Editorial: Coastal concerns, natural and man-made

Scallops on the rebound in the Peconics? If true, it’s such good news we almost don’t want to believe it.

Past experience explains why.

We’re closing in on two decades since the brown tide — the non-scientific name for Aureococcus anophagefferens, a species of microscopic plant life — suddenly appeared in the bays in densities so thick that the water took on a brownish tinge. Not just in isolated areas, but throughout the Peconic estuary system. The beloved bay scallop seemed to suffer the most. Those succulent shellfish live no more than a year or two, so the interruption of a single spawning cycle can, and did, have a disastrous impact, all but killing them off.

Scallop populations have bounced back, somewhat, over the years, but nowhere near their pre-brown tide numbers. That’s why we look at the favorable indications for the upcoming fall harvest (see cover story) with a cynical eye. That’s not a criticism of the scientists and researchers who have worked hard for many years to reintroduce the species in the Peconics. It’s more a comment on our luck.

Was it simply bad luck, an improbable confluence of environmental factors, that caused the plankton to bloom so wildly?

Researchers believe Aureococcus may have always lived in local waters, so what triggered the first bloom in 1985? Why has it frequently returned in damaging numbers in South Fork bays, but not been seen in the Peconics since those first bad years? The one bright side of all this is that brown tide helped the Peconics win federal recognition as an estuary of national significance. That produced funding for the continuing research.

In a way, the brown tide question mirrors the larger debate over climate change. It’s happening, yes, but how much is a result of human activity? All? Some?

This much is absolutely certain: The presence of people has a deleterious impact on coastal waters. Fortunately, we’re much better off than communities not far to the west. We may or may not have had a hand in the brown tide blooms, but there’s much more out there than algae. It falls to us to preserve and protect it.