Composed of more than 230,000 acres of the East End's land and water, the Peconic Estuary sat center stage Friday morning, as environmentalists and politicians celebrated 20 years of commitment to the Peconic Estuary Program, a partnership of citizen advocates and elected leaders dedicated to preserving one of America's 28 Estuaries of National Significance.
After commencing the effort to gain federal recognition in 1992, Peconic was added to the list one year later, and has since been the recipient of tens of millions of dollars to study, clean, purchase and preserve the land and waters comprising the ecosystem.
A common theme among officials who spoke Friday at Hubbard County Park in Flanders pointed beyond the estuary's environmental significance and more to its significance as an economic generator, in an area where natural beauty has become a magnet for many families from across Long Island and beyond.
"We talk about job creators in Washington," said U.S. Rep. Tim Bishop, D-Southampton. "We talk about them in great reference, as well we should. Well, the Peconic Bay is a job creator. There is a tremendous amount of activity that takes place that would not be happening were it not for the bay or the quality of the bay that is maintained."
When the estuary earned its federal designation nearly two decades ago, more than 1,100 establishments were found to be dependent on the Peconic Estuary, employing more than 7,000 people grossing over $127 million in wages. The estuary runs from Plum Island to Montauk to eastern Brookhaven.
"This great resource is not only part of environmental protection, it’s a part of economic development," state Sen. Ken LaValle, R-Port Jefferson, added. "We still have a lot of work to do."
According to information provided by the Peconic Estuary Program, a half million pounds of Peconic Bay scallops were harvested in 1982, accounting for more than a quarter of the country's commercial harvest. A brown tide bloom in the mid-1990s slashed that total to 53 pounds in 1996, reaping $400. The scallop industry has since rebounded, though not nearly to the levels of the 1980s.
A comprehensive management plan was created and put in place in 2001, detailing 85 different steps and more than 300 management tasks that different levels of government must take — from public outreach and proper sewage maintenance on the parts of towns, to the creation of bacteria libraries by the Cornell Cooperative Extension, to water quality monitoring by the Suffolk Department of Health, and more — to, in time, ensure proper protection of the Peconic Estuary.
South Fork Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr., I-Sag Harbor, said on Friday he has been working on preserving the Peconic Estuary since the program started — at the time he was a Suffolk legislator — and unlike some plans, the Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan for the estuary has been one that has proven results.
"We’ve all seen this in government, a comprehensive plan gets done, a study gets done, and then it sits on the shelf somewhere and somebody says, 'I wish we had the money to implement that,'" Thiele said. "Between the Clean Air and Water Act, and Community Preservation Funds, these recommendations didn’t sit on the shelf. They have been actfully implemented for many years."
Updates on the status of many of those 85 steps can currently be found on the website of the Peconic Estuary Program, which is in charge of overseeing the implementation of the plan.
Friday's press conference served as a chance "to get people to renew their commitment to preserving the Pecnoic Estuary," said Peter Scully, the director of Long Island's Department of Environmental Conservation office, located in Stony Brook.
Between federal, state and local funding, carrying out the annual tasks required to maintain the estuary according to the management plan costs an estimated $10 million.