We took a gorgeous cruise around the Thimble Islands on the first evening of fall. We couldn’t have asked for better weather, companions or views.
Thanks to my Mom and Dad for organizing the trip! (And to my in-laws for watching Joshua!)
My grad class spent today on Outer Island, which is one of the Thimble Islands. We did a whole bunch of data collection, but I also had a chance to take lots of pictures.
Here’s the tide pool that my group monitored throughout the day. It reminded me of an infinity pool.
The tide was coming in while we were there.
The Thimble Islands are granite, and are therefore more stable than many other islands in Long Island Sound. This pink rock is known as Stony Creek Granite.
Outer Island is about 5 acres, and is the only Thimble Island used for research by Connecticut State Universities and Yale.
I couldn’t resist snapping a picture of this boat sailing by us.
Here’s our tide pool again, from a different angle.
Although it was a busy day, we still had some time to relax and take in the scenery. I love this class!
My “Analytical Techniques and Instrumentation” class spent today out in New Haven Harbor taking sediment samples.
We took a boat from the Sound School, a public/magnet high school in New Haven that has a focus on aquaculture and marine studies.
Here’s their boat, the Sound Rover.
Here’s part of the Sound School. It’s built right on the water with its own pier.
We selected sampling locations on a map of the harbor. We tried to cover areas that we suspected to be especially contaminated, as well as areas that we hoped would be clean. In the lab, we plan to test for iron, copper and zinc.
One of the areas we chose to sample was under the Quinnipiac Bridge. We expect to find contaminants here since I-95 is right above.
We also sampled the sediments near the terminals, where petroleum and other materials are emptied from huge boats.
Here’s an oil tanker. Other areas we hypothesize will be contaminated are near a wastewater plant, storm drains, a marina, and a dredged area.
Here’s lighthouse park, an area that we hope will have little contamination. We’re also hoping the commercial oyster beds we sampled will be clean, as well as the area outside the breakwaters.
The New Haven skyline.
We used this ponar grab to sample the sediments at the bottom. Metals settle out of the water into the sediments, which is why we’re not testing the water.
Here’s one of the sediment samples that we collected. You can see the distinct layers in it. We had to be careful to clean everything thoroughly between sampling to avoid cross-contamination.
Back in the lab, we prepared the samples to go into the drying oven over the long weekend. When we return to class on Monday, we’ll begin to test for iron, zinc and copper.
My mom and I took a trip to Hammonasset State Park today. I like to walk on the beach, but I don’t like to sit in the sun and get burned (my mom loves to sit in the sun). However, today we explored and prepared for the field trip this coming week.
At Hammonasset, West Beach is migrating, or eroding away. It’s a natural process, but the park is trucking in sand to try to keep the beach. My Environmental Science class is going to study the beach and examine some solutions for the erosion, including the possibility of letting the natural process of beach migration occur, instead of fighting it.
The Meigs Point Nature Center is a great resource for information about the geology and biology of the beach. We picked up a trail guide to the plants growing on the glacial moraine, and quickly explored the displays, but wanted to get back outside on the beautiful day.
We walked down the boardwalk and identified plants that my Botany class will study while there. Although I’ve been on the plant trail before, I wanted to check for what was in bloom and be prepared for our trip. Above, a white beach rose blooms.
Throughout our explorations, my mom and I remarked how fortunate we feel to live so close to the beach. In a matter of minutes, we can taste the salty air, hear the waves, and feel the sand between our toes. We can collect shells and sea glass, watch gulls drop shellfish on the road to break them open, and take pictures of the blue sky and blue waters.
What’s special about where you live?
Ed and I had a busy, eventful day. We started by spreading manure in our flower gardens this morning. We then headed over to his parents’ house to help his brother put the two clamming boats in the water. I’m writing a paper on aquaculture for my class on Long Island Sound, so I brought my camera along. After getting both boats in the water and taking a tour of a few clam lots, we headed over to my family’s farm to drop off some sawdust for Annabelle’s bedding. Then we visited my dad and brothers at two of the houses they’re building, got a tour of the houses and property, and visited with the owners. Finally, we headed back to my parents’ house to celebrate my brother Nathaniel’s 20th birthday and see my mom, who just got home from a math teacher’s conference in Washington D.C. When I got back home and examined my pictures from the day, I realized what a huge variety of things we’d done today.
An old clam caught in the aquaculture netting
Ed’s parents’ pond
Chris gets his boats ready for the new clamming season
Ed drives the tractor any chance he gets
Chris drives the “Melissa Louise,” which is named after his wife
A nesting box
Peach trees in bloom at my family’s farm
The hole in the knee of my jeans. By the end of the day, I had a hole in the other knee, too. I plan to cut these jeans off and turn them into shorts (or maybe a skirt?) this summer.
How did you spend your Saturday?
The focus of this chapter was on the importance of removing nitrogen from the Sound. It was clear that it would be important to remove nitrogen from sewage with a focus on treatment plant improvements, separating storm water from waste water to prevent overflow, reducing acid rain, re-evaluating appropriate land-use procedures, and reducing the use of nitrogen-containing fertilizers.
Having visited wastewater treatment plants more times than I’d like to count (it is an annual field trip with multiple classes), I have seen the process first-hand and spoken with the engineers that design the plants. Primary treatment and secondary treatment when performed in the traditional capacity only remove a small fraction of the nitrogen in wastewater. Since nitrogen is a limiting factor for plant growth, if we are continually pumping nitrogen into the Sound it will act as a fertilizer, contributing to the hypoxia observed in the summer. One major solution to the problem of hypoxia is to improve wastewater treatment to remove more nigtrogen.
At Stamford’s Wastewater Treatment system, engineer Jeannette Semon has shown that nitrogen removal can be greatly improved without a huge cost expenditure. “Semon wrings about 70 percent of the nitrogen from the wastewater… Achieving the reduction required no huge capital expenditures, no construction tanks, no extensions of the network or pipes and sluiceways.” What it did require was additional time in treatment, which means that extra space was needed to contain the wastewater in order for this practice to take place. The bacteria that breakdown the ammonia in wastewater through nitrification will convert it to nitrite, and then to nitrate. Allowing additional bacteria the extra time needed to go through the denitrification process to convert that nitrate to nitrogen gas, which is released to the atmosphere, requires additional time. For wastewater treatment plants that are already operating at or above capacity, this process could not happen unless the plants were upgraded.
In this chapter, we are introduced to the political wrangling that must go on in order for a cleanup of the Sound to take place. It became clear that the biggest threat to the Sound was overdevelopment. As Susan Bellinson, president of SoundWatch puts it: “More population means more sewage, more floatable garbage, more fertilizers, more auto exhaust, more oil leakage, more boats in the marinas, more blacktopping, more hardening of shoreline areas, which reduces the biological filtration properties of the land.”
Builders battled with environmentalists, saying that putting a cap on wastewater treatment plants’ nitrogen release would essentially mean a moratorium on development, since more people means more sewage. The arguments went on and on, until it was decided that sewage would be capped at 1990 levels, and the builders and environmentalists realized that they could be on the same side. After all, upgrading wastewater treatment plants would create jobs for builders. The estimated cost of reducing nitrogen by 58.5% over fifteen years would be $650 million dollars, which would reduce the amount of nitrogen entering the Sound from 39,000 tons to 16,185 tons. The environmental benefits would be huge, and it was estimated that oxygen would fall no lower than 3 milligrams per liter, and “hypoxia would have virtually no effect on the abundance of winter flounder of lobsters; its effect on the abundance of scup would be reduced by 61 percent; and its effect on fish abundance in general would be cut by 97 percent.”
The New Sound
Andersen begins the chapter by reminiscing about a fishing trip that he took in July of 1987. At that time, the hypoxia was in full swing. “And yet if we could have had some sense of it… if we could have heard the roar of the rivers of sewage, tasted the sour drops of acid rain, watched the uncountable discharges of storm sewers; if we could have seen the algae growing and dying, felt whatever the flounder and blackfish felt as oxygen disappeared; if somehow we could have seen into the future, seen that the Sound had become little more than a stagnant, weed-choked sink—perhaps then we would have been hit with a gut revulsion, a raw emotion to move us to act. Perhaps it would not have taken another four years merely to get a policy that mandated sewage plants to cap their nitrogen flow at 1990 levels and almost eleven years to get an agreement to begin reducing nitrogen.” Isn’t that the case with all environmental problems? If we could see and feel the destruction we’re doing, see into the future, would we delay our actions?
Anderson then goes on to show Norwalk as an example of a local community that has done a good job restoring its oyster beds. Soundkeeper Terry Backer says of oystering: “It’s an appropriate use of the water. It’s an industry that’s very sensitive to the environment, and has to be. It’s what the Sound should be used for.” Shellfishing is highly monitored by the state, and the biggest problems come from wastewater. When it rains, many shellfish beds are closed because we know that will lead to an increase in untreated sewage released into the Sound. Many beds have been closed until further notice. I would take the recent reopening of shellfish beds in Greenwich as a sign that the cleanup and the efforts to reduce nitrogen in the Sound are making progress.
Dead Oysters, Dead Lobsters
In the Afterword, Andersen discusses oyster and lobster die-offs in the late 1990’s. While sewage is characterized as the predominant threat to the Sound throughout the book, the Afterword portrays another possible threat to Long Island Sound: global warming. Andersen calls this idea “one that seems equally plausible: that the die-off of oysters and lobsters was linked to increased water temperatures, which were linked to global warming. If that turns out to be the case, the prospect is even gloomier than that of oystermen and lobstermen losing their means of making a living.” In the future, will we see that climate change will take the place of wastewater as the biggest environmental threat to the water quality, ecosystems, and people of Long Island Sound?
Strangling the Sound
This chapter details the role of nitrogen in the Sound, as well as the consequences of too much nitrogen. I found the discussion of salt marshes to be particularly interesting because my father often speaks of making salt hay in Stony Creek when he was a child, but my family no longer keeps up that tradition, so I did not know much about salt marshes.
The amount of nitrogen flowing into the Sound has risen dramatically. “Four centuries of ever-increasing development and population had swollen the Sound’s burden of nitrogen to 91,000 tons per year, a 128 percent increase over the estimated 40,000 tons that flowed to the Sound before European settlement. The additional 51,300 tons of nitrogen included 29,600 tons from sewage plants and factories, and 8,800 tons from storm water runoff.” The effects of eutrophication began to be evident as oxygen levels decreased, but unfortunately the hypoxia was largely ignored, until repeated crashes that seemed to occur in August. In 1973, the National Marine Fisheries Service found that “compared with 1972, there were 86 percent fewer benthic animals and 55 percent fewer benthic species. In other words, almost nine out of ten individual animals, and more than half of all the kinds of animals, were wiped out.” Such large effects on the populations in only a single year’s time are simply terrifying.
The overall message that I got in this chapter was the need for an effective way to remove nitrogen from wastewater. While nitrogen will runoff from many different places, I believe that focusing on the wastewater treatment plants will be a good start.
The Brink of Disaster
My blue-collar roots made the story of John Fernandes resonate with me. Being raised on a farm myself, and marrying into a fishing family, I can only imagine how heart-breaking and scary it was for Fernandes to pull up what he thought would be 300 pound worth of lobsters to sell, and instead finding that they were all dead. As Phil Briggs from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation said, “They’re fearful for their livelihood right now, and I don’t blame them.”
Researcher Barbara Welsh lays out the scenario that as the western parts of the Sound became hypoxic, the lobsters, fish, and other mobile animals migrated eastward, in search of oxygen. So while western lobsterman like Fernandes weren’t catching anything, there were record catches toward the middle and east of the sound.
Anderson goes on to describe that 90% of lobsters in the Sound are caught when they reach their legal size, so it is important to the survival of the species that they are able to reproduce before being caught. He also describes the many illegal measures that lobstermen will take, including territoriality, keeping shorts in underwater cages, scraping the eggs off females. The consequences for getting caught are high, including losing your license. I am friends with some commercial lobster fishermen who live on a little island in Maine. The older lobstermen tell tales of territoriality in their early days, and they all talk about getting buoys getting cut and losing pots, people hauling someone else’s pot, and boats getting sunk. Even in the last five years, a man that I know had his boat sunk when he moved into a new town. Their description of protecting the lobster population is more encouraging: females with eggs have their tails notched, and in Maine it is illegal to catch a lobster with a notched tail, since it is known that she is a breeding female. This is the type of management that I would like to see in the Sound. However, there are decreasing yields of lobsters in Maine as well, and the prices have also dropped, making, as Anderson describes, a man work much harder for the same amount of money.
Back in Connecticut, we see fisherman continuing to leave the business, selling or losing their boats, just as we see farming families selling or losing their farms. I am hopeful that new methods of aquaculture and a better understanding of the impact of human activity as well as ecological influences on populations will lead to more sustainable management of the Sound’s fish and shellfish, both for our own benefit and the health of the Sound.