“There were a lot more wetlands and a really open and dynamic connection to the Atlantic Ocean,” said Adam Parris, referring to the biodiversity of the Jamaica Bay region over a century ago. His audience, a diverse set of residents and stakeholders from Canarsie and other parts of New York City, were listening to Parris’ presentation while touring the bay by boat. The educational boat trip is part of the Cycles of Resilience, a project “to identify issues, use science to refine ideas for action, and align emerging priorities with city, state, and federal efforts. ”
Parris is the former executive director at the Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay. Parris and his team at SRIJB, along with Public Agenda and Billion Oyster Project, hosted the “Getting to Know the Bay” boat tour, on June 24, to give residents a close-up look at the biological history and current preservation of Jamaica Bay.
The vast and varied wetland of Jamaica Bay borders Brooklyn, Queens, and southern Long Island. Only 150 years ago, Jamaica Bay was a prime estuary, where freshwater and saltwater meet, making the lagoon a biodiverse location that provided an optimal environment for the organisms that live in and around the Bay. However, the rapid growth of New York since the 1900s has put Jamaica Bay at risk.
How is Jamaica Bay functioning now?
It’s “very urban [with] lots of people living there,” said Parris, “and all of the freshwater that was flowing across farmland in Brooklyn and Queens now gets funneled into the storm drains.”
Prior to the boat tour, local community members of Canarsie participated in Jamaica Bay Jeopardy, an interactive game that tested players’ historical, cultural, political, and environmental knowledge of the Bay. Jamaica Bay Jeopardy was the initial installment of the Cycles of Resilience project. SRIJB’s boat tour is the second installment of their Cycles of Resilience. This boat tour is the next step in cultivating community interest in Jamaica Bay. The boat tour travels around Jamaica Bay, passing along the bay’s distinct features like Paedergat Basin, the Marsh Islands, and the island of Canarsie Pol.
As people boarded the hospitable R/V CUNY I research vessel, the first thing they saw was a touch tank teeming with oysters and mussels, which gave them a small glimpse into Jamaica Bay’s marine life. Once a robust staple of the Bay, oyster reefs began to deplete with the introduction of foreign waste, a byproduct of the growing population of New York.
The oyster and mussel touch tank was an interactive effort with the Billion Oyster Project, an ongoing project to redistribute and expand oyster reefs. Oysters reefs filter water, house organisms, and protect land from erosion and storms. Some oysters in the touch tank had already begun to form reef-like clusters. Water from the bay had been pumped into the tank. Even small arthropods, bug-like creatures, could be seen in the tank, using the bigger oysters as shelter.
During the boat ride, there was a scavenger hunt: participants listened to a steady stream of commentary on the distinct features of Jamaica Bay - including animals and their habitats, wetland restoration sites, and upcoming features to be added to the bay in the coming years - and noted key facts on their scavenger hunt checklists. Children and adults alike explored Jamaica Bay while following the prompts of the SRIJB team. Many traveled to different areas of the boat to look out for features to complete the scavenger hunt. Some individuals immersed themselves in the experience from a comfortable seat on the boat.
Near the end of the ride, all the participants gathered together inside the CUNY I to discuss their experiences on the water. Participants eagerly handed back their scavenger hunt checklists to await the announcement of the highest score. Upon waiting for the answers, people reflected on their time on the boat. One young boy was fascinated by the clams, particularly how one in the touch tank expelled water when raised out of the tank. Tanasia Swift, regional manager at Billion Oyster Project, was able to share why that was possible.
“If they’re in water they’re absorbing a lot of the water that they’re standing in,” Swift said. “Some of that water is just expelled so that it has room to cycle more water through.”
The tour answered questions and dismissed myths people had about the conditions of Jamaica Bay. Some people believed Jamaica Bay was unsafe to swim in, due to contamination of the water by sewage or other hazardous wastes; they were pleasantly surprised to hear that the current water conditions in Jamaica Bay are perfectly safe for swimming. SRIJB advertised activities like kayaking, kite sailing, and boat riding, which all are available during the summer in neighborhoods along the Bay, often free of charge. The neighborhoods and eateries that line the Bay felt like new additions to the Brooklyn and Queens that residents already knew. The boat ride provided newfound knowledge surrounding the diverse opportunities that Jamaica Bay has to offer.
“Getting to Know Jamaica Bay” is a fresh and inclusive way to see New York City’s more overlooked communities. Participants learned about how the Bay houses and protects an abundance of organisms, playing an integral role in sustaining a complex ecosystem. The organizations involved - SRIJB, Public Agenda, and Billion Oyster Project - provided an intergenerational opportunity to celebrate Jamaica Bay within the Canarsie community. Along with Jamaica Bay Jeopardy and the other Cycles of Resilience activities, the boat tour develops a connection between Jamaica Bay and the families who acknowledge the Bay as part of their home. By connecting people with one another and with nearby environmental resources, this kind of engagement supports action and change that will keep the Bay at its best.
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