Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Still Lots of Bad Stuff In and Under the Water

As if to illustrate the point that you can find anything and everything in New York City, there’s a non-profit called the Urban Divers Estuary Conservancy, which consists of scuba divers who examine and study underwater areas of greater New York Bay. The Times had a story about them in yesterday’s paper (which you might have seen – it is the most emailed story in the Times Metro section).

The group’s website, which is old and apparently in a very slow reconstruction phase, lists a bunch of places where they’re working, including Flushing Bay and the Bronx River, but the Times story was about the Gowanus Canal, in Brooklyn. It's a good reminder that as much as local waters have improved, they haven't improved that much:

Over the summer, the Department of Parks and Recreation contacted the group, which has only three paid staff members, to monitor an oyster restoration project in the East River. Restoring the population of oysters, which once flourished beneath the East River’s murky waves, could have a significant impact on cleaning up the river…

When Avra Cohen, 55, went into the Gowanus this past summer to collect samples from an unidentified microbial colony growing on the bottom, he wore a suit of vulcanized rubber, two pairs of gloves and a full face mask.

Mr. Cohen was inoculated against hepatitis A and tetanus. A friend suggested that he get vaccinated for typhoid, too. “And the doctor asked me where I was traveling,” Mr. Cohen said. “And I told him, ‘Brooklyn.’” …

The Gowanus is cleaner today than in previous decades, but still bedeviled by sewage overflow and runoff from local industrial plants. Biology students from the New York City College of Technology recently detected gonorrhea in a drop of water from the canal, according to Scienceline, a New York University publication. And scientists have yet to identify the microbes that Mr. Cohen collected, though they do know that they kill red blood cells….

He spent nearly an hour underwater taking photographs and video of the substrates — layers of clam shells — that the Parks Department had placed in the river to encourage oyster growth. He found old oyster shells that crumbled to dust in his fingers.

As for new spats, or young oysters, the prognosis was not good. “Maybe a few,” Mr. Cohen said, “but it wasn’t like a big plate of oysters waiting for me.”

Reviving oyster beds is a great idea. As Mark Kurlansky wrote in his book, The Big Oyster, there were once so many oysters in New York Bay, Raritan Bay, and the western third of Long Island Sound that they filtered all the water every three days. But that was long ago. As I wrote in my book, oil terminals in the city had already contaminated oyster beds in the far western end of the Sound by the 1880s. I know shellfish are doing well in some parts of the bay, and obviously in the Sound too. But the Gowanus Canal apparently isn't one of them, yet.

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