Born and raised on Long Island, I have been exploring the wilds of Long Island for over 30 years. My passion for coastal ecology, but more importantly fishing, led me to obtain a BS in marine science from Long Island University at Southampton. Through my photography, writing and lecturing I enjoy bringing public awareness to the diverse wildlife that calls the island home.
One of the most important marine habitats of Long Island is the Peconic Estuary. Beginning at the headwaters of the Peconic River (located near the Brookhaven National Laboratory), the estuary separates the North and South forks of Long Island and ends at an invisible line that is drawn between Montauk and Plum Island. Containing over 280,000 acres of watershed and estuary, it is vital habitat for countless aquatic and terrestrial species. The following photographs are just a few of the fascinating marine inhabitants of the Peconic Estuary.
Of all the marine organisms that reside in the waters around Long Island, none have had a greater influence on my life than the winter flounder. At the early age of 6, my dad took me fishing for the very first time along the walls of the Peconic Bay side of the Shinnecock Canal. After catching my first fish, which happened to be a two-pound winter flounder, I was “hooked” on the field of marine biology and to this day, fish still control my mind.
Winter flounder are well-suited for a life on the bottom. Masters of camouflage, flounder have the ability to change their color and pattern in an instant to match their surroundings. For added concealment, they can bury in the substrate with just a flick of their tail, leaving only their eyes exposed. Lacking the sharp teeth that are possessed by their summer cousin the fluke, winter flounder feed on a variety of soft-bodied organisms such as worms, shrimp and bivalves that have been previously opened by other predators.
Porgies (aka Scup)
Every spring, large schools of porgies flood into the Peconic Estuary to spawn. As pelagic spawners, there is no parental care for their future offspring. Instead, the young fish seek protection within eelgrass meadows and beds of marine algae that grow within the estuary. These safe havens not only provide shelter, they supply an abundance of food in the way of small invertebrates such as worms, shrimp and mollusks for the fast-growing juveniles to feed on.
As adults, porgies can grow to 18 inches and weigh four pounds, making them a popular fish for anglers to target in the Peconics during the summer months. They are fairly easy to catch, put up a good fight when caught and make great table fare.
In addition to being a favorite among seafood lovers, the bay scallop is the official seashell of New York. Accenting their beautiful shell are 18 pairs of bright, blue eyes that are capable of detecting the movements of a potential predator. When a threat is near, the scallop will close its shell and wait for the danger to pass. If the danger persists, they are capable of “swimming” to safety by clapping the two halves of their shell together. This clapping motion is created by the scallop’s single, large abductor muscle. Unlike other bivalves (clams, mussels, oysters), this muscle is the only part of the scallop that is eaten, as the rest of the scallop is discarded.
No fish puts a bigger smile on an angler’s face than the northern puffer. Due to its exceptional defense mechanism, the northern puffer often goes by the nickname blowfish. When threatened, they will blow up like a balloon by pulling water into their stomach. Hopefully their increased size will be enough to deter a predator. However, if they are caught off guard their larger size should make for a meal that is much more difficult to swallow than originally expected.
Flat-clawed Hermit Crab
Unlike other crabs, hermit crabs lack a hard shell to protect their abdomen. Rather their body is soft and worm-like. To avoid predation, hermit crabs must find an empty snail shell to live in. As they grow, they are forced to find a new, larger shell. This new shell can be found, stolen from another hermit crab, or even taken from a live snail. The flat-clawed hermit crab in this picture has taken residence in the empty shell of a northern moon snail.
Looking like a cross between a praying mantis and a shrimp, the mantis shrimp is a crustacean known as a stomatopod. Equipped with many unique features, the mantis shrimp is one efficient predator.
The eyesight of a mantis shrimp is one of the most complex and advanced in the animal kingdom. Containing 16 types of photoreceptors, compared to three in the human eye, they are capable of seeing polarized light as well as light in the ultraviolet wavelengths. Their eyes, which are located at the end of stalks, can be controlled independently of one another, allowing the mantis shrimp to survey its surroundings with ease. In addition, they have trinocular vision, which gives them superior precision when chasing down prey.
Lined with many razor-sharp spines, the front claws of a mantis shrimp are capable of lunging forward at a speed 50 times faster than the blinking of a human eye. When prey such as a small fish is located, they will aggressively attack it by slashing and impaling it with its claws. This method of catching quarry has earned them the nickname “Knuckle Splitters” by local baymen who catch mantis shrimp as by-catch while dragging scallop dredges and accidentally get their hands slashed while sifting through their catch.
Although considered a pest by most anglers, spider crabs are an important part of our local marine ecosystems. Having very poor eyesight, spider crabs find food by searching the bottom with sensory organs that are located at the end of their legs. As they slowly walk along the bottom they pick up dead and decaying matter, acting as part of the cleanup crew of the bay.
As adults, spider crabs have very few natural predators within the Peconic Estuary, especially males, as they get much larger than females. Juveniles are not so lucky. Their slow, unaggressive nature makes them an easy meal for many species of fish, birds and even sea turtles.
Also known as “sea squirts,” tunicates are simple organisms that have a bag-like body containing two siphons. Water enters the tunicate’s body through the first siphon and food is filtered from the water before exiting through the second siphon.
Although they can be quite beautiful, they are one of the most destructive organisms found within the estuary. Several species make up the local tunicate populations, all of which are invasive species originating from Europe and Asia. As encrusting organisms, they can overtake entire shellfish beds, smothering them to death. They are also problematic in the aquaculture industry, where they foul shellfish cages/pens and clog seawater filtration systems.
Rummaging through the wrack line of a beach, you might find something that looks like a twisted spine of an animal. This is an egg case that belongs to either the knobbed or channel whelk, aka scungilli. It is made up of many capsules, each containing 20 or more eggs that will hatch looking like miniature adults. After mating, a female whelk will attach the egg case to the bottom, where it hopefully will stay until the young hatch. Occasionally, storms will break the egg case free from the bottom, allowing currents and waves to wash it ashore. Once dried, the egg case will sound like a rattle when shook. If you should open one of the dried egg capsules, you will find that the rattle sound comes from the juvenile snail shells that unfortunately perished when the egg case beached.
With a degree in marine biology from LIU/Southampton, Chris Paparo is the manager of Stony Brook University’s Marine Sciences Center at their Southampton campus. Additionally, he is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and the NYS Outdoor Writers Association. You can follow Paparo on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @fishguyphotos, or by visiting his website at fishguyphotos.com.