Northeast Coastal Areas Study
Significant Coastal Habitats
Site 18 (NY)
I. SITE NAME: Hempstead Bay (East, Middle, West Bays)
II. LOCATION: An area of open water, salt marsh islands, and intertidal mudflats located between the barrier island chain section of Jones Beach and Long Beach and the south shore of Long Island between the communities of Lawrence and Seaford.
STATE: New York
USGS 7.5 MIN QUADS: Jones Inlet, NY 40073-55; Lawrence, NY 40073-56; Freeport, NY 40073-65; Lynbrook, NY 40073-66
USGS 30x60 MIN QUAD: Long Island, West 40073-E1
III. GENERAL BOUNDARY: The entire 10,400 acre (4,212 ha) aquatic environment of Hempstead Bay, comprised of East, Middle and West Hempstead Bays, constitutes the overall boundary of this complex, and is delineated on the accompanying map. Specifically recognized as significant wildlife habitat are Cuba Island, Deep Creek Meadow, Jones Island, Egg Island and associated intertidal flats (East Hempstead Bay); Pine Marsh, North Cinder Island, E. Channel Island, Garretts Marsh and tidal flats (Middle Hempstead Bay); Lawrence Marsh, North Green Sedge, Black Bank Hassock, Pearsall's Hassock and tidal flats (West Hempstead Bay); and Jones Inlet. The western boundary of the complex is generally defined by mean high water near the community of Lawrence and the eastern boundary is the Wantagh State Parkway, south of Seaford.
IV. OWNERSHIP/PROTECTED STATUS: The north shore of Hempstead Bay is primarily in private ownership with the shoreline intensely developed to homes, marinas, and marine-related industries. Tidal saltmarshes, intertidal flats and spoil islands within Hempstead Bay are undeveloped, and are in Town of Hempstead ownership. The Town Department of Conservation and Waterways manages the area for recreational fishing and wildlife conservation. Those portions of the barrier beach bordering Jones Inlet on the east are owned by New York State and are managed within the State park system.
V. GENERAL HABITAT DESCRIPTION: Hempstead Bay is one of the largest undeveloped coastal wetland ecosystems in New York State and in the study region. Salt marsh and dredge spoil islands dominate much of the bay acreage, with extensive offshore mud and sand flats exposed at low tide. Vegetation on tidal marshes is dominated by cordgrasses (Spartina spp.) and maritime plants such as marsh elder (Iva frutescens) dominate above tidal influence. Dense shrubby stands of groundsel-bush (Baccharis halimifolia), bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) and black cherry (Prunus serotina) are interspersed with open sandy areas on dredge spoil islands.
VI. SIGNIFICANCE/UNIQUENESS OF AREA: This vast area of open water and tidal saltmarsh contains regionally significant fish and wildlife habitat. Nesting colonies of wading birds are scattered throughout the bay with sizable concentrations of snowy and great egrets (Egretta thula and Casmerodius albus, respectively), glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus), little blue heron (Egretta caerulea), tricolored heron (Egretta tricolor), black-crowned night-herons (Nycticorax nycticorax), and yellow-crowned night-herons (Nyctanassa violacea). The largest colony, numbering over 700 birds, occurs on Pine Marsh in Middle Bay with smaller rookeries on Lawrence Marsh, Green Sedge and Black Banks Hassock in West Bay. In 1989, the Hempstead Bay rookeries were the only known Long Island nesting sites for yellow-crowned night herons.
The Cuba Islands and Deep Creek Meadow in East Bay support marsh-nesting common terns (Sterna hirundo), as well as locally rare gull-billed and Forester's terns (Sterna nilotica and S. forsteri, respectively). Common tern colonies occur in many other locations throughout the marsh system. Other nesting species of special emphasis in the region are American oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus), green-backed heron (Butorides striatus), laughing gull (Larus atricilla), seaside sparrow (Ammodramus maritimus), osprey (Pandion haliaetus) and Canada goose (Branta canadensis).
The entire bay provides essential habitat for wintering waterfowl. Thousands of brant (Branta bernicla) and American black duck (Anas rubripes) congregate to feed and rest in the shallow waters around salt marsh islands and tidal flats. Grassy areas attract Canada geese, while scaup (Aythya spp.) and red-breasted mergansers (Mergus serrator) concentrate in the deeper waters of the numerous channels. The invertebrate-rich feeding grounds afforded by extensive tidal flats in East Bay are important staging areas for migratory shorebirds including sanderlings (Calidris alba), dowitchers (Limnodromus spp.), red knots (Calidris canutus), plovers, American oystercatchers and sandpipers, with lesser numbers of these species gathering to feed in Middle and West Bays.
All of Hempstead Bay is important habitat for a high diversity of marine finfish. Menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus), weakfish (Cynoscion regalis) and winter flounder (Pseudopleuronectes americanus) spawn in the sandy shallows, while American sandlance (Ammodytes americanus), killifish (Fundulus spp.) and Atlantic silverside (Menidia menidia) spawn in "edge" habitat provided by the mosaic of saltmarsh islands. Young bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix), striped bass (Morone saxatilis), summer flounder (Paralichthys dentatus) and blackfish (Tautoga onitis) are dependent upon the bay as a nursery ground. Adult bluefish and striped bass congregate in the deeper waters of Jones Inlet, as does the American sandlance, the major food item of the U.S. Endangered roseate tern (Sterna dougallii).
VII. THREATS: Although the tidal wetlands and spoil islands of Hempstead Bay are in public ownership and therefore not likely to be developed, the area is subject nonetheless to significant human recreational pressure and disturbance as a result of its abundant fishery resources and because the bay is virtually surrounded by residential development. Recreational use of bird-nesting islands during breeding season is detrimental to disturbance-sensitive species such as terns and wading birds.
Sewage discharges, oil spills, chemical contamination from waste disposal or unregulated disposal of dredge spoil can degrade water quality, affecting all flora and fauna and disrupting the biological productivity of the bay. All of Hempstead Bay is closed to shellfishing because of non-point source runoff (e.g. from roads and other impermeable surfaces) and because mainland sewage treatment plants discharge into bay waters.
Current water quality levels are maintained by Jones Inlet which exchanges and circulates bay waters. Any activity that would disrupt or alter this pattern would be potentially catastrophic for the continued viability of the bay ecosystem. The potential for any or all of these occurrences is of considerable concern given the density of the surrounding human population and the intense pressure to expand access to recreational resources.
VIII. CONSERVATION CONSIDERATIONS: Hempstead Bay supports a diversity of fish and wildlife species, several of which are on both Federal and State lists of conservation concern. Increased management and protection of this regionally important natural resource is warranted. The entire bay ecosystem would benefit from designation as a National Estuarine Research Reserve or as Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention or inclusion in the National Wildlife Refuge System. Hempstead Bay should also be considered for inclusion in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, an international program seeking to protect critical flyway habitat for migratory shorebirds through legislation, land acquisition and innovative land management agreements. Attempts should be made to eliminate all human-related disturbances to bird-nesting colonies during the critical nesting season (mid-April to August) by all available means, including posting, boat warden patrols and public education. The impacts to flora and fauna of discharges from sewage treatment plants into Hempstead Bay should be further investigated and appropriate measures taken to ensure the maintenance of high quality habitat.
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