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Tidal Exchange: Spring 2004

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Spring 2004 Issue

Harbor Estuary News Contents

The State of the Estuary
New Report Takes the Pulse of the Harbor
(Click Here)
Nancy Steinberg

Invasive Species Update (Click Here)

A Novel Way to Identify Pollution Prevention
Strategies for the NY/NJ Harbor
(Click Here)
Susan E. Boehme and Marta A. Panero

The Dismal Swamp
New Jersey’s Hidden Treasure
(Click Here)
Robert Spiegel

Species Profile: Marsh-elder & Groundsel Bush (Click Here)
Margaret Gargiullo

The State of the Estuary
New Report Takes the Pulse of the Harbor
back to top
Nancy Steinberg

More oxygen, fewer pathogens, less habitat loss, but perhaps fewer numbers of some fish species and continuing problems with contaminants – these are a few of the environmental trends observed in the Harbor Estuary and described in a new report produced by the Hudson River Foundation for the NY-NJ Harbor & Estuary Program.

The report, entitled Health of the Harbor: The First Comprehensive Look at the State of the NY/NJ Harbor Estuary, tracks trends in a series of indicators that shed some light on whether conditions in the estuary are improving. The indicators were chosen at a workshop held in 1995, attended by over 100 environmental managers, scientists, citizens, and others interested in monitoring the health of the estuary. While not all the recommended indicators could be included due to lack of data, the report tracks progress in a series of indicators, ranging from dissolved oxygen levels to acreages of wetlands to concentrations of toxic contaminants in sediment.

The report’s findings indicate overall improvement in the estuary’s condition, although some serious challenges remain.

In the area of habitat, the report found that while about 80% of the estuary’s tidal wetlands have been destroyed, compared to historic acreages, the rate of loss has significantly declined in recent decades. As of the mid-1980s and early 90s, there were approximately 200,000 acres of tidal marshes remaining in the entire state of New Jersey and about 25,000 acres in New York, the vast majority of which were outside of the urbanized harbor core area (the Hackensack Meadowlands being a notable exception). Approximately 20,000 acres of tidal wetlands now remain in the harbor core area in both states. Also, most of the 224,000 acres of freshwater wetlands that existed in the urban core area in pre-colonial times are now lost. However, due to more stringent protection laws brought about by the Clean Water Act, the rate of wetland and nearshore habitat loss has significantly slowed. Loss of area in Newark Bay illustrates this trend: filling activities in the Bay resulted in a loss of about 20% of the Bay’s surface area between 1935 and 1975, but the area of the Bay has remained virtually the same between 1976 and today due to the curtailing of fill activities.

While the estuary has not lost any of its native fish species, there have been both positive and negative trends in recent decades in abundance of various key species. Striped bass numbers, although variable, have remained fairly consistent in the past two decades, but at the same time abundances of other species seem to be falling. For example, Figure S-1 depicts trends in abundance of white perch, a close cousin to the striped bass, in Haverstraw Bay. This small resident fish has experienced troubling declines between 1980 and today. Similar declines are described in the report for American eel and American shad.

Trends in concentration of toxic materials in the estuary’s fish and sediments are somewhat similar to those for wetlands destruction: a downward spiral in estuarine quality followed by significant improvement. However, challenges remain in the area of toxics. Figure S-2 depicts concentrations of mercury in the estuary’s sediments over a range of decades, as measured in sediments cores (columns of intact sediments) taken in quiescent areas where sediments are undisturbed after depostion. Levels are compared to the 4ER-M (Effects Range – Median) for mercury, a non-regulatory guidance value indicating the median level at which the contaminant begins to be associated with adverse biological effects. While levels of mercury have declined dramatically in all areas of the estuary, they are still above the ER-M in all basins. More work on sediment contamination reduction needs to be done to address this and similar problems. Levels of contaminants in fish tissue are also still of concern in the estuary, resulting in continued health advisories against the unrestricted consumption of fish, which more and more people enjoy catching.

Thanks to sewage treatment plant upgrades and more strict discharge permitting required by the Clean Water Act, nutrient and pathogen levels in the estuary have both improved. Figure S-3 depicts the overall declines in concentrations of fecal coliform bacteria measured in the harbor’s waterways over time. (Note that data for much of the NJ portion of the harbor did not exist prior to 2003.) The improvements evident in each successive time period are due to the construction of new sewage treatment plants, as well as upgrades to existing plants. In 1974, many sewage treatment plants in the New York/New Jersey area were not yet upgraded to secondary treatment, meaning that raw sewage continued to be discharged in some locations, and disinfection was sporadic. At that time, most areas exceeded bacterial standards for either fishing or bathing. In 1985, some upgrades had been made to existing plants, but two of the City’s plants were not yet built (North River and Red Hook). In 1988, large improvements occurred due to the operation of these new plants, which ended the discharge of approximately 210 million gallons per day of untreated sewage from Manhattan and Brooklyn. By 1998, further improvements to the plants, significant reductions of illegal discharges and increased maintenance of the sewerage system caused mean fecal coliform levels to drop even further.

Because dissolved oxygen is so critical to sustaining marine life and is a direct measurement of water quality, it has been used to gauge the health of the harbor for almost a century. Figure S-4 presents dissolved oxygen data collected between 1946 and 2001. During this period, there has been an upward trend in the levels of dissolved oxygen in both surface and bottom waters of the harbor. Conditions improved swiftly and dramatically starting in the early 1970s because of construction and upgrading of sewage treatment plants. Previously, dissolved oxygen levels in bottom waters of the harbor were routinely below 1.5 mg/L during the summer months (although the averages were always higher, as reflected in the figure), and therefore lethal to most organisms. These conditions would often persist for many weeks at a time. Throughout this entire 55-year period, average oxygen concentrations have been above the EPA’s guideline of 2.3 mg/L, the minimum concentration to which marine organisms can be exposed for more than 24 hours without experiencing increased mortality of juveniles and adults.

The biggest challenge in preparing the report was the lack of data for many of the indicators that had been recommended back in 1995. The report outlines recommended indicators for which improved or wholly new monitoring programs must be implemented, including fish tissue contamination, fish populations in the lower estuary, harmful algal blooms, sediment toxicity, contaminant loadings, habitat acreages, and bird reproductive success, among others.

Health of the Harbor is available online or in hard copy from the Harbor & Estuary Program: www.harborestuary.org 212-637-3816 or the Hudson River Foundation: www.hudsonriver.org 212-483-7667.

Nancy Steinberg works on a freelance basis on a variety of environmental outreach, communication, and policy- related projects from her home in coastal Oregon. She is one of the co-authors of the State of the Estuary report, a project she began during her eight-year tenure as a Research Project Associate for the Hudson River Foundation before she moved west.

Invasive Species Update back to top

Northeast Rapid Assessment Aquatic Invasive Species Survey Data Available
Data from the August 2003 Northeast Rapid Assessment Aquatic Invasive Species Survey conducted from Maine to NY-NJ Harbor has been compiled and is now available on the web. In addition, data from the aquatic invasive species survey that was conducted in Massachusetts and Rhode Island in 2000 can be found on this website. The 2000 and 2003 surveys found 34 introduced organisms and 37 cryptogenic organisms (native geographic distribution is unknown). The MIT Sea Grant website contains a list of the introduced and cryptogenic species, along with a description of each. An interactive mapping tool allows visitors to see which species were found at each of the sampling locations. massbay.mit.edu

Governor McGreevey Establishes a NJ Invasive Species Council
In response to the economic and ecological threat that invasive plants, insects, and other organisms have on natural and agricultural resources, Governor McGreevey has formed a New Jersey Invasive Species Council. The NJ Invasive Species Council will be responsible for developing a comprehensive NJ Invasive Species Management Plan by June 2005. The Council will be co-chaired by the NJ Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bradley M. Campbell and Department of Agriculture Secretary Charles M. Kuperus.

Global Ballast Water Treaty Finalized
The international community consisting of 74 States during a diplomatic conference at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in London from February 9-13, 2004 adopted the International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast Water and Sediment (also known as Global Ballast Water Treaty). The Convention focused on preventing, minimizing, and eventually eliminating the spread of harmful aquatic organisms and pathogens through the control and management of ships’ ballast water and sediments. One achievement under the Global Ballast Water Treaty is the establishment of a discharge standard that limits discharge of organisms by size and concentration. www.imo.org

A Novel Way to Identify Pollution Prevention
Strategies for the NY/NJ Harbor
back to top
Susan E. Boehme and Marta A. Panero

As attitudes toward our region’s Harbor have evolved and we look to the waters of the NY/NJ Harbor Estuary not only as a resource for commercial and industrial activities but also as an asset for recreation and a source of pride, we must be ever mindful that pollution continues to enter our waters from a wide range of sources. Our attention over the last 20 years has focused on clean up and regulation of the major pollution sources, and major strides have been achieved, making our waters much more conducive to swimming and fishing. But the quest is not over.

Although many major pollution inputs have been either successfully addressed or are in the continuing process of being reduced, other ongoing sources of contamination still confront the Estuary. These sources include old contaminated sites, combustion processes, and small-quantity generators that combine to create a significant aggregate contribution of pollution to the Harbor. The New York Academy of Sciences established its Harbor Project to quantify these pathways of contamination – from initial source through production, use and disposal of products to the NY/NJ Harbor. In an effort to link our research to policy, a Harbor Project Consortium was formed to involve key stakeholders in identifying pollution prevention strategies that would make sense both environmentally and economically – and that could be realistically achieved within the political and regulatory framework of the region.

Our work on mercury illustrates how this approach can result in pollution prevention (P2) recommendation and implementation strategies. Using industrial ecology tools, we were able to identify the cumulative contributions from small quantity generators (e.g., dentists, hospitals and labs, fluorescent lights, switches) as major contributors of mercury to the waste stream (see Figure B-1). We then tracked these products after they were disposed to identify whether mercury would be released to air, water or solid waste.

In some cases, like the mercury released by 8,500 dentists in the watershed, the disposal products were found to have many different fates. For instance, the mercury amalgam released to wastewater can have one of two fates at the wastewater treatment plant: it can either end up in the sludge or be released to the effluent (see Figure B-2). The sludge can then be processed for fertilizer, buried in landfills or incinerated in waste-to-energy facilities and may be re-released from these processes back into the environment.

By following the pathway from production through disposal, we can find leverage points for intervention; identify technologies and alternatives to reduce mercury inputs to the harbor; and develop cost estimates for these pollution prevention alternatives and control technologies. All this data, together with information about mercury toxicity and its behavior once released to the environment, were provided to the Harbor Consortium for use in deciding on overall policy recommendations to abate mercury in the region.

The Academy has completed final reports for mercury and cadmium, the first two contaminants studied under the Harbor Project. Both monographs, “Pollution Prevention and Management Strategies for Mercury in the NY/NJ Harbor” and “Pollution Prevention and Management Strategies for Cadmium in the NY/NJ Harbor,” are downloadable from the New York Academy of Sciences website: www.nyas.org. We are proving that this approach, complemented by current sampling data, can result in tenable P2 strategies for mercury and cadmium. And we are using the experience gained from these research efforts to take on the next toxicants chosen by the Consortium – PCBs, dioxins and PAHs.
These documents and the upcoming reports on PCBs, dioxins and PAHs are the result of a rigorous process undertaken by individuals, from a diverse range of backgrounds and interests, all committed to a common objective: identifying environmentally sound, and economically and politically feasible pollution prevention strategies for the Harbor. The effort is unique in that – for the first time – the research, data collection, integration and recommendation processes have been undertaken under the lens of the public scrutiny, as represented by the Harbor Project Consortium.

This approach has provided an opportunity for direct, ongoing communication between the various stakeholders (industry, small businesses, academia, advocacy and environmental groups, unions) and the scientists undertaking the research; policy experts identifying the views and beliefs of the public; economists determining the costs for pollution prevention. Working in close collaboration with the Academy, the Consortium focuses on identifying those pollution prevention strategies that they and others can use to effectively implement pollution prevention and management.

But identifying the best strategies for pollution prevention is really just the first step. Outreach and implementation, both of which rely on effective communication, must follow. To this end, the project early on conducted a large Survey of Public Opinion in the NY/NJ Harbor Watershed to identify the level of public knowledge about pollution and the Harbor. Specifically, we wanted to know how the public became informed about pollution and environmental issues and what sorts of activities they undertook to help solve the problem (recycling, etc.). From the survey we learned that general meetings are not the best approach to informing people about environmental issues, and it was determined that holding a series of such meetings would not be the best approach. Instead, we have tailored our outreach approaches to the mass media from which people in this region indicated they typically receive information. We have written short newspaper-appropriate articles, for example, on mercury pollution and proper disposal of mercury thermometers. Providing these stories to newswires has resulted in articles being published, both regionally and nationally, in hundreds of newspapers.

Although the mercury and cadmium reports have been published and widely disseminated, work continues in several areas related to their findings. They include: issues associated with releases from dental facilities; mercury switches in automobiles; discrepancies and gaps in fish advisories between NY and NJ; and mercury releases from power plants. Work also is underway on local and regional programs associated with rechargeable batteries (some of which contain cadmium) and we hope to expand these programs in the near future. The success of these strategies and programs to date is due in large measure to the support received from the Harbor Consortium, whose diverse members are themselves the best ambassadors for the projects, especially during the implementation phase. We look forward to the continued challenges of completing this process for our next three contaminants.

Dr. Susan Boehme is the director of the Harbor Project and Marta Panero is the Project Manager, both at the New York Academy of Sciences.

The Dismal Swamp
New Jersey’s Hidden Treasure
back to top
Robert Spiegel

As the largest contiguous wetlands in northern Middlesex County, the 650-acre Dismal Swamp is an environmentally sensitive forested wetlands ecosystem stretching across Edison, Metuchen and South Plainfield. One of the last remaining viable wetland ecosystems in highly urban northeastern New Jersey, the Dismal Swamp is a HEP Priority Acquisition Site, and has been designated “priority wetlands” by both the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Located at the headwaters of the Bound Brook and Green Brook, the Dismal Swamp provides natural flood control and a major aquifer recharge zone, influences a downstream fishery, maintains water quality and filters air quality. The Dismal Swamp also provides much-needed habitat for a wide range of wildlife. An estimated 165 species of birds, 12 species of mammals, and eight species of amphibians and reptiles make their homes in the Swamp. In addition, more than ten State of New Jersey endangered and threatened species – including osprey, northern harrier and vesper sparrow – are known to utilize the wetlands and uplands of the Dismal Swamp. Recent beaver and coyote sightings confirm the area’s habitat value, and the state-endangered (NJ) bog turtle may also utilize the Swamp.

The Dismal Swamp boasts a rich history dating back to prehistoric times, with hundreds of Native American artifacts discovered throughout its southern uplands. Yet in recent decades the Dismal Swamp has largely been overlooked by the general public. Most of the Swamp is located in Edison, one of the largest and most populated municipalities in New Jersey. Both Edison and Middlesex County have large deficits of open space, natural areas and recreational land. However, until recently, there were no hiking trails through the Swamp. Surrounded by residential, commercial and industrial uses, the Dismal Swamp has always been viewed as a place to be developed—not to be enjoyed for passive recreation.

In recent years, the public has finally been given a chance to enjoy this long-hidden treasure. The Edison Wetlands Association (EWA) purchased and preserved the last remaining farm in the area, the Triple C Ranch. With EWA’s encouragement, the Township of Edison declared 270 acres of the Dismal Swamp a conservation area. The Borough of Metuchen created hiking trails through their small portion of the Swamp, and now EWA and Edison are creating hiking and horseback riding trails that will significantly increase public access. Starting at the Triple C, the new trail network will run more than 20,000 feet with interpretive displays and stream crossings. Regionally, the trails will connect to the future Middlesex Greenway corridor.

The recent focus on preservation and recreation stands in sharp contrast to the Dismal Swamp’s primary threats. The Dismal Swamp is comprised of many individual parcels in public and private ownership, and piecemeal development continues to threaten environmental resources. The Borough of South Plainfield in particular encourages development with little concern for its environmental impact.

But development is far from the only threat facing the Dismal Swamp. Five hazardous waste sites are found in the vicinity, including the Woodbrook Road Superfund Site. Illegal dumping continues to blight the area, and off-road vehicles destroy habitat throughout the Dismal Swamp. In February, South Plainfield proposed a major road extension that would bring large truck traffic right through the heart of the Dismal Swamp. Environmental and community groups are actively fighting this project. Additionally, EWA organizes garbage cleanup and conducts invasive plant species management within the Swamp, and is urging the Borough of South Plainfield to begin enforcing its dumping laws.

The Dismal Swamp is critical not only because of its size, age and vegetative complexity, but because of the buffer it provides the contiguous wetlands. The national and regional decline in palustrine-forested wetlands reinforces the Swamp’s special character.

Because of the area’s ecological significance, Edison Wetlands Association recently helped launch Friends of the Dismal Swamp. If we hope to protect the Dismal Swamp from future short-sighted development projects, there remains much work to be done.

Robert Spiegel is the Executive Director of the Edison Wetlands Association (EWA), a grassroots organization dedicated to protecting environmentally sensitive areas of central New Jersey through education, action and public awareness. Operating the last remaining farm in Edison, EWA has taken the lead in protecting the Dismal Swamp from development and pollution threats.

Species Profile: Marsh-elder & Groundsel Bush back to top
Margaret Gargiullo

Salt marshes are highly stressful habitats and relatively few plants are able to adapt to periodic inundation by salt water. These plants must be able to survive oxygen deprivation below the soil and prevent salt from dehydrating tissues. In addition, the mechanical damage by tides and wind on winter ice shears plants off at ground level. It is not surprising then, that there are only two woody plants in the salt marshes of our region.

These are Iva frutescens marsh-elder) and Baccharis halimifolia (groundsel bush). Both are common shrubs in the aster family (Asteraceae), found in brackish and saline marshes. They are similar in appearance. Both are multistemmed and reach a maximum height of about 10 feet. They often form thickets that can be used as shelter by small birds. The roots are important for soil stabilization. Both plants bloom and fruit from August to October. The leaves of are eaten by Paria thoracica, a Chrysomelid beetle.

Iva frutescens is found at the margin between high and low salt marsh, at about the mean high tide line. It ranges along the east coast from Nova Scotia to Florida and Texas. In our region it is usually not more than three or four feet tall. Although it is a woody plant, many stems die back in the winter. The leaves are opposite, but sometimes alternate at branch tips. They are gray-green, rather fleshy with sharply toothed margins. The flowers are small and greenish. Seeds are probably dispersed by water.

Baccharis halimifolia is generally found above the mean high-high tide line, at the upper edges of salt marshes. It ranges from Massachusetts to Florida and Texas. Unlike Iva, it does not tend to die back during the winter and, in our region, is often semi-evergreen. The leaves are alternate, wedge shaped, the lower fairly broad, coarsely toothed on the upper half. The upper leaves are narrow, untoothed and covered with sticky resin, a deterrent to insect attack. Male and female sexes are on separate plants. Female flowers have white plumes for seed dispersal by wind. Male flowers are yellow, due to copious pollen.

Margaret Gargiullo is a Plant Ecologist with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation Natural Resources Group. Photos and line drawings from the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database


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