April 18, 2023
Featured image: Egrets in the Meadowlands © Hackensack Riverkeeper
(NEW YORK-NEW JERSEY HARBOR ESTUARY, UNITED STATES) –
The New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary is located in the largest metropolitan region in the United States, where more than 14 million people work and raise their families and millions more come to visit from around the world every year. Throughout more than three centuries, the water in the estuary was degraded due to pollution and habitat destruction from activities like untreated sewage, industrial waste dumping, dredging, and development. The quality of the water hit its lowest point in the 1960s, a turning point in which New York State voters passed the Pure Waters Bond Act in 1965 and the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 was passed when several public and private NGOs and agencies began focusing on its recovery and pushed improved regulations and enforcement, coastal land use policies, public access, research, and education. In the half-century since then, water quality improved, and biodiversity improved, including fishes, the return of bird life, and even charismatic whales.
International marine conservation nonprofit Mission Blue has declared the New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary as a Hope Spot, with Dr. Judith S. Weis, Professor Emerita at Rutgers University and Rob Pirani, Program Director, NY/NJ Harbor & Estuary Program (HEP), as the Hope Spot Champions in recognition of their work to connect their community of urbanites with the natural world around them through campaigning for continued improvement in water quality, habitat restoration, and community engagement programs.
Dr. Sylvia Earle, Founder of Mission Blue says, “This place is highly urbanized; located in the largest metropolitan region in the United States. It is not a place that you would think of normally as a reason for hope – but a transformation is taking place. From a time when this place was largely a rich natural area to one that became, over the years, systematically degraded, it is now enjoying recovery because of positive actions that are taking place.” She continues, “New York City’s and New Jersey’s waterfronts provide many activities, including the opportunity to mingle with wildlife. This area is evidence of what people can do when they care and when people put in the work for a better place for nature and for humans. It is achievable!”
Weis says, “The NY-NJ Harbor Estuary serves as a connector, bringing together diverse communities, diverse interests, and millions of people and their cultures. We want the people who pass through or over it daily to appreciate that it once was an open sewer and is now an ecological treasure.” Weis, a Professor Emerita of Biological Sciences at Rutgers University, Newark, spent much of her research career studying the estuarine animals and marsh plants in the Harbor Estuary; she has also conducted research in Indonesia and Madagascar. A Fulbright scholar, former President of the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) and Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in 2016, she received the Merit Award from the Society of Wetland Scientists.
Pirani is an urban planner by trade, whose perspective of the estuary reflects how humans relate to the world around them. “We want the public to understand that people are a part of the ecosystem; the health of the ecosystem directly correlates to that of our own,” he explains. Pirani has received awards from the Environmental Advocates of New York, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and The New York Harbor School Foundation, and has served as a founding board member of the four-state Highlands Coalition, Governors Island Alliance, and Brooklyn Greenway Initiative.
Javier Laureano, Ph.D., EPA Region 2 Water Director, says, “Mission Blue’s designation of the NY/NJ Harbor and Estuary as a Hope Spot is an important and shining affirmation of positive improvements made in the harbor complex. It also gives us further resolve to affect more critical improvements to the estuary and water quality, which benefits people and the ecosystem.”
Capt. Bill Sheehan of Hackensack Riverkeeper says, “When I founded Hackensack Riverkeeper back in 1997, I used to think that maybe, someday, we’d see an Osprey or even a Bald Eagle over the river. Well, twenty-five years later – and just in the greater Meadowlands area alone – we counted twenty-five Osprey pairs and five pairs of nesting eagles. All of that was due to cleaner water and the return of Menhaden and many other forage fish.”
Weis’s and Pirani’s goals for the Hope Spot include stimulating more habitat restoration, reducing pollution, especially plastics, and educating diverse groups about the estuary. “We want to improve public access to the estuary from underserved neighborhoods that do not yet have easy access, but yet have often carried the weight of degradation”, Weis says. “We work with the many public outreach groups in New York and New Jersey who are already working on these issues to help shine a light on the potential opportunities.”
Cortney Koenig Worrall, President & CEO of the Waterfront Alliance says, “Waterfront Alliance is proud to have supported Hope Spot designation in an effort to continue raising awareness and appreciation of the critical role the estuary holds in our region and across the globe. Like the communities who depend on it, the New York- New Jersey Harbor Estuary has remained resilient in the face of challenges. This critical ecosystem is a shared place of strength and hope for our region.”
Lower Manhattan was once an extensive marsh system, and the three major area airports were all built on filled-in coastal marshes. Large garbage dumps were located on the shores – Fresh Kills in Staten Island, dumps in Brooklyn, and in the Hackensack Meadowlands. These are being transformed into parks for the public to enjoy nature and recreation. Coastal marshes degraded and lost by development are now being restored. Oysters, which disappeared over 100 years ago due to overharvesting and pollution are now actively being restored around the estuary.
The Hope Spot Champions and their partners are focused on protecting the remaining open spaces adjacent to the Harbor Estuary from development. This can be done by conserving and enhancing these “last bastions” that help create more habitat connectivity, provide resiliency and flood storage during storms, and provide public access to the waterways. For example, more than 200 acres of Liberty State Park, an area with sandy beach, coastal marsh, tide pools, mud flats and upland maritime forest, is to be restored as part of HEP’s Comprehensive Restoration Plan. At the same time, a large and important section of the Park – Caven Point – is being threatened by a developer who wants to turn a portion of it into part of a golf course.
Weis recalls, “Years ago, I remember being nervous about wading in the water and mud to collect samples.” She continues, “It was incredibly contaminated. There was little public access and few public parks, in any case, few people would have been interested in access to highly polluted, smelly, waters.”
What was once a place of destruction is now filled with parks and walkways all over the estuary, connecting the area’s millions of city-dwellers to not only the natural world around them but to each other. “People are now kayaking and swimming there. We want the public to understand how far we have come, which gives us hope for the future,” says Weis. “However,” she warns, “There is much more work to be done. For those of us who remember ‘the bad old days’, we understand what we can never go back to.”
About NY/NJ Harbor & Estuary Program (HEP)
Working with its public and civic partners, HEP develops and implements a consensus-driven plan to protect, conserve and restore the estuary. HEP’s activities are carried out by staff and partners organized through committees and work groups. Dr. Judith Weis serves as Co-Chair of HEP’s Science and Technical Advisory Committee and other HEP collaborators are champions of the estuary’s continued improvement. Part of the National Estuary Program authorized under the Clean Water Act, HEP is hosted by the non-profit Hudson River Foundation.