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Brookhaven delays decision to expand shellfish protections due to closure of Fire Island inlet

JD Allen

The Fire Island inlet, created by Superstorm Sandy a decade ago, has closed. Sands have filled the breach, stopping the flow of water between the Atlantic Ocean and Bellport Bay.

This means the town of Brookhaven might need to study the environmental impact of the inlet’s closure on the water quality of the bay in the spring, officials said.

WSHU’s J.D. Allen spoke with Tom Schultz, the director of restoration for the nonprofit Friends of Bellport Bay. He’s been involved in managing a shellfish restoration project there for the last decade.

WSHU: Hey Tom. So, the town of Brookhaven is going to delay shellfish restoration programming because of the natural closure of the Fire Island inlet. You live across from the inlet in Bellport. Has the inlet officially closed?

TS: Yeah, so as expected, the inlet that was opened up through the barrier island, as a result of Superstorm Sandy, has shored up and closed. There's relatively no flow between the bay and the ocean at this point, and in fact, the barrier island in that area is now beginning to strengthen by the increase of the elevation of the barrier islands. So, it appears as though the inlet at that location is now closed and probably won't be reopened as some people are hoping it will.

WSHU: What's the benefit of there being this inlet between the Atlantic Ocean through the barrier island into Bellport Bay, which is part of the Great South Bay system?

TS: So, flow between the ocean and the bay is imperative because it allows the bay, which is polluted, to flush out, which restores the water quality — which helps struggling habitats survive. And when the inlet opened up after Superstorm Sandy, the quality of Bellport Bay improved pretty dramatically — almost overnight — and the quality of Bellport Bay has been excellent compared to what was before Sandy. And of course, now that the inlet has closed, the water quality of Bellport Bay will be greatly diminished.

WSHU: And so the town's plan hinges on this flushing process between the bay and the ocean for it to increase the size of its shellfish restoration program there. And Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine tells Newsday that they want to wait until the spring to do some further study to see where the restoration project might be better cited, perhaps instead of Bellport Bay in your backyard.

TS: That's right. The town of Brookhaven has established a two-acre management area in 2018. And Friends of Bellport Bay and others have been asking the town to expand that two acres with an additional two acres to make it a four-acre town management area. However, at this time, it sounds like the town is pausing that consideration in order to do their due diligence with regard to a study with regard to the viability of having a town management area expanded…

WSHU: What's the benefit of expanding now?

TS: It's my opinion that a shellfish management area is not reliant on an inlet. In fact, I would argue that it's even more important now to continue to protect the shellfish and to restore shellfish populations on the bay bottom now that the island has closed. Shellfish are very good at helping mitigate pollution and nitrogen runoff from the land.

So, what the inlet was doing will continue to be done with a viable shellfish population. I would argue that it's even more important now to establish even larger shellfish management areas so that the shellfish that is currently on the bay bottom is protected from harvesting, and that other organizations including friends of Bellport Bay can continue planting shellfish on the bay bottom, knowing that they will not be taken through harvesting.

WSHU: And there's been restoration projects in other parts of the Great South Bay system and most of those don't have the benefit of the inlet to help flush the waters. So, could a shellfish restoration project still be done in Bellport Bay even without the aid of the inlet?

TS: Well, Friends of Bellport Bay will continue restoring lost habitat through shellfish restoration regardless of if there is an inlet or not. We started restoration efforts before Sandy opened up an inlet through the barrier island. Our efforts to re-establish viable shellfish populations on the bay bottom will continue.

Our success of a viable shellfish population is not contingent on having an inlet nearby or not. In fact, again, I would argue that it's even more important now that we have less flushing that we continue to work hard to beef up or improve the natural shellfish population on our bay bottom.

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.