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State and baymen finding common ground

JULIE LANE PHOTO Soren Dahl, at right, assigned by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to assist local officials in developing plans to protect eelgrass beds, responded to questions from bayman Tom Field at a May 2 meeting at Town Hall.

JULIE LANE PHOTO Soren Dahl, right, assigned by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to assist local officials in developing plans to protect eelgrass beds, responded to questions from bayman Tom Field at a May 2 meeti ng at Town Hall.

If a February meeting between baymen and members of the Town Board resembled an angry tango, the May meeting was a sweet waltz with few missteps and most trying to dance to the same tune.

Revisions to a town-developed plan for an underwater seagrass project changed the atmosphere. Councilman Jim Colligan, who had led the effort to write the initial plan, acknowledged at last month’s meeting with the baymen that it was his mistake not to have involved them from the outset.

He quickly agreed to strike from the plan all mentions of fines and violations. The aim isn’t to punish, he said, but to adopt a plan to guide anyone from harming the underwater meadows of seagrass.

Tom Field, a spokesman for the baymen, let Soren Dahl, New York State Seagrass Coordinator with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, know from the outset of the May 2 meeting that local people control sea bottom resources.

Mr. Dahl told the adjunct committee of baymen attending the afternoon meeting that “I’m not here to say you have to do this or that,” explaining his mission was offering assistance to the baymen.

“All I’m asking is let’s try it,” he added, about working together on a plan. Mr. Dahl said he’s a “contract player” with no federal regulatory power, but simply someone who appreciates the sea and the food it renders. There’s no requirement for the town to act, he said and “there is no grand plan for everywhere.”

Despite Mr. Dahl’s reassurances, Marcus Kaasik, who has fished local waters all his life, said baymen are still suspicious about bringing “big government into local waters.”

Shelter Island is one of the areas where viable seagrass still exists, Mr. Dahl said. If anything, he wants to understand why, especially in areas like Coecles Harbor, and why it isn’t thriving in places like West Neck Harbor.

If no actions are taken, he said more seagrass could be lost. Trying to replant damaged seagrass hasn’t proven very effective, he said, so the emphasis should be on protecting what exists.

“Seagrass is a little piece of a big, giant puzzle,” Mr. Field said and shoreline-based pollution is the root of the problem.

Mr. Kaasik agreed and said runoff water that’s part of the Municipal Separate Storms Sewer System program is a large part of the problem. The program is supposed to deal with stopping pollutants from running into surrounding waters, but isn’t always effective.

Communities throughout the state and around the country have plans, but they’re unfunded mandates, leaving it to local communities to find a way to reduce pollutants with little money to accomplish the goal.

The baymen generally agreed that pollution from chemicals — from septic systems or other sources — is the main problem. Fisherman Steve Lenox said because of algal blooms, the seagrass isn’t getting the light it needs in some areas.

Mr. Dahl said he’s concerned about eelgrass being torn from the roots, something the baymen said comes from outsiders who don’t know the local waters.

The baymen also don’t want a flurry of signs surrounding the Island, but are open to small universal signage created by the state that would be understood by most boaters in the area.

Town Attorney Bob DeStefano Jr. described the way forward as an empty table on which Mr. Dahl wants to offer some tools that could work here and listen to the baymen about what won’t work here.

“Soren is somebody to help us with what we’ve got,” Mr. Colligan said, while agreeing to work with an adjunct committee of baymen to rewrite the draft that would then be submitted to all the baymen for input before it is implemented.

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