweed into cups for weighing.

Later catches that day pulled up horseshoe and hermit crabs, toothy tautog, striped bass and skates.

"The stuff that gets caught up in the net, it's an unwritten script," said Tom Griffin, a fish and wildlife technician. "Last week, we caught a lamprey. Sometimes we catch a sturgeon or sea ravens, so it's like this living aquarium, except it's not contrived in any way. It's actually out there."

The process is more traumatic for some creatures. Most fish are sorted into tubs of water to wait, but some don't make it out alive in the time needed to empty the net, sort, count, measure and weigh.

Two species, winter flounder and tautog, go into a cooler stocked with ice so they can be taken back to the lab and examined to determine their age. For the winter flounder, that means removing a bone-like structure from the ear, for tautog a cheek bone.

The Sound is bordered by colder water to the north and warmer water to the south. The fish and invertebrates in it tend to be most comfortable in one or the other. Since the early 1990s, the survey - which takes place in spring and fall - has pointed to an increase of warm-water species and a decline in cold-water creatures such as lobster and winter flounder.

In the past two decades, the average water temperature in the Sound warmed 1.5 degrees Celsius.

"The cold-water species falling off does seem to be a clearer indication of an environmental influence," Simpson said. "There are a couple of other things going on. It's not so obvious and clear cut."

I suppose the story could have had more context, particularly about the Sound's hypoxia problems. But if you read it for what it is -- a story that lays out what the reporter saw and learned with out attempting to pose a solutions -- it's a good job.

Meanwhile, in the Connecticut Post, Charles Walsh takes a look at fishing issues and points a finger at a custom that probably could use some improving: fishing tournaments.

Two good newspaper pieces and then there's this, also from the Connecticut Post. A reporter writes about the lobster die-off in the Sound and in the second paragraph mistakenly says Mark Tedesco works for the Connecticut DEP (he works for the U.S. EPA) and in the seventh paragraph asserts that pesticides were responsible for the die-off (scientists eliminated that possibility years ago). The Post copy desk should learn how to use Google.


Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Lethal Toxin Forces New York to Close Some Long Island Sound Shellfish Beds

What to make of this? For the second time since 2006, New York State has closed shellfish beds on Long Island's north shore because of a marine biotoxin, called saxitoxin, that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning in humans. Until two years ago, saxitoxin had apparently never been seen before in Long Island Sound. Here's the state's advisory:

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) today announced that shellfish harvesting in certain bays in Long Island Sound have been temporarily closed due to the detection of a marine biotoxin.

The closure impacts approximately 2,000 acres, covering all the shellfishing lands in Northport Bay, Centerport Harbor and Duck Island Harbor that lie east of a line extending from the southernmost point of West Beach (also known as Sand City Beach) to the northeast corner of the beach pavilion at the Town of Huntington’s Crescent Beach, located on the southeastern shore of Huntington Bay. These areas are home to clams, mussels and oysters.

All shellfishing in these lands is prohibited till further notice in an effort to protect public health.

The precaution was taken after DEC determined that shellfish samples collected from Northport Harbor tested positive for saxitoxin, a marine biotoxin that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP). In 2006, DEC implemented its first-ever closure of shellfish lands due to the detection of biotoxins in shellfish in Northport Harbor.

DEC will re-open areas as soon as possible based on the results of laboratory analyses of shellfish and water samples that will be collected during the week. A taped message advising harvesters of the status of shellfish areas may be heard at (631) 444-0480. The message will be updated during the course of the temporary closure.

Saxitoxin and paralytic shellfish poisoning sound bad. From Wikipedia:

Saxitoxin (STX) is a cyanotoxin found in marine dinoflagellates (algae). It is a neurotoxin that is a selective sodium channel blocker. The United States military isolated saxitoxin and assigned it the chemical weapon designation TZ. It is almost unique among toxins in that it acts very quickly, in a matter of minutes. The median lethal concentration (LCt50) of TZ is 5 mg·min/.

The medical importance of saxitoxin is in relation to red tide in shellfish and causes the paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) food poisoning. The blocking of the sodium channel produces a flaccid paralysis that leaves its victim calm and conscious through the progression of symptoms. Death is from respiratory failure.

My experience in trying to get information from government officials about public health problems is that they always take the immediate event very seriously but rarely say much about the larger implications -- such as whether two saxitoxin appearances in 24 months indicates some kind of long-term ecological change that we need to be worried about.

Farm Aid

Gina told me the other day that she heard from our friends at Riverbank Farm, in Roxbury, that our local farmers market is opening a week from Saturday, much earlier than usual. The farms must be growing more stuff in greenhouses, but whatever. Our own garden isn't producing anything but arugula and leeks and onions we planted last year, and the wild leeks (ramps) are starting to fade in the woods. The sooner the farmers market opens, the better.

Thanks to Chris Zurcher, I found this compelling plea from a Connecticut dairy farmer in yesterday's Courant. Robin A. Chesmer, who runs a dairy farm in Lebanon, wrote:

Last year alone, Connecticut lost 10 percent of its dairy farms, and we are in danger of losing our state's remaining 100,000 dairy acres to nonagricultural use.

Skyrocketing costs of production, including transportation, fuel, electricity and feed, coupled with a decline in milk prices (set by the United States Department of Agriculture), are placing Connecticut dairy farmers in a financial crisis. ...

The issue really is all about the ability to provide a continuous supply of farm-fresh, locally produced food. Connecticut residents desire a local source of milk and other farm products that haven't traveled hundreds of miles. A trip to a supermarket will demonstrate the increased emphasis that is placed on local food products as a result of consumer demand. Connecticut dairy farms provide that local source of food.

Dairy farms contribute significant benefits to our state and communities. These farms provide a source of fresh food that is produced right here in Connecticut and doesn't have to travel long distances to get to the kitchen table. Connecticut dairy farms generate $300 million in annual economic activity, employing more than 1,000 individuals on and off the farm. Dairy farms represent approximately 60 percent of all Connecticut farmland and have a significant impact on our quality of life. Finally, our viable dairy farms provide wildlife habitats, water recharge areas, green buffers, fresh air and scenic vistas.

Specifically, he wants the Connecticut legislature to help:

If Connecticut dairy farms are expected to survive, they must be able to cover their costs of production when the federal pricing system fails to provide an adequate return. The General Assembly is considering An Act Concerning Assistance for Dairy Farmers that would achieve this goal by paying farmers from a state fund when the cost of production exceeds the return on federally set milk prices.

His argument boils down to this: The government keeps milk prices artificially low to benefit consumers; that puts local dairy farmers at a competitive disadvantage with dairy farmers from farther elsewhere. So if we want local milk and if we want farms instead of subdivisions or corporate headquarters, the state needs to subsidize dairy farmers.

I'm not an economist and I'm not familiar enough with the bill Chesmer is referring to. But at the very least, the argument seems to be worth considering.


Monday, May 05, 2008

The Post-Apocalyptic Beach at Stratford and Bridgeport

I'm not sure if I wasn't paying close enough attention to the debate or whether it hasn't been made clear, but one of the real issues concerning the possible sale of West Beach in Stratford and Pleasure Beach in Bridgeport to the federal government for a national wildlife refuge is the 40 abandoned and derelict cottages that remain on Stratford's side of the border. Forty cottages is a lot == a neighborhood, a hamlet, almost a village-sized development. People in the two communities have protested the sale because they fear it will cut off public access. Proponents have said that's silly: improving public access is one of the goals of the deal.

The area is off limits now becaue of the cottages but Christopher Finney, a master's student in environmental management at Yale, went out there the other day and wrote about it. He made it sound not so pleasant, describing:

... a post-apocalyptic neighborhood of boarded-up houses. ... The startling noises that sometimes turn out to be rabbits and sometimes turn out to be teenagers or squatters have me thinking how far I am from help. No doubt about it, fear keeps people off of Long Beach. Twelve years after Stratford brought this land back into the public domain, you still can't visit without looking over your shoulder.

The feds say they will take down the cottages and open up the beach. It won't be Hammonasset but it won't be off limits either. Bridgeport's mayor says he doesn't have the money to do anything with the beach and he needs the feds' money for other projects; Stratford's mayor wants to sell too but it's not clear whether his city has the money or the will to clear the cottages. Some earlier posts of mine about this issue are here, and Finney's piece, from the Connecticut Post, is here.
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