By Isabelle Desilier
A group of 18 adults and children attended the day camp program Cool Crustaceans for preschoolers to learn more about crustaceans and marine wildlife, on Sunday, April 28, in a push to educate Long Islanders about the decreasing water quality of their bays and groundwater.
Under the tutelage of Tracy Marcus, camp educator and marine biologist, children aged three through seven were taught the differences between shellfish and crustaceans, their life cycles and what role they play in keeping Long Island waters clean at Sports Fishing Education Center and Aquaculture Facility on Cedar Beach Marina, a facility where they farm shellfish and house other marine life.
“We had a great time learning about all the different animals,” Jade Mayes, mother of Mason, a six year old camper, said. “Especially when we went out to go get the fish.”
The event was part of the week long Sea Explorers Marine Camp, hosted by Cornell University. The camp focuses on teaching elementary and middle school students about different marine life and bring awareness to the decreasing water quality in Long Island, the growing dead zones and how shellfish are being used to help.
Crustaceans and shellfish are often confused for each other – crustaceans are animals that grow their own shells and animals like crabs, lobsters, shrimp and barnacles, while shellfish have to find their own. Oysters, mussels, and clams are filter feeders, or shellfish that absorb the toxins as nourishment in the water, Marcus said.
Shellfish are shelled marine animals that can filter and absorb toxic chemicals and excess elements. When distributed in a dead zone, an area that is deprived of the oxygen and natural resources needed for marine life to thrive, shellfish can filter out chemicals in the water, which allows the natural ecosystems to restabilize and invites fish and vegetable to repopulate.
“In Southold, which is our flagship marine center, they raise the seeds- baby clams-and are going to put them around 15 different locations throughout Long Island,” Marcus said.
The different locations will carry up to 150 million shellfish in box-like floats that rest just below the water’s surface, called Floating Upwellers Systems (FLUPSYs), to nurse the seeds until they are big enough to be released.
“Our team has manufactured over 70 FLUPSYs,” Kimberly Barbour, outreach manager of the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) Marine Program, said. “They enable our clams to grow in a protected environment until it’s time to plant them at one of the sanctuary sites that have been designated as receiving areas for the shellfish grown in support of this project.”
While they use FLUPSYs to nurse the seeds, Long Island Restoration Project (LISRP) fosters spat-on-shell oyster reefs that can filter 19 trillion gallons of water a week in large tanks in places like the Cedar Beach Marina and Southold.
Spat-on-shell oysters are oyster larvae that have glued themselves to an old shell and continued to grow with new larvae spatting on the older oyster shells. As the reefs grow, they provide new habitats for other marine life like shrimp, crabs and small fish in the clean water they provide.
Other projects, like the Moriches Bay Project (MBP), focus solely on oysters and oyster reefs.
“We are in our fifth season, building oyster cages, going around schools and talking about oysters,” Laura Fabrizio, the co-founder of the MBP, said. “What inspired us was that we grew up on the bay and over the years we could see the deterioration in the water.”
Set to release 10,000 oysters in student made oyster cages this summer, the MBP, a South Shore nonprofit organization, focuses on cleaning the Moriches Bay. Founded by Fabrizio and her partner Aram Terchunian, MBP has enlisted the help of elementary and middle school children to build oyster cages that they use to release oysters into the bay. In exchange, they visit the schools and talk about shellfish, the decline in water quality and why it’s a problem, and why Long Islanders must act now.
“Things that affect the water take much more time to see degradation or improvement,” Chris Clapp, marine biologist of Nature Conservancy, Long Island branch, said. “Generational questions are much more accurate and the trend is that water quality in most places is continuing to go down and will get worse unless we make major changes through the way we do things on land. Water quality will continue to degrade or stay, at minimum, a stable bad.”
The island does have other sources of water, like freshwater marsh lands, bays, ponds and beaches, Clapp said. The groundwater is the only source of drinking water the Long Island has for now.
Part of the problem are the fertilizers that leak into the groundwater through the soil and rain runoff, the cesspools that leak into the soil from rusty pipes and the waste runoff from landfills and construction sites leading to nitrogen pollution.
Long Island groundwater flows directly into rivers, ponds and bays, contaminating them with the excess of nitrogen. Although harmless in small amounts, excess nitrogen can impair the ability to breathe, limit visibility and boost algae growth, all of which kills marine vegetation and marine life that can’t filter out the excess creating dead zones. The 200 percent increase in nitrogen pollution over the past decade is also a contributing factor to dead zones.
In September 2017, Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York State granted public hatcheries and farms $7.25 million, with $5.25 million dedicated to the CCE, as part of a $10.4 million grant to help improve water quality on Long Island. The remaining $3.25 million are dedicated to obtaining adult shellfish to breed by the different hatcheries.
“Protecting our natural assets is critically important for Long Island by restoring our shellfish populations and investing in the preservation of New York’s coastal communities, we will strengthen the regional economy, create new jobs, and ensure our waters are clean,” Cuomo said in the initial press release.
Since then, five more hatcheries – like the ones in Southold, Hempstead, Islip, Brookhaven and East Hampton – were built along the north and south shores.
“We live in a region where our economy is largely dependent on marine based industry and tourism,” Barbour said. “By improving water quality, creating more resilient shorelines through large scale oyster reef establishment, and enhancing local clams populations, we are helping ensure our maritime heritage can be preserved and our local economy can be positively impacted. We hope to continue to share our knowledge with other groups and institutions that are also working to help restore shellfish populations and improve water quality conditions in our local waters.”