New York Wants To Fight Pollution, Revive "Jobs, Revenue, Wildlife"

03/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

ALBANY, N.Y. — Faced with more beaches closures, depleted shellfish beds and sharply reduced commercial fisheries, New York is poised to act against a rising tide of unhealthy coastal waters.

Officials were scheduled to release a plan Thursday to exploit state jurisdiction over waters extending three miles from the coast to reverse what critics call years of federal inaction, in hopes of reviving fisheries, protecting beaches and restoring the economy.

As with similar efforts in other states, the goal in the Northeast is to turn back the decline of the Atlantic as a source of jobs, revenue, wildlife and natural beauty.

In New York, officials will release a comprehensive plan for "ecosystem-based" management of the Great Lakes and Atlantic coasts, which will address land and water uses, economy, climate change, energy and building capacity.

The stakes are high. The plan shows, for example, that New York's commercial and recreational fisheries are valued at $60 million annually _ only 21 percent of their value 50 years ago _ and the port of New York contributes $18 billion in annual economic activity.

New York lawmakers established the state Ocean and Great Lakes Ecosystem Conservation Council in 2006 and ordered the heads of nine state agencies to devise a long-term coast management plan. The report _ meant to resolve turf issues that fragment the government's response to problems _ was due Nov. 1 but delayed in part by the state's financial problems.

The Legislature also established a task force on rising sea levels to recommend measures to protect communities and ecosystems from flooding. The panel began hearings this month.

Environmentalists said they turned to the coastal states for help because of difficulty making progress with the Bush administration or Congress. Elsewhere, California lawmakers have established an ocean protection council, Massachusetts' coastal plan is expected this year and several states are working regionally.

"Worldwide, our ocean systems are in a silent state of collapse," said Sarah Chasis, ocean initiatives director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Nationally, 1,167 _ or 32 percent _ of all monitored beaches had closings or advisories in 2007, according to state data collected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That compares with 23 percent a decade earlier.

Chasis said Long Island waters experienced many problems last summer, including a reappearing brown tide in Great South Bay and 5,000 acres of shellfish areas closed along the north shore because of a toxic bloom.

Long Island, once one of the nation's leaders in hard clams, producing about 700,000 bushels a year, now produces fewer than 10,000 bushels, she said.

Meanwhile, the population of shad, a commercial fish caught in the Hudson River, has dropped to a fraction of what it was. Some scientists suspect shad are the victims of "bycatch," dying in the nets of ocean trawlers chasing other species.

New York's beaches and seafood contribute more than $8.5 billion to Long Island's economy and $5 billion in western New York's Great Lakes region, environmental advocate Jeff Jones said. The timing of the report is jarring, he said, because Gov. David Paterson has proposed cutting Environmental Protection Fund money for the oceans and Great Lakes from $5 million to $2 million in the coming year.

Scientists monitoring Lake Erie and Lake Ontario said the biggest chemical issue is toxics _ inorganic forms of toxins _ affecting fish and wildlife. Major sources are inefficient water treatment and industrial and municipal wastewater treatment, sewer and storm water overflows, and contaminants in sediments left by industrial discharge.

"We're seeing a resurgence of an anoxic or dead zone," Donald Zelazny, the state conservation department's Great Lakes programs coordinator, said of oxygen depletion predominant in Lake Erie from the 1930s to 1960s that is also occurring in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic. "Now it seems to be coming back."


On the Net:

New York Ocean and Great Lakes Ecosystem Conservation Council:

National beach closings report: