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Sound Health

Scott Nixon

This Fine Piece of Water: An Environmental History of Long Island Sound. Tom Andersen. xvi + 256 pp. Yale University Press, 2002. $24.95.

The jacket of Tom Andersen's This Fine Piece of Water is handsome, but you have to look twice to see that Andersen is the author—his name blends into the background, and the eye is drawn instead to that of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who is credited prominently for having provided the foreword. That a famous name is being used to help with marketing is the first indication that this is intended as a popular book rather than a scholarly work of environmental science or history.

Andersen takes a broad look at Long Island Sound and its watershed and provides some interesting history of its early exploration and exploitation, with an emphasis on industrial development and suburban sprawl. But he is not a historian or an estuarine scientist—he's a former journalist, at his best when describing the politics of recent efforts to control pollution. The book is really a history of environmentalism connected to the Sound rather than a history of the Sound's natural environment.

After tracing the evolution of Long Island Sound from the time of its shaping by the last ice sheet through the mid-20th century, Andersen tells the story of what he calls "an ecological crisis that threatens to turn [the Sound] into a dead sea." He attributes the crisis to greatly increased growth of phytoplankton. This growth, he contends, most likely resulted from an increase in nitrogen levels caused by fertilizer runoff, human sewage and acid rain enriched in nitrogen from the combustion of fossil fuels.

Why is the growth of these one-celled floating plants worrisome? When phytoplankton die, they decompose, consuming the oxygen in the water. The central and western portions of the Sound, which are not very well mixed by the tides, tend to be somewhat low in oxygen (hypoxic), so phytoplankton blooms there can be especially problematic. Anderson focuses on an episode that took place during the summer of 1987, when large areas of the Sound became completely devoid of oxygen (anoxic). Dense concentrations of phytoplankton discolored the waters, and large numbers of fish and shellfish were killed by the lack of oxygen and by the toxic hydrogen sulfide that is produced by certain bacteria when oxygen is exhausted.

Andersen's account is plausible, but the scientific evidence for it is not conclusive. Because long-term monitoring hasn't been done, it's not clear whether growth of phytoplankton in Long Island Sound has actually increased, nor is it clear whether the low-oxygen conditions of 1987 were really that unusual. Also, it's possible that the "blooms" of phytoplankton were the result, not of anthropogenic nitrogen, but of other factors, such as enhanced water column stability and lack of vertical mixing brought about by abnormally hot weather and lack of wind or by an absence of animals that graze on zooplankton.

During the summer of 1987, Andersen tells us, marine scientist Don Squires cautioned him against taking an overly dire view of the anoxia in the Sound, saying, "This is not a life-threatening, environment-threatening situation. We don't want to turn it into a Long Island Sound-is-dying kind of thing, because it's not." Unfortunately, in pursuit of a good story, Andersen has done exactly that. "The first loud groan of a dying ecosystem was heard on Long Island Sound during the third week of July 1987," he tells us at the outset of the book. Such writing (likely to make readers groan) is, sadly, typical of Andersen's descriptions in being overwrought and clumsy. He has a flair for awkward similes that don't work well—the phytoplankton bloom is "a big-bang universe of tiny one-celled plants . . . growing . . . like some out-of-control science fiction creature," and fish kills are described as "spreading like a fire."

That one part or another of nature is "dead" or in imminent danger of expiring appears to be a common theme in much popular writing on the environment. Bill McKibben, in The End of Nature, has gone so far as to suggest that human influence is so pervasive that nature, at least as it was once understood, no longer exists. I find it ironic that people who express such respect for the natural world should think it so frail as to be easily done in by our hubris, ignorance and short-sighted greed. The reality is quite different—the Sound has, as one expert told Andersen, "a great deal of robustness." If this were not the case, it would, along with virtually all of the waters along the northeast coast of the United States, have been turned into a "dead zone" by the cumulative effects of 200 years of industrial and domestic waste discharges, intensive fishing pressure and habitat destruction. It is true that coastal ecosystems have changed in various ways and that many of these changes are almost certainly due in part to human impacts. And it is also true that some of these changes are viewed as undesirable by those of us who would like to enjoy or harvest components of the ecosystem, such as lobsters or bluefish. But nature does not necessarily value lobsters over spider crabs. The great ecosystems of nature are always changing, and new designs emerge to capture energy and cycle the essential materials of life.

Our partnership with nature should recognize and respect its great power to persist and evolve. To do so is not to grant a license to harvest or pollute as we please—quite the opposite. But in the long run, our stewardship of the environment will be more effective and sustainable if it is based on science and understanding as well as sentiment.

Tom Andersen's book is heartfelt and often interesting, but it does not have much to say about the changing ecology of the Sound or how we have come to understand something of its workings. Perhaps this is not important for a popular book, but Long Island Sound has a special place in the history of estuarine and coastal ecology. During the 1950s Gordon Riley and his students and colleagues at Yale carried out the first ecosystem-scale study of an estuary in the United States there. More recently, the Sound has served as a laboratory for many pioneering studies of estuarine sediment transport processes, benthic biology and biogeochemistry. The salt marshes of the Sound have been the subjects of classic studies in wetlands ecology. As an estuarine ecologist, I was disappointed to find no hint of this rich intellectual environmental history in Andersen's account of fishermen, developers, politicians, management agency folks and environmental activists.—Scott Nixon, Graduate School of Oceanography, University of Rhode Island, Narragansett

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