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Apr 18, 2012 11:33 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Scientists Working To Find Source Of Shellfish Struggles In Shinnecock Bay

Apr 18, 2012 1:22 PM

A week after announcing that the western half of Shinnecock Bay appears to be a sterile environment for shellfish trying to reproduce, scientists from Stony Brook University said the problem might be caused by rising carbon dioxide levels caused by the explosion of algal blooms over the last two decades.

Studies by Stony Brook scientists in recent years have shown that elevated CO2 levels in tidal waters, known as acidification, can impede the development of larval shellfish when they are most vulnerable to environmental conditions, preventing them from forming their hard 
protective shells.

Stony Brook professor Dr. Christopher Gobler said this week that his researchers will be tracking CO2 levels in Shinnecock Bay this coming summer and fall to determine if acidification, driven by algae blooms and nitrogen from residential septic systems, could be the root of the long-running failure of shellfish in the bay to reproduce.

The world’s seas and tidal waters are seeing a creeping increase in CO2 levels, and lower pH levels, thanks to the same climbing atmospheric CO2 levels that are blamed for global warming.

The changes are seen as a threat to coral reefs and shellfish stocks around the globe, but over many decades. Dr. Gobler said their studies focusing on parts of Long Island have shown that algae blooms might already be pushing CO2 levels in certain water bodies to levels not expected to be seen for another century.

“When people talk about acidification, they think in terms of a century from now—we saw that last year,” Dr. Gobler said of observations made in some Nassau County bays.

In enclosed bays bordered by dense residential developments, nitrogen from septic systems feed thick algae blooms that, once they die off, produce spikes in CO2 levels similar to the burning of fossil fuels.

“Gasoline is just organic carbon, and when you burn gasoline, you break up that carbon, and it produces CO2,” Dr. Gobler explained. “But here in coastal systems, because there is so much nitrogen loading, the 
algal blooms are so dense that when they die off, the levels of CO2 get very high.”

Last week, Dr. Gobler and other scientists from Stony Brook presented the results of studies that showed no larval shellfish are in the water columns of the western half of Shinnecock Bay—while the eastern half had abundant baby shellfish. Dr. Gobler said this week that over the next year the scientists will focus on acidification levels as a possible cause of the failure of the large numbers of adult shellfish in the western portions of the bay to spawn successfully.

At a Southampton Town Trustees meeting on Monday, members of the board who work as commercial shellfish harvesters offered anecdotal support for the scientists’ findings.

“There are tons of those big [clams], and they’re spawning every year, but there is no recruitment,” Town Trustee Ed Warner Jr. said of the consistent lack of baby shellfish being added to the western half of Shinnecock Bay. “It’s been that way for years.”

Dr. Gobler and the Stony Brook scientists have been tracking the series of destructive algae blooms that have plagued the East End’s bays for more than 25 years now, starting with the “brown tide” blooms that nearly wiped out wild shellfish stocks in the 1980s and 1990s and, most recently, two species of “red tide” blooms that can poison fish and shellfish and even pose dangerous health threats to humans.

A 2010 report traced direct correlations between the emergence of the destructive blooms and rising nitrogen levels caused by the influx of nitrogen into the tidal systems from groundwater tainted by septic discharge in residential neighborhoods within the bay’s watershed.

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