Interview: William Lucey, The New Long Island Soundkeeper

Aug 14, 2017

Connecticut has a new Soundkeeper. His name is Bill Lucey. Lucey grew up in Wilton, Connecticut. As a child, he fished the Long Island for flounder and blue snapper. He dug for clams along its shores. Now he will work to keep the waters of the Sound clean for the next generation.

Bill Lucey recently spoke with Morning Edition Host Tom Kuser at the WSHU studios.  

Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Hello, Bill.

Hi. Thank you.

It’s been about two years since Connecticut had a Soundkeeper. Terry Backer was the first one. He held the post for 28 years until he passed away in 2015. First of all – I feel we should explain – what is a Soundkeeper?

So our job is to patrol the Sound. Listen to concerns from the public. Identify pollution sources. If there’s a sewer leak, and someone notices it, they can call us, we can go over there, do some testing. Talk to the people involved in managing that sewage and try to come to some kind of resolution.

What do you think your first task – you’ve been on the job for three weeks – what do you think your first task is going to be?

My first job is going to be listening to everybody who’s making a living and enjoying the Sound to see what their concerns are. I’m wide open to meeting with people and hearing what they have to say. One pressing issue that I’ve been tasked with is the forage fish issue. So say menhaden are a classic forage fish, base of the food web for the Long Island Sound, eagles will eat them, striped bass will eat them, seals, I’m sure humpbacked whales, will eat schools of those.

Which have wandered into the Sound recently.

Exactly. So you have these signs of recovery, and to maintain that momentum we would like to have very abundant runs of menhaden, river herring, alewives, all these forage fish that form the base of the food chain.  

You mentioned you spent time on the Sound or along the shores in the 70s and 80s  How has it changed, would you say, since you were a kid fishing in these waters?

I’d say there seem to be a lot more stripers around. We focused mostly on snapper blues near shore. We’d go fishing blue fish outta Groton, off Block Island and those were the days where there were no limits and there were plenty of bluefish around, but it was very rare to see a stripper. So the management action by the various fisheries agencies seemed to have worked. 

Another thing I’ve noticed is reduction in lobstering. You don’t see the boats anymore. When I was a kid, you could pick up a rock at low tide and find baby lobsters. And I don’t know that’s the case anymore. Though I have heard some positive reports recently that the few lobstermen that are left are starting to increase their catches.  

We hear a lot these days about invasive species in certain bodies of water and I know you were working on that issue in Hawaii. I’m wondering, with the Sound are invasive species a concern?   

Yes. Invasive species worldwide are probably one of the greatest threats to just over all environmental ecological health. One issue that’s coming up the coastline is the lionfish. That is potentially a huge threat to Long Island Sound as the waters warm and the habitats become more conducive to that fish.

What specifically is the threat from lionfish?

Lionfish are generalist predator. They’re poisonous, though you could eat them. They swim around the reef without fear. So they take up good hunting spots and they’ll eat any fish that’s smaller than them.       

I had the opportunity over the years to talk with Terry Backer, several times, during his tenure as the first Soundkeeper. He was also an oysterman and was feeling pretty positive about improvements in the Sound that led to some pretty good oyster harvests. He had this to say:

The problems that affected oyster production have been addressed adequately to the point where we can continue this thing. That’s a positive note. However, nutrient loading, highway runoff, these other things are still a problem in the near shore area that affect wetlands and animals and children and harbors. And so, I’m not trying to create a, ‘Hey everything’s fine and Alice and this is Wonderland.’ This is not the case. The case is you can’t color Long Island Sound with one pencil. You have to use a lot of different color pencils to get the picture of it.

That was from a conversation we had 24 years ago this month, as a matter of fact, and I’m wondering, does his concern about the Sound in 1992, does it still hold true today in 2017?

Yes. I would say both, the fact that the oystering is getting better and that you cannot paint the Sound with one brush. 

Contamination is still an issue. There’s more people moving into this watershed. The watershed on the Connecticut side I believe has 23 million people in it. So each one of those people is creating waste, driving a car, that sort of thing. So the pressures are still there.

But I did get the chance to visit Norm Bloom’s operation down in East Norwalk and he’s one of the larger, oystering operations in Long Island Sound. And they’re moving a lot of product, it’s a lot of clean product. They have to be permitted. That’s a very good positive sign that all the work done by Terry Backer and all the other are having a positive effect.           

I’d like to ask you one more question. Why did you take this job?

That’s a really good question. When I left Connecticut, I went north for a while, up in northern New England. And then double-backed down to Central America and did a stint in the Peace Corps. And then after that I ended up in Alaska. 

And growing up hunting and fishing along Long Island Sound, catching bugs, just enjoying the nature of the area…when a person who’s interested in that gets to Alaska, your eyes just get huge.  It is a fully functioning ecosystem. All the predators are there. Everything’s clean and vibrant. So I stayed there for a long time. 

And then I had a family and I remembered what a fantastic childhood I had growing up in Long Island Sound. The diversity here is incredible. Lots of different fish, lots of different bird species. And this is really my home. This is where I was born and raised and I felt it was time for me to come back and work on helping clean up the area that helped raise me.  

Well, Bill Lucey, welcome back.

Thank you.