One of the area’s dwindling natural resources will soon be in the spotlight.
On Tuesday, Soren Dahl of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Bureau of Marine Resources came before the Southold Town board to discuss seagrass management.
According to Dahl, seagrass management across the state’s waters is required; habitat experts have recommended that the a collaboration with local stakeholders be sought.
When dealing with seagrass, or eelgrass, water clarity is a primary issue, Dahl said.
In past years, eelgrass may have been, “in some people’s minds, a nuisance, getting caught in outboard motors,” he said.
But in fact, the eelgrass is critical, a natural habitat for all manner of marine life, including finfish and blackfish.
Eelgrass also plays a pivotal role in shoreline resiliency, Dahl said.
But the losses in eelgrass have been “huge,” he said, reaching historical levels. In 2014, a study of the Peconic Estuary indicated that 30 to 40 percent of its coastal habitat had been lost since 1930.
“There are multiple issues confronting seagrass,” he said. “To preserve what’s there, as soon as possible, the best way is to go in and deal with the larger issues, such as water clarity and water management.”
That’s why, he said, the aim was to reach out and partner with local municipalities, identifying areas were eelgrass still exists, and then working with local officials and stakeholders to determine a management plan, focusing on what’s practical for each individual area.
“We need to figure out a game plan,” Dahl said, showing the board a map of town waters, pinpointing the areas where eelgrass still exists.
There is some present at the Orient State Park, and “a bit surprising,” near the ferry terminal in Greenport. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense, since one of the issues with managing eelgrass is physical disturbance, but maybe it’s protected because of seawall barriers,” Dahl said.
Cornell Cooperative Extension uses some of the areas for their eelgrass restoration efforts, he said.
While it’s important to preserve and restore, “It takes a long time to understand what works,” Dahl said. Other areas, such as Chesapeake Bay, have been working on shellfish restoration for decades and are finally “seeming some success.”
But Southold Town has a hidden eelgrass treasure, Dahl said: “The crown jewel of New York eelgrass is Fishers Island. That’s something, and it’s really a priority — the majority of all eelgrass in New York waters is here. I’ve been to meadows at other places that have nice eelgrass, but this is the best, and it represents a unique opportunity.”
While factors such a rising bottom temperatures preset a challenge, Dahl hopes to reduce stressors, because research has shown resiliency can then improve, he said.
Water clarity and temperature remain the most critical issues, the nitrogen nutrient management also key, he said.
Councilwoman Jill Doherty, a former town trustee, reminded the town has a shellfish advisory committee engaged in water sampling.
While the board said there’s not much seagrass left to manage in many places, Dahl said the goal was to focus on areas where it still exists, and to develop the management plan.
The board suggested he work with the shellfish advisory committee and the town trustees moving forward to develop the plan. Justice Louisa Evans suggested he also speak to the Fishers Island Conservancy and harbor committee.
Dahl said his goal was to provide the service at no cost to the town; his aim is just to create the management document and put it into practice.
Some simple answer could mean educating the public on issues such as not siting a mooring field or using scallop dredges in areas where eelgrass still exists, Dahl said.
The hope, he said, is to implement a plan as soon as possible, “since so much is being lost.”
Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said the seagrass proposal is a “great idea. We all support it in any way we can and look forward to working with Mr. Dahl.”