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Tidal Exchange: Spring 2005

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Spring 2005 Issue

Harbor Estuary News Contents

Gotham Fish Tales
An Urban Angling Story
(Click Here)
Robert Maass

Tidal Wetlands at the Mouth of the Rahway River
HEP Priority Restoration Sites AK1 and AK3F
& Acquisition Site AK6 (Click Here)
Fred A. Virrazzi and William T. Fidurski

Combined Sewer Overflows
An Overview of the Problem
(Click Here)
Cathy Yuhas

Announcing the HEP Conceptual Habitat Restoration Plan
Grant Recipient
(Click Here)

Seals in the Harbor Estuary (Click Here)
Andrea Hallett

Gotham Fish Tales
An Urban Angling Story
back to top
Robert Maass

In 1997 I was commissioned by New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection to photograph various wastewater treatment plants around the city. The scale of the city’s waterworks is massive, treating untold millions of gallons daily, but I came away from the experience equally fascinated by the employee-fishermen who, by dint of proximity and access, fished the rivers they neighbor. This odd juxtaposition was the kernel which began my odyssey in producing the documentary Gotham Fish Tales.

The waters of New York City are alive! Gotham Fish Tales tells the exuberant fish stories of New York anglers who are plumbing the city’s unexpectedly healthy waters to hook all manner of fish. Sport fishing in New York City is as good as any of the best known U.S. coastal fishing destinations, bar none.

More than 250 species of fish live or migrate through New York, some in great numbers. From marshy bays to industrial cul de sacs to the Hudson to the Long Island Sound, tidal waters pulse with marine life.

New Yorkers who fish city waters are a relatively small group who, like their counterparts in more bucolic settings, are dedicated to the sport. The season runs mainly from the end of March until December, though the big migrations of striped bass begin towards the end of April followed by large numbers of bluefish. These two species commingle in local waterways throughout the summer, peaking in the late fall as they return to winter habitats. Among the many species that live or pass though local waters are weakfish, flounder, fluke, blackfish, sea bass, porgies, false albacore and many, many other less sought after species.

Gotham Fish Tales finds fishermen in all five boroughs of the city. Although the majority of anglers can be found at places one might expect - like the shores of Jamaica Bay, the beaches of the Rockaways or at parks bordering the Long Island Sound - these are only the more obvious spots. Other spots favored by locals can be anywhere where access to the water is possible. For example, fishermen spend countless hours along the FDR drive above 96th street in Manhattan, where strong tidal action attracts fish. A Spanish Harlem group calling themselves the River Rats (named after the ubiquitous rodent commonly seen there) can be found by the railing from spring to fall. They hold weekend cookouts by the cooling air of both the East River and the whizzing cars of the highway.

There are different pockets of access along the mostly built-up shoreline, some legal and some not, which dogged fishermen find a way to use. Some of this is inspired by the special attraction of a spot that, on a particular stage of the tide, ought to hold fish. This means that some motivated city anglers are adept at getting to these good spots whether they are open to public access or not. Most hardcore shoreline fishermen of New York City have at least a few fishing spots which they will not readily reveal. As one fisherman filmed in Gotham Fish Tales says, when asked on tape where he is, “somewhere in western Queens by the Long Island Sound.”

Accessibility can be a problem, but with over 500 miles of coastline, the city fisherman doesn’t have to travel too far to find water. Bill Fink, inveterate educator about fishing in the harbor, runs fishing programs in conjunction with Battery Park City, taking mostly school children (but also adults) to fish at Wagner Park near the Battery. The caught fish are put in tanks for examination and are released at the end of each session. “People come up to the tanks, look at the fish and ask, ‘where are they from?’” he explains. “I don’t know where they think they’re from, but they live right here!”

The central theme of Gotham Fish Tales is that there is a marvelous, abundant and diverse fishery in the city. This assertion is often met with skepticism or even disbelief. “How can that be?” There is a large gap between the perception of local waters and the reality, not least by New Yorkers themselves – at least the uninitiated. One happy “River Rat” of the FDR explains, comparing 6the past to present, “There used to be doo-doo on the water…now you don’t see that.” His buddy intones, “People think it’s (the river) a bloodbath, but it’s not. There’s good fishes.” By all accounts the essential factor in the harbor’s rejuvenation was the passage of the Clean Water Act, which mandated many improvements in water quality. Over a generation these have proven to be very effective.

People are always curious about whether or not fish caught in the city can be eaten. The answer is conditionally…yes. It depends on the species – and it depends on who is eating them. For some of the most prized game fish like stripers and blues, NY State issues advisories about how many fish per week or month are considered safe. This is due to their status at the top of the local fish food chain, and that they have more fatty tissue which accumulates toxins rapidly. Strangely enough, another much sought after fish, the flounder (and fluke), which lives its life bottom-feeding, has no specific restrictions attached.

Flounder have little fatty tissue and metabolize what they eat in a way that is safer for consumption. Unfortunately, because children are much more sensitive to toxins, young people under 15 and women of child-bearing age are advised not to eat any fish from the harbor.

Many people conceive of fishing as a pursuit which takes place on mountain lakes, rushing streams or on bays and beaches. This is often the case. It’s appeal lies not only in the chase for fish, but in being in settings which connect to elemental rhythms of the natural world. For city fishermen, the same connection holds true, regardless of the setting. One fisherman in Gotham Fish Tales speaks of “wild America, nature, and the food chain” while fishing from a decrepit industrial pier in South Brooklyn. Another, who stands all summer on the walkway of the Marine Parkway Bridge to the Rockaways, where there is a constant drone of cars and danger of speeding bicyclists, speaks of his perch as “ a nice place to spend the summer.” Proximity to the water, the smell of salty air, and the hope of nabbing a big one give the urban angler the same satisfaction and therapeutic benefit as the fisherman in more pristine settings.

Gotham Fish Tales is a story which presents New Yorkers who happen to fish, who reflect the buoyant spirit of their city. One can only hope that through their stories, more residents learn about the marvelous resource we have in our marine backyard. Then they, like the fishermen, may also become energized stewards of this great resource.

More information and the DVD of Gotham Fish Tales can be found at www.gothamfishtales.com.

There will be a major outdoor screening of the film this summer at Pier 54 (13th street on the Hudson) on July 19, 2005.

Robert Maass produced and filmed Gotham Fish Tales. Maass is a filmmaker and former Newsweek photographer, as well as a fisherman and lifelong New Yorker. Since he began working on Gotham Fish Tales, Maass travels much shorter distances to get his fishing time in.

Tidal Wetlands at the Mouth of the Rahway River
HEP Priority Restoration Sites AK1 and AK3F
& Acquisition Site AK6 back to top
Fred A. Virrazzi and William T. Fidurski

At the mouth of the Rahway River, just before it empties into the Arthur Kill, is one of the area’s largest tracts of contiguous tidal marsh. Bounded by the New Jersey Turnpike to the west and surrounded on many sides by oil storage tanks, over 300 acres of saltmarsh and mudflats provide essential habitat for wildlife. The wetlands span both sides of the river, fall into both Union and Middlesex counties, and are owned by a variety of entities including the Borough of Carteret and private companies. This tidal marsh is also the site of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority’s proposed “Tremley Point Connector Road.”

These wetlands on the Rahway River provide very important habitat for many birds and herptiles in the Harbor area. The New Jersey Audubon Society, as part of the Arthur Kill Tributaries Greenway Project, documented the lower Rahway River and adjoining Arthur Kill as foraging area for nine Harbor Heron species including Great Blue Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Cattle Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron and Glossy Ibis. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron was observed feeding on crabs. The marsh also provides breeding habitat for diamondback terrapin.

Summer sightings included Pied-billed Grebe, American Kestrel, Willet and Osprey. The marsh was also documented as a wintering area for Northern Harrier and Rough-legged Hawk. Breeding Clapper Rail was also observed. Nearby summer sightings were suggestive of breeding Northern Harrier at Piles Creek.

The marsh has substantial spring and fall stopover, serving as a refueling and staging area for various neotropical migrant passerines, as well as herons (Ardeidae), ducks (Anatidae), plovers (Charadriidae) and sandpipers (Scolopacidae). Fall and winter avian use is high until and if freeze out occurs. This marsh, with its central position amongst urban development to the north and south has some finite significance for the migratory survival rate of tens of thousands of birds using this marsh annually.

The tidal marsh falls within the intent of the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and demonstrates priority characteristics amenable to the Audubon Important Bird Area (IBA) Program. Recent visits by zoologists have confirmed continued summer usage by various Harbor Heron species, Peregrine Falcon, Northern Harrier, Osprey, Clapper Rails, Seaside Sparrow and other species. Winter sightings have included Merlin, Northern Harrier, Rough-legged Hawk and foraging Bald Eagle. Least Tern has been noted using the marsh during late summer and in the midst of migration. Black Skimmer has been observed both on the marsh and river. New Jersey Audubon had noted Pied-billed Grebe at nearby Morse’s Creek during late May, thereby raising the possibility of area breeding. Although breeding of Pied-billed Grebe in the tidal marsh at Rahway River mouth has not been documented, use of the marsh during migration is certain.

This wetland complex is now coming under threat in the form of the Tremley Point Connector Road being proposed by the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. The anticipated preferred routing would construct approximately 5,570 feet of roadway and a 600 foot long bridge across the Rahway River with two lanes in each direction and would connect Industrial Road in Carteret with Tremley Point Road in Linden. To date, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority has identified seven potential alternative alignments, including their preferred alternative. The project is currently in the preliminary stages of the NEPA (National Environmental Protection Act) process. Although the extent of wetland impacts associated with the proposed project are still undocumented, any project-related wetlands impacts would likely require permits by both the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Turnpike’s preferred routing would bisect a habitat complex of more than 600 acres of wetland and upland areas in NJ and Staten Island, NY. Potential ecological effects of the project upon this marsh include fragmentation of habitat, increased chemical, noise and light pollution, increased predator accessible edge, increased road kill rate, direct impairment of at least 8 acres of wetlands, and the construction of physical barriers to migration, foraging and movement to breeding areas.

Construction of roadway through the center of the marsh would not only fragment the site into two smaller habitats but could also promote the growth of invasive Phragmites, creating a predator accessible edge. At the same time, the roadway and vehicular lighting could inhibit the breeding of certain bird species, as well as disrupt circadian rhythms of phototactic invertebrates. All of these impacts would be exacerbated by the combined effect of vehicular emissions, water quality impacts caused by road runoff, and a possible increase in road kill.

The physical presence of the roadway and bridge would also create a barrier tomigratory waterfowl and songbirds, which tend to follow coastal landforms and river edges to limit extended flightlines over open water. The new roadway could also have an inhibitory effect on some bird species that follow river corridors to foraging or nesting sites, because of the tendency of predators, such as gulls, falcons and owls, to perch on or under these structures. Barriers like this, through various modalities, could result in the depression of carrying capacity for Harbor Herons and other taxa.

Fred A. Virrazzi is a zoologist and chemist who manages and participates in various ecological projects. He is particularly interested in biodiversity, zoogeography, entomology, avifauna and habitat preservation and restoration in NJ and elsewhere. He has assisted in many conservation and biological survey projects and presently assists various government and private entities, including the HEP Habitat Work Group’s Harbor Herons subcommittee.

William T. Fidurski is a zoologist who served with the US Pubic Health Service in New Jersey in charge of regulatory toxicology initiatives. His participation in habitat preservation initiatives has included that of the Robinson Branch Reservoir Preservation Committee, where he prepared the Natural Areas nomination that lead to the preservation of 150 acres of stream corridor along the Robinson Branch of the Rahway River.

Combined Sewer Overflows
An Overview of the Problem
back to top

Cathy Yuhas

What are Combined Sewer Overflows?

Combined sewers are systems that use a single pipe to transport both stormwater runoff from streets and sewage from households, businesses, and industries to sewage treatment plants. When the treatment plants and collection systems become overloaded with water during a heavy rainstorm, raw sewage and stormwater are released through an outfall into local waterways. This overflow is known as a combined sewer overflow (CSO). During a CSO event, untreated human waste, 4industrial waste, toxic materials, stormwater and street litter are discharged into the waterways. There are over 700 CSO outfalls in the NY-NJ Harbor Estuary, which includes approximately 450 in New York City, 212 in New Jersey, and 26 in Yonkers.

Why were combined sewers built?

Although combined sewers are now known to be a problem, they were originally built to alleviate public health concerns. Combined sewers are found throughout New York City and in older cities located along the Harbor Estuary and its tributaries. New York City built more than 6,000 miles of sewers starting in the late 1600’s and continuing through the early 20th century. In Newark, NJ, underground sewer pipes were installed in the late 1880’s.

Combined sewers were designed to carry both stormwater from streets and human wastes from homes and industries. These sewers not only ended problems of flooded basements and gutters, they also protected people from exposure to disease-causing organisms by carrying away stormwater, garbage, human waste, animal waste, and other refuse that collected on city streets. Combined sewers made sense at the time - there was no treatment of sewage and therefore no reason to build two separate sewer systems.

By the turn of the century, combined sewers comprised 84% of existing sewers in the New York and northern New Jersey region. Water quality conditions in the Harbor and its tributaries were declining because of the high concentration of untreated sewage. To address this problem, municipalities began constructing facilities to treat sewage in the 1920’s, connecting the existing sewer systems to new sewage treatment plants (STPs). To account for high volumes of rainfall, the sewage treatment plants were usually designed to handle twice the average flow of wastewater. As both population and water consumption have grown over time this extra capacity has proven to be inadequate. As a result, the combined flow from a storm has often been more than the treatment plants could handle; so despite improved sewage treatment, CSOs continue to be a major source of pollution.

What are the affects of CSOs?

CSOs can affect the quality of local waters because they introduce pollutants such as pathogens, floatable materials, organic matter, nutrients, and toxic substances.

Untreated sewage often contains pathogens, a group of bacteria, viruses and protozoa that are responsible for many human diseases. When pathogens are present in the water they can be transferred to people through shellfish consumption or accidental ingestion of water while swimming. Elevated levels of pathogens therefore lead to bathing beach closures and restrictions on the harvesting of shellfish. Pathogens can also limit other recreational activities in the Harbor, including swimming, boating, kayaking, fishing and crabbing. Total and fecal coliforms and enterococcus, all indicators human waste, are used to measure attainment of water quality standards in the Harbor.

Floatable materials from CSOs can wash up on beaches making them unattractive and sometimes unsafe. Floating plastic can be harmful to birds and marine animals, while larger floatable debris can pose navigational hazards.

Excess organic matter from domestic, commercial and industrial sewage can lead to reduced levels of dissolved oxygen (DO) in the water. Since most marine organisms require oxygen for respiration, adequate DO levels are essential for sustaining aquatic life. CSOs can contribute excess nutrients to the Harbor in the form of human sewage, fertilizers, and animal wastes. These excess nutrients can increase algae growth, which in turn may increase organic matter and decrease DO levels.

Toxic substances can enter the Harbor through CSOs from runoff, industrial effluents discharged into the sewer system, or household products poured down the drain. Toxic contamination can be found in Harbor sediments and the water column and can accumulate in the tissue of fish and shellfish.

This is the first in a series of three articles on Combined Sewer Overflows. Future issues will focus on actions being undertaken to control CSOs in New York and New Jersey.

Announcing the HEP Conceptual Habitat Restoration Plan
Grant Recipient
back to top

The Rahway River Association and Weston Solutions, Inc. have been awarded a $15,000 HEP grant to collect data and create a plan for restoring fish passage to a portion of the Rahway River. The grant will aid in the conceptual design of a fish ladder at the Water Supply Dam in Rahway, New Jersey, which will allow passage for anadromous fish, such as blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis) and alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus). This project encompasses HEP Piority Restoration Sites AK3J (Rahway River/Union/Allen Streets) and AK3K (Rahway River/Rahway River Parkway Lake).

Seals in the Harbor Estuary back to top
Andrea Hallett

“Wow, I didn't know we could see seals in western Long Island Sound and the Hudson River.” This is heard more commonly these days. In fact, four species of seals can be seen in the Harbor Estuary during the winter months: Harbor seals, Harp Seals, Gray Seals, and Hooded Seals. The most common visitor in our area is the Harbor seal, which has a wide range along the coastal areas of the North Atlantic. Harbor seals are typically spend the spring and summer months in Maine and eastern Canada, then move into our area during the wintertime. The seals are often seen hauled out on ice, rocks, or other platforms as they rest and absorb heat from the sun.

When first born, Harbor seal pups weigh approximately 8-12 kg (18-26 lbs) and are around 70-100 cm (28-40 inches) in length. Juveniles grow very quickly, and adult males can grow to be up to 1.9 meters (6 ft 3 inches) in length, and can weigh up to 170 kg (370 lbs). Adult females are slightly smaller, reaching 1.7 meters (5 ft 7 inches) in length, and weighing in at up to 130 kg (290 lbs). Harbor seals feed on a variety of schooling fish, including herring, mackerel, and flounder. Their large teeth enable the seals to catch their prey, which they then swallow whole. Harbor seals usually dive for only a few minutes, but the longest recorded dive for a harbor seal was 31 minutes long.

Harp seals, the most abundant seal in the Northern Hemisphere, live in very cold, arctic waters. Adult harp seals can be identified by the dark, harp-shaped mark on their back, after which they are named. Newborns are known best for their bright white coat, which is replaced by a more silvery coat after they are weaned. Gray seals are also found in Long Island waters, and can be recognized by their horse-like heads. Male gray seals are darker in color, with light spots on their coat, while females are lighter in color, with dark spots. Hooded seals are another arctic species which can be spotted around Long Island in the wintertime. Adult male hooded seals are known for their extrudable nasal sac, which they inflate to attract females or to threaten other males.

As sightings and strandings in New York waters have increased over the last decade, the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation has dedicated a large portion of its resources to rescuing marine mammal and sea turtles, coupled with educating the public about the presence of these animals. Marine mammals are federally protected and it is against the law to harass them. Public awareness and outreach are crucial to protecting these animals to preventing such situations from happening. To report a marine mammal or sea turtle in need of assistance, call the Riverhead Foundation’s 24-hour emergency hotline at 631-369-9829. Visit www.riverheadfoundation.org for more information.

Andrea Hallett is a biologist with the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation.


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