Otter Pond Appears To Be Ailing, But Cause Unknown

Otter Pond in Sag Harbor.
Southampton Town Trustee Bruce Stafford, left, and John Shaka, chairman of the Sag Harbor Village Harbor Committee, at Otter Pond on Wednesday. Stephen J. Kotz photos

By Stephen J. Kotz

An unseasonable — and extensive — bloom of algae and other aquatic vegetation ringing Sag Harbor’s Otter Pond has caught the attention of passersby and government officials alike.

The pond, like all other inland bodies of water in Southampton Town, is owned by the Town Trustees, although the land around it is owned by the Park and Recreation Association of Sag Harbor. On Monday, Trustee President Ed Warner Jr. said he had contacted Dr. Christopher Gobler of the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences to request that he inspect the pond and test its waters.

Although the Suffolk County Department of Health Services has confirmed the presence of toxic cynobacteria, commonly known as blue-green algae, in Georgica Pond in East Hampton and Maratooka Pond in Mattituck, Mr. Warner said there was no reason to believe that type of algae was growing in Otter Pond.

Otter Pond in Sag Harbor.

Blue-green algae, which is poisonous to humans and pets alike, blooms in freshwater ponds. While Otter Pond is fed from freshwater springs, it is also connected by a narrow channel to Sag Harbor Cove and is flushed with saltwater during the daily tidal cycle, resulting in a salinity level that is too high to support the toxic blue-green algae, he said.

Southampton Town Trustee Bruce Stafford, who lives near the pond, said he too had grown concerned by its appearance. While surface vegetation could be expected in mid-August during the dog days of summer, it is highly unusual to see so much growth after a cold and wet spring, he said.

“There is a lot of brown stuff floating at the edges — it looks like algae to me, but I’m not the expert,” he said.

Mr. Stafford said the Trustees were expected to talk to Dr. Gobler about what steps need to be taken at a work session on Wednesday afternoon, but he suspects the problem could be caused by a reduction in the amount of water being flushed in and out of the pond.

“It looks like there’s a bit of a clog” in the culvert that runs under the Main Street bridge, Mr. Stafford said, adding that sand seemed to have built up at the mouth of the channel and Sag Harbor Cove to the west. “The more it flushes, the better off it will be.”

A freshwater kettlehole pond that is 35 feet deep at its center, Otter Pond was first connected to Sag Harbor Cove in 1793 when a narrow channel was dug by John Jermain, who built a lumber mill on the pond’s banks. It has remained tied to the cove ever since.

John Shaka, the chairman of the village’s Harbor Committee, which among its duties, advises the village on matters of water quality, suggested the appearance of the pond, was an early warning sign.

“Our bays and coves have in the past few years had algal blooms that have not happened in prior years,” he said. “There’s been an incremental, but definite, deterioration of water quality throughout Sag Harbor — and people are starting to notice it.”

Mr. Shaka said the Harbor Committee has asked the village board to hire Dr. Gobler’s team to conduct regular water tests — including from a spot in Sag Harbor Cove just beyond the Otter Pond channel, but that its request for approximately $30,000 in funding had been turned down.

Trustee Ken O’Donnell said the water testing funding fell victim to the village’s effort to avoid raising taxes when it put together this year’s budget, but he said the village board stood ready to help remedy the problem.

The pond’s appearance has caught the attention of former village Mayor Pierce Hance and Diane Schiavoni, both of whom walk their dogs past it on a daily basis, as well as Jerilyn Rothman, who lives just to the north.

“The main thing that got me,” Mr. Hance said, “is you used to see something and then it was gone. But this year it just seems to have taken off.”

Jeff Peters, a member of the village’s Harbor Committee, who lives across the street from the pond, said he too had grown concerned by the pond’s appearance. “It’s like the movie, ‘The Blob,’ he said, adding that he too believed a lack of proper flushing was at fault.

Ralph Berardi, who grew up on Oakland Avenue and spent many days fishing in Otter Pond, said he used to catch large stripped bass, fluke, blackfish, perch and eels in the pond.

“I really believe the cause of the whole thing was when they reconstructed the bridge” on Main Street, he said. “Now the water has to come up another foot and a half before you get a good clear flush into and out of the pond.”