Counting Nemo: A Marine Life Population Tally Reintroduces NY to the Rivers That Run Through It

Counting Nemo: A Marine Life Population Tally Reintroduces NY to the Rivers That Run Through ItEXPAND
Kiki Ljung

Just a few yards off the coast of a sandy sliver of beach in Brooklyn Bridge Park, directly beneath the Manhattan Bridge and its clattering trains, six people in Cabela's coveralls and black rubber waders stand waist-deep in the river, holding up the poles of a net. The seining crew, a group of volunteers for the fifth annual Great Hudson River Fish Count, bob in the wake of a tugboat muscling a barge northward; eventually they slosh back toward shore with their catch, and one woman begins plucking glassy translucent blobs the size of ping-pong balls from the rope. They look like cartoon water droplets, clean little orbs. She gently plunks one into my hand — it feels like a giant bubble-tea tapioca ball. "Comb jellies! They don't sting," she says.

We lower the creature into a plastic tank, then place it beside the other specimens at the demonstration table that Peter Park, a biology professor at Nyack College, has improvised to show off the animals to the gathered sunscreen-coated children. Fully immersed, the jelly opens into a diaphanous bell jar; a six-year-old from Park Slope named Aidan paws at a tank full of the shimmering creatures, and stares.

The volunteers haul in an uncounted multitude more of the comb jellies, as well as 413 Atlantic silversides, twelve baby black sea bass, and at least one sea robin, a bottom-feeder with dorsal fins like birds' wings, over the course of the day. And the Brooklyn Bridge Park fish count is just one of the event's seven locations, which range from Valentino Pier down in Red Hook all the way up to Randalls Island, where the Little Hell Gate salt marsh meets the Harlem River. At each site, volunteers and biologists with the New York State Department of Conservation and local conservancy groups net fish and bring them ashore, where onlooking kids, most between the ages of six and eleven, can get up close and personal with these residents of waterways just next door to their own familiar blacktops.

The kids at Brooklyn Bridge got a hands-on demonstration of "gill rakers," bony toothpick-like protrusions inside the gills of Atlantic menhaden that filter small prey with each underwater breath; they might come across the oyster toadfish, a creature whose disproportionately large head resembles that of its amphibian namesake. "Oyster crackers," as they're sometimes called, lie perfectly still between rocks until an oyster or other mollusk happens by; attendees can even go hunting for the Asian shore crab — the city's beaches literally crawl with the invasive species. As DEC estuary education coordinator Stephen Stanne says, the point is simply "to convince people, yes, the river is alive."

The Hudson River system supports a 13,400-square-mile watershed from the Adirondack Mountains way upstate to New York Harbor south of Battery Park and includes the East River, which is actually not a river but a tidal saltwater estuary of the Hudson itself — as though the Hudson draped its arm over and around Manhattan to nestle the island in its crook. Indeed, Many New Yorkers think of the East River as the armpit of the five boroughs, and for good reason: Not far from the knoll where the children ogled the latest catch is one of New York City's largest sewage discharge points; when it rains, polluted stormwater flows directly out of a pipe into the East River (and out of another 459 sewage outflows that dot the New York Harbor system). The city has spent upwards of $2.1 billion over the past decade to cut down on that sort of discharge, yet 27 billion gallons of untreated sewage still wind up flowing directly into the harbor each year. (No one mentions this to the kids.)

While the cleansing effect of saltwater tides shields the East River from the worst of this stuff, the churn doesn't quite flush the crap that clogs the waterway. For this year's fish count, the conservation department included sites along the East to prove that its waters weren't just "full of tires," as Stanne puts it, but also replete with baby fish; the river is a nursery for species like striped bass, herring, and the baby flounder, pearly gray and the size of a rose petal, I watch Park cradle in his hands at a beachside demonstration table before returning to the murky, brownish water.

Yet sewage is only the beginning of the Hudson estuary's problems. Industrial pollution has plagued most of the system for the better part of a century. Between 1947 and 1976, General Electric dumped nearly 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the river from two capacitor manufacturing plants located 50 miles north of Albany. The spillage traveled all the way downstream, and to this day 200 miles of the 315-mile river system remain classified as Superfund sites. There are no safe levels of PCB: Exposure to the compound may lead to cancer, cause neurological damage, and impair reproduction in both fish and humans — it can also enter breastmilk and has been linked to learning disorders and developmental disabilities.

But in 2011, a group of researchers at New York University made a remarkable discovery: The tomcod, a smallish olive-colored fish toward the bottom of the Hudson River food chain, had evolved resistance to PCBs in as few as twenty generations. "Evolutionary change can happen very, very quickly," says Isaac Wirgin, a population geneticist at NYU and the lead author on the study. But this turn of events could come with its own perils: Because the fish remain in the food chain rather than dying out from PCB exposure, Wirgin says, the toxin can more successfully make its way into animals that eat the tomcod, traveling up the food chain toward us. Just like in the fish that ingest it, the contaminant accumulates in humans' fatty tissue and muscle to sit there, compounding, forever.

The waterways are so foul that during last year's fish count, someone, mistaking the heads and shoulders of the seiners for hapless children, called the police. The NYPD, the Coast Guard, and even the fire department descended on the scene, only to find adults willingly wading into the surf. The cops wanted to know what they were doing there, so Isa Del Bello, education director at the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy, told them about the fish: the blue crab, the silverside, the baby striped bass. "There's seahorses, too," Del Bello says. "No one can believe that."

Over time, that kind of surprise has become a recurring theme of the event, hooking a class of dedicated amateurs who return year after year. Most do not have a background in science, but they keep coming back anyway — for sentimental reasons, maybe, or from feeling duty-bound to teach the next generation of naturalists. After all, ecosystem conservation is the work of a lifetime, so best to get 'em started while they're young.

"When I tell people what I do, they say, 'Whaaaat?' " says Kathy Gurland, laughing, holding the tank with the comb jellies. She's a psychotherapist with spiky reddish hair who has volunteered for all five fish counts and works with the park conservancy on other educational programs throughout the year. Her apartment is down the street from the park; Gurland keeps coming back because it feels like tending to a communal backyard of sorts. "I'm not afraid of all this water," she says. "It's my way of giving back."

Gurland rushes over to the demonstration table, holding a little tank filled with small, wriggling fish. "We hit the jackpot, kids! Look at this!" she says.

The small crowd of children, by now clutching laminated taxonomy charts, flutters around Gurland and Park. "Northern pipefish! Northern pipefish!" squeals Iroha Tokumoto, a ten-year-old from Queens, pointing to the chart and then at a yellow sticklike creature about three inches long. "You got it," Park says. He then gingerly places a pinkish lady crab — yes, that's its official name — on top of a pile of sand. Instantly, the crab scuttles backward and directly down, disappearing into the sand butt-first. "Whoa, it totally just, like — whoosh," says a mother this time.

"I'm afraid of crabs," says Daniel Chen, watching Park fish the lady crab back out of the sand with a bare hand. Chloe, Chen's six-year-old daughter, watches the crab fold itself into a disk and wait, arms crossed in impatience, to be plopped back in a bin of river water.

"I'm not," she says finally.

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