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A Step Toward Plum Island Preservation?

Thu, 06/20/2019 - 10:10

In what environmental advocacy organizations are calling a victory for wildlife and the ecosystem, both the State Senate and the Assembly approved bills Friday setting up a marine mammal and protection area around Plum Island, Great Gull Island, and Little Gull Island.

The legislation now goes to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to be signed into law. It comes amid continued efforts by local officials and nonprofit organizations to block the Department of Homeland Security’s plan to sell Plum Island in 2022, after it shuts down the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. In March, a coalition of federal lawmakers, including Rep. Lee Zeldin, introduced the Plum Island Preservation Act of 2019 — the fourth such effort Mr. Zeldin has been involved in — to preserve the island.

Erin McGrath, policy manager of the New York chapter of the Audubon Society, called the bills “a huge win.”

“It’s such a rich, biodiverse area, and we really need to protect those, given how much habitat has been damaged, unfortunately,” she said.

The legislation would establish a 1,500-foot protective border, measured from mean sea level, around Plum, Great Gull, and Little Gull Islands. Ms. McGrath said it would not only protect marine mammals and sea turtles but also birds such as roseate terns, including thousands of pairs of the federally protected species, which rely on the islands as nesting habitats.

“Plum Island, Great Gull Island, and Little Gull Island provide a critical habitat, and a lot of it is untouched habitat, which makes it very rare for New York State,” Ms. McGrath said. “We’ve been pushing for this bill for several years.”

The legislation stipulates that “nothing in this act shall be deemed to impose new fishing restrictions.” It would allow the State Department of Environmental Conservation to “adopt regulations preventing the harassment and providing for the protection” of sea turtles and marine mammals, and would set up a state committee dedicated to examining the issue.

“From a conservation perspective, understanding that they’re here and it’s a common occurrence is what we need the public to understand,” said Rob DiGiovanni, executive director and chief scientist of the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society. “Seals are here, sea turtles are here.”

The legislation recognizes that fact, Mr. DiGiovanni said. “If you’re aware that animals are there, you’re going to keep an eye out for them, and then the unintentional impacts are minimized,” he said. “It will make it safer for the animals as well as the people who use the resources.”

The Senate bill was sponsored by Senator Monica R. Martinez, whose Third District includes Long Island’s South Shore directly west of the East End’s First District, which is represented by Senator Kenneth P. LaValle. In the Assembly, the corresponding bill was sponsored by Assemblyman Steve Englebright, who was a scientist before being elected to the Assembly. Both legislative bodies were unanimous in their decisions.

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