Additional federal funding is essential to returning the Long Island Sound back to health, environmental advocates and officials said Tuesday at a Congressional hearing in Washington, D.C. to assess the future of cleanup efforts already underway.
Fishing, boating and other recreational activities on and around the Sound that bring in an estimated $5.5 billion to the local economy have also contributed to poor water quality and a severe decline in the estuary’s fish and lobster populations.
“The Long Island Sound and its watershed have sustained New York and Connecticut communities for hundreds of years,” said Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Shouthampton), a member of the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment. “If we allow the Sound to further deteriorate, the very nature of what makes eastern Long Island the destination for so many will also deteriorate and will be very difficult if not impossible to rebuild.”
The Sound has been losing the oxygen it needs to sustain marine life, a condition called hypoxia caused by pollution from the estuary’s densely populated urban surroundings. Lobsters have been an extreme example of this trend.
“The few remaining lobstermen in the LI Sound are not optimistic about their future in the lobstering industry,” said Nicholas Crismale of the Connecticut Commercial Lobsterman’s Association. “What is happening to our lobsters now is something that is specific to the LI Sound.”
In the years following a massive die-off in 1999, the value of the lobster harvest was reduced to less than $7 million from its $40 million value in 1997, according to the Subcommittee. Annual catches of almost 12 million pounds of lobster were reduced to less than two million pounds. Nitrogen from sources ranging from sewage treatment plants to everyday activities like driving, is the main offender, officials say.
“Anyone who flushes a toilet or drives a car has an effect on, or affects the Sound—its watersheds, rivers, streams, shores and living marine resources,” said Mark Tedesco, director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Long Island Sound Office.
Many actions, including nitrogen removal, have improved the Sound for the past two decades. The outer portion of Hempstead Harbor, which has kept shell fishing off limits for more than 50 years, is in the final stages of re-opening. But advocates stressed much more needs to be done, like sewage treatment plant upgrades that can only be implemented with much-needed funding from Congress.
“For Long Island Sound, we are at a crossroads—the success of our past endeavors shows that actions can be taken to reduce hypoxia and restore healthful water quality,” said Peter Scully, regional director for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. “In order for our past efforts to be successful, however, it’s time for the states and local governments to redirect their efforts toward new—and in some cases very costly—efforts to reduce pollutant loads to the Sound.”