On September 19, HarborLAB volunteers had a fantastic and productive day paddling to South Brother Island to remove plastic trash and seed the shoreline with native species. We also documented a great deal of this East River Island’s biota, from beaches to canopies.
Our course took us on the flood current northeast from our Hunters Point, LIC GreenLaunch on the Newtown Creek. We were mellow up the East River (truly a tidal strait) and through infamous Hell Gate. The island is just beyond that confluence of Sound, Upper Bay, Harlem River, and Bronx Kills currents. From there we pressed on, laden with 19 bags of plastic bottles and assorted discards, to Barretto Point Park’s curbside Sanitation pickup in the South Bronx. After a lunch break at a nearby juice stand and bodega, we rode the ebb home. HarborLAB Operations Chief EJ Lee was our pod leader.
This annual HarborLAB service is part of the American Littoral Society’s NYS State Beach Cleanup, which is in turn a subset of Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup. Landing is normally forbidden on this Bronx island, a green dot of six acres between Rikers Island Prison and the storied ruins of North Brother Island. Our special permit comes thanks to the Natural Resources Group of NYC Department of Parks and Recreation. We’re even more grateful that Susan Stanley, a research ecologist with the division, was our educator and activity director. Susan sportingly joined HarborLAB Founder Erik Baard in a tandem kayak. She waited on Randalls Island where another cleanup was underway, and Erik paddled away from the pod at Hell Gate to pick her up. Erik conceived of the South Brother Island cleanup event and has coordinated it each year, weather permitting, since 2009.
South Brother Island is a harbor heron refuge. Black-crowned and yellow-crowned night herons, great and snowy egrets, blue herons, and double-created cormorants nest in the dense foliage. The sprays of goldenrod that blazes through the underbrush also attract migrating monarch butterflies, as Erik captured in this video. Pollinators swarm to the island’s fringe of crab apples (three varieties), pokeweed, and other native flowers.
We’re drawn to all of this beauty too. Even the 400-million year old metamorphic bedrock that anchors the island is gorgeous, looking like magma that’s just cooled to a still. There’s a sadness to our love, given the island’s short lease on life. We’ve already witnessed a temporary retreat of green after Hurricane Sandy, with hardier salt-tolerant plants filling the void. One tenacious settler is toxic and hallucinogenic Jimsonweed, which evolved in Mexico and spread north to all but one of the 48 contiguous states. A dessert apple tree, perhaps a remnant of the island’s brief use as a retreat by a NY Yankees owner, withered in the aftermath. With CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning and livestock causing global warming and sea-level rise, we can expect both more storms and higher tides to swallow South Brother Island.
“With each additional foot of sea level rise, the frequency of the overtopping is likely to increase,” explains Timothy Wenskus, Deputy Director and Special Projects Managerof the Natural Resources Group. “Ultimately, under this regime, the island’s soil would become too saline to support most of the current vegetation. The loss of the current vegetation may result in accelerated erosion, especially from storms, though this may be somewhat offset by recruitment of more salt tolerant species. Over time, the above water portion of the island may shrink, and eventually become rocky shoals, depending on how the vegetation and sedimentation patterns develop under a more frequent flooding regime.”
Another effect of Sandy was to carry plastic trash further inland where we can’t go without risking damage to nests. This year fresh deposits from the continuing plague of ocean plastics traced the high water mark. Most of this material was small, with plastic bottles, polystyrene foam cups and chunks of expanded polystyrene providing the bulk of the 19 bags we filled. The source for this is mostly litterbugs whose pollution is carried into the estuary by wind and street runoff waters. As always combined sewer overflows are a core problem. Polystyrene was the most common material in our collection of large pieces too, with great slabs and blocks of extruded Styrofoam and expanded foam piling up on the rockier north shore. Mariners speculate that these flotation billets slipped from broken docks and the gaping rust holes of derelict barges, like the two scuttled in nearby Flushing Bay.
Along with the trash were more useful items cast adrift. Anthony Borbon lugged a mooring ball and three flotation bumpers back while Erik alerted environmental groups to the five oyster “seed” trays we found. All of the bags and larger items (including a highway barrel) we could gather we delivered to Barretto Point Park in the South Bronx. HarborLAB Operations Chief EJ Lee heroically and hysterically towed much of this away in a bizarre outrigger assemblage masterminded by our facilities manager, Patricia Erickson. To provide EJ with a much needed boost, Sally Attia and Librado Sanchez swung their tandem astern and nosed their bow right up the barrel. As EJ pulled, the duo pushed for the duration until they were all smiles ashore.
Seeding the island was especially uplifting. We were excited to spread milkweed seed to perhaps transform the island into a place for Monarch butterflies to lay their eggs, instead of just stopping over for a meal of goldenrod or other flower nectar. Monarch caterpillars eat exclusively milkweed, from which they incorporate a toxin the protects them from predators. A major, federally orchestrated effort aims to restore lost milkweed populations. We also planted beach plums, which used to line our estuary to the delight of hungry birds and mammals, including humans. These large shrubs are resplendent with white flowers in the spring, drawing bees and butterflies as well.
Before we left the island, Erik photographed as much of the plant life as he could, including the canopies, in case ecologists could observe things unapparent to lay people or make use of the images as growth data. We were surprised by the presence of oak trees, with acorns dotting the beach. The stands of invasive phragmites reeds don’t seem to be expanding.
A strong ebb current sped our way back, leaning over the last remaining buoy marking the tidal turbines next to Roosevelt Island. As we turned into Newtown Creek, Erik photographed the bank swallow and kingfisher burrows in the soil bluffs at Hunters Point.
We finally returned by dusk, exhausted but satisfied that our day was very well spent. We were in great company for a big cause, however small the island.