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By Dylan D’Agate, a junior at Half Hollow Hills High School East, Dix Hills, NY
I recently read an article in The New York Times reporting the death of 365 elephants in Botswana’s Okavango Panhandle. The report described a mysterious death without bullet holes and with tusks intact, suggesting that ivory poachers were not involved. Eventually it was concluded that the most probable cause was a microscopic algae called cyanobacteria, which can produce a toxin deadly to the elephants after they consume the contaminated water.
Although approximately 7,600 miles away from Botswana, Long Island has also been
affected by microscopic algae that impose significant damage to our local ecosystem and prove fatal to marine life, animals, and pets. The toxins are not usually fatal to humans but can create serious illnesses. When the growth of microscopic algae reaches a dangerous threshold and becomes harmful to the local ecosystem, it is called a harmful algal bloom (HAB), more commonly referred to as “red tide” or “brown tide.” In fact, the incidence and severity of harmful algal blooms, or HABs, has continued to increase globally over the last few decades. In 2019, for instance, Lake Agawam, in Southampton, experienced one of the densest algal blooms ever recorded in a Long Island body of water. The economic impact of HABs here has been significant and can be seen with such declining fishery species as the Atlantic bay scallop and hard clam.
Over the past few summers, Long Island has experienced multiple HABs, often closing
beaches and lakes to the public. HABs are typically created by such excess nutrients as nitrates and phosphates, nutrient pollution in the water that stimulates algae to grow faster than the ecosystem can handle. Nutrient pollution can result from the nitrates and phosphates in fertilizers, yard clippings, wastewater treatment plants, car wash soap directed into storm drains, and improperly managed septic tanks.
Another common cause of increasing HABs is climate change. Climate change, effected by global warming, may favor harmful algae in a number of ways. First, warmer water allows for faster growth of toxic algae. Second, increasing carbon dioxide levels favor algae growth. Finally, alternating severe drought and intense storms will effect more nutrient runoff into water bodies and feed more algal blooms.
The tragic report from Botswana, Africa, reminds us that the global community is far
closer than our geography suggests. Climate change and nutrient pollution can affect elephants more than 7,000 miles away as much as local beaches, lakes, and wildlife here on Long Island. Increased efforts to combat nutrient pollution and global warming will be necessary to help control harmful algal blooms in the future.
What can we do? We can all help reduce nutrient pollution locally. Here are a few
Support local Resolution 1643, which would require the use of innovative and alternative onsite wastewater treatment systems (I/A OWTS) for new or expanded single-family residences and construction projects within Suffolk County. It is a viable solution to nutrient pollution induced by the current reliance on outdated septic systems.
Use professional car washes that dispose of nutrient rich water in a sustainable manner.
Reduce the use of fertilizers and pesticides in lawn care, which can run off into local bodies of water.
Clean up after our pets. Animal waste can run off into local sewers and bodies of water.
For more information on nutrient pollution check out https://content.sierraclub.org/grassrootsnetwork/sites/content.sierraclub.org.activistnetwork/files/
Dylan D’Agate is a Sierra Club member and a leader in his high school’s environmental club.