An unusually warm winter means Northport and Huntington waters may see an early arrival, and exit, of red tide this year, said Dr. Chris Gobler of Stony Brook University, an expert on toxic algal blooms.
Speaking at the Northport Harbor Water Quality Protection Committee meeting at on Thursday, Gobler explained that warmer waters increase the concentration of the toxic algae responsible for beach closures and shellfishing bans in the recent past.
"It may start in April, peak in May, and by the time we get to June it will be gone and won't be an issue," he said.
The organisms are accumulated in shellfish tissues as they filter water and can cause paralytic or diarrhetic shellfish poisoning if consumed by humans. Diarrhetic shellfish poisoning can lead to short term diarrhea, while paralytic shellfish poisoning can lead to progressive paralysis and death in extreme cases.
Though there have been no reported incidences of paralytic shellfish poisoning in New York in recent years, contamination remains a major concern for Northport Harbor, Northport Bay, and Huntington Bay, which Gobler called "the epicenter of red tide on Long Island."
There is also evidence that the organisms may be expanding outside the harbor, though in much lower levels.
"This disrupts people's recreation and is going to be a financial burden as well," Gobler said.
Gobler attributes the high concentration in Northport Harbor to a number of factors, including inadequate "flush" of stagnant water, high nitrogen loads, and a recently discovered cyst bed that holds dormant concentrations of alexandrium algae which erupt in spring.
Dredging is needed to mitigate the inadequate flush of the harbor and could also remove some of the cyst beds if done properly, according to Gobler, though it is an expensive process that could take years of planning.
“The Army Corps is stretched very thin and working to keep ports open. The fact that we don't have a commercial port means our priority is low, unless we have a program with a sponsor all put together to present to them,” said Save Our Harbors President Joe Morency, who estimates that it will take 5-10 years of planning before the actual dredging can occur. “You're not talking about a lot of material, it's just a matter of getting the ball rolling.”
High nitrogen loads that Gobler said are "almost identical with wastewater-based nitrogen," are the No. 1 reason the toxic organisms thrive in Northport Harbor. Gobler said the nutrients originate largely from Northport's sewage treatment plant and homes with septic tanks, though pinpointing sources is a very complex undertaking.
Gobler hopes to get funding for a "Nitrogen Budget" to quantitatively assess exactly how many pounds of nitrogen are coming through the system per day from various sources: tidal exchange, atmosphere, surface runoff, groundwater, the sewage treatment plant, and sediment fluxes.
"Once we know that, we can then talk about the costs that would be associated," said Gobler.
Upgrades to the Northport sewage treatment plant are currently in the works to come in to compliance with a 50-percent nitrogen output reduction mandate by the EPA for 2014. Septic tanks in older homes can be replaced with new cesspools equipped with the latest nitrogen reduction technology, at the cost of the owner.