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Life in the Waters of Long Island Sound

The bottom dwellers

Plants and animals that live on or in the floor of a saltwater body like the Sound are collectively called benthos. These bottom dwellers include seaweeds and eelgrass, one of the few plants to live with its roots always below water; many kinds of worms and hard-shelled creatures that burrow in the sand or mud; barnacles, oysters, and mussels that attach themselves to hard surfaces; lobsters and crabs that crawl on the sea floor; and flatfish such as flounder that swim along the bottom.

Among the mollusks, most of which have soft bodies and hard shells, periwinkle snails and blue mussels are found along any rocky shore. Clams prefer muddy or sandy floors, and both hardshell and softshell clams are harvested from tidal flats. Mud snails also live in tidal flats, while ribbed mussels and coffee bean snails inhabit salt marshes.

Since the mid-19th century, commerical oystermen have been farming oysters in the Sound. It’s a labor-intensive business. Oysters live the first few weeks of their lives as free swimmers, and then are ready to settle down to the bottom. In July, oystermen clean the bottom at locations favored by the settling youngsters and spread old oyster shells, which the youngsters prefer to cling to. After the oysters have lived where they settled for a while, the shells with the oysters attached are gathered and moved to deeper, calmer waters, where they can grow in uncrowded conditons.

When the time for harvesting approaches, the oysters are moved back to shallower nutrient-rich waters to grow larger and tastier. They may be moved two or three times, according to the need, before they are harvested and sent to market. The largest production of Eastern oysters on the Atlantic coast is in Long Island Sound, and oysters from the Sound are known for their high quality.

A wide variety of crabs with delightful names live on the bottom and can sometimes be seen along the shore: blue crabs, which have blue legs and are favorites on the dinner table; Jonah crabs, which are also edible; the abundant green crabs used for bait; spider crabs, also called decorator crabs; mole crabs, which can be seen running from waves on beaches; hermit crabs, which live in snail shells; fiddler crabs, with their one huge claw; and big horseshoe crabs, which aren't really crabs at all, but are related to spiders. Several types of shrimp are found in the Sound, where they feed in shallow waters. There are the tiny prawns, also known as glass shrimp because they are transparent, and the somewhat larger sand shrimp found among rocks and algae. These are not the familiar shrimp of shrimp cocktails, but are smaller and serve as an important source of food for other animals.

Although generally thought of as a resident of Maine, the American lobster also lives happily in Long Island Sound. When hatched in the spring, the young lobsters are free swimmers until they have shed their shells, or molted, several times. They then become bottom-dwelling predators, feeding on small fish and animals, and even other lobsters. Several million pounds of lobsters are taken from the Sound each year by commercial lobstermen.

The water dwellers

All the water above the bottom of the Sound is known as the water column, and its inhabitants range from microscopic algae, to finfish sought by commercial and sport fishermen, to occasional visitors from the ocean – dolphins, beluga whales, and turtles. Harbor seals also pass through the Sound when they migrate north and south with the seasons.

Plankton are plants and animals that drift or swim only weakly in the water. Most are very small and many are single-celled. Phytoplankton, the plant planktons, are at the base of the food web, along with larger seaweeds and marsh grasses. Because they need sunlight to carry out photosynthesis, phytoplankton live between the water's surface and the depth where sunlight no longer penetrates.

Many finfish and most shellfish spend the early part of their life cycles as zooplankton, the animal planktons. Zooplankton and other aquatic animals feed on phytoplankton, and these in turn become food for larger animals.

The fish found in Long Island Sound come there to breed, to feed, or just to pass through on their way up and down the coast. There are two primary types of fish in the Sound: anadromous fish and saltwater fish.

Anadromous fish are born in freshwater, spend their lives in saltwater, and then return to freshwater to reproduce, or spawn. The Sound also supports the reverse life cycle of a large population of American eels, which live in fresh or slightly salty waters and then pass through the Sound on their way to spawn in saltwater.

The well-known anadromous species in the Sound are striped bass, Atlantic salmon, and American shad. Striped bass, which are highly prized by sportfishermen, are plentiful. They migrate through the Sound to and from the Hudson River or the Chesapeakek Bay.

Huge numbers of shad and Atlantic salmon once passed through the Sound and traveled back up the Connecticut River to spawn. When development placed dams in their path, their numbers greatly diminished. The salmon became almost extinct.

In an effort to restore the salmon and shad, fish ladders have been built at dams all the way up the Connecticut River. There is now one major natural shad run there each April. In a program of the Connecticut Bureau of Fisheries and Wildlife, efforts to bring back the salmon are under way. Young salmon are raised in hatcheries and released into the river. Those that make it back to the river to spawn are caught in traps at the dams, their eggs are stripped, and the young raised in captivity and again released. Thus far, only small numbers of salmon are returning.

Saltwater fish are born and spend their entire lives in saltwater. Some live in the Sound year round. The comings and goings of others, notably the bluefish, are governed by seasonal temperature variations.

Winter flounder, so called because they are among the fe feww fish that can be caught in the winter, scup (porgies), and blackfish (tautogs) are year-round residents in the Sound. Sportfishermen from New York and Connecticut take an estimated 6 million pounds of these three species from the Sound each year, a catch about six times larger than that of commercial fishermen. Alewives, menhaden, yellowtail flounder, summer flounder (fluke), butterfish, mackerel, weakfish, and long-finned squid are also caught in Long Island Sound.


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