My Pile: Bounty of the Sea

On the first day of October I load the dog into the car, along with a tennis ball, two empty plastic tubs and a three-pronged hand rake.

Today marks the seasonal re-opening of the town’s beaches to dogs, from now on through March. So to the sea we go.

The dog likes nothing more than to chase a tennis ball across the soft wet sand into the shallow planes of saltwater at low tide. He stops to sniff out all the mysterious scents of the seashore and on occasion to bury his catch in a hole dug along the tidal flat.

I stop at the strandline to fill the buckets with seaweed to ferry home to my pile.

The timing is doubly good: After weeks of dry weather, a coming storm system is set to bring rain to the parched region. Bolstered by a harvest moon, the flood tides have washed up a deep, ragged etching of seaweed and other bounty of the sea.

After giving the dog his run along the beach, I fill the first bucket with a pungent mix of drying seaweed and broken stalks of seagrass. The sand-flecked scrapings are suffused with sea shells, the carapaces and claws of crabs and stray flight feathers, mostly the gray and white quills of seagulls. It weighs about 40 pounds, I figure as it bangs against my hip on the way back to the car. It is ripe enough that I know I will drive home with the windows wide open, the dog’s safety be damned.

Such a batch of seaweed and organic flotsam is a prized addition to my pile, especially at this time of year. I will spread it across the base, which has begun this season first with a rough and tangly layer of spent flower stems and uprooted vines and plants from the garden. I’ve since added a heaping of fresh-cut grass clippings, thick with the rich detritus from when I mowed over the compost cast across the yard.

My goal is to give my pile a rich, green base of highly biodegradable greens before I begin to raise it up out of the ground with load after load of gathered brown leaves. A compost heap too bottom-heavy with leaves risks becoming a dead zone. The leaves compress and entomb themselves, sealed off from air, water and other agents of change, among them me and my pitchfork.

Set on a veritable platter of rich, airy green material, the autumn leaves, I hope, will begin to decompose from below, and the resulting heat and biological activity will filter upward as I continue to layer my pile with fresh additions of all manner of rottable organic material on through the fall and winter months.

My pile's 'sea floor' -- a rich, briny mix of seaweed and seagrass, infused with sea shells, crab claws and cast-off feathers of seagulls.

My pile’s ‘sea floor’ — a rich, briny mix of seaweed and seagrass, infused with sea shells, crab claws and cast-off feathers of seagulls.

The longer I live by the shore of the Long Island Sound, the more I come to respect its riches. And the more I realize that the Sound I know is a shadow of what it once was.

Its productivity was once legend.

In the foreward to Tom Andersen’s “This Fine Piece of Water: An Environmental History of Long Island Sound,” Robert F. Kennedy Jr. writes “how Henry Hudson’s lieutenant Robert Juett described rivers choked with salmon (probably striped bass) and mullet … New Yorkers ate more oysters from the Sound than any other meat, including the East River oyster, now extinct, whose eleven-inch shell housed seven pounds of succulent flesh.

“Two hundred years after contact, the European invasion had little impact on the estuary’s extraordinary productivity. In the Eighteenth Century, enough lobsters still washed ashore each night from natural die-offs to fertilize the coastal farms of Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts.”

Andersen quotes from a journal account by Timothy Dwight, president of Yale University in the early nineteenth century, on the efforts of Long Islanders to improve their agriculture: [T]he inhabitants … have set themselves to collect manure wherever it could be obtained. Not content with what they could make and find on their own farms and shores, they have sent their vessels up the Hudson and loaded them with the residium of potash manufactories; gleaned the streets of New York; and have imported various kinds of manure from New Haven, New London, and even from Hartford. In addition to all this, they have swept the Sound, and covered their fields with the immense shoals of whitefish with which in the beginning of summers its waters replenished. No manure is so cheap as this where the fish abound; no is so rich; and few are so lasting. Is effects on vegetation are prodigious. Lands which heretofore have scarcely yielded ten bushels of wheat by acre are said, when dressed with whitefish, to have yielded forty. The number caught is almost incredible. It is here said … that one hundred and fifty thousand have been taken in a single draft.”

Over the next century, the Sound’s natural resources were methodically plundered; first beaver and other riverine mammals for their pelts, then deer and larger prey, then seals, then whales, then passenger pigeons and turkeys, once so numerous and unguileful that hunters, Andersen writes, would park a wagon under a tree where turkeys roosted and shoot them all but take only those that dropped directly into the buckboard.

“By the 1920s, the terrapin, duck and lobster populations were in decline, and periodic algal blooms clouded the waters, once gin-clear. F. Scott Fitzgerald christened his contemporary Long Island Sound ‘that great wet barnyard,’ acknowledging its modern function as the primary waste receptacle for the enormous human population now crowding its shores.”

Since then, especially after a disastrous algae bloom in the late 1980s, the Sound has struggled to recover even the barest scraps of its once seemingly endless bounty.

“Long Island Sound’s flounder catch dropped from 40 million pounds in 1982 to one million pounds in 1987. The oyster catch sank from 3 million bushels annually to 15,000,” Andersen reports in his 2002 book, adding, “Most significantly, the Sound has become the Northeast’s sewer. Each day 1 billion gallons of treated sewage pour into the Sound, supplemented by another 18 million gallons of raw sewage…. The result is that Long Island Sound is undergoing an ecological crisis that threatens to turn it into a dead sea.”

Andersen paints a vivid picture of the Sound’s low point, the summer of 1987. An unprecedentedly large algae bloom led to a collapse of oxygen levels. “Hypoxia in the Sound’s center trough spread up and out toward the shoals, linking up with hypoxia in the harbors. Pockets of healthy water that could have provided refuge for fish and lobsters vanished. Blackfish breached the surface, gasping pitifully for air.

“In the newsroom of the New Rochelle newspaper I worked for, I took a call from a man who said he had been fishing at New Rochelle’s Hudson Park the evening before. He heard a curious noise in the dusk and, looking down to the rocks below the sea wall, saw lobsters crawling out of the water.”

Since those dark days, the Sound has recovered, somewhat. Though the lobster – once so plentiful that inmates in New England prisons rioted at being served an endless supply – will never return to the now cleaner but ever-warmer waters, the summer of 2015 saw the first sightings of whales in the Sound in generations; porpoises and seals are also making appearances, lured from the ocean waters off Cape Cod by growing numbers of baitfish, mostly the oil-rich menhaden. Oyster farms are a growth industry, recreational fishing is robust and tightly regulated; beach closings are less common.

“There’s all this life that wasn’t there before,” charter boat captain John McMurray tells environmental reporter Richard Schiffman in a recent New York Times op-ed piece, “Not Just Another Stinky Fish.”

That stinky fish is “menhaden, also known as bunker, or pogies,” Schiffman continues. To the fishermen he spoke to, “there are encouraging signs that the menhaden population along the Atlantic Coast is healthy after decades of intensive commercial exploitation.

“The name menhaden is a corruption of “munnawhatteaug,” which means fertilizer in Algonquian. Native Americans taught the pilgrims to plant them with their corn, enabling colonists to coax a crop from rocky New England soils, according to Bruce Franklin, author of “The Most Important Fish in the Sea.” Manhaden was used as a lubricant, replacing whale oil after the Civil War; today the most of the catch (the largest by weight in the East Coast fishery) is rendered into heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acid fish oil, as well as used to produce fertilizers and high-protein feeds for livestock, reports Schiffman.

Fodder for the game fish sought by sport fisherman, menhaden play an even more fundamental role in preserving the health of the Long Island Sound; swimming in schools of hundreds of thousands. “Mouths agape as them feed, menhaden are living vacuum cleaners sucking up algae blooms that deplete inshore waters of oxygen and create biological deserts in the sea. A single adult menhaden can clean four to seven gallons of water in a minute.”

Just 15,000 years old, and formed by glaciers that scoured the land to the north and left it piled up in ridges to form Long Island, the Sound is a current event, at least in geologic time.

It is also one of the globe’s the most dynamic waterscapes, and may be able to recover further, if we let it. Flushed twice daily by the tides, it features “a greater range of seasonal temperatures than that of any other body of water in the world,” says Tom Andersen, with temperature as low as 32 degrees in winter and as high as 76 in August.

The dog days of summer aside, the dog swims year-round, whether it’s to paddle through the 70-degree surf on the first day of October or a plunge into the icy water of February. He doesn’t know what he’s missing, in terms of the bounty that once lapped upon the shores he trods.

And though its riches now pale in comparison to generations past, the Sound provides me and my pile with more than I can use. I wonder if other backyard gardeners or lcoal farmers reap the sea’s harvest like I do, or if the surplus seaweed raked from the region’s public beaches to keep beachgoers happy is recycled in any productive way.

The best fertilizer in the world,” says Bull in the Irish film The Field. Seems a shame to let all that seaweed rot on the beach when it could be put to use renovating nearby landscapes that have been degraded over the years by the careless hand of man just as much as the provident local sea.

I’m hopeful. As another close watcher of the Sound once wrote, “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

My pile typically begins each fall with a "sea floor" of seaweed, shells and crab carapaces culled from the strandline of the nearby beach.

My pile typically begins each fall with a “sea floor” of seaweed, shells and crab carapaces culled from the strandline of the nearby beach.