No Plastics, No Cans – Plum Island Waters Harbor Thriving Ecosystem

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InnerSpace Scientific Diving scientists cataloged 126 plant and animal species last summer using a tool called a quadrat, pictured here.

The waters surrounding Plum Island teem with abundant life, much like Long Island Sound, the Peconic Estuary, and other nearby waterways. But a series of scientific dives below the surface last summer revealed something that sets Plum Island’s marine environment apart from the rest.

“There was no litter,” said Dr. Matthew Schlesinger, chief zoologist for New York’s Natural Heritage Program, who conducted the survey with InnerSpace Scientific Diving. “It’s rare for Long Island to have an underwater ecosystem where you don’t find direct evidence of humans or dropping something nearby.”

Scientific divers have recorded 126 species of plants and animals, according to a report released Friday. There were no cans, bottles or plastics; they didn’t even see a fishing line. Among the living organisms, native and non-native, were sponges; various species of algae and fish, anemones and starfish; herbivorous, filter-feeding and predatory snails; mussels and other bivalves, as well as harbor seals and gray seals (two of the latter reportedly took a mesh sampling bag belonging to the divers, which was later recovered). There were comb jellies and even corals – yes, coral reefs, which most people associate with tropical destinations.

It’s “the kind of stuff you’d expect a nature documentary crew to find, or see if you’re scuba diving in the tropics,” Dr Schlesinger said. “We have a thriving underwater ecosystem just off Plum Island which I believe deserves greater conservation attention.”

Which was exactly the purpose of the study.

Louise Harrison, New York’s natural areas coordinator for Save the Sound, whose donors funded the research, said the results would support ongoing efforts to preserve the 822-acre Plum Island and save it from development. extensive.

This research “can especially show the world that it is in great shape, worth studying more, worth celebrating and, like all ecosystems, worth managing. Protecting something in such good condition attracts you towards a possibility,” Ms. Harrison said. .
Save the Sound is one of 122 local, regional and national organizations working to save the island from further development. Once destined to be auctioned off to the highest bidder, Plum Island has been the focus of conservation efforts for many years. Ms. Harrison’s hope is that President Biden will declare it a national marine monument, as he has the power to do under the Antiquities Act of 1906. (She would also accept “wildlife refuge” as an appropriate designation.)

“We are looking for a public-private partnership,” she said. “A donor has come forward who is ready to establish security and stewardship…We’re trying to put all the pieces in place for that to happen. It’s a very exciting time.”

The animal disease research center that has been on the island for nearly 70 years will still be decommissioned and its biodefense operations moved to a new facility in Kansas, but in 2020 federal lawmakers passed a proposed law removing it from the auction. Plum Island is the most populous seal stranding site in New York State and is home to hundreds of species of plants, birds, and other wildlife, some of which are endangered or threatened. In addition to the research facility, it houses a historic lighthouse, built in 1869, and Fort Terry military barracks, which dates from 1897. Plum Gut, the turbulent waters between the island and Orient Point, has been considered a an “Important Coastal Fish and Wildlife Habitat” by New York State.

At least one human artifact has washed up on the shores of the island, however. About seven years ago, a security officer on routine patrol found a glass bottle containing a note written by students at John M. Marshall Elementary School in East Hampton. These students were invited to take the trip of a lifetime — an island tour.

A similar dive-based study completed in 2019 was on a smaller scale, but it still attracted interest from scientists and conservationists. In the August 2021 study, a team of scientists including New York Natural Heritage Program lead diver Meaghan McCormack, Steve Resler, Dan Marelli, David Winkler, and Janet Klemm with InnerSpace Scientific Diving completed 26 underwater excursions. sailors in five days. .

“I always have high expectations, but it was really successful,” said Dr Schlesinger, informing a management plan for the island. “My program is built on the idea that you can’t know how to protect something unless you know what’s in it…Even if it remains public property, as is expected does at this point, there will still be human use, probably recreation and scientific research, and we wanted to make sure we didn’t impact the most sensitive places.”

During their dives, the scientists used a one-meter measuring tool made of PVC pipe, called a quadrat. With this tool, they counted the number of different species and the abundance of those species in that square meter before moving on to adjacent areas. There were three sampling depths: 10, 20 and 30 feet below the surface. In addition to living organisms, divers also found glacial rocks, some as wide as 25 feet, which provided anchor for many species.

“These organisms are our neighbours. They are part of our lives here in the East End, whether we recognize them or not,” Ms Harrison said. “Living in the East End, people are perhaps more connected to the idea of ​​being part of an ecosystem – at least I hope so. Being surrounded by waterways, people interact with the water, but there’s always this mystery about it. To find this incredible wealth around this little island, just about 100 miles from New York – to me, this juxtaposition is so fabulous.”

“If we achieve our goal of preserving Plum Island, it will need to be protected and managed in the future, and the underwater parts will also need attention. This will help inform this future work.”

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