Governor Cuomo’s Effort to Improve Water Quality and Bolster Coastal Resiliency in Long Island by Restoring Shellfish

Last week, Governor Cuomo invested in two of the greatest challenges facing Long Island: resilience from flooding and storms as well as poor water quality, particularly in the Long Island Sound. This time, he didn’t put money into a seawall or a pricey water treatment plant. Rather, he chose an intriguing living solution: shellfish.

Past studies have shown that oyster reefs can help with both wave attenuation and stabilizing shoreline sediments, in turn preventing beach erosion. Such projects have been gaining prominence around the country, in places from Florida to Rhode Island to New York Harbor. In New York, the Billion Oyster Project is making a landmark effort to rehabilitate what was once a great marine estuary.

The Great South Bay in Long Island was once a similarly abundant source of oysters and clams, home to Long Islands’s world famous Blue Points. Over time, however, these marine ecosystems were ravaged by over harvesting of the shellfish and various ecological disasters, many of which were caused by humans.

Poor water quality in the Long Island Sound has been driven by two main causes: runoff from farms and an overabundance of septic tanks. These have led to high nitrogen levels in the water, which has caused the so-called “brown tide” and other toxic algae instances that have decimated shellfish, which are a keystone species.

Over the past few years, the state has made significant investments in addressing the human causes: $5 million for the Nitrogen Action Plan in 2015, the first Ocean Action Plan, funded at 10 years and $400 million for water infrastructure, the highest level of funding for the Environmental Protection Fund in history, $40 million to start to build new sewage treatment plants in Smithtown Kings Park, and $3 million for Suffolk County and Stony Brook to develop advanced septic treatment technologies so the septic systems we do have work better. The capstone of these efforts was last year’s $2.5 billion investment in clean water statewide, with sizable portions earmarked for projects in Long Island.

Yet the recovery of the marine ecosystems themselves is in need of a boost. So the state is providing $10.4 million to rebuild oyster and clam populations. Working with Stony Brook, there is a great deal of research showing that oysters and clams are natural filters of the water. They process nitrogen and can filter 25 gallons of water per day for clams and 50 gallons per day for oysters. When mature shellfish are placed in marginal waters next to highly polluted zones, they have high survivability rates and can help to dissipate pollution nearby.

The state has selected five sanitary sites — Huntington Harbor, Hempstead Bay, South Oyster Bay, Bellport Bay, Shinnecock Bay — to receive the oysters and clams. The funding will invest in hatcheries and the production of over 179 million oysters, which would be enough to filter their surrounding waters once every three days.

The hope is that over times, this effort will undo the environmental mistakes of our past, protect Long Islanders from future storms and create a habitat where other native marine species such as fish and blue crabs can return and thrive.