The Fight To Preserve Jamaica Bay
By RICHARD SCHACK
Queens is home to the largest urban wildlife preserve in the nation,
but local environmentalists are saying that the ecosystem in and around Jamaica Bay is
being threatened by the deterioration of its marshlands and the end result could mean a
massive loss of wildlife.
Jamaica Bay consists of 13,000 acres off the coasts of
Queens and Brooklyn. The bay surrounds the Gateway National Recreation Area, a natural
preserve containing a wildlife refuge for birds and rare species along with thousands of
other fish and organisms that live and migrate there.
The marshland of Jamaica Bay is considered the heart of the
bays ecosystem, acting as a natural refuge for birds and fish to lay eggs away and
reproduce. It also prevents waves from crashing into and deteriorating shorelines around
Queens and Brooklyn.
Unfortunately, according to environmentalists, the marsh is
deteriorating at a rate of 44 acres a year. At this rate, experts say, there will be no
marsh at all left by the year 2024. That is, unless something can be done about it.
"Simply put, this will be an environmental
disaster," said Dan Mundy, who is leading the crusade to do something to help the bay
before it is too late. "The entire ecosystem of the bay will be changed."
The picturesque waterfront of
Tribune Photo Ira Cohen
About five years ago a group called the Jamaica Bay Eco Watchers,
consisting of local fisherman and led by Mundy, discovered that the marsh islands in the
bay were disappearing.
The findings were later confirmed by a
study by the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
Now, even though the state has confirmed
there is a problem and time may be running out, nobody seems to be entirely sure of the
cause of the problem or how to fix it.
Obtaining funds to restore the marshland, a
goal which Mundy and his allies are trying to reach, has become an obstacle in the fight
for Jamaica Bay.
Mundy is a member of the Jamaica Bay Eco
Watchers and founded the Jamaica Bay Task Force (JBTF), which will be working with the DEC
along with Gateway officials, Congressman Anthony Weiner and other government officials to
find out the cause of the marsh erosion. Mundy will be coordinating the efforts, holding
presentations and trying to gather funding for the project.
Billy G. Garrett is the
superintendent of the Jamaica Bay Unit of Gateway National Recreation Area, said, "We
are very concerned about the situation. The worst part is that we cant do anything
about it until we know whats causing it, which we dont. It could be a natural
problem or it could be something else."
Experts predict massive loss of
wildlife by 2024 if something is not done about the deterioration of marshland
in Jamaica Bay.
Jamaica Bay fisherman and Broad Channel resident Mike McGovern is
a member of the Eco Watchers and believes this is not a natural phenomenon.
"If this is something that is
happening naturally, like if it was caused by global warming," McGovern reasoned,
"then why isnt this happening in other bays, like Long Island or Reynolds
All the agencies have numerous theories why
the wetland erosion is happening at this natural preserve, but the Eco Watchers believe
waste from four pollution plants in the bay is the most likely factor.
There are four pollution plants located in
the bay, which are part of the sanitary sewer system for Brooklyn and Queens. The plants
clean sewer discharge and deposit a daily average of 250 million gallons of it into the
bay every day. On rainy days, as much as one billion gallons of the water are poured into
Its not like the pollution plants are
anything new theyve been there for decades. But a federal mandate passed in
1993 changed what was being deposited in the bay.
The Clean Oceans Act changed the rules
about where waste could be dumped.
According to Mundy, instead of sludge being
dumped in Jamaica Bay, which actually is good for it by acting as fertilizer, liquids are
sucked out of the sludge and dumped in the bay, which many say is bad for it.
The liquids are called centrate, which is
highly concentrated and very high in oxygen. The Eco Watchers claim the nitrogen is too
much for the wildlife, cutting away oxygen and killing the marsh and eventually the
wildlife as a result.
Wildlife has lived the same way for an
estimated 1,000 years in Jamaica Bay. Before the erosion can be stopped more studies must
be done to come to a conclusion about what is causing the problem.
The State DEC is currently in a federal
court battle to stop the centrate from coming in.
Meetings called "Blue
Ribbon Panel" were held earlier in May and consist of top scientists trying to
identify the problem in Jamaica Bay as well as a way to fix it.
Said Garrett, "We dont want to
make decisions based on speculation. We need a good idea of the dynamics of the problem
According to sources at the meetings the
consensus is that the loss of marshes in the bay is unprecedented, occurring more rapidly
than scientists have seen in any other similar place around the country.
Although pollution, powerful waves from
boats, global warming, and natural tidal action have been blamed for the wetlands
deterioration, some scientists believe there are a number of causes, the main one being
In other words, the sediments needed to
build and maintain marshland are getting stuck, unable to perform their function.
Others causes cited include an overgrowth
of mussels preventing natural drainage, a sea level rise, the contaminants from the waste
treatment plants and an overgrowth of seaweed.
Garrett said this is the beginning of a
long process that will result in recommendations being made. Garrett added that scientists
are also looking to see if there is any possibility of restoring some of the lost
Short-term solutions were thought of at the
meetings, and scientists plan on restoring the marsh by "building" new ones. To
do this, theyll be depositing uncontaminated dredged materials in the bay and
planting new vegetation.
To protect existing marshland they will use
devices that will lessen the wave erosion and alter the shape of the marshes themselves,
which is also supposed to help.
There are still a lot of things about the
bay that need to be studied, including how bad the chemicals have affected the bay.
Scientists also arent sure at this
point the connection between the seaweed growth and the marsh decline, and added they will
have to keep better track of how the marshes are changing over time.
As for the JBTF, they will be helping out
the city and state agencies to help stop the erosion and are also scheduling large
meetings in coming months with the elected officials to figure out funding and cleaning
"Ive been fishing in Jamaica Bay for decades. We
need to do whatever we can to save it," concluded McGovern, "theres no
other place like it."