Down by the Bay, Where the Filter-Feeders Grow

Volunteers help plant eel grass.

Volunteers help plant eel grass.

“Water in the Moriches Bay is deteriorating; there’s not enough oxygen in the water, and too many nitrates,” says Laura Fabrizio, co-founder of the Moriches Bay Project with Dwight Surgan and Aram Terchunian. The EPA listed the Moriches Bay (MB West, MB East) as an impaired waterbody four times from 2006 to 2012 with five ongoing issues: algal growth (brown tide), nitrogen overload, oxygen demands, pathogens, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The imaginative organization proposes to filter the entire bay using oysters: one adult oyster filters roughly 50 gallons of water per day. “The goal is to have over one million oysters in the bay to filter the water every two days and have oysters grow naturally in the bay.”

To reach the million oyster goal, the organization needs to get as many people as possible aware and involved, and that includes educating the bay’s future stewards. In addition to gearing hands-on workshops in the bay towards children, Fabrizio visits local elementary schools — such as Westhampton, William Floyd, Center Moriches, and Hampton Bays — as a guest speaker and explains to the children the current state of the bay and how filter-feeding oysters can help. Not long after one of these visits, she received a call from one of the teachers that would bring her to tears: when the students were assigned to collect and redeem bottle caps as a class, they decided to do a public good and donate their $85 towards the Moriches Bay Project. “This is by far one of the most rewarding things of the project, which has become my passion,” she says. “To know that you are doing something important, I can’t tell you how rewarding that is.”

moriches bay project 04 Laura Fabrizio

The oysters start at the town of Brookhaven’s shellfish hatchery at Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai, then grow over 18 to 24 months in protective cages (from predators) until they are mature enough to be released into the water and form an oyster bed. In June, Brookhaven has redirected and given some 20,000 oyster seeds this year to the Moriches Bay Project and the more recent Friends of Bellport Bay and intends to provide each group with at least an additional 20,000 oyster seeds every year; Brookhaven is looking to expand the mariculture facility at Cedar Beach in order to expand its production of the oysters.

“Unless we address these issues, we’ll inherit a bay that won’t support the marine life and won’t support us.”

In addition to oyster seeding, the nonprofit, in cooperation with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, recently planted 5,000 sheets of eelgrass, an aquatic plant that has been devastated due to, among other reasons, sewage and fertilizer pollution (excess nitrogen), raking for shellfish, and anchors and motors carving up the sea floor. The plant stabilizes the ocean floor, provides a habitat and dissolved oxygen for many commercially important fish and shellfish species, and absorbs carbon dioxide (during photosynthesis for said oxygen) as well as nitrogen and phosphorus that would otherwise feed algal blooms.

The group has set up a handful of digital monitoring stations throughout the bay — as far east as Quantuck Bay in Quogue and as far west as Smith Point Bridge in Shirley — to measure light, temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen levels, all critical to the health of the bay. This is the first time Moriches Bay has been monitored consistently this closely and the readings will allow the group to assess which parts of the bay need the most help and how the efforts are progressing. Every quarter the nonprofit posts and sends out a digital newsletter called the Moriches Bay Index with updates and these readings will become useful as an additional half dozen stations are added and the group continues its efforts.

An oyster tank.

An oyster tank.

In order to revive our estuaries, Fabrizio says, “Besides shellfish filter-feeders and eelgrass, nitrogen levels have to get down.” The two main sources of nitrogen overload are residential (eg. septic tanks) and agricultural (eg. nitrogen-based fertilizers such as ammonia); both contaminate the bay through groundwater runoff. “Our water quality and harmful algae blooms are caused mainly from the nitrogen of our sanitary systems,” says Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine. “One household septic system produces roughly 50–60 mg/L of nitrogen [in its effluent discharge]. If connected to a properly operated sewage treatment plant, that would drop down to 10 mg/L.”

The effort to revive our estuaries revives not only the bay itself, but a spirit of community of those that live here and a need of one another for common survival, for ourselves and for our historical-regional-cultural identity.

While sewers are viable in a more densely populated area such as Mastic-Shirley, they are not economical to install elsewhere, says Romaine. “Alternatives are denitrification systems, such as Nitrex, which is used in Cape Cod. A properly operated denitrification system could get it down to 5 mg/L. A septic system costs around $5,000; a denitrification system ranges from $10,000 to $20,000.” In order to encourage the upgrade, says Romaine, Brookhaven can subsidize denitrification systems and bring the cost down. In addition, the town of Brookhaven is proposing legislation that would entail stricter standards than Suffolk County for any new construction within 500 feet of water, continuing in line with town legislation passed earlier this year that ensures stricter wastewater treatment standards (3 ppm of nitrogen) than Suffolk County’s standards (10 ppm of nitrogen) within the Carmans River watershed in an effort to restore the river.

The Moriches Bay Project and its big idea brings out the best in people and concerns everyone at every level. The effort to revive our estuaries revives not only the bay itself, but a spirit of community of those that live here and a need of one another for common survival, for ourselves and for our historical-regional-cultural identity. “We’re trying to restore the bay and get back to the point where we create a balance with nature and respect nature,” says Romaine. “This is one way of letting nature heal itself, because we’ve done so much harm. The enemy is us. Unless we address these issues, we’ll inherit a bay that won’t support the marine life and won’t support us.”

Check out what the Moriches Bay Project is up to at morichesbayproject.org, and if you have any questions, concerns, or would like to donate or do your part, they can be reached at morichesbayproject@gmail.com. Also, check out the Southold Project in Aquaculture Training (SPAT) in order to do your part in raising some oysters at the hatchery or from your own dock; contact Kim Tetrault with any questions kwt4@cornell.edu.

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