"In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
—Henry David Thoreau
Last Nov. 8, I was kayaking in Emory Creek in Freeport, just north of the Narrows, when I spotted what I thought was a chunk of garbage floating in the waterway and paddled over to collect it. I was headed north, back to the Albany Avenue boat ramp, after two hours on the water. Suddenly the garbage jerked, as if it were alive.
“What the . . .?” I blurted out. Were my eyes deceiving me?
As I approached, I realized it wasn’t garbage, but a river otter, the first one I’d ever seen in the wild — or anywhere. I slowed my paddling, hoping to sneak up close enough for a quick photo. I stroked all of three times when the otter lifted its head slightly and dived headlong underwater, its back forming a perfect U as it plunged, like some mythical sea serpent of yore. I waited a few minutes to see if it might resurface, but it vanished.
I came away feeling grateful to have seen this beautiful creature, if only momentarily. River otters are indeed rare on Long Island. They once numbered in the hundreds of thousands on the East Coast, but were hunted mercilessly from the 1600s through the early 1900s for their sleek fur, the densest of any mammal in the animal kingdom. When Europeans first settled in North America, otters inhabited every waterway on the continent, according to Mike Bottini, a wildlife biologist with the nonprofit, Islip-based Seatuck Environmental Association. By the 20th century, their numbers had dwindled to a few thousand, scattered in small, out-of-sight colonies.
Seatuck teamed up with the nonprofit Peconic Land Trust on May 20 to present a webinar on “The Re-wilding of Long Island,” about how any number of creatures — including river otters — are making a comeback thanks to conservation programs, so I had to tune in. In addition to Bottini, it featured Emily Hall, Seatuck’s conservation policy advocate; Kelly Hamilton, a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation wildlife biologist; and Enrico Nardone, Seatuck’s executive director. Arielle Santos, its wildlife conservation policy program coordinator, moderated.
River otters disappeared from Long Island in the early 1800s. They were protected by the International Fur Seal Treaty of 1911, however, and further safeguarded in the U.S. by the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973. No longer hunted, they are rebounding. It’s not clear when, precisely, river otters returned to Long Island, but a 2008 study by Bottini confirmed their presence here, and a subsequent study 10 years later found that their range was expanding.
Bottini identified 150 potential sites where otters might live on the Island, and narrowed their presence to three confirmed locations: Mill Neck/Oyster Bay, the Nissequogue River and Peconic Bay. By 2018, they were found in 10 spots.
River otters are amazing creatures. They can hold their breath underwater for up to eight minutes, which might explain why I didn’t see the otter resurface — I had waited two or three minutes before I continued paddling on my way last November. They are also among only 10 or so animals besides humans that employ tools: They use rocks to smash open crustaceans’ shells to get to the meat inside.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that not only are otters returning to Long Island, but bald eagles are as well — there are now 21 nesting pairs here, Hamilton said. They had nearly gone extinct during the 1960s because of the ubiquitous use of DDT, a now-banned pesticide that caused their offspring’s shells to thin and crack open before the chicks were fully developed. The mother bird would crush the eggs when she sat on them to warm them. From the 1940s to the ’60s, 675,000 tons of DDT were sprayed across America, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The increase in river herring on Long Island is promising as well, Hall said. The river herring is a silvery fish that was once so plentiful that when schools of it made their way upriver, they turned the water silver. We haven’t reached that point yet. One night in the fall of 2019, however, my son, Andrew, and I returned to the Albany Avenue boat ramp after kayaking Emory Creek. The sun had set only a short while earlier. The moon was full, causing an abnormally high tide that inundated part of the boat ramp parking lot. Andrew waded into the water to the edge of the bulkhead, and for no particular reason, shined his headlamp into the creek.
There it was, a giant mass of silvery fish streaming northward. “Whoa!” I exclaimed. It was an extraordinary sight. I’m now convinced the fish were river herring.
The re-wilding of Long Island, to me, demonstrates the necessity of federal and state environmental regulations — and local conservation efforts undertaken by vital groups like Seatuck (www.seatuck.org) and the Peconic Land Trust (www.peconiclandtrust.org). They need and deserve our support.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.