Jamaica Bay Probed

24-Hour BioBlitz Probes Jamaica Bay

John Waldman discovered tidewater silversides (Menidia beryllina) frolicking in the brackish part of Jamaica Bay in Queens. Everyone had assumed these fish were Atlantic silversides (Menidia menidia), but Waldman looked more closely. An invisible line separates saltier from sweeter water, providing just the right habitat for the salt-loving Atlantic's unsuspected tidewater cousin. Not far away, Chester Zarnoch found the Asian shore crab, an invasive species whose population is exploding, to the detriment of native wildlife. Andrew Burnick spotted an eared grebe, a small waterbird native to the western states that evidently took a wrong turn. Jon Sperling noticed an unexpected species of sphagnum moss and extensive sea lettuce, a plant whose abundance signals nitrate and phosphate pollution.

But Gillian Stewart says that because of what she did not find — jellyfish — the bay appears healthier than some contend.

Those CUNY professors or graduates were among 273 volunteers, including a few overnight campers, who in September searched the waters, marshes and trails of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge during a 24-hour BioBlitz. The challenge: racing the clock, in four-hour shifts, to find as many types of animals and plants as possible. The result: 665 species and still counting.

Kim Tripp, director of the Gateway National Recreation Area's Jamaica Bay Institute, conceived the BioBlitz to help catalog and manage the area's rich biodiversity and to publicize "the national park that most people in the city don't realize is in their backyard."

For scientific expertise, she turned to Queens College. Waldman, a marine biology professor, and Stewart, an assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences, spearheaded the effort. Said Waldman: "When you have a place as large as Jamaica Bay [25,000 acres], you'll have one researcher working on one thing and two years later another working on something else. With a BioBlitz you throw an army at it to pull a lot of information together simultaneously."

With such a baseline, it becomes easier to track change. And change is very much under way.

"I've looked at maps from late 1800s when there was this great, green field of salt marshes, with some narrow creeks [reaching the ocean west of the Rockaway Peninsula]," Waldman said. Now 63% of the marshes that survived in 1951 have vanished, killed largely by human activity. Unless marsh restoration begins immediately, scientists say, most of Jamaica Bay will become unvegetated mud flats and sand bars.

The bay's salt marshes once were "one of the most productive habitats, nurseries for juvenile fish, crustaceans and mollusks," as well as habitat for 20% of migrating bird species in the northeast. But with the death of marsh grasses, eggs and larvae are less likely to grow into adults. Oysters, for example, thrived in the 1800s, but if you placed them in the bay now, he said, "they'll survive, but won't reproduce. Jamaica Bay is a sewershed, not a watershed. You're losing one of the major components of the ecosystem."

Stewart, a biogeochemist who studies how plankton affect the carbon cycle, is more upbeat. "Overall, this was an event to celebrate the health of the system and not one to pull at the violin strings," she said. "The system isn't pristine, but this is one of most urban estuaries in the country, so of course it won't be pristine. Maybe we need to be more realistic and say that, for what it is and where it is, Jamaica Bay is probably doing quite well. Anyone who goes out there will be overwhelmed by the diversity of life."

That's certainly true for two Queens College students who spent all 24 hours helping with BioBlitz logistics, which Stewart organized.

"I was with a group that was trying to identify spiders and insects, comparing pictures with what we were looking at," said biology major Corinna Singleman, a senior. "We also were trying to catch damsel flies, but our effort was for naught because they already had identified them. In the middle of the night someone came in and screamed, 'I found a black widow spider in the men's room;' that was fun."

Katherine Paccione, who is earning a master's degree in ecology and animal behavior, broke away for one walk with scientists. "I'd never seen the Jamaica Bay Refuge at night, and it was a different world, dark and peaceful," she said.

They spent most of the 24 hours at the visitor center amid microscopes, dissecting kits, nets, bottles, jars, preservatives, fish tanks, field guides and a tent for coffee and snacks. There were six cots, but volunteers too excited to sleep used only four.

Fifty-three students came from Baruch College. "I was thrilled at their response, because most are business majors," said Chester Zarnoch, a first-year assistant professor of environmental sciences at Baruch. "Many came up to me and said, 'I live 15 minutes away and never knew this place existed.' "

On the other hand, Andrew Burnick knows the bay well, having conducted his doctoral research on the foraging ecology of wading birds while at the College of Staten Island; he received his CUNY Ph.D. in 2006. Now an environmental consultant in Maryland, he used a night vision scope, but mostly relied on his eyes and ears to pinpoint more than 120 species. Even at night, he said, "You can identify birds by their shape or silhouette or how they fly, and by their calls and vocalizations. We mimicked the calls of the screech owl and saw-whet owl, which makes a peeping sound."

Jon Sperling, an associate professor of biology at Queens who specializes in primitive plants, identified 14 species of them — mosses and their relatives, liverworts. He also found 14 species of saltwater algae, including several seaweeds. Mosses and liverworts "are inhibited by salt water, but there are a couple of places that are protected enough where there is virtually no salt spray and no danger of tidal surge," he explained.

Knowledgeable amateurs joined in. Steve Walter, BioBlitz's moth expert, is a computer programmer for the Health Insurance Plan of New York (HIP). But at night he lures moths with various lights, flowers or bait like rotting fruit. He said he has been adding species that had not been known at Jamaica Bay since 2001. His discovery that night was the pale lichen moth, which he attracted with ultraviolet, or black, light.

Brooklyn College Professor David Franz, a specialist in marine invertebrates, found about 45 species, including crabs, worms, hard clams and blue mussels, "but nothing unusual."

He summed up the BioBlitz this way: "The value is to get people who are not professionals interested in what's going on in the bay... a diverse ecosystem that we don't think much about in urban environments. The results are not as important as the enthusiasm that's generated in collecting them. It's a lot of fun."

An Oasis in Peril

Human activity puts intense pressure on Jamaica Bay, a tidal wetland that supports a rich array of life. Sixty-three percent of the marshes that existed in 1951 have vanished. In August, a scientific panel warned in August that without immediate action, all life-sustaining vegetation could die by 2012.

"An Update on the Disappearing Salt Marshes of Jamaica Bay, New York" by the Gateway National Recreation Area and the Jamaica Bay Watershed Protection Plan Advisory Committee lists some reasons for the die-off, including:

 

  • Four city water pollution control plants discharge 250 million gallons of treated waste water into the bay daily. This water contains 30,000 to 40,000 pounds of nitrogen — "far too much nitrogen for the remaining marshes to use up or assimilate."
  • Rainfall can sweep untreated sewage, high in organic pollutants, into the bay.
  • Factors that impede the normal flow of sediment that builds and sustains marshes: commercial development and bulkheads, navigational canals and underwater pits left by the excavation that provided fill to build both JFK's runways and two artificial islands used by the A subway line.

There is hope. The city Department of Environmental Protection in October announced a water quality restoration plan, including stepping up nitrogen control methods at two waste water treatment plants. Habitat restoration is also under consideration in selected areas where oyster reefs and eel grass, which were once native, may be reintroduced. The executive summary of the report is available at www.nyc.gov/dep.

To visit the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, take the A train to Broad Channel Station or the Belt Parkway to Exit 17S onto Cross Bay Boulevard.