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Tidal Exchange: Fall 2002

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Fall 2002 Issue

Harbor Estuary News Contents

Taking the Pulse of the Harbor Estuary
New Report Tracks Human Health-related Environmental Indicators
(Click Here)
Nancy Steinberg

Update from the Program (Click Here)
Bob Nyman

A City's New Wetland: Four Acres Minus Eleven Houses Equals a New Park for Rahway, New Jersey (Click Here)
Steve Barnes

Capt. Pete Says... Baked Blackfish (Click Here)
Peter L. Sattler

Taking the Pulse of the Harbor Estuary
New Report Tracks Human Health-related Environmental Indicators
back to top
Nancy Steinberg

Perhaps the hardest questions for those involved in environmental restoration and protection to ask themselves are, “how are we doing? Are things improving?” Tracking progress is a crucial undertaking, whether one is concerned with the recovery of a patient, status of the economy, or health of the environment. The approach to evaluating the health of all three of these examples is essentially the same: examine trends in indicators that will reveal something meaningful about the condition or status of the subject. Much as vital statistics or economic indicators can reflect the health of a medical patient or the state of the economy, environmental indicators can tell us about the condition of the environment: whether it is improving, remaining stable or becoming more degraded. Environmental indicators can help us to determine whether the management tools employed and the money spent thus far have been effective in protecting the estuary ­and they can prove invaluable in guiding future management efforts.

In March of this year, the Hudson River Foundation completed the first of two reports for the Harbor & Estuary Program tracking trends in environmental indicators for the estuary. This report, entitled Harbor Health/Human Health: An Analysis of Environmental Indicators for the NY/NJ Harbor Estuary, focuses on environmental indicators related to human health, while the next report will examine more general environmental indicators. Harbor Health/Human Health examines trends over time and across the harbor for 10 indicators ranging from sediment contamination to numbers of beach closures to incidence of human illness caused by consuming contaminated shellfish. Indicators were selected from a list of recommended indicators outlined in HEP’s 1996 Environmental Monitoring Plan. Data for the report were gathered from a variety of government agencies, academic scientists, and private organizations involved in monitoring the health of the estuary.

The report’s findings generally depict an estuary that is improving in quality, but also highlight the fact that more work lies ahead. Figure 1 (data from New York State Department of Health) shows that incidence of typhoid and hepatitis related to consumption of contaminated shellfish has plummeted since the early part of the last century, reaching 0 cases by the 1990s. This decrease is generally attributed to better sanitary conditions in the estuary, but can also be linked to better education of consumers and more restrictive regulations on shellfish harvesting.

Other positive signs are illustrated in Figure 2 (data from New York State Department of Environmental Conservation), which shows levels of PCBs in striped bass in the estuary. Average PCB concentrations in striped bass flesh have been declining since the late 1970s when their release into the river was banned. (Note, however, that levels increased in the early 1990s in the Albany-Peekskill region due to a sudden release of PCBs after the collapse of an abandoned structure near a General Electric facility.) As of 1998, mean PCB concentrations in all regions were below 2 parts per million (ppm), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guideline for commercial sale indicated by a black line on the graph. PCB levels in Long Island Sound striped bass are shown in the inset figure for comparison.

Evidence that more work needs to be done to improve conditions in the estuary is shown in Figure 3 (data from NYS DEC). This graph shows mid-1990s PCB concentrations in a variety of edible estuarine species. The square symbols indicate the mean PCB concentration found in that species for all areas of the estuary, while the lines and circles show the range of concentrations found in individuals of that species. While most mean PCB concentrations are near or below 2 ppm (with the notable exception of blue crab and lobster hepatopancreas, or “tomalley”), the ranges of concentration show that individuals of some species are still above the FDA guideline.

It is important to recognize that the 2 ppm FDA guideline for PCBs is 17 years old and increasingly criticized for failing to take into account current information about PCB health effects, especially in relation to recreational fish consumption patterns. More recent health guidance developed by eight states bordering the Great Lakes, using more current science, sets guidelines for fish consumption at much lower concentrations than the standing FDA limits.

In addition to the FDA guidelines for commercial sale of fish, the states of New York and New Jersey issue health advisories concerning the consumption of recreationally-caught fish in much of the harbor for most of the species referred to here. Advisories can be found on the websites of the New York State Department of Health (www.health.state.ny.us) and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (www.state.nj.us/dep).

Perhaps the biggest challenge in producing the Harbor Health/Human Health report was limited data availability. Since HEP had recommended using a number of indicators for which little or no data collection takes place, analyzing trends in those indicators was impossible. Data availability was sometimes a problem even for those indicators included in the report. For each indicator, the authors evaluated the spatial and temporal availability of data. In some cases, data were not available for enough years to determine a trend, and in others data were collected frequently in some parts of the estuary but not at all in others. For other indicators, data were hard to obtain because they were not in electronic format or well organized in a data management system. The report recommends improving data collection for specific indicators, including contaminants in fish tissue, harmful algal blooms, and sediment contamination and toxicity.

Harbor Health/Human Health can provide critical information on how to proceed with environmental protection measures in the estuary. “With this study, we now have a better feel for where to focus our efforts going forward,” said Dennis Suszkowski, the Science Director of the Hudson River Foundation and Co-chair of the HEP Science and Technical Advisory Committee. “Newark Bay and the Kills remain primary geographic areas of concern; fish contamination remains a significant threat to human health, and we are still finding toxic leaks and unexplained concentrations that need to be addressed. While the overall picture is quite positive, there is still much work to be done in cleaning up the harbor.”

The companion report examining a broader range of indicators will be released in early 2003. The Harbor Health/Human Health report can be downloaded from the Hudson River Foundation’s web site, www.hudsonriver.org. Hard copies can be requested by calling the Harbor & Estuary Program at 212-637-3816 or by sending e-mail to info@harborestuary.org.

Nancy Steinberg is one of the co­authors of the Harbor Health/ Human Health report. Until a recent move to coastal Oregon, she was a Research Project Associate with the Hudson River Foundation. She continues to work for HRF on the broader environmental indicator report for HEP, and works on a freelance basis on a variety of other environmental outreach, communication, and policy-related projects.

Update from the Program back to top
Bob Nyman

For many of the key HEP participants, it appears that this is a time of retirement, promotion, and reorganization. There has been significant change on the Policy Committee and, to a lesser extent, on the Management Committee. Because there are so many new people, I thought it would be useful to provide an overview of three of the major segments of the Harbor & Estuary Program structure: the Policy Committee (PC), the Management Committee (MC), and the Program Office. Future articles will focus on the makeup and activities of the technical work groups and advisory committees.

Membership on the PC and MC was established early on in the program. Since then, it has been modified only slightly by Policy Committee resolution. The fixed number of seats on the PC (seven) and MC (nineteen) are allocated to organizations or categories, not specific people. While some of the positions are in flux due to retirements and elections, the following list is a snapshot of who is currently involved with overseeing the activities of HEP.

Policy Committee:

The PC is at the top of the food chain. These are the high level, big picture thinkers. They meet twice a year, or as necessary, to resolve issues and provide overall program direction. The PC also approves the program budget and annual work plan in the Spring of each year. All members of the PC have representatives on the MC who are responsible for keeping them informed about HEP matters between meetings.

The PC’s most recent meeting occurred on October 1st, when one of the main discussion items was the Targets and Goals document. On that item, the PC: approved the five subject areas of that document (Swimming and Fishing, Habitat and Ecological Health, Public Access, Clean Sediment and Navigation, and Stewardship); charged the MC with developing indicators for the goals and defining a range for each of the targets; approved the idea of working towards an official Governor/EPA Administrator signing ceremony; and requested that they meet again in six months to review progress. Complete minutes from this and past meetings are available on the HEP website, www.harborestuary.org.

Management Committee:

The Management Committee reports to the PC. Members meet quarterly to review progress, identify issues requiring resolution, and make sure that the decisions of the PC are carried out. The MC has broader representation than the PC, and works to integrate issues from across the estuary. The various technical work groups, whose roles will be described in future articles, take their direction from the MC. There is also a subgroup of the MC, known as the Management Committee Work Group, that interacts more frequently to queue items up for MC action.

HEP Program Office:

In September 1998, the Policy Committee approved formation of the HEP Office with an EPA employee as Director. EPA subsequently established the Office on the 24th Floor of 290 Broadway and provided office support services. A portion of the NEP funds are used to support the Outreach Coordinator and the Technical Specialist, both of which are staffed by Sea Grant personnel, one from each state. The New York City Soil and Water Conservation District also has two staff involved with stewardship activities co-located in the HEP Office.

The Program Office is where the day-to-day oversight of the Harbor & Estuary Program takes place. The office develops programmatic documents, such as work plans, budgets, review materials, and technical white papers; oversees programmatic grants and mini-grants; tracks CCMP implementation; participates in and coordinates activities of the technical work groups; develops outreach materials (including The Tidal Exchange); maintains the HEP website; and supports the operation of the MC and PC. The Program Office also has the ability to prepare it’s own press releases and get involved in educating elected officials about the Program’s activities.

A City's New Wetland: Four Acres Minus Eleven Houses Equals a New Park for Rahway, New Jersey back to top
Steve Barnes

The people involved with the Rahway wetland restoration project had been working six years toward these four September days; and with fourteen thousand plants in pots and flats laid out in the parking lot of St. John’s Russian Orthodox Church adjoining the site, there were “what ifs” going through people’s minds. What if the weather’s bad tomorrow; what if the volunteers needed for each of the four days of replanting don’t show up in the numbers needed; what if…? Like many restoration projects there’d been plenty of other “what ifs” prior to now, and more planning and management put into the project than actual in-ground work; still, by September 10 there’d been plenty of that too.

The four and one-quarter acre site is located inside a bend of the main branch of the Rahway River, at the river’s head of tide and not far from the City of Rahway’s central downtown area. At one time there were eleven houses on it; houses that often stood in several feet of water ­and a great deal more during hurricane Floyd - when the river overflowed its banks. The City had purchased the houses and helped relocate the families that lived in them as a matter of public safety.

Four and one-quarter acres of open space in a highly urbanized area doesn’t go unused in some way for very long, and even before the empty houses were demolished, Rahway River Association and Baykeeper suggested a use - turn the site back into what Nature was saying it should be, a floodplain habitat area. What was unique about their suggestion - other than its highly urbanized location - was that there would be no administrative cost to the City for the project; all that would be required was the City’s permission to do the work. The City liked the idea, but naturally wanted to see what kind of project they wouldn’t have to administer.

The six years of the project began in 1996 when Rahway River Association and Baykeeper, the first two partners in the project, contacted the engineering consulting firm they’d been working with on another restoration project - TRC/Omni Environmental Services - who also saw the potential for the project and quickly became the third partner. In April 1999, the preliminary drawings and architect’s design were presented to the City of Rahway, and the following month, the City Council gave its approval for the project and even provided funding for the planning work through a grant from FEMA.

But the City, now the fourth partner in the project, didn’t own all the land on the site; about a half acre was owned by Union County. Fortunately, the county Parks Department was enthusiastic about the project, and offered to add the entire site to their already extensive network of parks and open space along the Rahway River. The County Freeholders passed a resolution similar to that passed by the City, and the fifth partner in the project was on board.

What came next was over three and a half years of angst - a web of ups and downs of planning, searching for funding, applying for permits, and somehow getting around all the stumbling blocks that miraculously appear just when everything’s going well - all of which is too complex to adequately explain in less than a three-volume narrative (and too agonizing to relive just yet). Suffice it to say that the Fates were seeing to it that Murphy’s Law was liberally applied. However it wasn’t the final determinant. In the spring of 2002, the first bulldozer put its blade in the ground.

The significant trees already on the site were retained and the project was designed around them. The site now features a series of four ponds at different elevations - two intermittently wet alternating with two continually wet - all separated from the river by a low berm. At the upstream end, water enters the site from storm drains and from the river when it’s above bankfull level. At the downstream end, the lower wet pond connects to the river through an outfall through the berm, which also allows water to enter the site during high tide periods.

Most of the soil excavated to form the ponds was kept on site and used in several ways. After the City removed the asphalt roadways, some of the soil was used to create upland areas over the remaining sub-roadbed; more of the soil was used to form the berms and shaped into raised pathways that allow visitors to tour the site. The cleanest soil - that least laden with rocks and roots - was mixed with composted material and put back into the ponds to create the organic soil layer required for restored wetland areas. Shaping the ponds went very well; Union County Parks Department contributed the heavy equipment for this, and an operator, John Rapocchio, whose skills with a bulldozer can only be described as artistic. By late August most of the site was ready for replanting.

The four days beginning September 11 were chosen in order to have the replanting serve as a living memorial to the victims of the events of the prior year. For the project partners and their staff they were long days starting just after the sun rose and ending as it was starting to set - and the “what ifs” of the day before turned out to be unfounded. People came from communities throughout the area to help; Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, parishioners of St. John’s Church led by Father Andrew and his family, senior citizens, students, County and City employees, employees of Merck and other corporations, to name just a few. More than 450 volunteers participated over the four-day period. To say they dug holes and put plants in the ground does little justice to their efforts and all the help they provided, and is an imperfect way to describe what they accomplished. The volunteers quite literally transformed the nearly barren four and one-quarter acres into a living entity. As each section of the site received its plants, insects and birds returned, and new wildlife sightings are still being reported. It’s now quite evident that the ecosystem that should be there is well on its way to being reestablished.

The last “what if” - what if it doesn’t rain - was also answered favorably. The Rahway Fire Department provided hoses and nozzles, and one of their trucks. The sight of water being sprayed at 1500 pounds pressure from the top of a sixty foot ladder truck over nearly half the site at a time makes one want to give up lugging buckets of water forever. And the Fates had apparently abandoned their application of Murphy’s Law - the rains returned a few days later.

There’s still more work to be done, and monitoring and maintenance will continue for several years. Technically the project’s been very successful; the plants are doing well and all the “plumbing” works as expected. And the insects, birds, amphibians, and mammals that have returned to the site seem to find it acceptable. But the result of the first six years work is perhaps best summed up by one of the ladies, Eleanor, who volunteered for the replanting and visits the site regularly. As a girl, Eleanor lived on the site in one of the houses that was demolished, and climbed in one of the trees that was saved. She said, “It looks a lot better this way.”

Steve Barnes is Vice-President of the Rahway River Association and Co-Chair of the HEP Citizens Advisory Committee.

Capt. Pete Says... Baked Blackfish back to top
Peter L. Sattler

Blackfish (Tautoga onitis) season opened in October. Actually, it never closed; the bag limit increased from 1 to 10-a-day, which sets the stage for a giant fish fry. This full-bodied fish is a tough fighter, a finicky eater and makes a delicious meal. This KISS recipe (Keep It Simple Stupid) can be prepared, cooked and on the table in less than 45 minutes!!

2 Fillets, skinless, boneless
2 Lemons, cut in slices & wedges
2Tbl Butter or margarine

Rinse fillets in cold water, pat dry, place in
baking dish

Place butter and lemon slices on fillets, sprinkle
with paprika, salt & pepper

Place in preheated 3500F, bake for 30 minutes

Serve with lemon wedges

I highly recommend spaghetti with oil & garlic as a go-along. A perfect wine for this fish is a Pinot Grigio served ice cold.


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