When you think about the Hamptons, you probably think about massive houses, quaint towns, and tourism. But these acclaimed areas are much more than just a popular place to visit...
Located just hundreds of yards from the towns that make up the Hamptons, visitors can find the lesser-known beaches and bays of the area. These bays, spanning from Moriches Inlet to Shinnicock Inlet, are the safe haven for thousands of different species of birds, fish, and mammals, but their ecological importance is often overlooked and underappreciated.
Over the past few years, humans who enjoy the beauty of the region’s beaches, have been destroying them. The water quality has been continually decreasing, and this has led to whale and dolphin sightings becoming less frequent. The main reason for this: humans in the Hamptons want their lawns to be green.
As a local who has lived in the Hamptons for the past 15 years, I have seen the bays change and adapt. Over the past five years these changes have gotten more and more extreme, and it is concerning. In 2018, Moriches and Shinnicock experienced the worst fish kills in their recorded history. Millions of menhaden, or bunker, entered the bay in early April to reproduce but here, they found horrible water quality, caused by a common chemical: fertilizers. After all, when spring comes, everyone wants their lawns to look a dazzling green in the Hamptons.
In order to achieve a luscious green, tons of fertilizers are poured onto lawns. When it rains, excess nitrogen and phosphorus in the lawns run off into the water. Here, they become food for harmful algae which rapidly reproduce, forming large-scale algae blooms. These blooms take up all of the available nutrients and oxygen in the water, preventing other organisms from surviving. I witnessed how this lack of oxygen resulted in millions of bunkers dying, before being carried by currents into the back bays, slowly rotting and releasing an indescribable stench into much of Westhampton town. This is just one example of where humans indirectly caused destruction to organisms in the environment, and many others have occurred every year since then.
Bunkers are not the only part of the ecosystem being harmed. The beauty of the sandy flats, the dune grasses, and the estuaries may not be around to enjoy much longer. When I was younger, the water in the back bays used to be crystal clear, with a plethora of fish at every corner. I have vivid memories of going drag-netting with my friends, and catching hundreds of fish, many of them of different species. Now, these very waters have become unsafe to swim in at times, and only a smaller variety of fish seems to be calling these waters home.
The ocean around the Hamptons is normally covered with miles upon miles of bunker schools in spring. This year, they were nowhere to be found. Bunker schools normally feed ospreys, whales, dolphins, sharks, and many other avians and marine species. The lack of bunker has resulted in something horrible occurring over the past few weeks. While adult ospreys have been a common sight feeding bunker to their newly hatched chicks, this year, there have been numerous reports of these young ospreys dying, due to their parents not being able to find enough fish to feed them. Some scientists believe that the bunker are not present due a lack of oxygen in the water. However, not all hope is lost. A new type of aquaculture is hoped to promote the health of the bays: kelp.
The number of kelp farms has steadily been increasing on the east coast over the past few years. They are said to be beneficial in two ways: while they help filter the water, they also increase the pH levels of the areas around them. By filtering the water, kelp can decrease the concentration of excess nutrients in the water, preventing algae blooms from occurring. By increasing the pH levels, they reverse ocean acidification, which allows for a more biodiverse and more suitable environment for all marine dwelling organisms. In Moriches Bay, the farm ‘Greek Gun Kelp and Oyster Farm’ grows kelp and oysters in tandem. The farm has some of the clearest water in Moriches bay, and I have caught more fish in the area in the past three years there than anywhere else in the bay.
In Shinnicock bay, on the other hand, ‘Shinnicock kelp farm’ grows kelp on long lines instead. The effect on the surrounding water seems to be the same. The most common type of kelp grown in these farms is Saccharina latissima, or sugar kelp. It is grown due to its sweet taste, and being high in concentrations of protein and fiber. Apart from kelp being grown for food purposes, it can also be used as a potent fertilizer. An experimental study conducted by the Gobler Lab in Southampton found that vegetables grown with kelp fertilizer grew significantly bigger than vegetables grown without fertilizer.
However, the future can’t solely be relying on kelp farms. Over the course of my high school career I have been performing research with the Stony Brook Center for Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, and Brookhaven National Laboratory. I have been observing how climate change affects concentrations of nutrients and toxins in sugar kelp. Through my research and analysis, I have determined that concentrations of essential micronutrients are expected to decrease under future climatic conditions, which can cause kelp to be unable to grow and reproduce as effectively. I have also seen that concentrations of harmful elements, such as arsenic and bromine are expected to increase, which if consumed by humans, can lead to potentially harmful diseases. These changes are caused by expected future climatic conditions, so if we want kelp to be able to aid the quality of the water, and increase the biodiversity of the water, we must make sure we attempt to decrease our carbon footprint, and allow the environment to fight the changes which have already been made.
Our oceans are truly beautiful. From the smallest algae, to the largest whales, and everything in between, the ocean is complex and fragile. Let’s ensure that people can visit the Hamptons for decades to come, while being able to experience the abundant wildlife the area has become so known for.
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