The Clean Water Act: Its Beginnings in the Columbia and Raritan Rivers

By Isabelle Bienen, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison M.  Jones, NWNL Director)
All photos © Alison M. Jones unless otherwise noted

Isabelle Bienen is Northwestern University junior studying Social and Environmental Policy & Culture and Legal Studies. As NWNL Summer Intern, she wrote a 5-blog series on the history, purpose and current status of the U.S. Clean Water Act [CWA] in NWNL’s three US case-study watersheds. Her 1st blog was CWA Beginnings in the Mississippi River Basin.

Jones_070708_OR_6995.jpgColumbia River, Astoria OR

Columbia River Basin

The Pacific North West’s Columbia River Basin empties more water into the Pacific Ocean than any other river in the Americas. Starting at its Canadian Rocky Mountains source, it runs for 1,243, collecting water from the U.S. states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, and Utah.1 The Columbia River is one of the most hydroelectric river systems in the world, with over 400 dams that provide power, irrigation and flood control.1 This river basin has positively impacted urban development, agriculture, transportation, fisheries and energy supplies across a significant swath of the western United States.

Jones_070628_OR_5171_M.jpgJuvenile fish bypass at the McNary Dam in Oregon

However large, unregulated industry in this watershed caused the Columbia River system to become severely polluted. Salmon populations were heavily affected by this pollution, especially when combined with the dams presenting migratory barriers to salmon going upstream from the ocean to cool, freshwater tributaries for spawning.  Before such the pollution and dam impacts Columbia Basin provided spawning habitat for one of the largest salmon runs in the world.1

The many indigenous Native Americans in this basin, including Colville, Wanapum, Yakama, Nez Perce, Chinook and other tribes, had relied on plentiful and healthy salmon populations as their primary source for food, trade, and general cultural use. The depletion of the salmon, below 10% of the population numbers before the hydro-dams, today severely impacts their cultural traditions and livelihoods.

Jones_110924_WA_6020-2.jpgMembers of the Chinook Nation at a Canoe Reparation Ceremony in Washington 

Additionally, pollutants in today’s remaining salmon are very dangerous to human health. It is estimated that members of Columbia Basin tribes eat about 2.2 pounds of fish daily. However, based on water quality issues, the Department of Health’s recommended limit for fish consumption is just one 7-ounce serving per month – ⅓ of their usual per day consumption .7

Jones_070627_WA_4800.jpgIrrigation wasteway carrying polluted water to Columbia River

Hanford Nuclear Site on the Columbia River in Eastern Washington poses another water quality concern for Columbia River Basin stakeholders. Hanford’s nine nuclear reactors “have produced 60% of the plutonium that fueled the US’s nuclear weapons arsenal, including plutonium used in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.”2 These reactors are no longer operating; but their nuclear waste is stored here in leaking, single-cell tanks right on the Columbia River Basin.2 Groundwater containing remnants of radioactive waste from Hanford Nuclear Site still flows into the Columbia River, per an EPA project manager at a Hanford Advisory Board 2017 meeting.3

Jones_070625_WA_4429_M.jpgHanford Nuclear Site: Laboratory and Chemical Waste Storage Unit

Industrial pollution from the Portland Harbor Superfund Site was added to the EPA’s National Priorities List in December 2000, after years of contamination from industries in the Willamette River, a major tributary to the Lower Columbia River Basin and critical salmon and steelhead migratory corridor and nursery.4 The Portland Harbor Superfund Site is rife with PCB’s, PAH’s, dioxins, pesticides and heavy metals that are a health risk to humans and the environment. In January 2017 the EPA accepted a remedy for cleaning up Portland Harbor. By the end of the year, Dec. 2017, the EPA agreed to a Portland Harbor Baseline Sampling Plan.4

This 2017 cleanup is an example of usage of the Superfund Law, “a U. S. federally funded program used to clean up sites contaminated by hazardous pollutants.4  Cleanup of this harbor is beneficial to the international commerce on the Willamette River, which provides economic stability to many global communities. The river is also a migratory corridor and breeding habitat for salmon and steelhead trout, especially important for local tribes for natural and cultural purposes.4

Jones_070620_WA_0708.jpgMidnight Mine,WA: old uranium mine on Spokane River, now Superfund Site 

Being a transboundary river starting in Canada, the US reaches of the Columbia have been threatened by Canada’s Teck Cominco zinc smelting plant in Trail, Canada, right on the banks of the Columbia, just 12 miles upstream of the US-Canada border. Since 1896, Teck Cominco has dumped zinc slag and remnants of copper, gold, and other pollutants into the Columbia River and spewed toxins into the air that killed acres of upstream forests.

This Canadian Teck Cominco plant has polluted 12 miles of the Columbia River in Canada and many miles further downstream in the U.S.  Due to elevated lead counts in the blood of children eating salmon in Washington State, U.S. Native American tribes took Teck Cominco to the U.S. Supreme Court and won their case with a decision that demanded Teck Cominco reduce its large groundwater plume of toxins.5 Ultimately, a Washington state judge ruled that Teck Cominco is liable for contaminating the Columbia River and  responsible for funding its clean up.

Raritan River Basin

Jones_150511_NJ_0933.jpgColonial Era mill on South Fork of Raritan River, Clinton NJ

On the East Coast, the Raritan River Basin drains water from 6 New Jersey counties and 49 New Jersey municipalities, making it the largest watershed in the state, covering approximately 1,100 square miles.5 With approximately 1.5 million people living in the Raritan River Basin, New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the nation. This places intense pressure on the need to maintain both healthy and adequate supplies of fresh water.6  

In the mostly-rural Upper Raritan Basin, its North Branch and South Branch continue to provide a clean, fresh water habitat for endangered wild brook trout. However, this location now faces issues of nonpoint-source pollution from agricultural runoff via rainfall or snowmelt. The most common pollutants found in such runoffs include excess fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, fecal matter, oil, grease and other toxic chemicals.8 Due to the many dairy farms in the Upper Raritan, runoff of pollutants – and especially fecal matter – flow downstream and impact the Lower Raritan River.  

Jones_090621_NJ_0979.jpgFish head washed onto bank of Raritan River in Perth Amboy NJ

Lower Raritan Basin polluting sources are different from Upper Raritan nonpoint sources. For centuries, high amounts of industrial waste have polluted the Raritan Bay and the Lower Raritan River, which forms at the confluence of the North Branch and South Branch of the Raritan. Since the Colonial Era, mills and factories lined this New York-Philadelphia water corridor, using the river for dumping their waste.

Additionally, today’s Lower Raritan River Basin is also heavily polluted by sewer discharge and more impermeable surfaces in increasingly-high densities of urban and suburban areas. In these highly built-up centers, sewn together with surfaces of concrete and cement, pollution is exacerbated by frequent flood-runoff and rainfall that is not absorbed into the soil. The increasing intensity of storms, attributed to climate change, worsens this problem.

Jones_090515_NJ_4550.jpgSpillway for runoff into Raritan River, New Brunswick, NJ

Lack of control in Combined Sewer Overflow points (CSO’s) is especially prevalent in Perth Amboy. Director of the Clean Water Division in EPA’s Region 2 states, “Combined sewer overflows are a very serious public health and environmental problem in a number of New Jersey’s communities….”9 CSO’s send diluted and untreated sewage water into the Raritan waterways.  Perth Amboy has over ten CSO locations. In 2012, the EPA took action against Perth Amboy in 2012 in regard to their lack of compliance with minimum controls of CSO’s causing pollution spikes in the Raritan River.9 In 2015, the Christie Administration announced a new permit system for NJ requiring CSO reduction plans and signage for residents at discharge points noting serious health effects of overflow fluids.  Of the 217 CFO’s in NJ addressed by the 25 new permits, 16 were Perth Amboy. This step has allowed much-needed infrastructure upgrades .9

15_0003b.jpgGraphics of a CSO (by NJ Dept. of Environmental Protection)

As of 2015, the Raritan River Basin had 20 federally registered Superfund sites and 200 state-registered toxic sites.9 Thus, marine life, recreation, commercial fishing businesses and much of New Jersey’s supply of clean fresh water were highly degraded by water pollution in the Raritan Basin. That year the EPA tracked about 137 pounds of toxic chemicals in the waters of the Raritan Basin’s Middlesex County alone.5 Overall, New Jersey releases about 4.7 million pounds of toxic chemicals into its waters. This represents the most toxins per square mile of water in the U.S.5

Jones_110522_NJ_9261.jpgFly-fishing for trout in the South Branch of the Upper Raritan River, Califon NJ

The threats outlined above taken together have impacted both the creation and implementation of the CWA in the Raritan River Basin. These Raritan River issues and those of the other 2 watersheds NWNL is documenting (See Blog 1 in this CWA Series), represent threats to waterways nationwide.  Pollution of all types still carries weight today in political and legislative decisions involving the Clean Water Act. Blog 3 in this series will focus on health threats addressed by the CWA that span the U.S. as a result of water pollution, thus further highlighting the need for water safety protection.

Sources:

  1. US Environmental Protection Agency, accessed 6/19/18, published 2017, IKB, link
  2. Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, accessed 7/11/18, published 2017, IKB, link
  3. Courthouse News, accessed 7/11/18, published 2017, IKB, link
  4. Environmental Protection Agency, accessed 7/11/18, published 2017, IKB, link
  5. The Sierra Club, accessed 7/19/18, published 2018, IKB, link. 
  6. Raritan Headwaters, accessed 7/3/18, published 2009, IKB, link
  7. The Spokesman-Review, accessed 7/26/18, published 2012, IKB, link
  8. State of New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection: Land Use Management, accessed 7/26/18, published 2018, IKB, link
  9. Rutgers University, accessed, 7/26/18, published 2018, IKB, link.

World Conservation Day 2017

In honor of World Conservation Day, NWNL wants to share some of it’s favorite photographs from over the years of each of our case-study watersheds.

Trout Lake in the Columbia River Basin
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Aerial view of the largest tributary of the Lower Omo River
Ethiopia: aerial of Mago River, largest tributary of Lower Omo River

 

Canoeing on the Mississippi River
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Fisherman with his canoe on the shore of Lake Tana, source of the Nile River
Ethiopia: Lake Tana, source of the blue Nile, fisherman and canoe on the shore.

 

Wildebeests migrating toward water in the Mara Conservancy
K-WIB-410.tif

 

Raritan River at sunset
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All photos © Alison M. Jones.

Floods: A Photo Essay

In honor of those devastated by the recent flooding all over the world, including Texas and Florida in the United States, the Caribbean, Africa and across Southeast Asia, NWNL takes a look at photos from our archives of flooding in our case study watersheds.

Columbia River Basin

Jones_070607_BCa_0058In British Columbia, Columbia River flooding from melting snow pack and storms, threatens barns and farmlands.  (2007)

Jones_070607_BC_1989Barn and truck underwater in British Columbia from Columbia River flooding due to melting snow pack and storms.  (2007)

 

Mississippi River Basin

MO-STG-411Mississippi River flood of 1993, St Genevieve, Missouri.

USA:  Missouri, West Alton, road flooded in the Mississippi River flood of 1993Road flooded in West Alton, Missouri during the Mississippi River flood of 1993.

 

Raritan River Basin

Jones_110311_NJ_7383 A submerged park bench during the spring floods in Clinton, New Jersey, part of the South Branch of the Raritan River Basin. (2011)

Jones_110311_NJ_7451 Hamden Road flooded near Melick’s bridge in Clinton, New Jersey, part of the South Branch of the Raritan River Basin. (2011)

 

Omo River Basin

Jones_070919_ET_0261_MDassenech village, located on the Omo Delta in Ethiopia, flooded by the Omo River and polluted by livestock effluent. (2007)

Jones_070919_ET_0289_MGranary hut built on stilts on a flooded plain in the Dassenech village in Ethiopia. (2007)

 

Posted by Sarah Kearns, NWNL Project Manager.

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

Notes from Garden & Afield in Jersey Midlands

By  Joseph Sapia – NWNL Guest Blogger, from a Pine Barren outlier region in New Jersey’s Raritan River Basin  All content and photos © Joseph Sapia.  His email is Snufftin@aol.com.

“From the Raritan River to the Mullica River,

From the Delaware River to the Atlantic Ocean.”

2017:  
Sunday,  June 25, to Saturday July 1

Note:  The yard references are to my house in the section of Monroe between Helmetta and Jamesburg in South Middlesex County. My yard is in a Pine Barrens outlier on the Inner Coastal Plain, the soil is loamy, and my neighborhood is on the boundary of Gardening Zones 6b (cooler) and 7a (warmer). Afield references are to the Pine Barrens around Helmetta, unless otherwise noted. Notes and photographs are for the period covered, unless otherwise noted.

clip_image002Pickerel weed flowering in Helmetta Pond.

     PINE BARRENS AROUND HELMETTA:  Continuing flowering at Helmetta Pond were pickerel weed, “Pontederia cordata,” and fragrant water lilies, “Nymphaea odorata” Heads up on chiggers, family “Trombiculidae.” It may sound early, but I was scratching a little above my ankle and it felt like the beginning of a season of itchy chigger bites. Then, a local woodsman told me chiggers are indeed out. Avoid chigger bites by staying out of low brush. Another pest this time of year is the pine fly, genus “genus “Chrysops.”

clip_image004Sunset at Helmetta Pond.

     TURTLES:  I am still hearing a lot of talk about people coming across turtles, including misidentifying box turtles, “Terrapene carolina Carolina,” as water turtles. While a box turtle will go into water, it is generally a land turtle. So, if it is necessary to move a turtle for its safety, simply move it in the direction it is traveling. In recent days, Garden and Afield reader Bill McGovern came across two box turtles in his yard in Brick, Ocean County, and he reported, “Of course, I didn’t disturb the moment!” But he did supply a photograph of the mating turtles.

clip_image006Mating box turtles in Bill McGovern’s front yard in Brick, Ocean County. An easy way to identify the gender of box turtles is by their plastrons, or underside. A female’s is flat. A male’s is concave, so he can ride the female in mating, as shown in the photo.

     BLUEBERRIES:  Sophie Majka, a long-time neighbor of my family in the Pine Barrens around Helmetta, told me a little bit of local lore: Blueberries are ready to pick on St. John’s Day.

     Saturday, June 24, was St. John the Baptist Day. So, a few days later, I did a quick check of the woods and found a few berries — actually, probably black huckleberry, “Gaylussacia baccata.” A few ripened blue, most still green. Based on reports I have been seeing from the main Pine Barrens to the south, they have been ripe there for several days. The berries will be around for the upcoming weeks.

     Black huckleberry — along with low-shrub blueberries of the genus “Vaccinium” — are found on the uplands as the shrub understory of the forest. In the fall, these low-shrub berry plants are easy to identify because they turn flame red with the changing of “fall foliage” colors.

     For those more daring, head to the swamps for taller blueberry bushes of the genus “Vaccinium.”

     Just a note: Wild blueberries are not commercially cultivated berries, so they are smaller.

     A few years ago, Mrs. Majka and I spent some time up Jamesburg Park, picking the low-shrub blueberries. Mrs. Majka died at 92-years-old in March. This week, in the area where she and I picked, berries were ripening, providing a nice memory of Mrs. Majka.

clip_image008“Blueberries,” probably black huckleberries, at Jamesburg Park.

     IN THE GARDEN:  I am harvesting carrots, but not to the extent I thought I would. Lettuce has taken on a bitter taste, so I stopped harvesting that. Cantaloupe and zinnia plants are flowering. Also watching tomato, cucumber, and sweet corn grow. Aside from harvesting carrots, I am back to the three Ws:  Weed, Water, and Wait.

clip_image010Zinnia, with which I hope to attract pollinators for the food plants, beginning to bloom in the garden.

     GARDENING KNOW-HOW:  I use various sources to learn about my food gardening:  my colleagues at the Rutgers University Cooperative Extension/Middlesex County Master Gardening program, other gardeners, farmers, farm-garden shows and articles. In her column this week in the Philadelpehia Inquirer newspaper, Sally McCabe talked about gardening deadlines associated with the Fourth of July, including it being the last time of the season to plant tomatoes. I had already planted tomato by seed and plant, but with the early lettuce done, I had gardening space to spare. After Sally’s column, I happened to be near one of my favorite gardening centers, Tony’s Farm and Garden Center in Windsor, Mercer County. At Tony’s, I picked up 12 plants in six varieties of Chef Jeff’s tomatoes. And following grandson Tony Ciaccio’s advice, I got them in the ground immediately.

clip_image012A last planting of tomatoes – various Chef Jeff’s brand – in the garden.

     WATERING THE GARDEN:  I water the garden daily, giving it a good soaking before 10 a.m. I either use hose-and-sprinkler, tapping house water, or I use a sprinkling can, using mostly rain, recycled cellar dehumidifier water, or recycled water from my sprinkling. When I use the hose-sprinkler system, I aim for 20 minutes; When I use the sprinkling can, I probably would use about 30 gallons to cover my entire garden of approximately 315 row-feet, or about 950 square feet. But, now, I am re-thinking this – Perhaps, I should go to a more soaking sprinkling, but fewer times a week. Thoughts?

     AROUND THE YARD:  Knock Out roses are starting to bloom for a second time this season.

clip_image014Rain clinging to a pitch pine, “Pinus rigida,” in my backyard.

     FEEDING BIRDS IN THE YARD:  This summer, I am trying something different – essentially not feeding birds, except with the finch feeder. I am keeping the finch feeder because I love the colorful males of the state bird, the eastern goldfinch, “Spinus tristis.” The idea of not feeding this summer is to let the birds enjoy my yard, with the three birdbaths I keep filled, and help me by eating insects. Birds, nature’s pesticide! Of course, not buying expensive bird seed saves money. However, I still have seed in a garbage pail in the garage. When I am home, I usually have the garage door open and, of course, the squirrels, “Sciurus carolinensis,” have discovered the garbage pail. Clang! That is the sound of the squirrels knocking something down as they open the garbage pail.

clip_image016A birdseed thief trying to hide in the garage.

     PEDDIE LAKE:  Peddie Lake, created by the damming of Rocky Brook, is approximately 15 acres in Hightstown, Mercer County. Rocky Brook is a tributary of the Millstone River, part of the Raritan River-Bay watershed.

clip_image018Peddie Lake

     SUNRISE/SUNSET:  For July 2, Sunday, to July 8, Saturday, the sun will rise at about 5:35 a.m. and set about 8:30 p.m.

     WEATHER:  The National Weather Service forecasting station for the area is at http://www.weather.gov/phi/.

     Joe Sapia, 60, is a lifelong Monroe resident. He is a Pine Barrens naturalist and an organic vegetable-fruit gardener.  He gardens the same backyard plot as did his Italian-American father, Joe Sr., and his Polish-immigrant, maternal grandmother, Annie Poznanski Onda. Both are inspirations for his food gardening. Joe is active with the Rutgers University Master Gardeners/Middlesex County program.
He draws inspiration on the Pine Barrens around Helmetta from his mother, Sophie Onda Sapia, who lived her whole life in these Pines, and his Grandma Annie.  Joe’s work also is at @JosephSapia on Twitter.com, along with Facebook.com on the Jersey Midlands page.

It’s Not Easy Being a Horseshoe Crab in New York Harbor

Blog by Joe Reynolds, Coastal Naturalist

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Photo by Joe Reynolds.

Intro by Alison M. Jones, NWNL Director: To honor last week’s Endangered Species Day, we’re posting Joe’s blog on horseshoe crabs which are “Near-Threatened” per Endangered Species International.

My children grew up on Long Island Sound mesmerized by the spring tide of these prehistoric, armored invertebrates. Since they’re now rarely seen on those shores, I couldn’t resist a bit of further research and adding some Editorial Notes!

Author and coastal naturalist Joe Reynolds is also an activist — and he can count. NWNL applauds his monitoring of these “upside-down skillets with tails.” I look forward to joining his next full-moon count in Raritan Bay! Check Joe’s blog with pictures, video and stories of wildlife from Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay and Lower New York Bay: http://www.nyharbornature.com

selfie

“Selfie” provided by Joe Reynolds.

WHAT’S HAPPENING UNDERFOOT?

Watch where you step this spring! Horseshoe crabs (Limulus polyphemus) are beginning to crawl ashore on beaches around Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, Jamaica Bay, and other shallow estuarine sites around New York Harbor. They mate on full and new moon evenings in May and June.

Yet another spawning season for horseshoe crabs has commenced, an annual rite of spring that goes back 450 million years. For Jurassic Park movie fans, that’s 230 million years before the first dinosaur! [Ed note: They even survived the Permian extinctions when 95% of all marine species disappeared.)

Known as “living fossils,” horseshoe crabs are harmless, ancient creatures effectively unchanged through time. Horseshoe crabs are more closely related to spiders and scorpions than to crabs. However, as marine arthropods, they are really a prehistoric family of animals unto themselves.

In late April, horseshoe crabs begin to migrate from deeper ocean waters into estuaries to breed. First on the beach are often males, waiting for available females. What follows is like a primitive singles bar, minus a colorful tiki bar. But alcohol isn’t needed here.

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Photo by Joe Reynolds.

When a single female crab crawls out of the surf, she releases chemical cues called “pheromones” that help attract a breeding male. He then grasps her from behind with special appendages shaped like tiny boxing gloves on the end of his front walking legs. With her male in tow, she moves through the intertidal zone – a beach area that is above water at low tide and under water at high tide. There they deposit and fertilize 60,000 to 120,000 lime-green eggs in batches in wet sand.

In 2 to 4 weeks the eggs hatch. The size of a human fingernail, the young are a near–replica of an adult, though tail-less. The small crabs head straight to the water where they will grow in sandy shallow areas of the estuary. It takes 8 to 12 years for a crab to sexually mature and migrate back to bay beaches to breed.

 

THE VALUE OF HORSESHOE CRABS

Who would guess horseshoe crabs are critical to migratory shorebirds? But, yes, the fatty eggs of horseshoe crabs provide an important food source for many migratory shorebirds, including red knots (Calidris canutus), ruddy turnstones (Arenaria interpres), and sanderlings (Calidris alba), as they pause in their northward journeys to breed in the Arctic.

[ED Note: The red knot (part of the sandpiper family) makes one of the longest migrations of any bird: 15,000 km (9,300 mi) from Tierra del Fuego in S. America to the Arctic. On their mid-Atlantic stop, they re-energize and fatten up by feasting on what was a superabundant supply of horseshoe crab eggs. Red knots were numerous in N. America until masses were shot in the 1880’s. With further declines since the 1960’s, they are a “threatened species,” per the Endangered Species Act. So healthy horseshoe crab populations are critical to red knot survival. (Citation: http://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/red-knot)]

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Red knot. Photo by Dick Daniels, in Creative Commons.

STEWARDS STUDYING THEIR DECLINE

Although the world’s largest spawning horseshoe crab populations are in Delaware Bay, the busy New York Harbor has crabs too. Few people welcome them; but those that do, know when and where to find them by the dozens, hundreds, or even thousands along the shore.

Our Bayshore Regional Watershed Council is an environmental group dedicated to improving water quality and restoring the wildlife habitat of Raritan Bay and Sandy Hook Bay. Since 2009, our volunteers have counted horseshoe crab populations along the southern shore of NY Harbor in Monmouth County, NJ. Our goal is to note their spawning population and ascertain if it is stable, increasing or decreasing.
volunteers

Volunteers tagging a horseshoe crab to monitor its New York Harbor location. Photo provided by Joe Reynolds.

So far our study shows a horseshoe crab population that is less than robust. There’s been a steady decline in adult females. In 2009, the Watershed Council counted 495 female crabs (singles and mating) across 1,000 feet of beach at five sites in Raritan and Sandy Hook Bays. Yet, in 2016 only 217 female crabs were counted at the same sites. (Ed: minus 50% in 7 years). The single female population decreased from 96 to 15 during this time period. (Ed: minus 85%)

Surprisingly, male populations are growing. In 2009, there were 679 male crabs at monitoring locations (single and mating) in Raritan and Sandy Hook Bays. This increased in 2016 to 1,016 (Ed: plus about 75%). The single males also increased: from 251 to 769 (Ed: plus 300%)

This great inequality between sexes affects their spawning. It takes two to make a baby! Swimming pairs (crabs seeking a place to lay eggs) decreased from 265 in 2009 to 130 in 2016 (Ed: minus 50% in 7 years). Burrowed pairs (crabs in the process of laying eggs) decreased from 276 to only 50 pairs in 2016. (Ed: minus 80%)

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Lemon Creek Park, Staten Island, NY, on the Raritan Bay. Photo by Alison M. Jones.

HUMAN OVER-HARVEST of HORSESHOE CRABS

What could cause such a dire decline in females? Humans and money, of course. Increased harvesting of horseshoe crabs in NY waters threatens their population. NY is the only state on the U.S. Atlantic Coast without a horseshoe-crab harvest moratorium during their breeding period.

Females are repeatedly harvested more than males since they are about 30% bigger and thus have more meat. Adult females also often carry eggs, which will make better bait.

Since 2009, NY State’s commercial quota for horseshoe crabs has been around 150,000 crabs. Some come from NJ’s Raritan Bay and the south shore of Long Island. But an undetermined amount of crabs in NY Harbor are being harvested illegally.

In 2013, two men from Brooklyn were arrested for stealing 200 horseshoe crabs from an island locally known as the Ruffle Bar in Jamaica Bay, Queens. They were charged with taking wildlife without a permit and disturbing wildlife breeding practices in a National Park.

On April 30, 2017, a woman was arrested in Jamaica Bay for illegally harvesting 7 horseshoe crabs. She told U.S. Park Police she was harvesting crabs for her business. The body parts of horseshoe crabs command a high price in some parts of the world since they are considered an aphrodisiac for men.

Horseshoe crabs are also used as bait for the American eel and channel whelk (aka conch) which are highly valued by Asians and Europeans. U.S. harvesters use body parts of female horseshoe crabs as bait for eel and whelk. Thus female horseshoe crabs are supplying global seafood needs. In 20 years, the price for 1 horseshoe crab has jumped from 25 cents to over $5.

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Photo by Joe Reynolds.

Horseshoe crabs are also harvested by the medical industry for their copper-based blood which turns blue when exposed to air. Horseshoe crab blood has remarkable antibacterial properties that insure no impurities exist in medicines. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires all intravenous drugs, vaccines and medical devices that come in contact with the human body (i.e., replacement hips, hearts, knees or pacemakers) to be tested by crab’s blood for bacterial toxins associated with toxic shock syndrome, meningitis and typhoid. Millions in the US survive each year due to the clotting characteristics of horseshoe crabs’ blue blood.

Unfortunately medical benefits for humans don’t benefit the crabs. Horseshoe crabs are to be caught; bled with about 30% of their blood taken; and then returned to waters where they were found. But according to author Alexis Madrigal, “Between 10 and 30 percent of the bled animals, according to varying estimates, actually die.” In addition, “bleeding a female horseshoe crab may make it less likely to mate, even if it doesn’t kill it.” (The Blood Harvest, The Atlantic, Feb 26, 2014)

Environmental scientists John Tanacredi and Sixto Portilla say many crabs taken from NY waters to be bled are often not returned to NY. Research on horseshoe crabs from Brooklyn to Montauk from 2003 to 2014 showed that numerous crabs harvested in NY and taken to MA to be bled were often released in local Cape Cod waters, not NY as required by permits. “Many of those animals are re-harvested for bait and sold back to NY fishermen at an average cost of $5/crab.” (Horseshoe Crab Biology, Conservation and Management, 2015)

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South Beach on Raritan Bay Estuary, Staten Island, New York. Photo by Alison M. Jones.

IMPACTS OF HARVESTING HORSESHOE CRABS

It’s not an easy life in New York Harbor. The legal and illegal harvesting of horseshoe crabs, especially females, has limited their distribution and breeding, resulting in localized population declines. Horseshoe crabs could disappear locally if nothing is done to safeguard them in NY waters.

NJ instituted a moratorium on harvesting horseshoe crabs in 2007, but not NY where people can still harvest crabs. This puts the crab population under severe threat in the Lower New York, Raritan and Sandy Hook Bays.

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Tagged horseshoe crab. Photo by Joe Reynolds.

YOU CAN HELP!  

Please email both Governor Cuomo (click here) and the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation (click here) to ask for greater protection of horseshoe crabs. NY State must restrict harvests in local waters, especially of female crabs. We need Albany to protect these prehistoric animals — before it’s too late.

Also, please share the plight of horseshoe crabs with friends and family. The more who are aware of the threat to horseshoe crabs, the more likely we can ensure their survival in the Raritan, Sandy Hook and Jamaica Bays.

If greater awareness and public support is coupled with greater conservation efforts, then these Ancient Mariners of New York Harbor can fill the beaches for many spring seasons to come. Let’s make sure they endure for another 450 million years!

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Fisherman at confluence of eastern shore of Cheesequake Creek Inlet with Raritan Bay, Raritan River Basin, New Jersey. Photo by Alison M. Jones. 

NWNL Recommended Reading:

 Safina, Carl. The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2011. One hundred miles east of NY’s Manhattan, the author found a beach house that let him “see the whole world in the view from Lazy Point” – or at least the whole beauty and connected magic of the natural world in which we live. In this renowned conservationist’s observations and pleas for us to adopt a “sea ethos,” he tells of spawning, antedeluvian horseshoe crabs, bluefish, sea ducks and menhaden. He also weaves in tales from afar of brown bears and coral reefs to further deepen our appreciation of nature.

Sargent. Bill. Crab Wars: A Tale of Horseshoe Crabs, Bioterrorism and Human Health. Lebanon NH: University Press of New England, 2006. Social justice and ethics are raised by human medical needs for the blood of these crabs that evolved 300 million years ago. This is a tale of the conflicts between scientific progress and our dwindling natural resources.

For children, Grades 1-4: Crenson, Victoria. Horseshoe Crabs and Shorebirds: The Story of a Foodweb. New York City: Two Lions, 2014. With charming watercolor illustrations, this book shares nature’s amazing connections between a small red-chested bird from the southern tip of S. America with the salty eggs of large, armored crabs on mid-North Atlantic beaches.

Joe Reynolds Recommended Reading:

Fredricks, Anthony D. Horseshoe Crab: Biography of a Survivor. Washington, DC: Ruka Press, 2012.

Cramer, Deborah. The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, An Ancient Crab & An Epic Journey. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.

McCully, Betsy. City at the Water’s Edge: A Natural History of New York. New Haven, CT: Rivergate Press, 2006.

Waldman, John. Heartbeats in the Much. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2000.

MacKenzie, Clyde L. The Fisheries of Raritan Bay. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992. 

Celebrating World Wildlife Day!

By Christina Belasco

Today we celebrate World Wildlife Day. Acting to preserve our planet’s treasured biodiversity is more important now than ever. To honor our beloved creatures we share with you all today photos from our African and North American case study watersheds! We can never forget that these animals all depend on healthy, clean fresh water so we must protect our watersheds as well. Each animal, no matter how big or small, plays a critical role in the ecosystem and are all worthy of love and conservation. This reminds us all that no action we take in conservation is too small. We thank local environmental stewards everywhere for standing up for their ecosystems.

Africa:

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Kenya, Maasai Mara National Reserve. Elephants are a flagship species of the Maasai Mara Reserve. They are a key indicator species, and are in danger due to illegal poaching for their ivory.

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Tanzania, Lake Manyara National Park. An Olive Baboon (papio anubis) eats a kigelia nut in groundwater forest. The baboon’s greatest threats are habitat loss due to deforestation as well as human hunting.

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Kenya, Maasai Mara National Reserve. An Impala Herd grazes at sunset. Impala are an important food source for many predators in the African Savanna, and are a very adaptable species.

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Tanzania, Lake Manyara National Park. A Lioness is perched in an Acacia tree. Lionesses hunt for the pride. These predators of the Savanna are in danger because of habitat loss and poaching.

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Tanzania: Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The annual Wildebeest migration is one of the seven wonders of the natural world, when over 1.5 million Wildebeest trod in an enormous loop through Tanzania and Kenya.

North America:

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Columbia River Basin, Greater Yellowstone. The Buffalo was once the great icon of the heartland of the United States, and are sacred to the Native Americans of the plains who relied on Buffalo for centuries as their source of food, material, and ceremony. As the settlers came, the Buffalo was nearly hunted out of existence. Thanks to recent conservation efforts, especially in Yellowstone National Park, this giant creature is making a slow comeback.

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Washington, Columbia River Basin. Chinook Salmon are critical to river ecosystems in the Northwest. The single most damaging threat to the Salmon are dams, which block their ability to migrate downstream and into the ocean where they need to go to complete their life cycle.

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New Jersey, Mountainville (Raritan River Basin). Atlantis fritillary butterfly feeds on the bloom of a bush. Butterfly are not only beautiful, they help pollinate flowers and are a key indicator species.

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Louisiana, Atchafalaya Basin. The Alligator in the Atchafalaya Basin is a critical predator. It faces a multitude of threats including habitat loss, immense pollution, and human hunting.

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New Jersey, Upper Raritan River Basin. Honeybee populations all over the world are facing an enormous crisis due to pesticide spraying and climate change.

“Living Shorelines” Can Fortify Our Coastlines … A Solution at Work in New Jersey’s Raritan Bay

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A “living wall” of oysters in the South Atlantic. Photo: Alison M. Jones for No Water No Life

By Meredith Comi, Restoration Program Director of the NY/NJ Baykeeper 

After Hurricane Sandy, it was clear that coastal resiliency had become an immediate priority. Thus, Baykeeper began an innovative project to determine if a “Living Shoreline” of oysters could stabilize eroding shorelines of the urban New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary. Perhaps they would simultaneously protect the surrounding environment, improve water quality, and create healthy aquatic habitats.

Oysters are powerful. They can filter and clean water, a much-needed service today. They can provide reef habitat for other sea creatures and improve resiliency to storm surge and erosion. Oysters once thrived in the NY-NJ Harbor Estuary — so much so that Ellis Island was previously called Little Oyster Island.  However, over-harvesting, pollution and the sedimentation of reefs resulted in a sharp population decline. Today there is no longer a sustainable oyster population in the NY-NJ Harbor area; but NY/NJ Baykeeper is working to restore them. As a bi-state restoration leader, NY/NJ Baykeeper has had restoration projects in both NJ and NY waters.

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“Oyster-keepers” in the Raritan Bay. Photo: NJ/NY Baykeeper

In mid-August, 2016, NY/NJ Baykeeper and its partners installed a first-of-its-kind urban “Living Shoreline” in northern New Jersey waters.  Located in the Raritan Bay at the Naval Weapons Station Earle in Monmouth County, a new 0.91 acre Living Shoreline consists of an artificial reef, using live oysters. Known as “oyster castles,” these new concrete structures are meant to provide the needed hard surface on which oysters can attach and grow. These 137 castles with about 10,000 oyster larvae can thus begin to fortify and protect the Raritan Bayshore.

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Oyster stabilization in the Mississippi River Delta.  Photo: Alison M. Jones for No Water No Life 

In 2010 the NJ Department of Environmental Protection banned all shellfish research, restoration and education activities in waters (1) deemed too contaminated or (2) “Restricted” or “Prohibited” for shellfish harvest.  Thus earlier oyster reef projects in nearby Navesink River and Keyport Harbor had to be moved. At that point, the U.S. Navy and NY/NJ Baykeeper became “Living Shoreline” partners. The U.S. Navy at Naval Weapons Station Earle, with its non-accessible stretch of shoreline, provides protected property, guidance and valuable support for Baykeeper’s oyster restoration activities.

Additional restoration activities at Naval Weapons Station Earle include setting oysters at NY/NJ Baykeeper’s aquaculture facility near the mouth of Ware Creek, and monitoring the oysters and structures in the ¼-acre experimental restoration plot to assess survival and growth.

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Deposition of “oyster castles” into the Raritan Bay at NWS Earle.

NY/NJ Baykeeper has monitored this Living Shoreline twice since its August installation, finding that the oysters grew 22mm in just 2 months!  Other organisms like sponges and algae are attached to the castles as well, further contributing to the Living Shoreline habitat.  All the castles have stayed in place, even during the rough seas when Hurricane Hermine was off shore. This is a good sign of how the castles will hold up in the dynamic Raritan Bay.

This winter, oyster growth will become slower as the water becomes cooler. Since all the oysters are far enough under the water’s surface, they will be protected should the Bay freeze over. Come spring, this Living Shoreline will be expanded, adding more castles and oysters to the system.  Meanwhile, NY/NJ Baykeeper continues its study of biodiversity  and its collection of water quality data.

For further information, please contact Meredith Comi at meredith@nynjbaykeeper.org