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Author Topic: Nitrogen, Inshore Habitats & Climate Change 1994-2014 - Tim Visel  (Read 2271 times)
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« on: January 12, 2015, 02:22:44 PM »

Nitrogen, Inshore Habitats and Climate Change
Was Black Mayonnaise Habitats (Sapropel) Missed?
EPA-DEEP Long Island Sound Study Citizens
Advisory Committee
When it came to Dissolved Oxygen and Nitrogen Level TMDL in Long Island Sound Waters did we give natural conditions a free pass?

Timothy C. Visel, The Sound School* 
* Tim Visel is a Citizen’s Advisory and Habitat Restoration Committee member but this paper does not represent the committee viewpoints or position of the Long Island Sound Study.  Tim Visel is a member of the CAC and Habitat Workgroup but this paper does not represent consensus on the importance of marine habitat succession.  As of October 2013 non-consensus has been reached on long term habitat succession or climate impacts upon habitat quality or quantity for Long Island Sound fisheries or nitrogen TMDL models.

October 2013
Time to Review the Long Island Sound Nitrogen TMDL Model to Include Natural Conditions in the CCMP

Estuarine Core Studies Needed for Sapropel Study
Sent for Review Habitat Restoration December 2012
Sent for Review and Proposal Habitat Restoration March 2009
Three Coves Proposed for Study

Submitted to the CAC and Habitat Restoration Committees
Revised to February 2014

Also Submitted to the Non Point Source LISS Committee
TMDL Concerns
April 1, 2014
Revised for Capstone Proposal Catalog June 2014

Additional Material September 2014
Did The Long Island Sound Study Prepare a Foundation for a Environmental Fisheries History that includes a second source Nitrogen TMDL, The Great Bay New Hampshire, Conowingo Pond, Maryland and Indian River
Lagoon Florida Case Histories
Narragansett Bay Commission Under Review

A Note from Tim Visel – January 2015

This paper came about from a 2009 proposal to look at nitrogen inputs into three coastal communities, Chatham, Massachusetts, Old Saybrook, Connecticut, CT and Clinton, CT.  As such it proposed to review regulatory responses to nitrogen abatement or reduction guidelines in these three communities in regards to fish and shellfish abundance.  In 2010 this research was expanded to include nitrogen source analysis.  The subject and impact of organic debris in the marine environment upon fish and shellfish continues to be largely unanswered (my view).  Why these three communities?  I had research and fishery experiences in all three.  Dozens of communities may now have similar nitrogen questions before them not just those in Connecticut and New York.  They can be found on all our coasts.  (A recent paper put online by the USGS in cooperation with the Washington State Dept of Ecology reviews the importance of nitrogen source analysis “it is titled Quantifying Benthic Nitrogen Fluxes  in Puget Sound, Washington – A Review of Available Data.”)

Although I am a member of the Long Island Sound Study the views expressed here are my own – they do not in any way represent the committees assignments I share nor consensus upon the existence of Sapropel been attained.   

Resubmitted to CAC Committee December 2014

Any students interested in looking at these three case histories for a potential Capstone Project please see Tim Visel in the Aquaculture Office.  The Long Island Sound Study will release a draft updated version of the Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan in October.  Students interested in this project should review the draft CCMP on the Long Island Sound Study website.

Introduction – Environmental Fisheries History

In the July 1994 Long Island Sound Study Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan or “CCMP” (EPA 842-S-94-001) has a section titled “Living Resources and Habitat Management” on page 43.  The cause of the problem to living marine resources in Long Island Sound mid page is reviewed after mentioning the value of living resources from commercial and recreational fisheries.  “A principal human cause of harm to the Sound’s living resources is water pollution” and then listing two more negative human influences on living resources – destruction and degradation of habitat and over harvesting from fishing marine and hunting.  It never mentions natural climate cycles and that critical inshore habitats often have a history of long term natural habitat succession.  It is (the statement) a point in time observation that forgot environmental history and gave us a primary role in enhancing or decreasing resource abundance.  Nothing could have prevented the collapse of the Southern New England lobster fishery recently nor prevent the recent increase of blue crabs here in Connecticut – it was not us – it was changing climate and energy levels, one that had happened here before.

Those bullets following the “problem” have a bias towards human influence and this continues today in many Long Island Sound Study documents.  It gives rise to the need of correcting the “negative” human influences, (at times significant) and apparently neglecting or minimizing any “positive” human influences (economic value for food production, marine trades employment, charter/recreational fishing aquaculture, artificial reefs, bio extraction of nitrogen, etc) or concentrating efforts towards unnatural (human) factors while avoiding those conditions that can be described as “natural1.” [Some of the public policy disconnect can be traced to the original scope and purpose of the EPA Estuary Program nationwide.  A conservation and protection mandate that often eclipsed marine resource user groups who were often considered “part of the problem.”  As a result resource uses were minimized while preservation/protection policies promoted as sanctuaries or preserves, and habitat creation or enhancement policies (artificial reefs or created salt ponds) for example were often discouraged as unnatural.  Very few proposals contain provisions for enhanced fishing as increased recreation or commercial catches pounds per catch per unit effort or to increase seafood availability] for consumers. This dates back to the original formation of environmental policies of the 1960s – conservation and pollution, first from industrial pollution then commerce (over fishing) and now resource use itself (sustainability).  Because of this short term review habitat changes from natural climate cycles would be “missed.”  This absence of history has both perplexed and confounded fishers and fishery managers alike. To add to the concern the absence of fisheries history was caught in an abrupt change from biological fisheries management to more pollution based analytical protocols in the 1970s. Instead of habitat quality or quantity it was parts per million or parts per billion in the water column. That was the focus of water quality investigations during that time.  The 1970s saw one of the largest climate features of southern New England – the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) turn largely positive ushering in decades of gradual heating and very few powerful storms.  A period of such heat had not occurred here since the 1880-1920 period. 

The public policy change from biological resource management to analytical measures post 1972 has had many unintended research consequences.  One of which is a tendency to concentrate on human cause and effects such as nitrogen (pollution) inputs while ignoring long term climate cycles and other non specific factors such as forestation.  In terms of natural periods of low oxygen and nitrogen impacts we simply gave long term historical natural conditions a free pass.  This as it relates the nitrogen TMDL as this may have been a very costly mistake (I believe for other states as well) in terms of what was associated with the public policies and expectations derived from them.  The association of less nitrogen equating to increased living marine resource abundance needs a review that includes climate cycles.  One of the aspects of the NAO positive phase is to accentuate the impacts of organic matter entering poorly flushed bays and coves.  Some estuary programs did question this in a memorandum dated December 8, 2009 from Philip Trowbridge New Hampshire Dept of Environmental Services asked the same question from: Philip Trowbridge (Great Bay Nutrient Criteria Report Technical correspondence 2009, 3/23/2014).  Subject:  Composition of organic matter in Great Bay “The typical speciation of nitrogen in Great Bay is shown in the following table.  The majority (62%) of the total nitrogen is association with organic matter but only 1% is associated with living phytoplankton.  It would be helpful to have some information on the composition of organic matter (both dissolved and particulate) in the bay.  It is leaf litter from up land watersheds, salt marsh/eelgrass/macroalgae debris, detrital phytoplankton and 700 plankton, or something else?

Many estuarine studies completely missed a need to examine long term (not a few decades) climate and energy cycles that greatly impact the Southern New England region.  The Long Island Sound Study for example response to the 1987, Section 320 amendments to the Clean Water Act was to examine human actions largely and ironically to ignore one of the greatest scientific questions of our time, climate change.  No attempt I can determine was made to compare living marine resource abundance to climate conditions for the past two centuries.  It wouldn’t need to be that long 1870-1970 would suffice although the longer certainly the better.  Natural conditions would therefore have a minor role in Long Island Sound Living Marine Resources investigations from 1994 onward and in the Long Island Sound Study (my view) which needs to look at natural climate cycles such as the NAO and in addition take a look at long term at habitat quality changes (succession) during them.

A meta analysis of some 500 plus estuarine reports finds that habitat changes related to durational climate patterns is almost nonexistent.

A “Second Great Heat” 1974 to 2008 – A Positive “NAO”

By the middle to late 1980s several cold water species had already greatly declined here (Southern New England) such as quahogs, bay scallops and winter flounder.  Resource user groups (fishers) then were often viewed as part of the decline (overfishing) and therefore “the problem” and so when they often raised habitat questions like the changes in observed flounder habitat conditions in eastern Connecticut in the late 1980s or the increase of black mayonnaise north of the railroad causeways that buried oyster beds, those observations were frequently minimized and dismissed. Fisher observations and historical accounts were largely correct, historical habitat change was indeed occurring and on a massive scale. 

The Great Heat is a New England climate period of gradual then intense warming 1880-1920.  In this warm period striped bass extended its range into Northern New England (and reached much larger sizes) and was marked in 1915 with a huge increase in great white shark sightings and human attacks especially along the New Jersey coast.

Winter flounder fishers had correctly identified an increase in organic matter in shallow waters harming winter flounder habitats (1980s) however the prevailing regulatory response focused only on the human causes such as overfishing. An example that I use is a Wetlands Restoration Investigation Section 22, report Planning Assistance to States Program Coastal America.  In response to habitat concerns expressed by winter flounder fishers thought to be created by eastern Connecticut railroad causeways (restricted flushing) the Army Corps of Engineers final 1994 report includes this section.  “Although the public (fishers) have correctly identified declines of winter flounder in the cove (Quiambaug) this decline reflects over harvesting of this resource throughout Southern New England which is so severe that fisheries managers have imposed fishing moratoriums or set significant lower harvest limits in an attempt to restore the populations of this species.” 

It was not the fishers but a massive cyclic habitat reversal, much like the previous The Great Heat, the 1880-1920 period. The declines of cold water species during period of heat are largely “natural”. It is natural for lobsters at the southern range boundary to have fluctuating abundance patterns.  Lobsters here died off (naturally) here in the late 1890s followed a decade later by a surge in blue crabs.  The history of the 1895 to 1905 Southern New England lobster die off was not mentioned for decades.  Even the existence of “Black Mayonnaise” has been the focus of some vigorous discussions during recent LISS habitat restoration committee meetings.  It is natural during high heat low energy cycle to compost huge reserves of nitrogen and phosphate from terrestrial organic matter called a leaf nutrient “flush.”  We need to reflect that in our LIS TMDL.  Most nitrogen studies have neglected “Internal nitrogen regeneration from sediments” and thus in total missed significant secondary nitrogen inputs from trees or terrestrial sources.  (Latimer and Charpentier article in press Estuarine Coastal and Shelf Science 2010). 

That alludes to the bias that continues today – that resource declines must only come from negative human influences – the trouble is of course the 1980s winter flounder fishery (recreational and commercial) was experiencing a high heat/low energy habitat failure region wide (Southern New England) which had nothing to do with harvests or fishers for that matter.  It had gotten hot that is all.  The same foreword (Section 22 report) also mentions a decline in Connecticut seed oyster production (post 1920) and reasoned diminished oyster harvests was also due to pollution- human caused.  When the actual reason is after 1931 temperatures fell in Connecticut and oyster sets failed as it was now colder.  The oyster industry struggled in a negative Northeast Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) for decades long known to influence east coast weather patterns, temperature, rainfall and storm intensity.  (In 1994 Connecticut experienced a huge oyster set (the year of CCMP adoption).  This climate feature well known by the 1960s but was “missed.”  That should not happen in the current Long Island Sound Study CCMP revisions.  We need to include the NAO and discuss it in great length.  Long term changes on temperature and energy have profound impacts upon habitat quality and quantity.  They in turn reflect changes in finfish and shellfish abundance.  Temperature and energy have profound influence over residual nitrogen from Sapropel accumulations during heat and low energy.  Coastal estuarine core studies such as from the upper Narragansett Bay or Great Bay in New Hampshire could provide comparison to the estuarine core studies completed in Connecticut between 1990 to 1994. 

No Sense of History?

What was missing in 1994 CCMP document was a climate and energy historical perspective – nature – after the 1920s it got colder and oyster sets simply failed, but in the 1950s during the coldest and stormiest winters, bay scallop harvests in Rhode Island and Connecticut soared then – why, because bay scallops like cold and powerful energy climate periods.  During cold and energy filled periods their habitat quality improves.  Four years after the 1994 Long Island Sound Comprehensive Plan was distributed the lobster fishery simply failed here in 1998, was it over fished, no it had excellent regulations – some management policies enacted since the turn of the century, when southern New England lobsters populations also crashed during a similar four decade long high heat period, The Great Heat 1880-1920.  The lobster fishery failed from decreased energy and increased heat, habitats succeeded into those not supporting the cooler tolerant juvenile lobsters.  The “healthy” kelp cobblestone habitat the one so important to stage four lobsters had failed in the heat and few storms.  It had been covered with silt and disappeared it caused what is termed in the scientific literature a habitat “bottleneck”, a missing key piece of a species habitat history.  It was natural for the southern New England lobster fishery after this habitat failure to witness a fishery failure.  Good fishery regulations cannot overcome region wide habitat failures – so if not us then who?  Or what?  Sometimes the easiest answers are just that too easy “it got hot” that is why the lobster fishery failed and why I should add after 1998 blue crab populations here soared, as they did a century ago following the previous lobster crash (die off) of 1898 to 1905.  (Several key historic Rhode Island manuscripts provide documentation of this regional lobster die off).  As far as the Long Island Sound Study it appears that non human (natural) conditions took a back seat to human ones, at times it seems nature wasn’t even a long for the ride.  Climate patterns, it seems was given a pass for any role in habitat quality or nitrogen TMDL levels.  We need to include climate patterns and habitat histories in the current CCMP revisions especially low oxygen dead zones and the build up of Sapropel (black mayonnaise) in them.  We may need to completely reexamine the nitrogen TMDL for Long Island Sound to include benthic flux.

Oxygen Levels in High Heat Periods

If water pollution had been the sole cause of Southern New England’s lobster collapse (which it wasn’t) then how is that explained when a surge in southern New England’s Blue Crab population that followed shortly after 1998 lobster die off in the same waters?  The two species are similar so what pollution event had reduced lobster would also impact blue crabs as well?  No it didn’t.  The simple and easiest explanation is “it got hot,” that is all, blue crabs like heat and lobsters do not.  Long periods of extended warmth and few storms improve habitats for blue crabs.  They often reverse within the same basic habitat profile as they have before in Connecticut and the entire Southern New England region.  As temperatures rose and energy levels dropped habitat conditions for the blue crab improved.  The 1998 lobster die off and blue crab increase after it needs to be discussed in the revised CCMP document.  Post 1998 Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut all recorded in increase in Blue Crab population indexes during periods of low oxygen and high nitrogen levels.

What About Nitrogen?

If climate and energy influences habitat quality could it also have influenced nitrogen impacts as well.  The answer is yes of course – in times of heat and relatively few storms nitrogen and organic matter directly influences Long Island Sounds water quality.  In the 1950s a period of cold and many storms several researchers termed Long Island Sound as nitrogen limited.  Did the early Long Island Sound researchers completely miss the impacts of high heat and low energy on the LIS nitrogen model – I believe they did as they focused entirely upon the human causes – neglecting the increase of temperature and even the return of Connecticut’s increased forest canopy, leaves.  A better question is did the Long Island Sound Study purposely concentrate on human factors while minimizing natural events such as that Southern New England was experiencing a warm and storm free period not seen since here The Great Heat 1880-1920.  That question has a much larger implication as it now suggests possible complicity in this “miss” when research is expanded to include a long term perspective (see appendix #2).  This is apparently true when historic US Fish and Wildlife Service fish catch statistics are compared to climate patterns and observations of habitat conditions themselves by fishers.  The past four climate periods should have a long section in the revised CCMP document.

Following the brutally cold 1870s (when Greenwich, CT was New England’s Bay Scallop capital) and when bay scallop production collapsed under the heat at the turn of the century 1899 to 1905 oyster sets greatly improved.  That information is easily attainable by looking at living marine resources fishing statistics compiled by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  They are not obscure documents but readily available?  USDA and NOAA has compiled New England Climate conditions including Hurricane landfalls again this information is not in what is termed grey or obscure literature.  Did they have access to this climate and energy information?  If so was it not used because it conflicted with a broader “human only” public policy initiative?  If low oxygen in Long Island Sound waters was the result of climate factors would that have changed public policies toward nitrogen abatement?  That is the largest question and the most significant one today, and also needs a full discussion in the revised CCMP document. Nitrogen abatement has been linked to returning lobsters and winter flounder during times of great heat, habitat wise that is, unrealistic and false.  A full review of the negative NAO (typically storm filled and much colder) climate pattern needs to be discussed in the revised CCMP document.  This information should have a prominent role in the living marine resources section.

The Rise of Sapropel (Black Mayonnaise) – To become a Dominant Habitat Type – The Return of the Sulfur Cycle.

After 1972 Connecticut’s winters moderated and energy levels declined and trees continued to rebuild the forest canopy – a perfect storm of severe habitat consequences (combined with a regional leaf burning ban in 1972) in high heat, and few storms soon Sapropel (black mayonnaise) grew to enormous quantities at times becoming a dominant habitat type in many shallow water habitats.  But this situation was completely missed?  Not it seems by baymen and inshore fishers, continuously time after time they mentioned these changing bottom habitat conditions.  They didn’t miss it, it soon overwhelmed, many of their coastal bay and cove habitats.  It covered quahog and soft shell clam areas and in many instances grew an eelgrass crust which trapped more organic matter especially leaves and then created additional Sapropel.  It buried and suffocated oyster beds in rivers.  When the sulfur reducers increased hydrogen sulfide smells they became very noticeable, Sapropel had then formed in low energy high deposition regions. 

In high heat that habitat type supports increased sulfur reducing bacteria some now linked to the increase in winter flounder fin rot as far back as 1981.  In sluggish coves, Sapropel accumulated and decomposed further releasing enormous quantities of ammonia, a key Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) nutrient. The impact of acidic organic rich and sulfur containing Sapropel deposits were well known far in advance of the 1994 CCMP.  In fact, some of the initial resource in acidic sulfur rich sediments was conducted by the EPA in the early 1980s.

Nitrogen Levels Linked to Climate Patterns and Sapropel

Could the increase in anoxia in Long Island Sound be part of much longer natural cycle?  It appears so, and of what Dr. Rhoads had mentioned in the 1985 NOAA Estuary of the Month workshop was heeded a much different nitrogen model perhaps would have most likely been developed, one that factored in climate and energy instead of focusing upon waste water treatment facilities and hydrodynamics.  I believe that also and it wasn’t as if Dr. Rhoads had not mentioned the importance of monitoring Sapropel – he did and the May 10, 1985 seminar had a short question and answer period at the end of the presentations that includes this concern – Dr. Larry Schubel of the Marine Sciences Research Center State University of New York asks Dr. Rhoads to comment following Dr. Barbara Welsh of the University of Connecticut Avery Point, Dept of Marine Sciences presentation regarding coastal coves and discussions about coves – her area of expertise and on page 147 of the 1986 report this exchange is found {brackets indicate my commentary} and the increase of temperatures.

Dr. Welsh “let me broaden our perspective on this just a little bit.  We concentrated on the western part of the sound because I think that when you get incipient anoxia in deep waters, it’s really serious.  However the phytoplankton in smaller estuaries along the Connecticut coast that I’m familiar with and at Throg’s Neck have shifted from the typical winter, spring, and summer bloom, the temperature water to a summer time bloom.  You have (conference attendees) a figure showing that shift, and I have some information on it in the small estuaries.”

{It is the small estuaries that fishers were most concerned about beginning in 1978-79 baymen from eastern Long Island, New York had already seen the plankton shift and Sapropel increase on previously hard bay bottoms – T. Visel}.

“In addition, many of the small estuaries along the Connecticut Coast have gone anoxic, they are regularly going anoxic in the summer time to the point they remain anoxic.  Even the daytime tidal flushing can’t purge that.” 

{Some of the first to do so were coves and rivers bisected by railroad causeways that reduced flushing or “energy” such as the town of Waterford’s coves in the early 1980s}.

“There are several other coastal estuaries that we have good data on now showing anoxic periods at least at night for some of them and others becoming anoxic by June and remaining that way through August.  The time period of anoxia is increasing.”

{Just as small boat fishers reported to state and federal agencies – they also detected “sour bottoms” and unusual smells in warm water the symptom of hydrogen sulfide production and waters were warmer and often “hot” Tim Visel}.

Dr. Schubel then asked Dr. Rhoads “Don do you want to add anything to that?” (Following Dr. Welsh statements).

Dr. Rhoads responds –

“Yes, one reason I mentioned the importance of the Sapropel – these black iron monosulfite muds on the bottom was the direct point that Peter raised (Dr. P.K. Weyl) the system is so dynamic that to measure the change from year to year in dissolved oxygen as measured in the water column would take more money than we have.

It’s not practical at all given that kind of variability.  What you need is a low pass filter an integrator and that’s the sediment.  I suggest that a very sensitive index of the waxing and waning of this condition would be the map of where the Sapropel terminate whatever isobaths that might be follow the edge of those Sapropel.  If they are encroaching upwards into shallow water, it’s getting worse.  If they’re receding its getting better.”

Absent from the 1985 workshop was any historical discussion of long term climate and energy trends – longer than the creation time frame perhaps of the EPA agency itself?  Environmental fisheries history would need another three decades before people would look at fisheries history and the weakness of the study regarding living marine resources itself would be not the views of fishers but the total absence of a habitat history and one of the most powerful forces that govern living marine resources – climate change cycles.  (See disconnect discussion regarding marine fishers – Christine O’Connell Sept 20th CAC – STAC meeting, and comments sent to Christine O’Connell August 2011).

A long term environmental fisheries history would have identified the brutally cold 1870s – Connecticut’s mini ice age, lobsters and bay scallop production soared, only to be followed by The Great Heat 1880-1920 when lobster populations crashed, New England states all built lobster hatcheries and oyster sets greatly improved, followed by nearly three decades of a negative North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) which saw cooler waters and many more storms – oyster sets declined and bay scallop harvests improved.  Would someone in 1898 reporting about Rhode Island’s dismal bay scallop crops then be able to predict excellent crops of bay scallops in the 1950s, most likely not but in 1985 if someone had looked at climate conditions and landing statistics together long term they would have seen it.  It is hard to miss.  The fishers were certainly seeing it, but sadly they were often dismissed when in fact most were sincere in their observations.  This was especially true of the winter flounder fishers of eastern Connecticut and complaints of black mayonnaise build up behind railroad causeways in the 1980s.  This material simply covered oyster and clam habitats and eastern Connecticut fishers watched it happen.

Was the Absence of Climate Change a Simple Mistake?

The largest question for the Long Island Sound Study at present is if this “miss” was accidental or purposeful after 1995.  However the continued neglect of climate change and the absence of a detailed environmental fisheries and habitat history perspective since 2005 appears now to be purposeful – a bias in the current research perspective that ignores environmental fishery history and continues to place the burden of living marine resource abundance upon us – when in fact it often is not.  This bias is reflected in the December 2000 report A Total Maximum Daily Load Analysis to Achieve Water Quality Standards for Dissolved Oxygen in Long Island Sound*.  The data for the Long Island Sound model called the LIS 30 model utilized data from only an 18 month period – April 1988 to 1989 September and only phytoplankton decay is mentioned.  The increase of Connecticut’s forest canopy and a tremendous increase in organic matter from them are not mentioned.  And Sapropel that can store nitrogen compounds for decades – Sapropel is not mentioned once, or in any EPA nitrogen documents I have located to date.  To most observers of the process Sapropel formation does not even exist?  Between 1985 to 2005 Sapropel did become the dominant habitat type in many coves that was hard to miss also.  Hamburg Cove in Lyme at the turn of the century was nearly filled with Sapropel and even today has vast deposits immediately outside of the navigational channel (2008 survey) Hamburg Cove is an interesting study site for a potential core study regarding a “Sapropel Cycle.”

Corrective Action Now Necessary -

A long term view is necessary and now with it a complete review of the nitrogen model – incorporating aspects of Sapropel formation.  It appears that 100 percent of the nitrogen solution was based upon about half of the information –a warming climate, less coastal energy and a restored forest canopy was apparently missed?  [Prepared in conformance with Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act and the Long Island Sound Study.]

Bottom Habitats Indicate Trends – Observations of Fishers

Absent cooler water and strong storms leaves now rotted in shallow coves – releasing huge amounts of ammonia compounds that now fueled intense brown algal blooms.  Sapropel, rare during the cold and storm filled 1950s and 1960s collected and grew to become a dominant habitat type but nothing was then reported in Long Island Sound Study or documents such as the “Long Island Sound Study Annual Reports” about long term climate trends or Sapropel.  That increase in Sapropel was hard to miss also.  Promises and assurances were made regarding the abundance of living marine resources to nitrogen reduction.  When in many cases nitrogen buildup is termed “benthic flux” it is not connected to temperature and energy patterns.  Those nitrogen assurances linked to finfish and shellfish abundance also now need to be reviewed.  Some of them just won’t hold up to climate change.  Many Connecticut residents for example expect nitrogen TMDL reduction to bring back lobsters alone, it can’t.  That should also be addressed in the revised CCMP document.

Environmental Fisheries History – A Broad Long Term Perspective

Fortunately, much of Long Island Sounds fisheries history still exists – it’s now just a desire to research it and make it available to the public.  We can determine the extent of climate and energy cycles from USDA meteorological records and the NOAA Weather Service and cross reference fishery landing statistics from US Fish and Wildlife Service records.  The state itself has a huge collection of historical fishery documents, it will take years to reclassify and catalog them into a useful public database.  Direct habitat information is possible from fishers (the public) but core samples (1992-1994) now show previous Sapropel/estuarine shell layers in many Connecticut coastal coves.  That is what is needed and take a new look at linking nitrogen reduction to increases in fish and shellfish species.  In many cases linking species abundance or restoration is misleading at best, to current nitrogen reduction policies. While it makes sense to reduce nitrogen inputs into shallow enclosed sounds and bays, the public has been oversold with anticipated results. In this case, a lobster in every pot here without cooling seawater temperatures is impossible.
The Long Island Sound Study should quickly review its analytical nitrogen model*, and monitor the impacts of Sapropel.  Climate and energy should now have an integral part of the review – the new CCMP should have a large fisheries habitat history in it that was apparently missed in 1994 documents.

This was a miss that could cost millions – we shouldn’t continue to perpetuate it.  We should check this out and let inshore fishers know what is happening regarding habitat succession.  They are literally the “boots on the ground” for habitat changes – from my experience they appreciate any and all habitat information they can obtain.

My view – Tim Visel

Always welcome discussions and comments.  I can be reached at [email protected]

How do We Broaden our Habitat Discussion in the CCMP?

One of the ways is to review the change from biological study to an analytical chemical focus which may have redirected funds from a decades old bias that all pollution is from human nitrogen enrichment.  This dates back to the 1960s and 1970s.  Natural conditions and climate patterns took a back seat as far as human inputs were concerned, if a resource declined than the primary reason for it was human caused.  In fact, many times it was not and over time you see tremendous increases in some coastal resources in times of incredible pollution (oyster industry at the turn of the century) and other increases during times of “poor” habitat conditions – the recent rise in blue crabs in Connecticut, for example.  This climate and energy pattern/cycle also influences the retention of nitrogen in bays and sounds.  Key to this nitrogen problem is that all of it is measured in a dissolved aqueous form, and none of it, it seems “compost” as terrestrial leaves and dead terrestrial or marine grasses rich with nitrogen and phosphate stored in the leaf material itself.  Although the leaves are present and noticeable in many estuarine areas – some as in Hamburg Cove in depths of over 10 feet deep (personal observations) and present in many New England coves and salt ponds it is a “banked” (sink) nitrogen doesn’t get measured because it is not in a chemical measurable form.  It just sits there and rots.  In the marine environment this “compost” is noticeable and “real” you can measure it and test its pH and sulfide level.  It is this substance that rots in high heat low oxygen levels shedding enormous amounts of soluble nitrogen – mostly as ammonia.  When disturbed by heavy rains it emits a sulfide wash now suspected in ruining alewife runs (sulfide block).  It is fresh “Sapropel” and high levels of ammonia are highly accessible by brown algae – termed harmful (HABS).  Temperature and energy systems must also be included as factors in determining the role of nitrogen as a pollutant.  Habitat quality is just not a nitrogen factor – energy and temperature often have more influence than “us.”

The direct impact to Connecticut’s coastal embayments (much of the focus of the Long Island Sound Study) by an increased in forest canopy could be far larger than anticipated.  It is problematic in terms of the Long Island Sound Study as it increases the need of non point source committee input into the TMDL nitrogen model and its living marine resource subcommittee disbanded shortly after the Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan was completed also needs to be reorganized.

We have a unique time to reach out to the public and especially to fishers; we should not miss that opportunity.

As always I welcome comments and suggestions.  Please email me at [email protected]

Appendix #1               Was Sapropel Missed?

NOAA Climate Prediction Center

The North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO)

This section appears on the NOAA Climate Prediction Website

One of the most prominent teleconnection patterns in all seasons is the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) (Barnston and Livezey 1987). The NOA combines parts of the East-Atlantic and West Atlantic patterns originally identified by Wallace and Gutzler (1981) for the winter season. The NAO consists of a north-south dipole of anomalies, with one center located over Greenland and the other center of opposite sign spanning the central latitudes of the North Atlantic between 35°N and 40°N. The positive phase of the NAO reflects below-normal heights and pressure across the high latitudes of the North Atlantic and above-normal heights and pressure over the central North Atlantic, the eastern United States and Western Europe. The negative phase reflects an opposite pattern of height and pressure anomalies over these regions. Both phases of the NAO are associated with basin-wide changes in the intensity and location of the North Atlantic jet stream and storm track, and in large-scale modulations of the normal patterns of zonal and meridianal heat and moisture transport (Hurrell 1995), which in turn results in changes in temperature and precipitation patterns often extending from eastern North America to western and central Europe (Walker and Bliss 1932, van Loon and Rogers 1978, Rogers and van Loon 1979).

Strong positive phases of the NAO tend to be associated with above-average temperatures in the eastern United States and across northern Europe and below-average temperatures in Greenland and oftentimes across southern Europe and the Middle East. They are also associated with above-average precipitation over northern Europe and Scandinavia in winter, and below-average precipitation over southern and central Europe. Opposite patterns of temperature and precipitation anomalies are typically observed during strong negative phases of the NAO. During particularly prolonged periods dominated by one particular phase of the NAO, anomalous height and temperature patterns are also often seen extending well into central Russia and north-central Siberia.

The NAO exhibits considerable interseasonal and interannual variability, and prolonged periods (several months) of both positive and negative phases of the pattern are common. The wintertime NAO also exhibits significant multi-decadal variability (Hurrell 1995, Chelliah and Bell 2005). For example, the negative phase of the NAO dominated the circulation from the mid-1950's through the 1978/79 winter. During this approximately 24-year interval, there were four prominent periods of at least three years each in which the negative phase was dominant and the positive phase was notably absent. In fact, during the entire period the positive phase was observed in the seasonal mean only three times, and it never appeared in two consecutive years.

An abrupt transition to recurring positive phases of the NAO then occurred during the 1979/80 winter, with the atmosphere remaining locked into this mode through the 1994/95 winter season. During this 15-year interval, a substantial negative phase of the pattern appeared only twice, in the winters of 1984/85 and 1985/ 86. However, November 1995 - February 1996 (NDJF 95/96) was characterized by a return to the strong negative phase of the NAO. Halpert and Bell (1997; their section 3.3) recently documented the conditions accompanying this transition to the negative phase of the NAO.

Do We Have a Good Fisheries History?

Appendix #2 – Was Black Mayonnaise (Sapropel) Missed? July 2014

That was much of the discussion in my 2007 paper for the Habitat Restoration Initiative meeting in November 2007. A subtitle from the original 1988 paper (while employed by the University of Connecticut’s Sea Grant Cooperative Extension Service, August 1988) was first called, “Site Specific Habitat Considerations – What the Past Can Tell Us,” mostly calling for an environmental historical review of oyster, flounder, bay scallop and smelt fisheries. It was rekeyed in 2007, nearly two decades later, for the EPA-DEP (not DEEP as it is today) Long Island Sound Study for the November 14, 2007 habitat restoration committee meeting Mamaroneck, New York. I had rejoined the Long Island Sound Study in 2005, mostly to project a need for habitat projects such as salt ponds, artificial reefs, oyster reef restoration, alewife restoration and for more history, climate and habitat changes relating to the abundance of living marine resources. I left the study in 1990 over many of the same basic issues and most importantly arguing against putting all of environmental policy eggs into “the nitrogen basket.” In 2007 I felt the same way in 1988-2007 as I do today.  The TMDL is not representative of Connecticut’s rebuilt forest canopy – the non point source committee needs to be reactivated and role increased.

Since this report came out nearly a year ago, several groups (states) have come to question the nitrogen TMDL allowances (Great Bay New Hampshire, Indian River Lagoon, Florida) either on the basis of human impacts and also other watershed sources (years ago it was called nonpoint sources). Another policy review is underway for the Conowingo Dam and organic matter releases into a non limited sulfate environment below it (Maryland).  There is also a feeling that coastal landowners have become the environmental “deep pocket” for nitrogen reduction programs nationwide. From a review of the available literature and papers and current nitrogen reduction policies that assumption has merit.

Questions have been raised regarding TMDL allowances

1)   The connection between submerged aquatic vegetation and habitat quality mostly eelgrass – The Great Bay New Hampshire Nitrogen Study
2)   The watershed nitrogen impacts compared to human sources animal/vegetation, populations of geese, etc. – The Florida Indian River Lagoon Study
3)   The impacts of climate such as strong storms, rainfall and temperature. Do cold and storm filled periods produce different habitat/nitrogen scenarios than heat and few storms? Conowingo Dam Study in Maryland is currently under review.

Groups on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Great Bay, New Hampshire, Maryland and Florida’s Indian River lagoon have all asked a simple yet reasonable question, “is it all about us?” or is it something else?

I would like to comment on the third question.  One of the serious TMDL flaws to date has been the connection to decreases in nitrogen will always means increases in fish and shellfish. The answer to that question is inequitably no. Climate factors, storm intensity, wind direction, temperature and rainfall have at least as much impact and as a combined unit much more than nitrogen. There can be zero nitrogen in coastal waters and temperature and habitat instability constant (storms) and certain species would still be at low levels. The connection between a reduction in nitrogen to increases in finfish and shellfish needs to be uncoupled. It is a public policy mistake to assume this. Shellfish and finfish populations often depend upon habitat quality parameters that have little impact from nitrogen. Although excess nitrogen can “degrade” valued conditions or exceed regulatory set guidelines; its coupling with shellfish and finfish species often ignores the laws of habitat succession. This coupling often promises to increase certain species of fish and shellfish and that just can’t always be delivered.

The second question refers to the source and quantity of nitrogen into local waters. Many times in the available literature a bias appears to highlight the human impacts (which can be substantial) but minimizes or “forgets” natural fauna inputs or natural conditions that impact loadings such as leaf fall, restricted tidal circulation or high heat. The bias that appears is often systematic as several agencies may adopt similar approaches or positions. In this case entire habitat types changes have been missed because it was never on anyone’s agenda.

The first question linking submerged aquatic vegetation to nitrogen levels appears to be case of public policy expansion under the Clean Water Act, a modern day Trojan horse (eelgrass) wrapped around habitat quality indicators of previous legislation; a back door, so to speak, to the Clean Water Act on which eelgrass would need to have “substantial” environmental standing. The problem here in a quest to (highly organized to include the screening of inappropriate guidance from the EPA) to solidify legal rights to enforce water quality regulations regarding eelgrass have led to charges of misconduct, research neglect, or scientific negligence. It is called “citation amnesia” or reference negligence. Many historical references detail in great length the negative impacts of eelgrass to shellfish populations and are largely excluded from recent public policy papers. Here is the largest problem that confronts eelgrass issues, today is the negative references regarding eelgrass value were gleaned (removed) from the public record or review (The Trouble with Eelgrass). In simple terms, the full discussion and review of all pertinent references to eelgrass habitat considerations did not occur. There is some evidence that even indicates one or more strains of eelgrass in New England are not native to this region.

To further complicate matters, some of the same researchers who studied eelgrass ecological services also participated in the process to review or establish nitrogen TDMLs and linked the two. That has been the subject of Congressional hearings. That is why a full review of historical shellfish catches and habitat characteristics (long term) of eelgrass are needed before engaging in further public policy discussions and funding proposals.

Without that long-term review, we base discussions on what is called “snapshot ecology.” That is why Connecticut winter flounder fishers pushed so hard for a long-term habitat history in the middle 1980s. They watched winter flounder habitats change over a lifetime and they knew it.

What is a long-term habitat history and can it be free of bias?

A long term habitat history for any species finfish or shellfish is a multidisciplinary approach to fully understanding the habitat consequences of climate and energy upon inshore fish and shellfish species.  It combines weather and climate reports turn of the century USDA Report of the Climatologists (they are invaluable here) US Fish Commission reports, and industry observations.  (Shellfish Institute of North America reports trade journals and reports) Dept of Agriculture Weather Bureau 1890 – moved to the Dept of Commerce in 1940 and today recognized as NOAA National Weather Service are critical to long term reviews.  State of Connecticut Reports of the Finfish and Shellfish Commissioners are also a huge help.  Field studies such a Native American Archaeology sites examination of shell middens, have also been helpful. 

The least helpful or important in establishing a habitat history are resource assessments or mapping studies as they can only measure or collect information over very limited amounts of time.  Thus they inherently contain a bias that is classified an institutional bias or systematic bias.  An issue here for many research surveys is whether systemic organization bias (it just is the way we do studies or when we want a certain outcome rather than the way we do things) has become systematic biases (it just knocks on the door of scientific misconduct).  It came be argued that systemic bias can move to systematic bias if improper organizational behaviors become widespread and firmly established*.  [SE & EPA 600/R-09/050 June 2009 – Walter G. Nelson – Western Ecology Division USEPA 1.5.”  Within the U.S. EPA Regional Offices, there are Nutrient Coordinators who established Regional Assistance Groups to assure that the best available current information is brought to the criterion development process, and inappropriate guidance is weeded out.  As suggested by Figure 1.2, a critical early decision is the consideration of scale at which to set a water quality criterion.] This is becoming evident now with the eelgrass nitrogen TMDL linkages that appears to have occurred in many parts of the United States under the role of Nutrient Coordinators who may have set TMDL levels to low to meet historical cycles or patterns for baselines.  In determining nitrogen baselines no effort I can ascertain none today include temperature and energy allowances.  More recent efforts with eelgrass mapping has presented a case in point for misuse of such temporary findings for long term policy discussions (absent a discussion of habitat succession).

Mervin Roberts of Old Lyme (years before Daniel Pauley’s “Shifting Baselines”) a naturalist and writer of estuarine guide books put forth the theory that short term surveys are so biased we should not have the right to present them out of context to the public (1985).  During the first discussions of habitat and species change in Connecticut, his excerpt is included here (1985 The Tidemarsh Guide) pg 354-356.   

“Biological surveys and censuses are difficult to design and sometimes impossible to carry out so as to be free of bias. If are a political or social activist you may have pounced on “bias” and wondered how scientists apply it.  As a matter of fact, scientists used it long before it became a catchword.  Examples of bias in science are sometimes found in collections of living organisms whose population is in motion.  To be without bias, such a collection would have to be made over an extended period with no regard to inclement weather, ice, time of day or holidays.   

Consider the swallows at the Capistrano Mission in California.  How would a report on their habits look if no observations were made during those few days when they were all arriving or all leaving?  Consider a flyhatch on a trout stream, all over in one day, only once a year.  Consider a run of river herring.  If you miss it, no one will be able to make you believe it.  I submit that we have no business establishing rigid categories for the works of Mother Nature.”
I respond to all emails and welcome suggestions comments, [email protected]

Tim Visel, Member Long Island Sound Study
CAC and Habitat Restoration Working Group

The views/opinions expressed here in no way represents those of the two committees named above.

October 2014


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