New exhibit opens at Atlantis

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Complete with more than 30 different fish, animal and plant species, as well as simulated tidal changes, Atlantis Marine World’s newest aquatic exhibition converts a 3,000-gallon saltwater tank into an interactive, indoor tidal wetland.

Swimming in the salty waters and around marsh plants are fish commonly found in local estuaries, including striped killifish, Atlantic tomcod, black drum, winter flounder and sheepshead minnows. Sand fiddler and spider crabs crawl underneath submerged rocks on sandy bottoms.

Although the tank contains built-in tunnels, which are great for allowing kids to scurry their way through an underwater world and witness marine life in action, the tidal marsh exhibit has a more pressing agenda.

According to Atlantis Marine World, tidal marshes are the most biologically productive habitat on the planet—rivaling tropical rainforests—yet 70 percent of Long Island’s salt marshes have been destroyed since the early 1900s. The exhibit helps explains how important tidal marshes are to the community’s health, and a simulated storm drain next to the marsh tank even explains how pollutants can easily travel into local waters.

“Washing your car in the driveway, changing your oil in the driveway, or not cleaning up after walking your dog—it all goes through pipes that lead right into our local waters,” says Eileen Gerle, Atlantis’s educational director. “It’s not that people don’t care. They just don’t realize it.”

The lively marine life and large-scale exhibits make Atlantis an educational experience for all ages. Kids can walk over the marsh bridge and peer into the waters from above, or read crab fun facts while watching their subject scuttle along the marsh bottom. Teachers can book visits, and students can take classes on crustaceans, penguins, sharks, coral reefs, horseshoe crabs and salt marsh ecology.

Tidal marshes are delicate ecosystems that were being rapidly filled and drained for decades. “Before the early ’70s, tidal wetlands were thought of as dirty swamps, a vector for disease—basically a commodity to be built upon and then developed,” said Fred Mushacke, a recently retired New York State Department of Environmental Conservation marine biologist.

In retirement, Mr. Mushacke is researching threats to tidal wetlands and looking for ways to help restore wetlands that have been damaged.

In 1973, the Tidal Wetlands Act made it illegal to destroy wetlands. Yet despite their protected status, Long Island’s tidal wetlands are undoubtedly shrinking, said Kevin McAllister, the South Shore and Peconic Baykeeper. “The notion that it’s a useless swamp, a worthless swamp, we should be decades beyond that type of thinking,” he said.

According to the 2006 Baykeeper’s report, an additional 1,787 acres, or 6.6 percent of the South Shore wetlands, have been lost since 1974.

Many factors are to blame, according to Mr. McAllister, including pollution, the disturbance of wetland surroundings, loss of nutrients, salinity and contamination levels that are too high or too low, invasive species, mosquito spraying, and the rise in the sea level.

“We’re a lot smarter than we were 25 years ago,” he said. “So the towns and the state need to continue updating policies so we are providing the greatest protection possible.”

The most recognized threats to the salt marshes are construction and sea level rise. “If you get in a boat and travel the estuary side of Long Island’s South Shore and follow that coastline, it should be almost 100-percent salt marshes, and instead it’s almost 100-percent bulkheads and developments,” said Dr. Christopher Gobler, a marine biologist and professor at Stony Brook Southampton. “So many of these habitats have been lost, and I guess it could be regained, but it would take decades, mainly because no one wants to take down their bulkheads.”

And as for sea level rise, salt marshes do have a natural response: They undergo accretion, in which dirt and particles settle. As the sediment builds on the marsh floor, the marshes essentially rise along with the sea level.

“But we know that sea level rise is outpacing the accretion,” Dr. Gobler said, “and if we do nothing, that rate is bound to increase rapidly.”

Understanding conditions in which tidal marshes thrive is an important step in restoring these habitats. Tidal marshes are named because they are continuously flooded and drained by the changing tides. And the delicate balance between salt, sunlight and water makes the site biologically productive, feeding a large portion of the marine food chain. Plankton, shellfish, and other small fish start off in marshes, and help feed the larger fish that baymen commercially harvest. The small fish and shellfish function as filtering feeders, because they consume excessive nutrients, algae and chemicals that would otherwise contaminate the waters.

But if these marshes are in jeopardy, so is nature’s own filtering system, said Southampton Town Trustee Fred Havemeyer. “There’s a whole circular chain of events that has to be in place for everything to be healthy,” he said. “You need healthy wetland buffers and a healthy shellfish system right off the bat to make sure the environment is working the way it was designed by nature.”

A strong, healthy marsh has many benefits. The vegetation slows down intense storm waves as they approach shore, and serves as a spongy buffer against flooding and rough storm waves. This protects the beaches from sand erosion and homes from flooding. The soft marsh soil absorbs the gradual sea level rise as well.

Besides buffering, marshes absorb insecticides, bacteria, organic waste and excess nutrients, which is why they are referred to as the “kidneys of the ecosystem.” They play a big role in keeping bay waters clean and healthy.

The DEC tests local waters, especially after heavy rainfalls when upland runoff contaminates the bays. If the water is polluted, areas are closed to shellfishing and swimming.

Southampton Town Trustee Ed Warner Jr., who works as a bayman, sees the direct relationship between the marshes and the quality of both the quantity and quality of his harvest. “The larger the marsh, the less likely there’s going to be contaminants in the bay waters,” he said.

Southampton Town is fortunate, he said, to be surrounded by extensive wetlands and bodies of water on all sides. But many shellfish areas are sensitive to pollutants, and even light rains can cause some to be closed, forcing baymen to search elsewhere for their harvest.

The town has reacted by establishing land zones reserved for marshes, in hopes that marshland will expand, and the town code requires permits for any development on or near these wetland buffer zones. “As the sea level rises, the wetlands naturally want to migrate landward,” said Martin Shea, Southampton’s chief environmental analyst. “So you need to make sure that you are leaving a sufficient amount of land area on individual properties to accomplish that long term.” Stronger coastal planning and zoning, and maintaining clean surface and groundwater, are town programs addressing wetland preservation and restoration.

“Face value, wetlands are protected? Yes. But are we truly protecting the wetlands, or have we just slowed the rate of their loss?” Mr. McAllister asked. “We’ve just slowed the rate.”

He maintains that stronger regulations, better enforcement of buffer zones, and updated coastal planning measures need to be prioritized if the remaining wetlands are going to survive for future generations.

He said the Peconic Baykeeper organization works as a public educator, holding seminars to educate property owners on the direct correlation between their investments, their health, their community—and the conditions of the local wetlands. “The benefit being that their basements and homes won’t become flooded, or their backyard waters will remain clean, or that their beaches will remain intact. That all has a big impact,” Mr. McAllister said.

Long Island’s coastal lands and waters provide year-round recreation for fishing, boating, hunting, hiking, bird-watching, sightseeing and swimming. The scenic quality, panoramic views, and artistic inspirations are unique to the East End. These attractions, in turn, translate into local economic dollars while enhancing the quality of life.

“They provide magnificent scenic areas, and really set the tone and character with the regard to our community,” Mr. Shea said. “Particularly in Southampton and the immediate area, the wetlands are closely related to the quality of life we enjoy here very much.”

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