Green for Grass: Thank You!

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Three generous couples have fulfilled HarborLAB’s vital marsh grass seedling budget for 2016! We give great thanks to Katherine Bradford and Gregory Leopold, Maura Kehoe Collins and David Collins, and Dylan Geil and Thomas Dieter for sponsoring 1,000 spartina (or cordgrass) seedling plugs that HarborLAB will plant along its Newtown Creek shore and in Jamaica Bay. These seedlings were grown by the Greenbelt Native Plant Center on Staten Island. This greenhouse and seedbank is part of the Natural Resources Group that cares for the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation’s wild preserves.

You can help us plant even more native species by donating in HarborLAB’s name to the Natural Areas Conservancy.

Please make your donation online or by check here:

Natural Areas Conservancy
http://naturalareasnyc.org/donate/

Be sure to put “HarborLAB” in the comment section online or in the memo line of your check! 

We’ll also continue to grow spartina from seed through our Cordgrass in the Classroom program as supplies become available. In addition to the profound educational and emotional benefits to youth that paddling and planting days provide, there are great economic benefits to New York City. Learn more about the value of estuary marsh ecosystem services in this paper.

 

Phragmites Tankwa?!?!

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Ethiopian Tankwa boat. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

HarborLAB will commence its multicultural boatbuilding program in March with the International High School! We’re thrilled to serve these students, who are in an intensive college preparatory program for immigrant youth with limited English. IHS is housed within CUNY LaGuardia Community College.

We’ll make reed craft using invasive phragmites, which crowd out many of region’s indigenous estuary species. We’ll start with a demonstration inspired by the tankwa, an Ethiopian work boat made from papyrus on Lake Tana. Other models will follow, launching on June 8 for United Nations World Oceans Day. Our goal is for these boats to greet the arriving Hokule’a, a Hawaiian canoe circling the globe for environmental education. This is easily achievable at Gantry Plaza State Park, if permitted, directly facing the UN and a few minutes paddle from our launch.

We welcome volunteers to join the effort and donors to sponsor us!

Grass (family: Poaceae) and sedge (family: Cyperaceae) boats are among the most ubiquitous types because papyrus, bamboo, and reeds are renewable and readily available to those working the water as fishers, ferryers, and traders. Grasses and sedges also wonderfully pliable materials, providing both planking and twine. We’ll work with the United Nations community and immigrant cultural centers to maximize our inclusive service and multicultural representation.

This world heritage is truly ancient, as evidenced by petroglyphs depicting reed boats in Azerbaijan that date back 12,000 years. These boats quickly return to the soil, so archaeological evidence is spotty. Logic would indicate African origins. The earliest remains of a reed boat are 7,000 years old, unearthed in Kuwait. Palm fronds are also used in a similar fashion in the Persian Gulf. Even the story of Moses begins with him set afloat in a bulrush ark. The apexes of accomplishment in this art include ancient Egyptian papyrus voyaging vessels and the ornate craft of the living Uros culture of Lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia. Our most famous reed heritage boat in North America is the tule (pronounced too-lee). Watch one get built in the video below!

On the East Coast, science writer and ecologist David Samuel Johnson proved the viability of phragmites boat construction. Even young students can build these boats.

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David S. Johnson paddles a phragmites boat. Photo by Brian Landergan.

Benefits of this project:
  • Environmental science education: Indigenous/invasive species, rhizomes, ecological services, estuaries, wetlands, etc.
  • Cultural and Economic Education: World heritages, commonalities and differences, economic development and identity, renewable resources and growth, etc.
  • Habitat Restoration: Tangible results from removing invasive reeds (and removing seeds before construction). New, native plantings would bring even more value.
  • Safety: No power tools are needed. Adults would maintain a good ratio and oversight of youth. All paddling would be done under HarborLAB insurance with Red Cross certified (Water Rescue, CPR, AED, First Aid, adult/pediatric) volunteers in safe areas. HarborLAB will provide safety support from sit-on-top kayaks, though these reed boats will be much more seaworthy.
  • Youth empowerment: Students will do much of the building, paddling, documentation, and outreach themselves.
  • Publicity: We’ll paddle these boats past the UN and skyline, generating great images and video. This would be a sight never seen on the East River. This is especially true if we are able to support the Hokule’a effort.
  • Budget: The materials are harvested invasive plants and twine.
  • Sustainability: The boats will last a season and then be composted to enrich planting areas for habitat or ornament (not edible gardens).
  • Outreach: The students, educators, organizations, agencies, and companies involved will trumpet this unique project, delivering some aspect of its value to wider audiences. The boats will be brought to communities throughout NYC.
  • Long-term Results: Thorough documentation will allow other educators to reproduce our results and build upon them. The excitement may seed the founding of a World Boatbuilding Museum (a place where the public can see small boats from around the world — reed, skin-and-frame, wood, and more) built before their eyes, and ride aboard them) that could be a major tourist draw.

If you’d like to volunteer with us and the students, please email volunteer@harborlab.org with the subject line “Boat Building.” To sponsor, please email support@harborlab.org.

 

WPIX and NY1 Coverage of “Cocoa Coast”

 

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HarborLAB is grateful to Greg Mocker of WPIX and Tanya Kilch of NY1 News for sharing our “Cocoa Coast” work with fellow New Yorkers. You can click through to read and view NY1 story, “Student’s and Volunteers Use Cocoa Beans to Restore Queens’ Shorelines.” Gallery below by Erik Baard.

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Both reporters did a great job of showing HarbotLAB, MAST Brothers Chocolate Makers, and Hunters Point Community Middle School are combining environmental service with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) learning. HarborLAB will be conducting classroom activities to build upon this field experience in late winter and early spring. The method we chose to generate soil in situ is called “lasagna composting.”

 

 

 

 

Cocoa Coast on the Newtown Creek

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  FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

HarborLAB: Erik Baard

917-697-9221

baard@harborlab.org

www.harborlab.org

 

MAST Brothers: Tim Monaghan

917-675-4374

tim.monaghan@camronpr.com

 

A CHOCOLATE VALENTINE TO THE NEWTOWN CREEK

HarborLAB and MAST Brothers’ “Cocoa Coast” Brings Habitat to Superfund Waterway

 

When: Wednesday, February 10: 2:25PM-2:55PM

Where: 53-21 Vernon Boulevard, LIC, NY 11101

 

Reporters are also welcome to join HarborLAB volunteers as they pick up hundreds of pounds of cocoa husks from two MAST Brothers factories. Typically Wednesday and Sundays, 3PM-5:30PM.

Event:

HarborLAB and MAST Brothers Chocolate Makers have partnered for the past two years to turn tons of deliciously fragrant cocoa husks from the company’s bean-to-bar factories in Brooklyn into clean, fertile soil on the Long Island City waterfront of the Newtown Creek. This growing shoreline slope and berm at HarborLAB’s canoe and kayak launch is now home to an expanding habitat of native flowers and fruits for butterflies and birds. Chocolatey love for a long-unloved creek!

 

“We’re excited to rescue organic material from landfill to create a beautiful, clean landscape of native flowers and orchards in a place that needs love, on Valentine’s Day and every day,” said Erik Baard, founder of HarborLAB. “Our volunteers are grateful to MAST Brothers and to Queens Community Board 2 Environmental Chair Dorothy Morehead for building this offbeat, fun, and useful relationship.”

Check with organizers for updates regarding public officials who might speak.  

Photo opportunities each Wednesday and Sunday (including Valentine’s Day):

  • Students and volunteers spreading cocoa shells and burlap bags on the waterfront.
  • Bag stamps: Madagascar, Tanzania, Peru, Venezuela, Papua New Guinea.
  • HarborLAB waterfront and Manhattan skyline from Pulaski Bridge.

DETAILS:

The Newtown Creek is a place New Yorkers usually associate with the smells of sewage, petroleum spills, and the sulfuric gases of anaerobic bacteria. The MAST Brothers’ husks, along with other plant matter, compost into rich and healthy soil in an area deprived of it. And for a time the place smells delicious!

Our soil creation technique is commonly known as “lasagna composting,” in which alternating layers of carbon and nitrogen-rich materials interact. The husks cover volunteers’ kitchen scraps, tea bags, etc. Cocoa husks have a desirable 3:1:3 fertilizer ratio of Nitrogen: Phosphorous: Potassium. Burlap bags are made from jute plants, a type of mallow. With a small amount of additional soil and beneficial invertebrates and bacteria, a rich humus forms. Broken bricks rescued from landfill form a substrate mimicking our region’s glacially transported rock.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation encourages natural shoreline stabilization that relies on root systems instead of always building bulkheads. Growing at HarborLAB’s kayak and canoe “GreenLaunch”: Milkweed (on which Monarch butterflies depend), goldenrod, pokeberry, serviceberry, American persimmon, beach plum, hackberry, fig trees, Kazakh and other apples, Asian pears. The native seeds were gathered by HarborLAB volunteers, CUNY and NYC Public School students, and provided by the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation’s Greenbelt Native Plant Center. Trees provided by New York Restoration Project, US Department of Agriculture, and Cornell University. Coming soon: fruiting vines and native spartina saltmarsh grass (for the intertidal zone).

About HarborLAB:  Student and volunteer-run HarborLAB operates from a 125’ shoreline in Hunters Point outside the Circus Warehouse, a school for big tent performance arts, thanks to Schuman Properties. HarborLAB volunteers serve communities throughout the Hudson River estuary and watershed with free environmental education programs. HarborLAB provides educational kayaking and canoeing tours, paddling to shores that volunteers and students and clean and plant with native species, and open introductory paddles in parks. HarborLAB also enriches NYC public school curricula with field trips and activities in libraries and classrooms.

About MAST Brothers Chocolate Makers: MAST Brothers is a New York-based chocolate maker with flagship locations in Brooklyn and London. Founded by pioneering brothers Rick and Michael in 2007, is introducing chocolate to the world with an obsessive attention to detail, meticulous craftsmanship, groundbreaking innovation, and inspirational simplicity.

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2015 Gantry Plaza State Park Water Quality

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2015 Citizen Water Quality Testing Program Report

by Josue Silvestre, Engineer in Training
HarborLAB Water Quality Sampling Coordinator

HarborLAB takes part in the Citizen Water Quality Testing Program (CWQTP), an initiative of the New York City Water Trail Association that coordinates weekly grassroots monitoring of metropolitan area waterways for a 20-week period from May through October. I had the opportunity to lead HarborLAB’s participation in 2015. Our focus was again Gantry Plaza State Park, where we serve cumulatively thousands of children, teens, and adults through public paddling programs and special partnerships with organizations serving disadvantaged youth.

We received training from The River Project and a research team at Columbia University’s Earth Institute on water sampling at docks and shorelines. The sampling season launched on May 28 with 38 sites from Yonkers to Jamaica Bay. We measured nitrate and phosphate with in-situ testing kits and brought chilled samples rapidly to five labs to test for Enterococcus, a gut bacterium indicative of sewage. While nitrate and phosphate levels are immediately registered, bacteria must be incubated for more than 24 hours.

Gantry Plaza State Park is on the East River, a tidal strait within the Hudson River Estuary. The CWQTP concerns itself with wastewater contamination of the East River due to past and recurring contamination from combined sewer outfalls (CSO) and malfunctioning of wastewater treatment facilities. Paddling groups and nonprofit littoral ecology experts assert that because NYC Department of Environmental Protection surveys sample in deeper water, official statistics don’t account for bacterial colonies near shore, where human contact and wildlife activity is greatest. NYC Department of Health water testing focuses on swimming beaches, not kayak and canoe launches.

HarborLAB cancels programming at Gantry Plaza State Park on days following significant rain as a precaution against CSO contamination.

Enterococcus levels are presented as a Most Probable Number (MPN), or the number of colonies per 100 ml of water counted after incubation. These numbers set thresholds for recommending public notifications or temporary closures. New York City Department of Health Enterococcus standards for swimming are as follows:

MPN <35 = acceptable for swimming

MPN between 35 and 104 = unacceptable if level persist

MPN >104 = unacceptable for swimming

Throughout the 2015 CWQTP season (see figure 1) lab results showed that the presence of Enterococcus at Gantry Plaza State Park usually measured within acceptable conditions for swimming. It was observed that on three occasions Enterococcus levels at the site were unacceptable for swimming. Similar results were obtained in the previous 2014 CWQTP season (see figure 2) with one measurement exceeding the limit acceptable for swimming.

These spikes might correlate to rainfall prior to measurement (with one of the three a possibly anomalous result), as seen in figure 3, provided by the Riverkeeper organization through the citizen testing data web tool hosted on its website. That is, a wetter season in 2015 may be the cause for having have three peaks in Enterococcus counts compared to one peak in 2014. The amount of rainfall in the 2014 season, from May 22 to October 02, was 14.76 inches, according to the National Weather Service Forecast Office. That was 1.59 inches less than the 2015 season’s 16.35 inches for a same period (May 21-October 01).

Nitrate (NO3) and Phosphate (PO4) in-situ testing was new to the 2015 season. Nitrates and phosphates from urban runoff can cause eutrophication, a process that depletes lakes, streams, and rivers of oxygen. The procedure for in-situ testing was straight forward. The test kit consisted of two small tubes with nitrate and phosphate reactors and a small cube (see figure 4). Each tube would absorb water from a small cube of the sampled water. The tubes would change color after a few minutes indicating the level of NO3 or PO4 respectively. Throughout the season, low concentrations of Nitrate and Phosphate testing were recorded and these remained constant.

For me, as an international student with an engineering background in water resources, and an advocate of sustainable water management, constant monitoring of water bodies is of utmost relevance. It informs environmental regulators whether the water body supports a healthy aquatic ecosystem. While participating with HarborLAB collecting water samples, I came to appreciate the importance of keeping New York City’s waterways pollutant free. It helps revitalize shores once plentiful with aquatic life and maintain a balance in the ecosystem. In addition to revitalizing shores, effectively protecting our water bodies from pollutants creates an increased public interest in recreational water activities.

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Fig. 1 2015 CWQT Season Enterococcus test results

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Fig. 2 2014 CWQT Season Enterococcus test results

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Fig.3 Enterococcus count and rainfall correlation. (Extracted from Riverkeeper.org/water-quality/citizen-data.)

 

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Fig. 4 Nitrates and Phosphates in-situ testing kit

 

Paddle and Potluck!

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Photo by Erik Baard

HarborLAB closed out our paddling season much later than expected, as mild air and water temperatures continued. We’d say “thanks to unusually warm air and water,” but even such a pleasant and localized anomaly brings to mind the global warming trend — and related ocean acidification and sea level rise — that threatens all coastal and marine ecosystems.

But all that said and considered, we were blessed with a terrific day of urban exploration. The outing also afforded us the opportunity to gather enough seaside goldenrod seeds for at least two classroom seedball making days, and do some phragmites scouting. We plan to cut down stands of this invasive reed to make boats in traditional Ethiopian, Bolivian, Greek, Iraqi, and Egyptian styles!

This outing was also a fundraiser for HarborLAB, arranged as a birthday present by LIC resident Maura Kehoe Collins for her husband, David. Their son, Zach, brought helpful muscle and knowledge of detritivores to the party. We were delighted to be joined by the Collins’ special guest, Curtis Cravens, author of Copper on the Creek. No less of a grit-and-brine maven than Newtown Creek Alliance historian Mitch Waxman (author of Newtown Creek for the Vulgarly Curious) is a huge fan of the book. Cravens worked for our neighbor across the creek, Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, and now serves as Senior Advisor for Coastal Resiliency at New York City Office of the Mayor.

Our course took us to the mouth of the Newtown Creek to view the Manhattan skyline and then back Plank Road, where the Newtown Creek Alliance has placed an educational sign and planted native habitat with support from the NY-NJ Harbor & Estuary Program and New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission (NEIWPCC). The site was once the Queens side of a wooden bridge. Cravens pointed out the landings of a former Penny Bridge, which led from Brooklyn to Calvary Cemetery. More about that in Forgotten New York. We all admired the engineering marvels behind the construction of the new Kosciuszko Bridge.

At Plank Road we were delighted to encounter a fine artist at work! Painter Scott Williams was patient with our disruption, warmly sharing the stories behind his work. He’s made the Newtown Creek his occasional subject since 1992! HarborLAB Founder Erik Baard quickly envisioned a showing of photos and paintings by Waxman, Williams, Bernie Ente, and others called “Picture a Creek.” We’ll be exploring this educational opportunity over the winter.

Another future program inspired by the outing is our planned June 5 “Bunker Symposium.” One of the hottest restaurants on the creek was our walk-up from Plank Road, Bun-Ker Vietnamese. It happens that “bunker” is a local name for Menhaden fish, which has been dubbed “The Most Important Fish in the Sea” for its ecological services and commercial value. The creek is crammed with bunker each late spring and summer.

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Photo by Erik Baard

Our guests scooted off (with our great thanks!) to their next celebration, while we had ours! Despite the chill, our Thanksgiving Potluck was warm with joy. Thomas Dieter brought a delicious quinoa dish while EJ Lee made an amazing assortment of stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and other delicacies. David Pugh and Becky Chipkin contributed yummy pickled beats and crisp apples while Erik Baard and Danushi Fernando baked apple pie pockets. Diana Szatkowski rounded out the feast with the indispensable and scrumptious butternut squash with cranberries. It was all vegan, not only to be inclusive but because the United Nations Environment Programme found that “a substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.”

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Photo by Erik Baard

We’d barely cleared the table when our cloudy day transformed into a golden dusk by the alchemy of atmospheric refraction. The wondrous beauty only deepened as purples and pinks ascended. The contrasting textures of cloud layers rode over each other like woodwinds and brass over strings, over percussion. What a glorious way to close out our 2015 paddling season!

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Photo by Erik Baard

 

“Estuary Escape” to a “Living Dock”

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HarborLAB’s outing with the Van Alen Institute visits the Newtown Creek Alliance’s “Living Dock.”

On November 8, HarborLAB was privileged to provide a Newtown Creek tour to the Van Alen Institute. Billed as an “Estuary Escape,” we also hope that the time afloat was a reminder that we live within a water wilderness that’s both marvelous and in need of better care.

We shared a bit of local lore and history gleaned from authors who are also our friends, Newtown Creek Alliance historian Mitch Waxman and founder of the Center for Algonquin Culture, Evan Pritchard. Other highlights of the trip, however, were glimpses of a green and blue future. That’s fitting for an organization like VAI, which started as Society of Beaux-Arts Architects but evolved into an advocate for design and architecture that serves public interests.

HarborLAB Founder and Executive Director Erik Baard walked participants through our GreenLaunch, a waterfront strip that we’ve cleaned and cleared for three years without machine aid, owing to soft ground, and planted with more than 30 native trees and bushes so far. We’re also cultivating goldenrod, pokeweed, and milkweed, which are important native food sources for birds and beneficial insects. Simultaneously we’re creating large amounts of fresh soil through composting. Coming soon will be more plantings, green structures, solar power, our larger dock (thanks to Pink Sparrow Scenic and in part a Harbor Estuary Program grant via Waterfront Alliance), and eco-educational installations.

We paddled out in two waves, totaling 24 participants. We discussed the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant and the ongoing combined sewer overflow problem, and the huge Sims Metal Management (a founding HarborLAB sponsor) recycling facility. Baard noted the presence of morning glories, which help remove lead from soils. The greenest stop on our tour was the “Living Dock,” an educational project of the Newtown Creek Alliance. The dock is fitted with modules growing spartina, our region’s salt marsh grass, a cornerstone of estuarine ecology. Other life then just showed up — sea lettuce, killifish, shrimp, and more! NCA Program Director Willis Elkins explained the project as providing both the immediate benefit of nature observations, and the broader message that we shouldn’t give up hope and turn away from blighted waterways — a phenomenon Baard coined “biodecathection.” Recovery is possible, and is slowly happening. The “Living Dock” helps render the data more visibly.

It was a beautiful and meaningful day, one that we’ll look back on with fondness and gratitude for a long, happy while.

Many thanks to volunteers Thomas Dieter, Diana Chang, Becky Chipkin, David Pugh for their help as safety escorts and to Patricia Erickson, Phillip Borbon, Scott Wolpow, and all others who helped ashore! We also thank VAI for its donation in lieu of a speaker’s honorarium for Erik Baard.

Hunters Point Eco-Day Memories

Seedball making team ! Questus at Hunters Point Community Middle School with HarborLAB.

HarborLAB and friends from new sponsor Questus shared a wonderful day improving the ecology of Hunters Point and enhancing the environmental science programs of Hunters Point Community Middle School. The students made the day even sunnier, and we got so much done!

We started the day by continuing HarborLAB’s work to turn our launch on the Newtown Creek Superfund site into a green and welcoming habitat area and orchard. We planted more shadbush and tended to our orchard trees, built up fresh and composting soil cover on our sloping bank, cleaned the shore, and gathered pokeberries for our seeding program. Questus Co-Founder Jeff Rosenblum joined HarborLAB Facilities Manager Patricia Erickson in revamping our water access, preserving our dock and replacing — and better securing — our ladder. They did a stellar job!

The rest of us headed over to Hunters Point Community Middle School with a wheelbarrow of supplies to make seed balls! Our partners were Mary Mathai’s special needs science students and the school’s Eco Club. The students were delightful, and Ms. Mathai, other faculty members, and Principal Sarah Goodman have been amazing partners with HarborLAB since before the school even opened!

Seedballs are an efficient way to distribute seeds with a nutritive soil head start, whether for agriculture or habitat strengthening. HarborLAB got its start through lessons provided by the NYC Seedball community. We make our seedballs from powdered red clay, compost, cocoa shells, a pinch of sand, and seeds gathered from indigenous shoreline plants. Our Hunters Point Eco-Day seeds were seaside goldenrod gathered by Hunters Point Community Middle School students last year. Goldenrod is a vital part of our estuary, sustaining butterflies and other beneficial insects and sheltering the nests of black skimmers, one of our most unusual shorebirds. The HarborLAB and Questus team worked with the students in two sessions, with two or three adults to a table. The group effort produced thousands of seedballs and the kids will use up leftover material next week.

This activity and our illustrated presentation reinforce curricular lessons about the purposes of flowers, fruits, and seeds, and how seeds are distributed in nature. Seedballs replicate frugivorous endozoochory, or how animals spread seeds, packaged in dense nutrition, through their droppings after eating fruits. When students gather seeds with us, they learn how to identify plant species and about how plants support other species and stabilize shorelines. We also discuss, of course, how plants can remove CO2 from our air to reduce climate chaos and ocean acidification. All spring and summer, HarborLAB volunteers and students distribute seedballs as we paddle shore to shore, under the direction of conservation groups and park and preserve authorities.

The Questus team also enjoyed peer bonding, diving into a delicious lunch provided by COFFEED LIC Landing in Hunters Point South Park and canoeing from the HarborLAB GreenLaunch to the mouth of the Newtown Creek on the East River. In both cases they were exhilarated by Manhattan skyline views.

We’re deeply grateful to Questus’ team for their support and camaraderie, and to the students and faculty of Hunters Point Community Middle School for their spirited engagement in education to meet our world’s ecological challenges.

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Questus afloat with HarborLAB!

Seedball Making at LaGuardia Community College!

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Seedballs. Photo by Maureen Regan, president and founder of Green Earth Urban Gardens.

Hurricane Sandy, pollution, and development have stripped away much of our dune and coastal meadow habitats, so HarborLAB is joining the effort to restore them! To this end, HarborLAB and other conservationists are following Permaculture farmers in adopting an ancient Japanese and North American no-till agriculture tool that mimics the natural dung distribution of seeds (called endozoochory). It’s simple: make a ball of clay, compost, and seeds and toss them over the area to be revived. The warmth and rains of spring and summer then signal the seeds to germinate. Before long we’ll green the shores of NYC by bombarding them with seed love from our armada of kayaks and canoes!  😉

HarborLAB volunteers learned the art from SeedBall NYC‘s Co-founder and President Anne Apparu in a room made available to us by Dr. Sarah Durand of the Natural Sciences department at CUNY LaGuardia Community College. We made several hundred seed balls, and will make thousands more! The trick is to get the proportions right so that the balls hold together firmly but dry out before the seeds germinate. In terms of consistency, think cookie dough.

Another great instruction resource comes from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

HarborLAB used seeds we gathered with Hunters Point Community Middle School and Dr. Stephen Grosnell‘s Baruch College conservation biology students from Gantry Plaza State Park, Hunters Point Park, and our own GreenLaunch, along with seeds provided by SeedBall NYC and Briermere Farms. Hunters Point Parks Conservancy Vice President Mark Christie kindly help guide us in our seed gathering. Species included aster, milkweed, beach plum, beach pea, goldenrod, viburnum, pine, switchgrass, pokeberry, and the humorously named panicgrass (gallery below). These salt-tolerant species support endangered monarch butterflies and other pollinators, and feed birds. They also stabilize the shoreline, allowing complex ecosystems to develop while also protecting property from surges and erosion. We also gathered beach rose from Hunters Point South Park but must be very careful about where to use them, if at all, for biological productivity without enabling invasion.

See Newtown Creek Alliance historian Mitch Waxman‘s great write up of one of our outings at Queens Brownstoner.

We’re also grateful to Maureen Regan, president and founder of Green Earth Urban Gardens for participating and to Gil Lopez, president and co-founder of Smiling Hogshead Ranch Urban Farm, for inviting a naturalist to join us. We also thank the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation for permission to gather seeds. An especially welcome newcomer was Philip Anthony Borbon, a sailor who moors on the Queens waterfront of the Newtown Creek.

Our next step is to go into classrooms to make seedballs with kids, and to then bring the balls with us when we paddle to areas in need of habitat restoration! If you’d like a classroom talk and seedball making activity with HarborLAB, please email us at edu@harborlab.org!

African Americans in Marine Sciences

African Americans have made contributions to maritime history and the sciences from the colonial period forward. The first wave of academically credentialed African American marine scientists, however, would not be born until toward the end of the 19th century. HarborLAB serves budding African American scientists through its youth programs each year, and for Black History Month honors trailblazers from years past.

Outstanding among the first generation of African American university scholars in the marine sciences were Ernest Everett Just and Roger Arliner Young, both born in the 1880s. Both went to prominent universities and did field-shaping research at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, but white students were deprived of their gifts as teachers because of racial bigotry. Fortunately Dr. Just and Dr. Young received faculty appointments at historically black institutions where they inspired new generations of scientists.

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Ernest Everett Just

Dr. Just was renowned as a master designer of experiments. Though he died before the discovery of DNA, Dr. Just focused on eggs, especially those of marine invertebrates, because he saw them as the key to understanding life as an emergent complex system. An excellent biography of Dr. Just is Black Apollo of Science, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

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Roger Arliner Young

Dr. Young was the first African American woman to earn a PhD in zoology. She studied under Dr. Just and they both shared a mentor in Frank Rattray Lillie, a founder and first president of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. She performed cutting edge experiments on the effects of radiation on marine eggs. Her radiation work, study of cellular salt regulation, and dehydration and rehydration of living cells can be seen as a precursor to today’s booming field of extremophile studies. Understanding the extreme tolerances of terrestrial organisms aids astrobiologists searching harsher worlds for signs of life.

Despite the achievements of the generation of Dr. Just and Dr. Young, and those who followed, even today to be a black marine biologist or oceanographer is pioneering. Dr. Ashanti Johnson, oceanographer, shares her experiences and inspiration in the video above. Students entering the field will likely have few or no black professors. HarborLAB’s message to these students is a simple one: Please, don’t be discouraged. Don’t allow yourself to feel excluded. We need as many bright young people as possible to study these fields because with fish stocks crashing and coral reefs dying, and ocean acidity increasing due to carbon dioxide pollution, advancement of marine sciences is a matter of survival.

A great resource for students of color seeking careers in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields is the Institute for Broadening Participation’s Pathways to Science program. HarborLAB strongly recommends studying with our Natural Sciences partners at CUNY LaGuardia Community College and CUNY Baruch College. And of course, HarborLAB volunteers serve students by introducing them to the greatest teacher of all: Nature. As Dr. Just describes his first classroom, it was not with four walls:

“[It] was full of birds and flowers, especially in the spring, when the wrens awakened to the smell of wisteria and dogwood. Azaleas and camellias blossomed along the ditches where tadpoles swam, and Spanish moss gleamed from the trees…”

If you are part of a school or community group and want to join HarborLAB in environmental service learning on our boats or ashore, please email edu@harborlab.org.