East Hampton Town Trustees Test Waters For Harmful Algae Blooms

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About a year since a bloom of toxic red algae was documented in Three Mile Harbor, and a dog died after apparently drinking blue-green algae in Georgica Pond—and facing the specter of more blooms—the East Hampton Town Trustees are winding down the first season of a water quality monitoring pilot program.

The goal is to better understand the frequency of such blooms in East Hampton and how to remediate them. So far, they say, the testing has been going well.

The Trustees, along with Dr. Chris Gobler, a marine science professor at Stony Brook University, have been checking local bodies of water for harmful algal blooms and other contaminants, such as coliform bacteria, by taking water samples every other week from 14 marine and three freshwater sites in Napeague Harbor, Fresh Pond, Accabonac Harbor, Hog Creek, Three Mile Harbor, Northwest Creek, Georgica Pond and Hook Pond.

The pilot program started in March with unanimous Trustee support is to run until November, an initiative spearheaded by Dr. Stephanie Forsberg, a Trustee who earned her doctorate in marine science under Dr. Gobler.

In May in Three Mile Harbor, the trustees found a slight increase in Alexandrium, a type of red tide species that carries a toxin that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning. It can be fatal to humans if they eat shellfish with the toxin, but despite the elevation in cell counts at the Head of the Harbor launching ramp, there was not enough of the harmful algae to lead to closures or cause any health threats at that time.

In the future, should the program continue, these cell counts could be used as a baseline for comparison.

“That, for us, is the bigger goal, because it’s working toward the overall management and protection of our Trustee waters,” Dr. Forsberg said.

As of early this week, no other harmful algal bloom species had been spotted in the Trustee waters, she said.

The Trustee, who began a science teaching post at Hampton Bays High School this week, said she came up with the idea to test the waters after the first official finding of rust tide—a bloom of the dinoflagelate Cochlodinium—in Three Mile Harbor last September. Informal sightings had been made previously, but this was the first real documentation.

The Cochlodinium species is not harmful to humans but can kill fish and shellfish in large numbers if they are exposed to it for as long as an hour. The rust tide, named for the reddish-brown tint that the algae blooms give to the water, appeared in northeastern Shinnecock Bay and western Peconic Bay last month.

“It forms streaks in the water,” Dr. Forsberg said. “It’s also very patchy in appearance.” This patchiness makes it difficult to identify blooms sometimes, but, on the other hand, it means it won’t harm the entire population of shellfish and finfish, just some, she noted.

Residents noticed the streaks last September and notified the Trustees, and Dr. Forsberg, in turn, asked Dr. Gobler, her former advisor, about starting up a testing program, and the Trustees ultimately hired his lab to do the work.

“Other than Dr. Gobler’s lab, there aren’t really any others that do this consistent, regular testing for algal blooms,” she said. “We wanted someone completely unbiased. Whatever the results are, the good, the bad, the ugly, we want to know them.”

The lab has testers who live in the area, so that if sightings are made within 24 hours, they can do a daily sampling, if necessary.

Blue-green algae, a toxic cyanobacteria known as microcystin, meanwhile—like the kind blamed for the death of the dog last September—grows only in fresh water, so that is what the Trustees are testing for in water bodies like Georgica Pond. The dog lived with its family near the pond and was not seen drinking from the pond, but an autopsy showed the toxic blue-green algae, cyanobacteria, in its digestive tract.

That bacteria is a common byproduct of blue-green algae blooms that flourish in many local freshwater ponds in late summer.

“That, in combination with the rust tide sighting, last year was the catalyst,” Dr. Forsberg said, of what sparked this program.

So far all the testing at Georgica has come back “crystal clear,” she said.

She said she hopes the Trustees will continue the program next year. The Board of Trustees could have a new make-up, though, as all nine seats are up for reelection in November. Dr. Forsberg, who looks to keep her seat, said that if she is lucky enough to continue on the board, she would continue the testing.

In the meantime, she said, if the public sees patchy red streaks in the water, they should call the Trustees’ office at 267-8688, and the water samplers will head to the site.

“If we don’t pay attention to the changing environment, it could be a sad sight in the future,” she said.

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