From “Checking the Sound – Research vessel studies underway” on Newsday by Dianne Selditch

PORT JEFFERSON, N.Y.  – Capt. Helmut Christian Stuebe stood at the helm of the research vessel Onrust as it carried a group of scientists to the middle of Long Island Sound. There they would measure the health of the waterway – probing, poking and even taking its temperature.

Known as “Capt. Chris,” the 59-year-old seaman helped design the Onrust in 1974 for the New York Marine Sciences Institute, based in Stony Brook, N.Y.

He has navigated the boat for the past 18 years, ferrying local and foreign scientists on research expeditions up and down the Sound and the Hudson River.

Now the Onrust (which means restless in Dutch) is assigned to work with the federally funded Long Island Sound Study.

“This is a beautiful sea-going vessel,” Stuebe said last week. He helped christen the boat, which is named after the ship sailed by the Adrian Block, the Dutch explorer who discovered Long Island.

Since April and continuing through October -when water quality in the Sound is most stressed – the ‘ 55-foot boat makes weekly cruises into the Sound. The marine scientists take water samples to be analyzed for the federally funded $10 million project to be completed in late 1990. The on-site sampling will end this year, but other tests will continue for another year.

“The problem right now is that this estuary is so complicated. The only way to know what’s going on is to look at it,” said Henry Bokuniewicz, 39, associate professor of oceanography at the institute, who
is heading up the research and was on board Thursday.

“This is the most intensive study of Long Island Sound yet,” said Bokuniewicz. “Every one of the samples has to be done precisely right. It’s sometimes hard to keep up the concentration. That’s why the 20-year-olds are out there.”

The boat goes out each week on alternating one- and three-day cruises. Following a regular schedule and the same methods of sampling, the Onrust returns to the same 36 locations. The sites stretch from underneath the Whitestone Bridge in New York City to off the coast of Shoreham on Long Island. Included are seven stations in a diagonal that runs from New Haven Harbor to Shoreham, another five between Rye, N.Y., and Matencock Point on Long Island, and several in the middle of the Sound.  Connecticut scientists are taking similar measurements in their own research boat for the eastern end of the Sound.

“We always collect more data in one day than we can analyze in six months,” Bokuniewicz said.

On this blustery morning, Stuebe and his first mate, Bret Zielenski, navigated the boat and dropped anchor in the rough water offshore from Port Jefferson. Because of choppy seas and high winds, the usual day long trip, that sometimes extends 10 or 12 hours, was cut short.

The primary piece of equipment on the research vessel is a large circular contraption called a Rosette sampler. It holds several 4-liter plastic containers and is mounted at the edge of the stern.

Mark Wiggins, one of the researchers, flanked the contraption waiting for the command from mate Zielenski, who had come on deck to commandeer the set of pulleys and hydraulic wire that lower and raise the equipment. The equipment splashed below the surface.

Large black cables spiraled from the water, across the deck and into the cabin, transmitting information from the probe to a computer and portable video display terminal. Richard Muller, chief scientist for field operations, monitored the incoming data.

The cabin, resembling a makeshift laboratory, includes a printer with the computer equipment, a set of beakers used for certain measurements, extra rubber boots and foul weather gear and a refrigerator
with enough food for the three-day trips. A forward cabin sleeps six.

Within a short time, the equipment on deck was raised, and returned to its mount. The men then transferred the water gathered from the depths of the Sound from the plastic containers into smaller plastic bottles that were sealed tight and placed on ice in picnic coolers stored in the cabin. These samples would be shipped to state laboratories in New York and Connecticut for further analysis.

“One of our concerns is that when the water is taken it can’t be, contaminated with oxygen,” said Bokuniewicz, explaining why the measurements for dissolved oxygen had to be analyzed immediately.

The level of dissolved oxygen is one of the major barometers of water quality. Below three parts per million, fish and other marine creatures have difficulty surviving.

To measure the dissolved oxygen, Jon Salerno, a marine specialist, extracted a small quantity of water from a bottle with a syringe, and injected it into a vial, adding several chemicals to create a reaction. Thursday’s reading was 6.5 parts dissolved oxygen, well above the danger zone.

These scientists from New York are working with counterparts at the University of Connecticut Marine Sciences Institute at Avery Point, collecting information on temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen levels, ammonia, phosphate, nitrogen and nitrate content and the absorption of light.

Results of the study, say its champions, will provide the scientific foundation for a cleanup plan, which is estimated to cost billions. A similar study of the Chesapeake Bay resulted in an agreement signed by Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania to reduce nutrients by 40 percent by the year 2000 so the bay could regenerate.

Some of the information will be used to identify currents and circulation patterns. Others help describe the rate of growth of algae. The data will feed a computer model that will be able to analyze and predict these aspects of the Sound, as well as the source of contaminants and its effect on water quality and marine life.

“Sewage plants are pretty rich in nutrients, and we’re concerned about how it fertilizes the algae,” Bokuniewicz said. “But what fraction is supplied by the sewage plants, and how does it affect the Sound? How quickly is it processed by the organisms?”

Answers to such questions will help pippoint, for example, which of 44 sewage plants along the Sound need to be upgraded and to what extent.

“We probably have not seen everything that can happen. During a major storm, or a severely wet or dry season, it’s possible we might be missing something,” Bokuniewicz said.

But from the dozens of trips, and thousands of measurements, they probably have not missed much.

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