Moriches Bay

List of Species of Special Emphasis



I. SITE NAME: Moriches Bay


II. SITE LOCATION: The Moriches Bay habitat complex consists of the segment of the barrier beach and backbarrier lagoon system on the south shore of Long Island, east of Great South Bay and west of Shinnecock Bay, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) east of New York City.

TOWNS: Brookhaven, Southampton

COUNTY: Suffolk

STATE: New York

USGS 7.5 MIN QUADS: Pattersquash Island, NY (40072-67), Quogue, NY (40072-75) Eastport, NY (40072-76), Moriches, NY (40072-77)

USGS 30x60 MIN QUAD: Long Island East, NY (40073-E1)


III. BOUNDARY DESCRIPTION AND JUSTIFICATION: The Moriches Bay habitat complex includes the entire 3,836-hectare (9,480-acre) aquatic environment of Moriches Bay, Moneybogue Bay, and Quantuck Bay; this includes open water, salt marshes, dredged material islands, and intertidal flats, as well as the eastern end of the Fire Island barrier island, the western end of the Westhampton Beach barrier island (the barrier island between Moriches and Shinnecock Inlets), Moriches Inlet, and the nearshore waters of the New York Bight. The western boundary of this complex is the Smith Point Bridge; the eastern boundary is the eastern edge of Quantuck Bay. This habitat complex also includes the tidal creeks and marshes feeding into Moriches Bay from the Long Island mainland and the adjacent uplands of the William Floyd Estate. This boundary encloses regionally significant habitat for fish and shellfish, migrating and wintering waterfowl, colonial nesting waterbirds, beach-nesting birds, migratory shorebirds, raptors, and rare plants.


IV. OWNERSHIP/PROTECTION/RECOGNITION: Smith Point County Park, to the west of Moriches Inlet on the eastern end of the Fire Island barrier island, and Cupsogue County Park, to the east of the inlet on the western end of the Westhampton Beach barrier island, are both owned and managed by Suffolk County. The rest of the Westhampton Beach barrier island is in village or private ownership. The town of Brookhaven retains ownership to offshore islands, including East and West Inlet Islands, Carters Island, and New Made Island. The 248-hectare (613-acre) William Floyd Estate, located on the south shore of the mainland, is owned and managed as an historic site by the National Park Service. Several small parcels of marsh and adjacent upland on the mainland (John's Neck Creek, Haven Point, Quogue Wildlife Refuge, and Moneybogue Bay) are owned by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and managed as conservation areas. The remainder of the north side of the bay is primarily in private ownership. Significant Coastal Fish and Wildlife Habitats recognized by New York State Department of State include Moriches Bay, Smith Point County Park, and Cupsogue County Park. The New York State Department of State is in the process of developing a regional coastal management plan for the south shore of Long Island (South Shore Estuary Reserve) that includes this area. Moriches Bay Tidal Creeks site is recognized as a priority wetland by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the federal Emergency Wetlands Resources Act. The town of Brookhaven recognizes the coastline of Moriches Bay as a Critical Environmental Area under the State Environmental Quality Review Act. The Atlantic Coast Joint Venture of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan identifies the South Shore Mainland Marshes as a focus area. The focus area plan identifies 39 marsh sites for acquisition and/or restoration along the mainland from the Robert Moses Causeway east to Shinnecock Bay, including nine sites along Moriches Bay. Parts of Fire Island have been designated and mapped as otherwise protected beach units pursuant to the federal Coastal Barrier Resources Act prohibiting incompatible federal financial assistance or flood insurance within the unit. The New York State Natural Heritage Program, in conjunction with The Nature Conservancy, recognizes Moriches to Westhampton Beach as a Priority Site for Biodiversity with a rank of B2 (very high biodiversity significance).


V. GENERAL AREA DESCRIPTION: The Long Island barrier beach/backbarrier lagoon system extends for 145 kilometers (90 miles) along the south shore from Coney Island in New York City, east to Southampton at the eastern end of Shinnecock Bay. The bay complex occurs in the Atlantic Coastal Plain physiographic province. The bay and barrier beach sediments are composed predominantly of sand and gravel derived from glacial outwash and marine sources. The Moriches Bay complex as defined here includes 23 kilometers (14 miles) of this system from Great South Bay east to Shinnecock Bay. Of the three narrow south shore bays with inlets, Moriches is the shallowest; most of the bay is 2 meters (6 feet) or less in depth. The bay is fed by numerous small, freshwater, coastal streams of groundwater origin on the mainland, the Forge and Terrell Rivers, and ocean water transported through Moriches Inlet. The barrier islands are characterized by sandy beaches and dunes on the ocean side and extensive salt marshes and tidal flats bordering the bay. About 50% of the bay area is marshes and shoals. Moriches Bay occupies an area of about 38 square kilometers (14.8 square miles) with a watershed of about 242 square kilometers (93 square miles).

Benthic biomass components in Moriches Bay are present in greater abundance in the moderately to densely vegetated areas. The distribution and abundance of benthic species in the bay's eelgrass (Zostera marina) community is likely controlled by a number of factors; these include eelgrass stem density, water temperature and salinity, sediment type, predation, food supply, and human harvest. Dominant species include polychaetes such as common clam worm (Nereis virens), common bamboo worm (Clymenella torquata), thread worm (Lumbrineris tenuis), capitellid thread worm (Heteromastus filiformis), painted worm (Nepthys picta), white clam worm (Nereis acuminata), and Prionospio heterobranchia; the bivalves blue mussel (Mytilis edulis) and northern quahog (Mercenaria mercenaria); the amphipods Ampelisca abdita and Lysianopsis alba; the mud crab (Dyspanopeus sayi); and the tunicate golden star (Botryllus schlosseri).

Near the inlet, and offshore of tidal marshes and dredged material islands, extensive mud and sandflats are exposed at low tide. Shallow subtidal areas are vegetated by eelgrass and seaweeds, primarily the green algae (Cladophora gracilis), sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca), hollow green weeds (Enteromorpha spp.), and green fleece (Codium fragile). Vegetation on the barrier island is typical of coastal plant communities in this region; tidal areas on the back side are dominated by cordgrasses (Spartina alterniflora and S. patens), while dense shrub thickets composed primarily of beach plum (Prunus maritima), bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), and poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) have developed in backdune sand swales and other areas above tidal influence. American beachgrass (Ammophila breviligulata) is the dominant species of the primary dunes. The eastern end of Fire Island and the western end of Westhampton Island are both fairly wide and undeveloped, and both contain significant natural vegetation. The middle (Pikes Beach) and eastern (Westhampton Beach) parts of the Westhampton barrier island are developed, with a paved road bisecting the island lengthwise, large houses, groins perpendicular to the beach, and significant erosion downdrift (west) of the groin field, resulting in an inlet breach during the severe winter storm of 1992 that was subsequently filled.

Habitat in the William Floyd Estate is diverse, ranging from tidal salt marsh through brackish and freshwater systems, with a gradual transition to upland deciduous forest. Several large, open fields occur at the site and are managed for grasses and forbs. The Quogue Wildlife Refuge is a complex of wetlands and wet pine barrens in a braided stream valley.


VI. ECOLOGICAL SIGNIFICANCE/UNIQUENESS OF SITE: Moriches Bay is a regionally- significant habitat for fish and shellfish, migrating and wintering waterfowl, colonial nesting waterbirds, beach-nesting birds, migratory shorebirds, raptors, and rare plants. There are 105 species of special emphasis in the Moriches Bay complex, incorporating 42 species of fish and 41 species of birds, including the following federally and state-listed species. (Living resources and their habitats are dynamic; therefore, the ecological significance and species information presented here may not be complete or up-to-date. State and federal environmental agencies [see Appendix III for office contacts] should be consulted for additional information.)

Federally listed endangered
peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus)
roseate tern (Sterna dougallii)

Federally listed threatened
loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta)
piping plover (Charadrius melodus)
seabeach amaranth (Amaranthus pumilus)

Federal species of concern(1)
northern diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys t. terrapin)

1Species of special concern listed here include former Category 2 candidates.

State-listed endangered
least tern (Sterna antillarum)

State-listed threatened
northern harrier (Circus cyaneus)
osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
common tern (Sterna hirundo)
button sedge (Carex bullata)
tick-trefoil (Desmodium ciliare)

State-listed special concern animals
Cooper's hawk (Accipiter cooperii)
short-eared owl (Asio flammeus)

State-listed rare plants
small graceful sedge (Carex venusta var. minor)
bog aster (Aster nemoralis)
Nuttall's lobelia (Lobelia nuttallii)
pine barren sandwort (Minuartia caroliniana)

Moriches Bay is of regional importance for marine finfish, shellfish, waterfowl, shorebirds, and many other species of breeding, wintering, and migratory wildlife. This abundance of species is a result of the rich estuarine habitats around rivers and streams on the mainland, the high primary productivity of salt marshes that fringe the inner, bayside shore of the barrier island, and Moriches Inlet, which exchanges and circulates bay waters. Moriches Inlet provides a corridor for fish migration into the bay and is a prime feeding area for adult striped bass (Morone saxatilis), bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix), American lobster (Homarus americanus), and other wildlife, including common terns and roseate terns.

The bay supports an outstanding winter flounder (Pleuronectes americanus) fishery, and serves as both nursery and foraging ground for yearling striped bass and bluefish, American shad (Alosa sapidissima), and summer flounder (Paralichthys dentatus), or fluke. Species that spawn in the bay include winter flounder, weakfish (Cynoscion regalis), Atlantic silverside (Menidia menidia), killifish (Fundulus spp.), and American sandlance (Ammodytes americanus), as well as the commercially valuable blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) and northern quahog (hard clam). The Forge River is reportedly an important spawning ground for striped bass. In addition, many species of migratory birds use the bay's salt marsh and dredged material islands during the breeding season. The waters of Moriches Bay support significant concentrations of wintering waterfowl, especially scaup (Aythya affinis and A. marila) and American black duck (Anas rubripes), as well as lesser numbers of Canada goose (Branta canadensis), mergansers (Mergus spp.), brant (Branta bernicla), mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), canvasback (Aythya valisneria), common goldeneye (Bucephala clangula), and bufflehead (Bucephala albeola). Diving ducks are distributed throughout Moriches Bay. Concentration areas include the bay between Forge Point and Tuthill Point, Tuthill Cove, Hart Cove, Seatuck Cove, and the area behind Cupsogue and Westhampton Beach extending out into the bay. Dabbling ducks are more evenly distributed in small numbers along the north shore of the bay and along the back side of Cupsogue Beach and Smith Point County Park.

Harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) use the bay in winter, especially a regular haulout site on Cupsogue Beach. Gray seal (Halichoerus grypus) sightings have increased in recent years in locations similar to those of the harbor seal. Cetaceans include minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), which occur in the nearshore waters throughout the year, and bottlenosed dolphin (Tursiops truncatus), which occur inshore during the summer and fall. Juvenile loggerhead sea turtles regularly use Moriches Bay in the summer; adults and juveniles occur in nearshore water all along Long Island's south shore. Juvenile green (Chelonias mydas) and Atlantic (=Kemps) ridley (Lepidochelys kempii) sea turtles occur in the adjacent waters of Great South Bay and may occasionally occur in Moriches Bay. Northern diamondback terrapins inhabit the marshes and waters of the bay, going ashore to breed in the dunes and sandy swales of the barrier beach.

Common terns have nested in large numbers on two salt marsh/dredged material islands behind Fire Island (Carter's Island and New Made Island) and two dredged material islands near Moriches Inlet (East and West Inlet Islands), but only smaller numbers of terns have nested in recent years. These islands have also supported nesting by small numbers of black skimmer (Rhynchops niger) and American oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus). East Inlet Island also has nesting by small numbers of roseate terns, and is one of the few locations in Long Island where roseate terns nest or have nested; West Inlet Island also had nesting by roseate terns in the 1980s. Carters Island supported the largest number of least terns on Long Island in 1995 (516 pairs); a small number also nested at East Inlet Island. West Inlet Island has a heronry with great and snowy egrets (Casmerodius albus and Egretta thula) and glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus), as well as occasional nesting by double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) and herring and great black-backed gulls (Larus argentatus and L. marinus). Seaside and sharp-tailed sparrows (Ammodramus maritimus and A. caudacutus), clapper rail (Rallus longirostris), and green-backed heron (Butorides striatus) nest in adjacent salt marshes. The extensive tidal mudflats are a rich feeding ground for thousands of migratory shorebirds, especially in the fall; shorebirds using these mudflats include whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus), sanderling (Calidris alba), dowitcher (Limnodromus spp.), and several species of sandpipers and plovers, including piping plover. The flats also provide foraging habitat for sanderlings during the winter.

Piping plover and least tern nest on the sandy beaches of the barrier beach complex to the west of Moriches Inlet at Fire Island East (Smith Point County Park), and to the east of the inlet at Westhampton Island West (Cupsogue County Park) and Westhampton Island (Pikes Beach, Westhampton Beach). This is one of the more important stretches of beach for these two species along Long Island's south shore. In 1995 there were 34 pairs of piping plovers and 235 pairs of least tern on this stretch of beach. A breach in the barrier beach that occurred during storms in late 1992 at Pikes Beach resulted in the creation of a recurved spit in the bay and an unvegetated low-lying beach extending from the ocean to bay approximately 0.5 mile wide that supported 15 pairs of piping plovers in 1994 with one of the highest productivity rates in the area. The inlet was closed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the summer and fall of 1993. The complex of dunes, interdunal swales, and salt marshes on both barrier islands are important as a hunting ground for migrating and wintering hawks and owls, including peregrine falcon, American kestrel (Falco sparverius), merlin (Falco columbarius), Cooper's hawk, sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus), northern harrier, osprey, short-eared owl, and snowy owl (Nyctea scandiaca). Rare plants on the barrier islands include seabeach amaranth and seabeach knotweed (Polygonum glaucum) at several locations on both barrier islands, and an occurrence of pine barren sandwort (Minuartia caroliniana) on Fire Island.

The upland community of the William Floyd Estate provides habitat for breeding American woodcock (Scolopax minor) and a variety of migrating and nesting songbirds, while adjacent tidal areas afford habitat for nesting American bittern (Botarus lentiginosus), seaside sparrow, and osprey. This area is one of the few remaining sites on the south shore of Long Island where tidal wetlands are contiguous with an undeveloped upland buffer. One rare plant, small graceful sedge (Carex venusta var. minor), is known from the site. A swamp along an impounded pond in the Speonk River has an apparently native, possibly naturalized, population of the southern species sweet bay (Magnolia virginiana). Wetlands and wet pine barrens in the Quogue Wildlife Refuge in the headwaters of Quantuck Creek support several rare plant species including button sedge, reticulated nutrush (Scleria reticularis), bog aster, and Nuttall's lobelia.


VII. THREATS AND SPECIAL PROBLEMS: Intense recreational pressure in the county parks, including the use of off-road recreational vehicles, has disturbed or destroyed least tern and piping plover nesting areas and habitat for beach strand plants such as seabeach amaranth and seabeach knotweed; it has also contributed to destruction of dune and marsh habitats. There is an absence of active management of breeding bird colonies on bay islands by federal, town, or county agencies to control human disturbance, vegetation, and/or predators. As a result, at least one of the breeding islands formerly used by roseate and common terns has been co-opted by gulls, and a major least tern nesting colony was destroyed by recreational vehicles at Cupsogue County Park in 1989.

Increasing development of the mainland shoreline to private residences, including high density condominiums and townhouses, is altering and eliminating tidal and freshwater wetlands, thereby posing a threat to wildlife species dependent on these habitats. Continued residential development on the Westhampton barrier island, rebuilding homes destroyed by inlet breaches, and erosion control projects to protect these homes will reduce the suitability of this habitat. Lack of permission from private landowners in Westhampton Beach to allow fencing and predator exclosures to protect nests of piping plovers and least terns on the barrier island allows human disturbance and predation of these beach-nesting birds. The expansion of marina facilities, increased recreational fishing pressure, and water quality degradation from road runoff, septic systems, and duck farm wastes is negatively impacting the Moriches Bay ecosystem. Proposed erosion control projects on the barrier beaches may eliminate natural habitat variability on the barrier islands, limit the amount of foraging habitat for piping plover, and destroy or degrade seabeach amaranth populations.


VIII. CONSERVATION RECOMMENDATIONS: The limited nesting and feeding areas for threatened, endangered, and special concern species need to be safeguarded and more effectively managed using a variety of mechanisms, including beach closures to off-road vehicles, cooperative agreements, beach warden patrols, public education, and predator removal/control. Efforts should be made to identify and implement pertinent tasks and objectives of the piping plover, seabeach amaranth, and roseate tern recovery plans that may be applicable to this area, including restoration or enhancement of degraded sites where appropriate. Designation of the bay and its special habitats as part of a National Estuarine Research Reserve or as Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention would provide national and international recognition and much-needed habitat enhancement, protection, and management oversight of these regionally significant waters and wetlands. Such designation may help to curtail the development of the remaining shoreline and wetland habitats.

There are extensive areas of degraded tidal marsh along the south shore of mainland Long Island that have been identified for restoration as habitat for American black duck and associated species by the North American Waterfowl Management Plan - Atlantic Coast Joint Venture. A total of 17 sites from John's Neck Creek (just east of Smith Point) east to Aesop's Neck Land in Quantuck Bay were identified for possible restoration in a plan put together by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in cooperation with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Proposed actions include open marsh water management, removal or regrading of dredged material, breaching of berms, addition or replacement of culverts, and construction of weirs.

Consideration should be given to the elimination of duck farm wastes entering the estuary and to controlling nonpoint sources of pollution, especially from road runoff, as a means of protecting the bay fishery and maintaining habitat quality. A study by Suffolk County has recommended 2 acres per dwelling unit for septic systems and sewering of areas with densities greater than one unit per acre. Active management of colonial waterbird nesting habitat may increase the potential for recolonization of suitable nesting areas.

Disturbances to wintering and nesting bird populations need to be minimized or eliminated entirely, particularly for colonial beach-nesting birds such as least terns and piping plovers. Human intrusions into beach nesting areas during the critical nesting season (April to August) should be prevented using a variety of methods, including protective fencing, posting, warden patrols, and public education. Because of the large degree of privately-owned lands, public education and cooperative approaches with landowners are essential to successful protection of beach species in this area. When predation is determined to be a problem, predator control and/or removal should be instituted. Fencing and protection of beach-nesting birds should be expanded to include protection for seabeach amaranth and seabeach knotweed, where appropriate.

Dredging of Moriches Inlet with associated dredged material deposition and erosion control projects along Fire Island and Westhampton Beach should be done in a way that recognizes the dynamic nature of barrier islands, natural processes such as overwash and breaching, the needs of the natural communities, and fish and wildlife species that occur in the nearshore waters, on the beach and dunes, and in the backbarrier bays and marshes. The enhanced nesting and productivity of piping plover at Pikes Beach following a breach indicate the importance of these natural processes for providing appropriate nesting and feeding habitat. Before projects proceed, more information is needed on the impacts of various erosion control options on the bay resources and on the beach resources, especially the federally listed threatened seabeach amaranth and piping plover.



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List of Species of Special Emphasis


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