It’s nearly summer, and the boating season is now upon us. That means speedboats and personal watercraft roaring along our coastline. That’s OK, as long as they’re outside the designated no-wake zones in the saltwater wetlands that hug the shoreline, particularly on the South Shore, between the barrier islands and Long Island proper. The trouble is, too many people disregard the zones, causing widespread destruction of the wetlands.
If you’re one of these people, cut it out.
The wetlands provide critical “environmental benefits.” They act as breeding grounds for countless birds, fish and shellfish. At the same time, they soak up waves during hurricanes and tropical storms. Without them, the South Shore would have taken a far greater beating during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and, most recently, Tropical Storm Isaias last year.
The wetlands comprise hundreds of mudflat islands that are held together by fields of Spartina marsh grass. As boats thunder through the narrow channels between the mudflats, they send waves crashing against their sides, slowly, steadily eroding them. Stop off at most any mudflat island in a South Shore boat channel and you’ll find the telltale signs of wave-action erosion.
The sides of the mudflats form U-shaped cliffs, because the waves strike them from below and break upward. Eventually, caves form, causing the surface of the mudflats to collapse and sending whole swaths of Spartina grass floating out to sea. Eventually, all that’s left is a sandy beach, which might look pretty but is easily washed away in a big storm. When you find only rocks and pebbles, you know the demise of a mudflat island is near.
Development through the centuries has caused massive loss of wetlands, despite their vital functions and benefits. A study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1990 found that the acreage of wetlands across the contiguous United States, both saltwater and freshwater, had decreased by 53 percent, from 221 million acres to 104 million. In fact, many South Shore communities were built in the 1950s and ’60s, atop wetlands, before the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 protected them from dredging and filling.
The act did not, however, protect them from boaters, who are left largely to govern themselves. Yes, there are county and town bay constables to enforce no-wake zones, but the wetlands, measuring tens of thousands of acres, are hard to police: In the Town of Hempstead alone, there are 17,000 acres of wetlands and 180 miles of coastal waterways to patrol. The constables are also often taken away from environmental enforcement by drunken boaters, who pose an immediate threat to other people.
One recent citizen-science survey of the world’s wetlands, conducted by the World Wetland Network, the Society of Wetland Scientists, the Cobra Collective and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, found that wetlands have decreased across the globe by 87 percent — that is, they are on the brink of disappearing from the face of the earth.
We cannot allow that to happen. Wetlands have been part of Long Island practically from the time it formed 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age, as a 118-mile-long glacial deposit. Whether we realize it or not, we desperately need them. They deserve our protection.
We would love to hear our town officials speaking out more on this issue, given that they are entrusted with the protection of wetlands, along with state Department of Environmental Conservation officials. Educating the public on the importance of wetlands should be a top priority.
You might consider joining a group like the Freeport-based Operation SPLASH (Stop Polluting Littering and Save Harbors) on the South Shore, or the Oyster Bay-based Friends of the Bay on the North Shore, whose mission is protecting our coastal waters, including the wetlands. Both organizations regularly conduct cleanups, which are critical, given the astounding amount of garbage that makes its way into our waterways and wetlands.
And again, if you’re a boater, please, please pay attention to and obey the no-wake zones. You’ll be doing an enormous service to everyone who lives in one of our coastal communities, along with the many wild creatures who inhabit the wetlands.