LIS AIR 17 Anchoring on the sand, like these boats in East Harbor, helps protect sensitive seagrass habitat. © Chantal Collier with aerial support from Lighthawk

Stories in Connecticut

Taking to the Skies to Help the Seas

Aerial Surveys of Boating Activities Help Assess Threats to Seagrass as part of Comprehensive Approach to Its Protection in Long Island Sound

Located at the eastern edge of Long Island Sound is Fishers Island, a place renowned for its natural beauty, limited development and quiet way of life.  The 9-mile island is surrounded by waters that are distinctive too – they support some of the last remaining seagrass meadows in the Sound. 

These underwater meadows provide valuable benefits for nature and people. Seagrasses are home to thousands of ocean animals like lobster, flounder and bay scallops. They generate oxygen, improve water quality, reduce shoreline erosion by stabilizing sediments, and can store twice as much carbon as forests on land. 

What’s Happening to Long Island Sound’s Seagrass? 

Today, only 10 percent of the historic acreage of seagrass remains in Long Island Sound. At Fishers Island, these meadows are still in good condition, but without action to protect them now, they are at risk of degradation and loss from threats ranging from nitrogen pollution, boating activity, disease, algal blooms, and warming sea temperatures. 

And seagrass tells us something: When this marine plant can’t thrive where it once did, it may signal water quality problems, with negative consequences for people and nature. As a result,  beginning in 2009, with the support of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) led a 5-year research study to uncover the major causes of seagrass decline across Southern New England and New York. In 2016, subsequent research conducted by TNC’s Long Island Sound Program Director, Chantal Collier, at Duke University revealed that the greatest potential for the preservation and recovery of seagrass (and the myriad species that depend upon it), lies in taking a collaborative approach to marine resource management in Long Island Sound. 

Using the Skies to Protect the Seas 

TNC is now working to support and connect the Fishers Island community with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) so that the two groups can work together to designate Seagrass Management Areas at Fishers Island. In order to ensure those management plans are robust, site specific data is needed. That’s why TNC has partnered with the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and Lighthawk Conservation to evaluate boating activities near seagrass meadows around Fishers Island. The aerial surveys, which will take place this summer and fall, will help the community and the NYSDEC understand what types of vessels are going where in the waters surrounding the island. 

“Data from these surveys will be used to develop a baseline characterization of recreational and commercial vessel types and patterns of use that may impact the extent and condition of seagrass through propeller scarring, vessel wakes, scouring, anchoring and mooring scars,” explained Collier, who is leading the project. “It adds to the larger body of information we have been compiling over the years so that the Fishers Island community and government agencies can best work together to protect this valuable resource for generations to come.” 

Yale graduate student and former U.S. Marine pilot, Kyle Smith, led the research to develop and test the methodology for this project.