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Baymen reject state’s program to restore bay bottoms

JULIE LANE PHOTO ‘We want control of our waters,’ Marcus Kaasik told the Town Board at a special February 7 meeting on seagrass management.
JULIE LANE PHOTO ‘We want control of our waters,’ Marcus Kaasik told the Town Board at a special February 7 meeting on seagrass management.

More than 30 baymen and anglers attended a February 7 Town Hall meeting to tell the town board to abandon working with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) on restoring sea grasses — also called eelgrass — to bay bottoms.

“I don’t want any part of this,” said Marcus Kaasik about the 20-page draft of a plan Councilman Jim Colligan developed with his colleagues and two town committees to map out a restoration strategy.

“This whole thing has to go away,” Tom Field said, and the town should instead focus “aggressively” on storm water runoff and the spraying of pesticides.

The baymen told the Town Board they know Island waters better than anyone. The problem isn’t how to preserve and protect seagrass, also called eelgrass, but how to deal with water pollution and pesticide spraying.

Mr. Colligan apologized for not seeking their advice earlier in the process and said it was his error. Councilman Paul Shepherd explained that the board had not gone to the DEC for advice. Instead, DEC official Soren Dahl had made presentations to the board — the latest in December.

Mr. Dahl has been assigned by the DEC Bureau of Marine Resources to meet officials on a local level to develop plans to protect eelgrass and encourage it to flourish. Eelgrass is a long plant that provides a habitat for flounders, bay scallops, clams and other aquatic life.

According to a Nature Conservancy report, almost 65 percent of the seagrass meadows are gone from southern New England and New York waters, beginning their long and perilous decline in the mid-1970s, according to the report.

The New York State Seagrass Protection Act of 2012 calls for the development of seagrass areas and to work with local governments, businesses, fishermen, environmental groups and individuals to come up with plans to stop the erosion of the natural resource.

Seagrass is harmed by several factors, Mr. Dahl told the board at a previous meeting, including a lack of light filtering through water and “physical disturbance,” or boats, moorings and anchors scouring out the meadows. He showed the board newly developed moorings that prevent the meadows from being ruined.

Mr. Dahl added that individual municipalities can prevent the disappearance of seagrass through management plans. He praised Shelter Island for developing its comprehensive plan of action to keep the bay and harbor bottoms flourishing.

What was particularly upsetting to those attending the February 7 meeting was what they saw as threats of fines and the implication that some of their practices were hurting eelgrass beds.

They referred specifically to a section in the written plan that called on the town to promote “less harmful practices to eelgrass habitats” and suggested boating and fishing registrations, access permits, passes and licenses. It also called for fines for violations.

Many of the bayman saw this as a real threat to their livelihoods.

Town Attorney Bob DeStefano Jr. noted that even if the board adopted the entire plan as written, it’s not a law and so can’t be enforced. It would take a separate law passed by the board to take any actions.

Peconic Bay waters were in good shape until problems with brown tides started several years ago, several baymen said, blaming pollution from sewage plants in Riverhead, Greenport and Shelter Island Heights.

Noting that he has been scalloping in these waters for years, Steve Lenox said there was never any problem with eelgrass until the brown tides.

Since the closing of the Bergen site that used to handle scavenger wastes, the pollution has increased with dumping of wastes into the Sound, he said.

The Shelter Island Heights sewer plant meets all requirements, according to Heights Property Owners Corporation General Manager Stella Lagudis.

Chris Tehan said when he first started to work for the Building Department, he tried to enforce the town’s law about not spraying pesticides in areas near waterways, but was told by the board to stop because the law difficult to enforce.

Those attending the February 7 meeting were in agreement that efforts to protect and restore Shelter Island waters should come not from the state, but groups working to clean up the Peconic Estuary.

“Nobody in this room doesn’t want to see eelgrass come back,” Keith Clark said.

“We’ve always taken care of ourselves on Shelter Island,” Richard Surozenski said. “I don’t think anybody wants any rules carved in stone.”

“Nobody’s looking to jam anything down anyone’s throat,” Mr. Colligan said.

At the suggestion of Supervisor Gary Gerth, a small group of baymen will form a committee to meet a few times a year to work with town officials.