Shinnecock Bay bears the name of an indigenous people, but due to human activity it bears little resemblance to what it once was when it sustained Native American populations. In recent decades, poor water quality, harmful algae blooms and massive declines in shellfish have unfortunately become the new normal for Shinnecock Bay and estuaries around Long Island.
And yet, thanks to a decade-long effort by scientists at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS), the bay is making great strides in returning to an ecosystem rich with marine life.
The Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program (ShiRP) is made up of dedicated Stony Brook faculty, staff and graduate students from the laboratories of Christopher Gobler, Ellen Pikitch and Brad Peterson. The labs work together toward the goal of improving water quality in western Shinnecock Bay by restoring the bay from within.
The approach centers around increasing filtration. Shellfish like clams and oysters are “filter feeders” that feed by straining suspended matter from the water. They help keep harmful algae in check and mitigate the impact of excess nitrogen seeping into the bay from underground septic systems throughout the watershed.
At the heart of ShiRP’s multi-faceted approach is the creation of hard clam “spawner sanctuaries,” which are harvest-free areas planted with high densities of adult clams. These sanctuaries not only supercharge filtration in localized areas of the bay, but more importantly increase reproductive success so the clams may efficiently and effectively repopulate the entire bay over time. The strategy thus provides both immediate and long-term payoffs.
“The South Shore Estuary of Long Island was once home to the nation’s largest hard clam fishery,” recalls Michael Doall, ShiRP’s leading restoration scientist and a key collaborator within the lab of Chris Gobler, endowed chair of Coastal Ecology and Conservation, based at the Stony Brook Southampton campus. “Unfortunately, due to unsustainable harvest and the reoccurrence of harmful brown tides since 1985, hard clam populations collapsed throughout the estuary, and by the end of the 20th century the harvest was down more than 99 percent from its peak.”
To date, ShiRP has planted more than 3.5 million adult hard clams into two harvest-free areas established by the Southampton Town Trustees, a key authority that supports ShiRP’s restoration efforts in the bay.
The spawner sanctuary approach has been so successful that littleneck clam landings outside of the closed areas are the highest they have been since 1985, according to Doall. “Since we began establishing spawner sanctuaries in 2012, the hard clam harvest in Shinnecock Bay has increased more than…