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Peconic Estuary Program welcomes new director, Joyce Novak

Gazing out at the Peconic River, Joyce Novak can’t help but ponder its past. 

Ms. Novak, newly appointed director of the Peconic Estuary Program, is especially interested in studying how the estuary has evolved. She already plans to go paleo — by examining fossils — to find some answers. 

“When we understand the past, in many senses we can plan for the future,” she said.

She comes to the Peconic after working for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection’s Blue Belt program, which focuses on green infrastructure and stormwater management. Before that, she spent 15 years in Ireland earning a master’s in ecology from the National University of Ireland in Galway, working on sustainable fisheries and, in 2017, earning a doctorate in coastal oceanography from the University of Limerick. She began in her new role May 7.

A native of Queens, Ms. Novak says she’s always been drawn to the coast. “My aunt and uncle have a house in Montauk, so I grew up surfcasting in Ditch Plains,” she said. “I’ve always spent my free time on the water.”

That’s what led her to Ireland, an island she said was the perfect locale to study rising sea levels, water quality and the fishing industry. 

Now back on her native island, Ms. Novak looks forward to continuing her coastal work. “Being able to bring coastal science to another coastline is exciting,” she said.

One of her first priorities will be gathering public feedback for the organization’s updated Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan, which hasn’t seen updates since it was approved in 2001. 

“It’s a way for us to look at what we’ve done wrong, what we’ve done right and what people think some of our future actions and goals should be,” she said. “And ensuring that people who historically have used the Peconics — whether it’s for their livelihood or for recreation — can still maintain that level of access.”

As PEP director, Ms. Novak will also oversee restoration projects, like establishing fish passages, wetland and water quality issues and community engagement, especially in schools. “Groups of high school students, for one class or one assignment during their four years, should be doing something on the Peconics if that’s what their backyard is. To really get their hands wet, quite literally, and their feet muddy and see what’s happening,” she said.

Along the Peconic, a fish passage was established in Grangebel Park in 2016, and Ms. Novak said there are plans to continue that project upstream. “It’s not about removing the dam, but giving the fish access” to their breeding grounds, she explained.

Another goal is helping Suffolk County towns and villages tap into grant money that’s available to complete these types of projects.

Water quality remains at the top of her agenda. “We’re quite concerned about the harmful algal blooms that occur,” she said, calling for more research into combating the annual blooms. Decades ago, brown tide was a major concern in the Peconic Estuary. Today, algal blooms including red, rust and mahogany tides, are more prevalent, but they weren’t included in PEP’s original management plan.

“Living shoreline” projects will see seaweed, grasses and ribbed mussels planted in waterways in Southold and Greenport. Ms. Novak plans to monitor how they affect nitrogen levels over several years.

Climate change is another key issue not addressed in the 2001 plan, and Ms. Novak hopes to focus on how rising sea levels will affect the Peconic Estuary. “In the last five years, everything I’ve done has come back to coastal resiliency. I think we have to learn that we’re not going to conquer [climate change],” she said, calling for a more realistic approach to things like storm management. “It’s about planning now, rather than saying we’re going to build back better, bigger and stronger every time.”

Though the Peconic Estuary Program has faced financial insecurity — EPA funding remains on the chopping block — Ms. Novak is hopeful that elected leaders will see the importance of the issue.

“On Long Island, representatives from both parties have fought for estuary programs, which is a great thing. It seems to be something that everyone can come together on,” she said.

Photo caption: Joyce Novak is the newly appointed director of the Peconic Estuary Program. (Credit: Tara Smith)

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