By Kristen Jabanoski

Dr. Penny Vlahos, Professor of Marine Sciences at University of Connecticut, set out with a bold agenda: develop a systematic approach to understanding the chemistry of Long Island Sound. Major chemical cycles in the Sound were not well understood when she started out, including the carbon and nitrogen cycles. Understanding these cycles is critical to managing the ecosystem and adapting to a rapidly changing climate.

“In terms of biogeochemistry, Long Island Sound was blank. It wasn’t really on the map of the East Coast,” Vlahos explained.

Dr. Penny Vlahos, center, reads data from a multi-probe meter on dissolved oxygen, salinity and temperature of a water sample to Allison Byrd. Behind her is Yan Jia, a marine sciences graduate student, with a handheld profiler. Photo was taken during water quality monitoring in 2017. Photo Credit: Judy Benson, Connecticut Sea Grant.
Dr. Vlahos, right, with Katie O’Brien-Clayton (CT DEEP) retrieve the Conductivity, Temperature and Depth (CTD) rosette with water samples aboard the R/V John Dempsey. Water samples are collected using the rosette sampler which holds up to ten niskin bottles, which are set to collect samples at different depths. Photo Credit: Lauren Barrett.

RESPIRE Project

 Enter the Long Island Sound Respire project, funded by a $398,000 grant from the Long Island Sound Study, which supported Vlahos and doctoral student Lauren Barrett sampling the Sound monthly from June 2019 to October 2021 to gather key information not previously collected in water quality sampling. 

 Their goal was to understand how oxygen moves through the Sound’s water column, along with key nutrients such as carbon and nitrogen, by sampling ten sites across the Sound aboard Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CT DEEP)’s research vessel John Dempsey. With funding from the Long Island Sound Study, CT DEEP has been monitoring the Sound’s water quality for New York as well as Connecticut since 1991. Long Island Sound Respire enhanced CT DEEP’s existing long term water monitoring program, and has led to several new initiatives which will provide more detailed data on nutrients and acidification in the Sound (more information).

Dockside water sampling at Avery Point beside the R/V John Dempsey during summer 2020. Photo Credit: Lauren Barrett.
Graduate students Lauren Barrett and Allison Staniec, filtering seawater for dissolved organic carbon analysis. Photo Credit: Lauren Barrett.

The COVID pandemic briefly interrupted water sampling in spring 2020. Monthly research cruises came to a halt in April and May, but the value of close cooperation with CT DEEP became clear when they resumed over the summer. Although COVID protocols prevented CT DEEP from hosting scientists from other institutions aboard the Dempsey, part of the sampling continued because the CT DEEP staff scientists went out of their way to collect samples that the UConn team needed for nutrient and carbonate chemistry analysis.

Environmental analyst Matt Lyman of CT DEEP explained, “Dr. Vlahos’ Respire Project provides important information supporting CT DEEP’s commitment to protect and improve the health of Long Island Sound. While the sample collection for this project added to an already busy sampling schedule, it was certainly worth it to ensure a continuous data set over the course of the project.”

Vlahos also works closely on the project with UConn physical oceanographer and modeler Dr. Michael Whitney and UConn biological oceanographer Dr. Jamie Vaudrey. Whitney built a dynamic model for Long Island Sound, and embedded chemistry information from Vlahos’ work into that model. Vaudrey provides valuable guidance on respiration and primary productivity measurements. 

 Vlahos and her team confirmed and characterized a strong connection between two environmental problems often considered separately – excess nitrogen entering the Sound and coastal acidification. 

Nitrogen is a nutrient that enters the Sound from many different sources, including agriculture, fertilizer, septic systems, and treated wastewater. In excess it fuels the growth of algae, which can affect water quality and human health. When the short-lived algal cells decompose, the oxygen in the water is often depleted, leading to fish kills and ecosystem damage.

While ocean acidification is a global issue caused by the ocean absorbing the extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels, coastal acidification can also be fueled by excess nutrients. The pH of seawater can decrease locally when algal overgrowth happens. This is because the bacteria breaking down the algal cells both use up oxygen and release carbon dioxide into the water.

(Now Dr.) Allison Staniec filtering seawater for dissolved organic carbon analysis. Photo Credit: Lauren Barrett.
Graduate student Lauren Barrett showing off the dissolved oxygen probes used to measure respiration. Photo Credit: Lauren Barrett.

Vlahos hopes to permanently add carbonate chemistry measurements to the Long Island Sound water monitoring program to better track acidification.

 Major reductions in nitrogen output into Long Island Sound are a noteworthy water quality accomplishment since the introduction of Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) to reduce nitrogen in 2000. An estimated 50 million pounds of nitrogen are kept out of the Sound every year due to wastewater treatment plant upgrades in New York and Connecticut.

These reductions have led to improved oxygen levels in the Sound, and reduced the geographic extent of low oxygen during the summer months by more than half compared with the 1990s. This means better water quality and improved conditions for fish, other marine animals, and people.

What Does Climate Change Mean for Water Quality in the Sound?

Vlahos, who was recently elected Connecticut co-chair of the Long Island Sound Science and Technical Advisory Committee, notes that the outlook for climate change in our region means that we can’t get complacent when it comes to water quality. Even if nutrient pollution in the Sound holds steady, the warming Sound will have less capacity to hold dissolved gasses including oxygen – similar to the way a warm soda goes flat more quickly. This means that at the same level of nitrogen input, a warmer Sound will be more prone to low oxygen. Connecticut and New York will need further reductions in nitrogen just to maintain today’s water quality improvements into the future. Vlahos and Whitney published these findings in Environmental Science and Technology last year.

 For the RESPIRE project, the right technology was available at just the right time. Vlahos and her research group brought in a newly-developed instrument called the Contros HydroFIA TA Analyzer  to measure alkalinity, which they can also use to monitor coastal acidification. This cutting-edge instrument was tested and went on the market just a few years before the study began. 

Dr. Vlahos along with UConn graduate students Hannah Inman, Lauren Barrett and Emma Shipley on Bunker Hill in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, before their Arctic research cruise in 2021. Photo Credit: Dr. Penny Vlahos.

Because there was little previous data on inorganic carbon in Long Island Sound, Vlahos and her graduate students started measuring alkalinity, the more familiar pH, the partial pressure of carbon dioxide, and dissolved inorganic carbon on monthly cruises with CT DEEP. These measurements characterize total inorganic carbon, which was a critical gap in the carbon budget for the Sound.

They used these carbonate parameters to create a monthly map of a measurement called omega in Long Island Sound. Scientists use omega to track ocean and coastal acidification. Omega is the saturation state of calcium carbonate, which is important because carbonate ions are the building blocks that marine animals including shellfish use to make their shells. An omega value greater than one indicates supersaturation, whereas values less than one are a warning sign of undersaturation, a condition favoring the dissolution of calcium carbonate shells. 

 The team discovered that a large swath of central Long Island Sound has an omega value below one, which is considered corrosive to shellfish and other calcifying animals, during July and August. This low omega area mirrors the low oxygen zone during the summer. As a result, Vlahos suggests that omega values could be used in the future to set new Total Maximum Daily Loads for the Sound, rather than relying exclusively on nitrogen values to set these limits.

What can concerned coastal and inland residents do to protect water quality gains in the warming Sound? Vlahos suggests reducing your household’s contribution to nutrient runoff by using less fertilizer for lawns and gardens, along with replacing septic systems with new nitrogen removal systems. In addition to reducing household nitrogen input, communities can support shellfish restoration initiatives, as filter-feeding shellfish take up significant amounts of nitrogen from the Sound through the algae they eat.

 Alkalinity in Long Island Sound Embayments (ALISE) project

While the Respire project aims to understand the chemistry of the Sound as a whole, Vlahos’ recently-funded Alkalinity in Long Island Sound Embayments (ALISE) project aims to understand the carbonate chemistry of the embayment areas where most shellfish aquaculture is located. These areas could be particularly at risk from coastal acidification; while water quality issues tend to be diluted in the main part of the Sound, they may be exacerbated in the more closed off embayments. Her long term goal is to create omega maps for coastal Connecticut and New York, which would allow shellfish growers to choose where to farm wisely. 

Set up of continuous alkalinity measurements using the Hydros TA aka “Atticus” and the spectrophotometric pH in the main lab. Photo Credit: Dr. Penny Vlahos.

“The embayment program will help the shellfish industry know which areas are good for growing shellfish, which are more vulnerable to acidification, and why,” Vlahos explained. 

“Estuaries tend to have larger variations in carbonate chemistry, and yet most ocean acidification data comes from the open ocean,” said Dr. Vlahos.

Connections to the Arctic

Vlahos and her graduate students have also been conducting research in the Arctic under a project funded by the National Science Foundation to learn about the changing water chemistry of ice melt zones, seasonal pools of freshwater that now freeze and thaw annually. The importance of understanding these areas is growing: as the permanent ice cap melts in a warming Arctic, in just a few decades summers may be ice-free. This could change the role of the Arctic in carbon sequestration, further affecting the global climate.

After a two week pre-cruise COVID isolation period in Alaska, the team collected water samples aboard the R/V Sikuliaq from the Bering sea to the Chukchi Sea between May 20 to June 14, 2021. At several sampling stations on the ice, polar bear activity was a concern and spotters on the bridge of the ship watched keenly to ensure they didn’t get too close to the researchers.

Although the Arctic Ocean is more than 5,000 miles from Long Island Sound, it is similar to the Sound in one important way. It’s an area where open ocean measurements don’t cut it in terms of understanding the chemistry, because unique local dynamics are at play.    

 The Arctic research will continue this spring, but thus far the team has discovered that there are differences in carbonate chemistry and productivity, or the amount and diversity of life that those areas can support, compared with the open ocean.

Researchers drilling into the ice to collect ice cores and under-ice water samples. Photo Credit: Dr. Penny Vlahos.

“In the Arctic, the train has left the station. We can’t reverse the changes we’re seeing, but we can inform global climate models to make them more accurate,” Dr. Vlahos reflected, “However, in Long Island Sound, we have a chance to inform coastal residents and actually act to reduce our nutrient output, which makes a difference.”

Kristen Jabanoski is a science communicator who writes frequently about fisheries, aquaculture, and environmental research on Long Island Sound.

5 LISS-Funded Coastal Acidification Projects Building on the Respire Project

CT DEEP monthly water quality sampling project including Total Alkalinity and Dissolved Inorganic Carbon ($94,532)

Monthly nutrient water quality surveys are conducted throughout the year to document processes relevant to hypoxia and nutrient dynamics. This proposal will add coastal acidification parameters (Total Alkalinity (TA) and Dissolved Inorganic Carbon (DIC)) to the current monitoring program. This project will develop and maintain a long-term coastal acidification monitoring program in the off-shore waters of Long Island Sound at a subset of stations currently monitored by CT DEEP to better understand future impacts in relation to eutrophication, hypoxia, and climate change. Carbonate chemistry samples will be analyzed by the Environmental Chemistry & Geochemistry Lab of Dr. Penny Vlahos in the Department of Marine Sciences at the University of Connecticut. (back to top)

Interstate Environmental Commission – water quality monitoring in the western Sound to complement CT DEEP’s monitoring ($28,485)

In 2022-2023, the Interstate Environmental Commission will incorporate additional monitoring and sampling to assess coastal acidification in the western Long Island Sound, enabling a more comprehensive assessment of both the extent of hypoxia and the variation of water quality parameters relevant to hypoxia throughout Long Island Sound. (back to top)

USGS project focused on alkalinity and other variables in LIS embayments ($352,000)

USGS will establish and lead a long-term monitoring network to provide data for calculating aragonite saturation and increase spatial and temporal coverage for embayment monitoring across Long Island Sound. (back to top)

Save the Sound LIS embayments project ($249,705)

Save the Sound will leverage the network of community science monitoring groups in the Unified Water Study for this monitoring effort, which will enable widespread LIS embayment coverage to complement the monitoring being considered for the open waters and other portions of the Sound. This will add coastal acidification parameters—Total Alkalinity (TA), pH, Dissolved Organic Carbon (DOC), and Dissolved Inorganic Carbon (DIC)—to the Unified Water Study for the 2023 monitoring season. It will also fund creation of meaningful and relatable communications on the importance of coastal acidification monitoring to laypeople around the Sound. (back to top)

UCONN’s real time monitoring network (LISICOS), adding pH sensors to buoys ($34,069)

The LISICOS buoy array has included pH and pCO2 sensors in the western Sound since 2018 and these data have shown that pH can change from 8 to 7.2 over the summer (May to September) but changes of 0.2 are possible in a single day. To properly interpret the results of ship sampling surveys, we will purchase a pair of sensors to measure pH and pCO2 at 15-minute intervals at mid-depth (~65 feet) in central LIS by mounting them on the mooring cable of the Central Long Island Sound buoy. The deployments will be integrated into NOAA-funded buoy deployments. In addition to the open-access data record, the final deliverable will be a data report and recommendations on how to sustain a long-term monitoring program. (back to top)

“As long as their eggs don’t move out of the nest during flooding and chicks don’t drown, the nest can continue on to fledging, the time when chicks leave the nest. Unfortunately, these birds have now run into a problem: anthropogenic sea level rise.” 

Hi. My name is Sam Apgar and ​I am a PhD candidate in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at the University of Connecticut. I am a member of Dr. Chris Elphick’s lab, and I study the behavioral, physiological, and demographic traits of birds breeding in tidal marshes. In this blog post, I describe how I use a video camera to understand tidal marsh bird responses to their nests flooding with seawater at two Connecticut coastal conservation areas.

Sam Apgar, PhD Candidate at the University of Connecticut, places a video camera outside of a nest at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, CT. The camera, when paired with an infrared light, can film in total darkness. Credit: Chris Elphick.
This video from Sam’s research shows eight-to-nine-day old saltmarsh sparrow nestlings exiting their nest and climbing up surrounding vegetation to avoid drowning during a monthly high tide event. Sam places up to ten video cameras outside of nests during new or full moon high tides. Credit: Sam Apgar.
 

I’m walking through the marsh on a night at the end of July or rather, trudging through it. The seawater is a few inches above the marsh surface. When I approach a ditch, man-made narrow and straight creeks that are found in 94 percent of New England marshes1, I wade across the overly filled waterway. Normally I’m able to jump over these ditches, but on a night like this, I all but swim across in my chest-high waders. I keep walking in the darkness. The only light comes from my head lamp and hand flashlight. I’m out on a new moon, the time of the month when there is a complete absence of lunar light.

During the new and full moon phases, the moon and sun are in line with the earth, causing a stronger gravitational pull on the oceans. This results in the highest high tides of the month. Suddenly I can see two seaside sparrows, one of two species of marsh nesting sparrows in Connecticut, landing on the water and then flying upward again. This is a strange occurrence- the marsh is so flooded that I’ve seen no other birds. The two sparrows, likely a breeding pair, continue to fly up and down as I visually scan the area. Then I see it—two eggs floating on the surface of the water. This pair has a nest nearby and their eggs floated away before they could hatch. 

A marsh, owned by the Madison Land Conservation Trust, floods along the East River in Madison, CT. Tidal marshes flood to this degree during the new or full moons each month, with even greater flooding occurring at night. In advance of a high tide night, Sam goes into the marsh in the late afternoon or early evening to set up the video cameras at the nesting sites, waits a few hours in a truck during flooding, and returns to the sites to pick up the cameras on the same night. Credit: Sarah Biesemier.
Young saltmarsh sparrow fledgling who recently left the nest. Saltmarsh sparrow chicks leave the nest as early as eight days old. Credit: Sam Apgar.

 About a million years ago, birds started moving into Northeastern tidal marshes for breeding. Tidal marshes are a hard place to live and reproduce, because the tide causes the marsh surface to flood around the new and full moons. Marshes are predominantly comprised of grasses and sedges, so bird nests can only be placed in vegetation close to the ground. In addition to the risk that flooding poses to reproduction, tidal water is saline. Salt is a challenging molecule for most terrestrial organisms to deal with. But living and breeding in tidal marshes has benefits too. Due to the harsh nature of marshes, there’s a lot of space and resources for any organism capable of living there. Additionally, marshes are incredibly productive ecosystems that tend to have a lot of food, at least from the perspective of a bird. These are likely the reasons why select bird species moved into and evolved in tidal marshes over the past hundreds of thousands of years. 

A saltmarsh sparrow nest goes under water for 65 minutes, but not at a height that would cause the eggs to float out of the nest. The female returns to incubate the eggs five minutes after the water recedes from the nest. It’s typical for saltmarsh sparrow adults to be absent during nest flooding. Nest flooding does not cause the eggs to die, so long as they don’t float out of the nest cup. Video is time-lapse. Credit: Sam Apgar.

I study four of these species—the saltmarsh sparrow, seaside sparrow, willet, and clapper rail. These species all nest in Long Island Sound marshes. In the adjacent time-lapse video, you will see the tide come into a saltmarsh sparrow nest and retreat within 65 minutes. This type of flooding is exceedingly normal for a marsh bird nest. Saltmarsh sparrow nests flood for periods of 98 minutes on average and despite this, many fledge chicks2. Despite how jarring the imagery is, saltmarsh sparrows and the other species I study have been successfully navigating the challenges of living and reproducing in tidal marshes for a very long time. As long as their eggs don’t move out of the nest during flooding and chicks don’t drown, the nest can continue on to fledging, the time when chicks leave the nest. Unfortunately, these birds have now run into a problem: anthropogenic sea level rise. 

Through multiyear surveys comparing current population sizes to population sizes from the 1990s, researchers from the Saltmarsh Habitat and Avian Research Program  (https://www.tidalmarshbirds.org), including my advisor, Dr. Chris Elphick,  have found that two of the four species listed above are declining. The saltmarsh sparrow is declining at a rate of 9 percent a year and the clapper rail is declining at a rate of 4.6 percent a year3. For the saltmarsh sparrow specifically, sea level rise is causing the highest high tides of the month to flood nests before chicks can fledge, leading to an expected extinction as early as 20354. As for seaside sparrows and willets, it’s not known why their populations are remaining stable while the populations of their marsh bird peers are declining. 


Saltmarsh sparrow female enters a wet nest containing four eggs during a flooding event and then leaves. It is typical for saltmarsh sparrow females to be absent when their nests flood with seawater. Credit: Sam Apgar.

One of the chapters of my dissertation examines how tidal marsh nesting birds behave when their nests flood with seawater during exceptionally high tides. To accomplish this, I placed infrared-augmented video cameras outside of nests during high tide events at night across three summers at Hammonasset Beach State Park and along the East River in Madison, CT. A team of undergraduate students at the University of Connecticut and I spent years reviewing the nearly 400 hours of video footage I obtained to quantify the length of time adults are present at nests or chicks climb up and out of nests to survive high tides. We have found that saltmarsh sparrrow, seaside sparrow, willet, and clapper rail adults don’t spend a lot of time at nests that are flooded. We found that older saltmarsh sparrow chicks climb up vegetation to avoid drowning, but they do so mostly on lower high tides. But, most importantly, whether a nest survives a nest flooding event (eggs stay in the nest and/or chicks don’t drown) is dictated by the tide height and not anything the adults do behaviorally. For saltmarsh sparrow nests, the presence of chicks does not change this pattern. My research suggests that tidal marsh birds at present likely don’t have the behavioral capacity to handle future increases in nest flooding due to ongoing sea level rise5

Saltmarsh sparrows have evolved to fit their breeding cycles, including nest building, egg laying, and nestling development during the time between the highest high tides of the month. Tide heights, shown on the y-axis as “elevation above sea level,” varies with the lunar cycle. In this animation, the highest high tides are between between the full moons (first and fifth moons on the x-axis). As a result of fitting into this cycle, nestlings can fledge before the next round of very high tides flood nests completely. Credit: Christopher Field. 

The problem, ultimately, isn’t that nest flooding happens. The problem is how often it’s happening. Saltmarsh sparrows are adapted to tidal marsh nesting by laying eggs, incubating them, and raising nestlings within a roughly 23-day window that historically fit in between the highest high tides of the month, which in the current cycle is between the full moons. In the adjacent video, you can see how tight this window of lower tides is for saltmarsh sparrows to fit in all the necessary steps for successful reproduction. As the sea rises, the height of tides increases on each end of that window, making successful reproduction impossible. Sea level rise is simply causing the tides to be too high, too quickly, and nests are getting too wet, too often for meaningful adaptation to occur. During my graduate school career, I have found 241 saltmarsh sparrow nests at my two study sites (see below). Of these nests, only 68 have fledged at least one chick. During the 2021 field season, the numbers were much worse. Just four nests fledged chicks out of 41 nests found, with five having unknown fates. 

Saltmarsh sparrow nest site locations along the East River (owned by the Madison Land Conservation Trust) and Hammonasset Beach State Park from 2017 to 2019. Red circles correspond to failed nests (did not fledge at least one chick), yellow circles correspond to fledged nests (nests that fledged at least one chick), and purple circles correspond to nests with unknown fates (unsure whether it was successful or not). Credit: Sam Apgar.
Adult saltmarsh sparrow at the Barn Island Wildlife Management Area in Stonington, CT. Credit: Sam Apgar.

The saltmarsh sparrow is emblematic of climate change and specifically sea level rise. Just like the saltmarsh sparrow, we’re in trouble too. Sea level rise doesn’t only threaten their habitat, it threatens ours. Nearly 30 percent of United States residents live on coast lines, including more than three million people on the coast of Long Island Sound in Connecticut and New York. If we want to save the saltmarsh sparrow and ourselves, we need to slow our global emissions rate and ultimately reverse it. But that’s not the only solution, the second is  habitat restoration. For saltmarsh sparrows and humans alike, millions of dollars are being directed annually into adding sediment to marshes, a process called thin-layer deposition, to increase the height of the marsh platform. Increasing the height of saltmarshes will hopefully keep saltmarsh sparrow nests dry during regular and storm-driven flooding, while keeping our homes dry too. Let’s continue to remember that as humans we are not completely divorced from the factors that are causing coastal bird populations to decline. We’re also at risk, which gives us all the more reason to preserve the land  we share with them. 

Sam at one of her study sites along the East River in Madison, CT. She is holding one of her night vision video cameras which she places near saltmarsh sparrow, seaside sparrow, willet, and clapper rail nests to understand how these species respond to their nests flooding with seawater. Sam is expected to receive her PhD in summer 2022. Credit: Sam Apgar.

  1. Crain, C. M., Halpern, B. S., Beck, M. W., & Kappel, C. V. (2009). Understanding and managing human threats to the coastal marine environment. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences1162(1), 39-62.
  2. Gjerdrum, C., Sullivan-Wiley, K., King, E., Rubega, M. A., & Elphick, C. S. (2008). Egg and chick fates during tidal flooding of Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow nests. The Condor110(3), 579-584.
  3.  Correll, M. D., Wiest, W. A., Hodgman, T. P., Shriver, W. G., Elphick, C. S., McGill, B. J., … & Olsen, B. J. (2017). Predictors of specialist avifaunal decline in coastal marshes. Conservation Biology31(1), 172-182.
  4.  Field, C. R., Bayard, T. S., Gjerdrum, C., Hill, J. M., Meiman, S., & Elphick, C. S. (2017). High‐resolution tide projections reveal extinction threshold in response to sea‐level rise. Global Change Biology23(5), 2058-2070.
  5.  Apgar and Elphick. In prep.
Six-to-seven-day old saltmarsh sparrow nestlings exit through the entrance of their nest and attempt to climb up vegetation as the tide advances. Saltmarsh sparrow nestlings can handle being inundated with cold seawater, so long as the water level does not go above their heads. Credit: Sam Apgar.

Nests and Habitat

Coastal Marsh Birds in Long Island Sound

Handling of all wildlife of the photos in this blog post were done with approval through appropriate, federal and state permits and site permissions.

Sam at one of her marsh study sites at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, CT. Credit: Mackenzie Watkins.

Sam’s research was funded with support from:

  • The Garden Club of America’s Coastal Wetlands Scholarship
  • The UConn EEB Zoology Award courtesy of the Francis Rice Trainor, Manter, and George Clark Funds to the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History
  • The Natural Resources Conservation Academy Research Support Grant
  • The UConn EEB Demi Fellowship

 

If you think your home might be impacted by coastal erosion, you can learn more by attending a virtual public presentation being held on June 9, with support from Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker, New York Sea Grant, and the Long Island Sound Study. The meeting is open to all, but is geared to residents of the North Shore in Suffolk County who are concerned about coastal bluff and shoreline erosion affecting their properties. Meeting will take place via Zoom. Register in advance here.

For more information, contact: Elizabeth Hornstein, LISS Sustainable and Resilient Communities Extension Professional at [email protected], or 631-632-3093.

The Science Needs Document is a comprehensive summary of the science support needed to meet the management goals of the Long Island Sound Study (LISS). It has been developed based on the input from a diverse array of LISS partners. It is structured around the Themes and Ecosystem Targets of the 2015 Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP). This is a broad reference document that is meant to highlight needs but not to specify the top priorities and is subject to continuous revision to incorporate new information.

This news release originally appeared on the NY Sea Grant Website on March 25, 2022.

 

A handful of new Sea Grant specialists — in both New York and Connecticut — help expand Long Island Sound Study efforts throughout the Sound’s basin

— By Chris Gonzales, Freelance Science Writer, New York Sea Grant

Contacts:

Robert Burg, Communications Coordinator, Long Island Sound Study,
E: [email protected]

Paul C. Focazio, Communications Manager, New York Sea Grant,
E: [email protected], P: 631-632-6910

Kathy Bunting-Howarth, NYSG’s Associate Director,
E: [email protected], P: 607-255-2832

Stony Brook, NY, March 25, 2022 — What is “resilience” and what does it mean for your community?

New York Sea Grant (NYSG) has announced the hiring of a team of new professionals dedicated to protecting the communities, economy, and environment of Long Island Sound. This new work stems from a partnership with the Long Island Sound Study (LISS). Federal LISS funding supports the new team members.

Three Sustainable and Resilient Communities (SRC) extension professionals have begun working to strengthen the network of sustainable and resilient communities along the Long Island Sound in Westchester, Nassau, and Suffolk Counties. Additionally, a new outreach coordinator has been hired to work in Long Island Sound’s Western Basin, covering New York City and Westchester County, supplementing an existing position in Stony Brook.

The Plan for Resilience in the Sound

The Long Island Sound Study focuses on four main themes: Clean Waters and Healthy Watersheds, Thriving Habitats and Abundant Wildlife, Sustainable and Resilient Communities, and Sound Science and Inclusive Management. These four new positions in New York, plus two new SRC extension professionals in Connecticut, mark the growth of the program in both states, on either side of the Sound. This team represents a commitment to prepare for and mitigate the effects of environmental and economic challenges posed by the effects of climate change and to expand community engagement along the Long Island Sound.

(l-r) Elizabeth Hornstein (also inset, lower left) conducts surface elevation table readings of a salt marsh. This helps assess if the marsh is keeping pace with sea level rise; Sara Powell snapped this selfie during a site visit to Manor Park, overlooking Long Island Sound in Larchmont, NY; Sarah Schaefer-Brown (inset, upper right).

Meet the SRC Extension Professionals

Sara Powell, Westchester County, based at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Westchester County, Elmsford, New York
Powell has more than a decade of experience working as a science communicator with expertise in partnership building, environmental planning, and urban water resource management. She has a master’s degree in environmental health sciences from the University of South Carolina. Prior to joining NYSG, she most recently worked in New York City as the Ambassador for the Bronx & Harlem Rivers Urban Waters Federal Partnership.

Elizabeth Hornstein, Suffolk County, based at Stony Brook University
Hornstein has a master’s degree in marine science from Stony Brook University and over ten years of experience working in the marine and environmental conservation fields. Before coming to NYSG, she was state coordinator for the Peconic Estuary Partnership (PEP), collaborating with government organizations, academic institutions, environmental groups, and community members to protect and restore the Peconic Estuary.

Sarah Schaefer-Brown, Nassau County, based at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Nassau County, East Meadow, New York
Schaefer-Brown has years of experience leading a range of projects with a focus on water quality improvement, habitat restoration, climate change planning, and community outreach. Prior to her role at NYSG she was the program coordinator for the Peconic Estuary Partnership, where she worked to facilitate ecosystem-based management of the Peconic Estuary watershed. She holds a master’s degree in marine conservation and policy from Stony Brook University. 

What the SRC Extension Professionals Are Doing

The three SRC extension professionals are working with their respective coastal communities to advance the Sustainable and Resilient Communities goals of the Long Island Sound Study. The SRC extension professionals will be focusing on providing support, training, and tools for the entire Long Island Sound coastal community with the goal of building a coordinated regional response to current and future climate change impacts, empowering better trained and informed community decision makers, and increasing implementation of resilience projects. Specific projects might include using natural features, like oyster castles or native salt marsh plants, to enhance protection of the shoreline, or conducting outreach with coastal residents about actions that can make them more resilient in the face of severe weather and more frequent flooding.

This team is part of a larger initiative led by both New York and Connecticut Sea Grants and guided by a five-year plan that increases the capacity of both Sea Grant programs to create a sustainable and resilient regional framework to strengthen the social, environmental, and economic well-being of Long Island Sound communities. The two programs are working together to respond to infrastructure and environmental vulnerabilities brought about by our changing climate.

Two additional SRC extension professionals have been hired in Connecticut via Connecticut Sea Grant at UConn. They are Deborah Visco Abibou (based out of the New Haven County Extension Center in North Haven, primarily serving western Connecticut) and Alicia Tyson (working out of the UConn Avery Point campus in Groton, primarily serving eastern Connecticut.)

NYSG’s Long Island Sound Study Outreach Coordinator Lillit Genovesiat the Edith G. Read Wildlife Sanctuary in Rye, NY. Credit: Ludmilar Mesidor / Long Island Sound Study.

Long Island Sound Outreach Coordinator

Lillit “Lilli” Genovesi is the new Long Island Sound Study outreach coordinator for New York City and Westchester County. Based in the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) office in Queens, Lilli is working alongside the Stony Brook University–based outreach coordinator, Jimena Perez-Viscasillas, to engage communities in LISS programs, activities, and resources. Perez-Viscasillas has been with NYSG since 2019.

Before joining NYSG, Genovesi worked with Trout Unlimited, where she managed the statewide Trout in the Classroom program alongside the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Lilli holds a master’s degree in Environmental Science from the City University of New York and an undergraduate degree in Marine Biology from UCLA. 

The outreach coordinators are tasked with addressing climate change impacts on the Sound with focus on environmental justice—practices that ensure that all people enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and are given equal access to the decision-making that affects the environments in which they live, learn, and work.1

“Addressing climate-change impacts as well as water-quality and habitat challenges while ensuring that all people, especially communities suffering disproportionately from environmental threats, are engaged in the solutions requires professionals in the field, building relationships and working through partnerships,” said NYSG’s Associate Director Kathy Bunting-Howarth. “These new positions will enhance the LISS and NYSG’s ability to learn what our communities need and provide them with assistance tailored to those needs.”

References

1https://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice Retrieved February 8, 2022.


More Info: Long Island Sound Study

Long Island Sound is one of the 28 nationally designated estuaries under the National Estuary Program (NEP), which was established by Congress in 1987 to improve the quality of Long Island Sound and other places where rivers meet the sea. 

The Long Island Sound Study is a cooperative effort involving researchers, regulators, user groups and other concerned organizations and individuals, and is led by the Environmental Protection Agency and the states of New York and Connecticut. 

In recent years, LISS has experienced a period of rapid expansion attributed to the increased federal funding for the program, and to implement actions, objectives, and goals established under a Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan. The increase is grounded in the CCMP’s four overarching themes: Clean Waters and Healthy Watersheds, Thriving Habitats and Abundant Wildlife, Sustainable and Resilient Communities, and Sound Science and Inclusive Management.  Resilience to climate change, long-term sustainability, and environmental justice, are principles that connect to all four of the themes.

For more on what you can do to make a difference, click over to the “Get Involved” or “Stewardship” sections of the Long Island Sound Study’s website. News on the Long Island Sound Study can also be found in New York Sea Grant’s related archives.

If you would like to receive Long Island Sound Study’s newsletter, please visit their site’s homepage and sign up for the “e-news/print newsletter” under the “Stay Connected” box.


More Info: New York Sea Grant

New York Sea Grant (NYSG), a cooperative program of Cornell University and the State University of New York (SUNY), is one of 34 university-based programs under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Sea Grant College Program.

Since 1971, NYSG has represented a statewide network of integrated research, education and extension services promoting coastal community economic vitality, environmental sustainability and citizen awareness and understanding about the State’s marine and Great Lakes resources.

Through NYSG’s efforts, the combined talents of university scientists and extension specialists help develop and transfer science-based information to many coastal user groups—businesses and industries, federal, state and local government decision-makers and agency managers, educators, the media and the interested public.

This article was originally published on the CT Sea Grant website on Dec. 7, 2021

Deborah Abibou visits the Bayou Bonfouca marsh creation site in Louisiana via airboat.
Deborah Abibou visits the Bayou Bonfouca marsh creation site in Louisiana via airboat. Photo: Deb Visco Abibou

By Judy Benson

If experience really is the best teacher, Deborah Abibou and Alicia Tyson have been to some of the prime places to learn about community resilience work.

Those include locations facing some of the biggest challenges from sea level rise, intensifying storms and other climate change effects: Puerto Rico, Louisiana, Peru and Costa Rica. Now, they’re ready to apply the knowledge they’ve gained toward helping Connecticut’s coastal communities with those same challenges. It’s a task they’re taking on with enthusiasm.

“I’m excited to get to work,” said Tyson.

Alicia Tyson leads a workshop for youth in Puerto Rico to explore the value of conservation and stewardship.
Alicia Tyson leads a workshop for youth in Puerto Rico to explore the value of conservation and stewardship. Photo courtesy of Alicia Tyson

“I’m really looking forward to diving in,” said Abibou.

The two joined the Connecticut Sea Grant staff on Nov. 19, filling new positions as sustainable and resilient community extension educators. Abibou will be based out of the New Haven County Extension Center in North Haven to focus mainly on coastal communities in the western half of the state. Tyson will work out of the UConn Avery Point campus in Groton to focus on the eastern half.

CT Sea Grant Director Sylvain De Guise said the hiring of Tyson and Abibou is part of a larger initiative with New York Sea Grant that increases the capacity of both programs to better serve coastal communities dealing with more frequent flooding of roads and bridges, wetland loss, erosion and other problems worsening as climate change effects intensify. Under the umbrella of a new Long Island Sound Study working group led by both Sea Grant programs, a five-year work plan was created to map out the best ways to tackle these common challenges. To implement the plan, the programs obtained federal funding to support the creation of three new extension positions in New York and two in Connecticut.

“We all know it is a significant challenge for coastal communities to become resilient to the effects of climate change,” De Guise said. “We now have more people on the ground working at the interface of the built environment, the needs of people and sustainable ecosystems on resilience projects.”

N.Y. Sea Grant Director Rebecca Shuford said the three new staff based in her state will coordinate with their counterparts in Connecticut to ensure their individual work plans complement one another in helping fulfill the goals of the overall initiative. She envisions all five will focus on building relationships with communities in their respective areas to ensure they all have the plans and tools needed to meet climate change challenges. The new staff at NY Sea Grant are: Elizabeth Hornstein, based in Suffolk County; Sarah Schaefer-Brown, based in Nassau County; and Sara Powell, based in Westchester County.

Alicia Tyson with two representatives of PRASA, the water management authority of Puerto Rico, examine the geomorphic change following Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Alicia Tyson with two representatives of PRASA, the water management authority of Puerto Rico, examine the geomorphic change following Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Photo: Eric Harmsen

“I see these positions as being really pivotal to achieving the goals and objectives of the work plan,” Shuford said. “There is also an environmental justice priority to work with all communities in filling gaps to ensure there’s appropriate resources available.”

Abibou, 37, spent her early academic and professional career doing avian biology and conservation work, including a stint doing research in Costa Rica while pursuing a doctorate at Tulane University in New Orleans. Following this, she focused on the intersection of habitat restoration and the built environment. New Orleans’ location provided the ideal field school for understanding how the needs of both nature and people can best be met amid the shifting conditions of climate change.

“In Louisiana, the land loss from sea level rise is accelerating, but it’s also a center for innovation about how to design projects for climate resilience,” she said.

Many of the projects she worked on there directly involved communities in tree and marsh grass planting, oyster shell recycling, oyster cultch planting and dune restoration, among other efforts. Similarly, she hopes to incorporate communities in projects in her new home state in Connecticut.

Deborah Abibou instructs volunteers on beach dune grass restoration in Louisiana.
Deborah Abibou instructs volunteers on beach dune grass restoration in Louisiana. Photo: Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana

“I want to work on the most pressing problems in my own back yard,” said Abibou, who relocated to Hamden, CT, last spring when her husband accepted a position at Yale University.

For Tyson, 45, working at the intersection of the human and natural environment followed nearly a decade in broadcast journalism, technical writing and website development. As a master’s degree student, she used geographic information systems software to model landslide susceptibility and risk perception in the Machu Picchu Pueblo community in Peru.

She then focused on flood modeling and data projects for federal agencies and taught geology at a community college before starting a doctoral program. Fluent in Spanish, she traveled to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria as part of her doctoral work to assess the array of risks and challenges facing communities there. That included leading efforts to engage residents in assessing their ability to adapt and recover from flooding, landslides and other extreme events. She expects to complete her doctorate this spring.

“I’ve had the opportunity to work with marginalized communities on issues of environmental justice and resilience,” she said. “It’s a passion of mine.”

Tyson’s most recent position was at Progressive Partnering, a geospatial software development company based in Nashville. As a volunteer, she participated in the Urban-Reginal Information Systems Association’s GISCorps in mapping the impact of Hurricane Ida and other extreme weather events. Through her various experiences, she said, she has gained perhaps the best possible preparation for her new job at CT Sea Grant.

“It’s amazing how life happens,” said Tyson, who plans to relocate from Nashville to southeastern Connecticut in the coming weeks. “This position is truly the culmination of everything I’ve been working on for the past 11 years.”

De Guise noted that the unique skills Tyson and Abibou bring, together with those of their NY Sea Grant colleagues, position the two programs to play a leading role in helping the two states respond proactively to infrastructure and environmental vulnerabilities being exposed by the changing climate. Communities can tap into a growing pool of resources available for these projects—including $1 trillion in the bipartisan federal infrastructure bill signed into law last month, and another $2 trillion in the Build Back Better bill pending in the Senate. But they will need the expertise these five staff can provide to help make that happen, he said.

“There’s a number of programs that recognize the urgency of the need, and have resources, but it needs to get into the right hands,” he said.

Click here for information about how to reach Deb Abibou and Alicia Tyson.

Judy Benson is the communications coordinator for Connecticut Sea Grant.


The Long Island Sound Futures Fund (LISFF) is seeking proposals to restore the health and living resources of Long Island Sound with funding of approximately $10 million for awards in 2022. The program is managed by National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) in collaboration with EPA and the Long Island Sound Study (LISS). Major funding for the program is from EPA through the LISS with additional funding from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Avangrid Foundation. Learn more, and read the Request for Proposals, on the NFWF website. The deadline to apply is May 19, 2022.

Visit the Futures Fund section of the Long Island Sound Study website to learn about past projects funded since 2005.



The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will be soliciting Requests for Proposals for the 2022 Long Island Sound Futures Fund in March. There is potential funding of $10 million or more* for Environmental Grants in the Long Island Sound Watershed (CT, NY, MA NH, VT).  

Grant range $50k – $1.5m. Lower match in 2022!  Get Started Now! Share a Project Idea!
 
Want Feedback?  Fill out this form and send to [email protected]! The deadline to submit project ideas is April 22, 2022. 
 
Project Types & Geographies?

Habitat restoration planning or implementation grants for projects in the Long Island Sound Study coastal zone of CT & NY

Resilience, education, water quality and fish passage grants for projects in the Long Island Sound Study boundary in CT and NY

Nitrogen prevention or reduction planning or implementation grants for projects in the Long Island Sound Study boundary in NY, CT, MA, NH, VT!
 
     
Tell us who you are! Send [email protected] names and emails to receive notifications about grants & upcoming applicant webinars.

Sponsors: The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, EPA, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Long Island Sound Study.
   
* The availability of federal funds estimated in this solicitation is contingent upon the federal appropriations process. Funding decisions will be made based on level of funding and timing of when it is received by NFWF.




 

Read the Winter 2021-2022 issue of Sound Matters, the newsletter of the Long Island Sound Study.

Fishing is a fun activity for the Sound’s anglers, with a bonus that they can bring home a healthy, high protein food. But some fish can contain toxic contaminants such as mercury that is harmful to both fish and humans. Large fish can particularly be exposed to high levels of mercury through a process call Biomagnification or Bioaccumulation, which is why health departments issue advisories to limit consumption of some fish.

From the smokestacks of power plants to the discharges from wastewater treatment plants, and other places, mercury in the form of the compound methylmercury exists in the enviroment, and it can settle to the seafloor and be taken up by tiny organisms that live or feed on bottom sediments.

From there mercury or other toxic contaminants that settle on the seafloor poses a threat to the ecosystem. According to NOAA’s Ocean Explorer website:

… these compounds aren’t digested, they accumulate within the animals that ingest them, and become more and more concentrated as they pass along the food chain as animals eat and then are eaten in turn. This is biomagnification, and it means that higher-level predators-fish, birds, and marine mammals-build up greater and more dangerous amounts of toxic materials than animals lower on the food chain.

Human exposure to methylmercury occurs mostly from consuming fish and shellfish and “almost all people have at least small amounts of methylmercury in their bodies, reflecting the widespread presence of methylmercury in the environment,” according to EPA’s  Health Effects of Exposures to Mercury. For most people, blood mercury levels are below levels associated with possible health effects, but the EPA website includes this warning: “Methylmercury … is a powerful neurotoxin, and people exposed to high levels may experience adverse health effects.  If you are concerned about your exposure to methylmercury, you should consult your physician.”

  • Fish and shellfish from Long Island Sound are safe to eat in moderation. The states of Connecticut and New York provide guidelines on what are the safe levels with fish consumption advisories: CT – CT Fish Consumption Advisory and the Safe Eating of Fish Caught in Connecticut and NY – Fish: Health Advice on Eating Fish You Catch (ny.gov)
  • Facts about Mercury and Long Island Sound

    • With the decline in industry around Long Island Sound and tighter regulations, concentrations of mercury in Long Island Sound have declined, but are still higher than the pre-industrial period of the 19th century. (source: https://longislandsoundstudy.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/heavy-metals-in-sediment.pdf)
    • Mercury deposited in marshes can be harmful to the reproduction of tidal marsh songbirds, according to new research conducted by a team of scientists in the Northeast who belong to the Saltmarsh Habitat and Avian Research Program. Read an abstract from the scientific journal, Ecotoxicology.
    • In the 2000s the Long Island Sound Study Research Grant program provided grants for research on mercury and other toxic contaminants. Information on these research projects are in the Long Island Sound Research Grant Program web pages:
      1. Chemical Residues in Fish and Lobster in Long Island Sound: A Bi-State Update (see description in 2008 research grant page)
      2. Environmental Change in Long Island Sound over the Last 400 Years (see description in 2000 research grant page)  

    The Mad Hatter Mercury Mystery

    In 2002, Peg Van Patten, who was then the Communications Director for Connecticut Sea Grant, profiled Dr. Johan “Joop” Varekamp in Wrack Lines magazine on his research connecting mercury contamination in the Sound with an industrial city’s hat making past.  Varekamp, who was then a professor in the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department at Wesleyan University, was able to trace through sediment core samples that the source of mercury deposits found in the Housatonic River at the mouth of Long Island Sound was from Danbury, a city located off the banks of the Still River, an upstream tributary of the Housatonic. In the 19th century and  20th centuries  Danbury was known as the Hat City where fur hats were manufactured using mercury to toughen the fur hat fibers. Varekamp also wrote about the legacy contaminant in the fall 2012 issue of Long Island Sound Study’s Sound Update newsletter (see page 3).

    Inside the Long Island Sound Food Web

    Learn more about the Long Island Sound food web in this graphic poster.

     

     

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