A whale of a tale in New York City

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A good revival story is always worth telling, especially if it’s about a waterway once so bad even late-night comics didn’t joke about it. I’m talking about New York Harbor, recently declared the cleanest it has been in 110 years. It has even become a great place for whale watching. Yes, whale watching!

It’s exciting to learn that so far this year there have been 268 humpbacks sited just a mile or so from mid-Manhattan where I was born. Growing up there, the last thing we’d do is head over to New York Harbor. Today, there’s boating, fishing, clean water and oysters. Yes oysters.

The surge in humpbacks is attributed to the return of menhaden, or bunker fish, to the less polluted harbor and a boom in marine life, according to Eric Spitznagel’s recent report, “Whale of a Comeback,” in the New York Post. John Madsen, a University of Delaware geophysicist, even told Spitznagel that he discovered sonar evidence of a 14-foot, 800-pound sturgeon in the Hudson River. Or John Waldman, a biologist at Queens College and author of “Heartbeats in the Muck: The History, Sea Life and Environment of New York Harbor” said: “We’ve had a large humpback whale one mile from Times Square. That’s just an astounding victory for the harbor.”

As New York’s population grew, the once-pristine harbor became the recipient of all sewage – “not a single waste product was treated in any way,” wrote Waldman, thus making the waters uninhabitable. So, what has brought about the changes?

For one, the first Clean Water Act in 1972 has played a major role in channeling billions of dollars into infrastructure and treatment plants. But there’s a lot more to the story. “It happened when New Yorkers decided to take their harbor back,” says John Cronin, a former local commercial fisherman turned conservationist who once fished for crabs and shad there. He became the first designated Riverkeeper of the Hudson River Fisherman’s Association.

Reading Spitznagel’s full story, I was surprised to learn that New York City was once the oyster capital of the country, with 350 square miles of oyster reefs. They were believed to hold more than half the world’s oyster population. Pearl Street in lower Manhattan was named after those little beauties that could be found in oysters, although the odds were 1 in 12,000.

In the 19 century, New Yorkers ate more oysters than meat in “oyster cellars” where 6 cents would get all-you-can-eat. The forerunners of today’s hot-dog carts were selling oysters on the street.

Following the passage of the Clean Water Act, activist and popular folk singer Pete Seeger reportedly called for a community meeting of people to discuss what could be done about the polluted harbor. Three people showed up! But maybe that started something because a recent Riverkeeper’s Sweep drew more than 2000 volunteers to collect 37 tons of trash in one day.

Nowadays, Cronin points out that the Hudson, once considered just a polluted separation from New Jersey, has come back to life. “There are sailing clubs, boat races, water taxis, swimmers everywhere. This is something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime,” he said.

And there are fish and oysters, too. Anglers are now fishing the rivers leading into and out of the harbor. Fishing the Hudson River is again yielding catches of coveted striped bass, blackfish and other species. There are Big City Fishing events, too. In fact, fishing licenses in New York City have increased a whopping 142.7 percent, according to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. Besides publishing statistics, the department also holds many hands-on fishing programs for youth.

Fifteen-year-old Emily Cavanaugh, who lives in Manhattan and is also a member of the Sea World & Busch Gardens Youth Advisory Council, puts it this way: “I honestly never thought I would be able to fish in the Hudson. It’s incredibly exciting to be able to fish so close to where I live.”

The oysters are recovering, too, although not for human consumption. The oysters disappeared in the early 1900’s because of a typhoid fever epidemic blamed on eating oysters from polluted waters. Today, Pete Malinowski, executive director of the Billion Oyster Project, is spearheading a successful effort that has already restored about 28 million oysters on 12 reefs, with the goal of reaching 1 billion live oysters in New York Harbor by 2035. The project isn’t for food but clean water. A single oyster can clean 30 to 50 gallons of water daily.

Another remarkable aspect of Billion Oyster Project is that Malinowski draws on students from 75 public schools as well as hundreds of adult volunteers for habitat restoration. “There are teenagers scuba diving in New York Harbor to restore oyster reefs,” he says.

Turnaround programs like New York Harbor can be found in many places. They can work to make our waterways, especially those once labeled dead, viable again for good boating and fishing. It’s reason enough for dealers to look for ways to participate and support local clean water efforts. 

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