The Long Island Sound provides more than nine million people with fun recreational activities each year, but with the recent release of The University of Maryland’s ecosystem health report card, Westchester County residents may think twice about planning a beach day. Researchers divided the Sound into five sections—eastern, central, western, eastern narrows, and the western narrows. The eastern narrows (Westchester’s Sound shore) received the second lowest score: a letter grade of D-plus, or a 69% overall health rate. The western narrows, closer to Manhattan, received an F. The final grade was based upon levels of nitrogen, dissolved oxygen, phosphorus, chlorophyll a, and water clarity.
Nancy Seligson, a town supervisor in Mamaroneck, said in a recent statement, “The Long Island Sound Report Card is a great way to help people understand the condition and importance of the LIS. The entire region benefits from the Long Island Sound economically, recreationally, and from its natural beauty. But, we also suffer when the Sound isn’t as healthy as it should be.”
And the Sound is a huge economic driver. It generates more than $17 billion dollars annually; $843 million from swimming and $152 million from commercial fishing and shellfishing. Is swimming there still safe? The Long Island Sound Report Card found that “overall, swimming areas had low bacteria levels most of the time, meaning that people can swim.” (FYI, the bacteria referred to are enterococcus bacteria. In other words, an indicator of fecal contamination.) Laura Rossi, a member of the Westchester Community Foundation, which partnered with the University of Maryland to create the report card, said that there were measures in place to keep people out of the water when bacteria levels grew too high.
“Beaches are automatically closed after a certain amount of rainfall because it is presumed that bacteria levels are so high it is unsafe. Bacteria in the Sound are a result of sewage outflow and stormwater runoff.” Besides being unsafe to swim in, a too-high presence of bacteria from wastewater treatment plants and stormwater outfalls can restrict commercial shellfishing to specific areas. Routine shellfish tissue and seawater samples are required in order to check for fecal coliform bacteria, making certain that shellfish harvested can be safely consumed.
Another bad ecological indicator is the increase in “dead zones” throughout the summer. According to National Geographic, “dead zones are low-oxygen, or hypoxic, areas in the world’s oceans and lakes. Because most organisms need oxygen to live, few organisms can survive in hypoxic conditions. That is why these areas are called dead zones.” In the Sound, these zones are primarily caused by human pollution and waste that leads to an excess of nutrients being washed into the water. This process, known as eutrophication, can cause a rapid growth of oxygen-consuming organisms like algae, which essentially suffocates other aquatic life.
This all may sound like a lot of gloom and doom, but the fact that many of the environmental issues threatening the Sound are human-made means that the damage can be reversed—the state of the Sound has actually improved over the last twenty years, and Westchester residents can aid in the recovery the Sound by practicing simple tasks such as recycling, composting yard waste, picking up after your pets, or even joining a coastal cleanup event.