How do you clean out a bay full of fresh water in the middle of the summer? Simple, just dig it open and release a few million gallons into the ocean.
If you've ever been lucky enough to witness the opening of Mecox Bay in Water Mill, it's a fascinating and calculated project, overseen by the Southampton Trustees. It's also carrying on a nearly 400-year tradition.
The opening of Mecox or cutting of the "Seapoose," the Shinnecock word for "little river," involves making a cut or trench dug into the barrier beach that separates a bay from the ocean. In essence, creating a little river from the bay to the ocean.
Millions of gallons of bay water rushes out, then millions of gallons of sea water rushes in, repleneshing the bay. The Shinnecock are believed to have dug the seapoose to maintain the salinity of the bay in order to harvest the shellfish there, including oysters & soft clams. Today the Trustees also do it for the exact same purpose, as well as to reduce flooding of shoreline properties surrounding the bay.
According to Town records, the first recorded cut was made in 1644. Back then it involved nearly the entire town, as colonists were required to help make the cut. It was backbreaking labor then, dug by hand and with animals. Today a backhoe does the job in as little as two hours.
Secretary Treasurer Fred Havemeyer has overseen the project for the past 11 years. He says, "It's an absolutely integral part of the ecosystem".
If they did not open Mecox, the bay would eventually overflow on its own, in effect cleaning itself out, but the trustees do it in a controlled manner.
The Trustees monitor Mecox on a nearly daily basis, deciding when is the best time to dig based upon when high tide occurs. The time of day, position of the moon and wind conditions also play a role. Mecox is usually opened about once every month and a half.
Mechanical problems can throw a wrench into the best laid plans. Unfortunately Monday's dig had a few technical glitches when one machine broke down and a stubborn high tide delayed the release. But the machine was quickly replaced and Mecox was opened by early evening, with the full force of the water release not happening until after 10 p.m.
So now, how do you close a gigantic gash in the earth, that has millions of gallons of water gushing out of it? Nature very cleverly takes care of that all on it's own.
Depending on tides and weather, the seapoose can stay open for as little as a day or as long as two weeks. But during that time, the large amount of bait fish leaving the bay, in turn attracts even larger fish offshore, which on occasion creates a feeding frenzy, offering prime fishing opportunities for local surfcasters. Then when the seapoose closes up, the entire process begins again.