March 5: Habitat Planning to Honor UN World Wildlife Day!

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Today, March 3, is UN World Wildlife Day and what better way to honor it this weekend than by helping create thriving habitat areas along a polluted waterway? Just yesterday HarborLAB’s GreenLaunch on the Newtown Creek was designated by the National Wildlife Federation as a Certified Wildlife Habitat in recognition of our efforts to provide edible native plants for birds, milkweed for Monarch butterflies, clean water, shelter, and other support for native species. We also generate organic compost to enrich our poor soil.

This Sunday, March 5, from noon to 3PM turn sentiment into action by joining HarborLAB for an orientation at our Newtown Creek GreenLaunch (53-21 Vernon Blvd, LIC, NY 11101) and then walking over to Bricktown Bagel Cafe to plan our 2017 plantings, water systems, constructed habitat (mason bee and bat boxes to start), seedball activities, environmental monitoring lab, and more!

Details here: https://www.facebook.com/events/133044087217291/

 

 

Naked Gobies in Newtown Creek

Flora and Fauna Fridays

A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.

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Naked Goby. (Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.)

 

by Erik Baard

Skinny dipping in the Newtown Creek Superfund Site might seem unwise, particularly in February, but it’s a way of life for naked gobies (Gobiosoma bosc). These very small, bottom-dwelling fish of the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf states are extremely common yet rare to see. That’s a shame because gobies — one of the most diverse families of fish, with over 2,000 species — have rich and fascinating lives packed into typically less than four inches and four years.

Ecologists for city, state, and federal agencies did encounter naked gobies in early studies to profile the life and pollutants of what became HarborLAB’s home waterway. They discovered an abundance of goby eggs at the mouth of the creek but not further in, indicating that spawning happened where cleaner East River waters swirled in with each tidal cycle. No surprise given that naked gobies and their eggs and spawn are often found in the fish-protecting screens covering intake tubes at the nearby Ravenswood Power Plant. Bear in mind, however, that this is opposite of the natural state of affairs. Fish normally lay eggs and spawn in sheltered areas outside the swift main channel of waterways. The East River is dredged, constricted by landfill, and edged with bulkheads that make for even faster currents. The slower-moving four-mile stretch of the Newtown Creek should by rights be the East River’s nursery.

As it is, only adult “gobies were prevalent in the mid-section of the Creek,” according to the Fish and Wildlife Service report linked above. Still, what a testament to this species’ hardiness, given that the creek bed (commonly described as being like “black mayonnaise”) is sedimented with toxins and stripped of naked gobies’ natural habitat of oyster beds and salt grass clusters. Females prefer to lay their amber-colored eggs into empty oyster shells. In the Newtown Creek, they make do with rock, crumbled concrete bulkheads, partly interred plastic trash, bottles, and other debris. In the winter, they bury themselves into that poisonous black mayonnaise.

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(South Florida Water Management District)

Naked gobies feed on worms and small crustaceans, which concentrate in their tissue the toxins of a century of oil spills, refinery and tannery effluents,  and illegal dumping.  Cloaked by the muck and the murk, these “naked” prey fish for better known species like striped bass, eels, and bluefish are still taking no chances. The species is scaleless and camouflaged in green and brown blotches. Their eyes are close together, atop the head. At a glance they look like lizards. The young are translucent.

Naked goby pelvic fins have evolved to fuse into suction cups, a neat trick for anchoring themselves. Scientists have noted that gobies can remember how to navigate complicated obstacle courses for at least 40 days, and judge and remember spatial relationships, useful for hopping from tidal pool to tidal pool. Some cousin species of goby have also evolved complex behaviors and symbiotic relationships. For example, one species climbs waterfalls that to human scale is the equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest three times over — check out this video! Others groom the parasites off larger fish. Another enjoys an “Odd Couple” relationship with a large burrowing shrimp. The fish and crustacean cohabitate and deposit eggs in the same burrow. They touch each other (with tail and antennae respectively) constantly to know if the other is agitated or retreating, relying on each other’s complementary senses. And we are still discovering new species of goby!

 

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Naked Gobi range. 

Green Apple Cleaners Refreshes Our Vests!

HarborLAB gives great thanks to Green Apple Cleaners for gently and thoroughly removing salt, mud, grit, and greasy muck from over 50 of our life vests!Some of you might recall meeting company Co-Founder David Kistner and his twins when they volunteered at HarborLAB events!

Our adult and juvenile life vests are used by thousands of people each season in saltwater and on all manner of shorelines. That’s a great way to get really dirty. We need life vests to be clean for our winter Instruction for Inclusion pool program, so who better to ask than longtime supporter Green Apple Cleaners? This pioneering company is the only clothing cleaner in the NYC metropolitan area to use exclusively the methods recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency: high tech, efficient water systems and captured and compressed carbon dioxide. The CO2 is captured from brewers’ emissions and cleaning machines recapture and reuse the gas for several cycles.

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The dry cleaning fluid perc (tetrachloroethene, or perchloroethylene) is a common contaminant in soil and water (including at Superfund cleanup sites) and a hazard to human health. This is both a consumer and even more an environmental justice issue because a great number of dry cleaning industry workers are lower-income immigrant people of color. They face ailments and potential ailments ranging from skin and eye irritation to neurological and reproductive problems, organ failure, and cancer. Other methods, like silicon and hydrocarbon, are dubiously marketed as “green.” Silicon accumulates in fish tissue and contaminates water bodies, and “hydrocarbon” is just another name for petroleum products. Who knew “casual Fridays” were protecting the Earth?

Naturally our life vests were washed in low-water machines, not dry cleaned. Clean life vests last longer and Green Apple Cleaners’ slower spin and plant-derived solvents help guard against wear and tear. That saves us money on maintenance and replacement, leaving more funds available for free environmental education programming! We are grateful to Green Apple Cleaners for this service and for using benign methods that reduce water waste and protect our marine ecosystems.

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Children’s life vests getting spiffy again at Green Apple Cleaners.

More about Green Apple Cleaners in a CNN report here:

Seedball Making at LIC Springs!

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HarborLAB at LIC Springs! Seedball making station. This group of seedballers was perhaps the most fierce of the day.    🙂

 

HarborLAB volunteers had a wonderful time at the LIC Springs street festival, teaching kids and adults how to make seedballs. This means of planting native species helps restore habitat and stabilize shorelines. We focused on seaside goldenrod, which sustains migrating monarch butterflies and other beneficial insects in the autumn and shelters the eggs of black skimmer shorebirds. Our seeds were gathered by HarborLAB volunteers and students from Hunters Point Community Middle School in coordination with the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation and Hunters Point Parks Conservancy.

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HarborLAB at LIC Springs! Seedball making station. Some were super serious seedballers. 🙂

We’re very grateful to Long Island City Partnership, our local business improvement district, for organizing this annual event, which is much more than a block party. Our lead volunteers for the day were Dylan Geil, Patricia Menje Erickson, David Borgioli, Scott Wolpow, and Erik Baard, with Thomas Dieter helping us get shipped out from the site. Thanks to David Kistner of sponsor Green Apple Cleaners as well, who did the leg work of picking up and delivering the 50 lbs bag of red clay powder needed for our seedballs.

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We’re also grateful to our Seedball friends (http://http://seedball.us/) for teaching us this ancient propogation technique, which mimics the critical ecosystem process of endozoochaory (spreading seeds by animal droppings). We simply mix natural red clay powder, a pinch of sand, seeds, compost (cocoa husks), and a bit of water until the ingredients reach a cookie dough-like consistency. Then the “dough” is rolled into penny diameter balls. These are air dried for a few days and then bottled. Then HarborLAB distributes the seedballs along shorelines to stabilize them and provide habitat and sustenance for pollinators and birds. In cooperation with conservancies and governmental park agencies, we’ve seeded shorelines from Queens to Coney Island and Staten Island!

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Catskills Boating with ReservoirLAB!

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The view from the ReservoirLAB launch Chandler’s Cove on the Neversink Reservoir in the Catskill Mountains.

HarborLAB warmly invites NYC public schools and community organizations to paddle with us for FREE on our Neversink Reservoir kayak and canoe fleet to learn about the natural and engineering wonders that make our city’s water wealth possible!

Here are our initial program dates:

June 10 and 11
July 8 and 9
August 5 and 6
Sept 10 and 11
Sept 17 and 18
Oct 8 and 10
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We’ll add dates as volunteer staffing and public demand both grow.
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To participate please email edu@harborlab.org with the subject line “Neversink Reservoir.” To volunteer for this program, please email volunteer@harborlab.org with the subject line “Neversink Reservoir.”

All adult participants must have free access permits from the NYCDEP. Apply here:  http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/recreation/access.shtml

No permit is required of children under the age of 16 if accompanied by a valid permit holder over the age of 18, as will always be the case with our programs. Anyone 16 years old or older must apply for a permit.

Bus transportation grants are available from the Watershed Agricultural Council for groups incorporating forestry education into their visits to the Neversink Reservoir. ReservoirLAB will take participants on forest walks and using NYCDEP materials we’ll teach how forests protect and clean our drinking water. Classroom visits by NYCDEP professional educators also cover this topic. Apply for grants here:  http://www.nycwatershed.org/forestry/education-training/urbanrural-school-based-education-initiative/bus-tours/ 

We’re grateful to HarborLAB Camping Co-Manager Ray Tan for exploring alternative affordable busing options.

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HarborLAB educator Kamala Redd and camping co-manager Ray Tan exult in the knowledge that ReservoirLAB will soon launch!

 

The ReservoirLAB program is provided by HarborLAB volunteers and was made possible by a Catskill Watershed Corporation grant and its kind donation of boat racks; the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, which taught our volunteers to be “watershed docents” and provides reservoir access (NYCDEP also provided funds to the CWC for the grant); and ExxonMobil’s community outreach program for the Greenpoint Remediation Project, which financed a dozen volunteers’ Red Cross certification in CPR, AED, and First Aid (all for juveniles and adults) and basic water rescue for all of our programs from the Newtown Creek to the Neversink Reservoir. HarborLAB Facilities Manager Patricia Erickson is kindly allowing HarborLAB to use her mobile home as a camping base (for volunteers serving multiple days) and equipment storage site near the Neversink River and reservoir. Frost Valley YMCA has stored our five canoes and ten tandem kayaks, and our paddles and live vests, while we completed training and permits.

Below is a gallery of photos from a recent site coordination meeting of HarborLAB volunteers with NYCDEP and CWC officials at the Neversink Reservoir. Note nearby campgrounds, posters about invasive species and other environmental matters, a hiking path, Chandler’s Cove, and the boat racks donated to us by the CWC.

Sweet Sweep of the Creek!

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HarborLAB’s Newtown Creek Sweep, part of the Riverkeeper Sweep event at sites from NYC to Albany.

HarborLAB volunteers, environmental science students from CUNY LaGuardia Community College, and a mix of visitors from other schools and walks of life had a fantastic time tending to the Newtown Creek on Saturday! Our work was part of the annual Riverkeeper Sweep of Hudson River and estuary sites from New York City to Albany. Our Newtown Creek home base is a waterway so blighted with pollution that it qualifies for the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund cleanup program.

HarborLAB’s Newtown Creek Sweep had two basic components, cleaning and gardening. We offered a variety of activities so that people of all ages and abilities could participate. More than 30 people helped over the course of the day. We were especially grateful to have educators among us to add learning to the labor. Holly Porter-Morgan, Diana Szatkowski, Harald Parzer, and Thomas Dieter brought knowledge and encouragement to our students and volunteers.

The core of the program was removing plastics from our shoreline and the creek itself. Volunteers wend their way through broken bulkheads and boat lines to pick trash from the shores while our canoes went out in two waves to scoop up litter, mostly plastic bottles and bags. These smaller items filled seven large trash bags. Larger hauls included a lawn mower, two chairs, a 55-gallon steel drum, a bird feeder, and antiquated electronic sound systems.

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We’re under no delusion that our cleanups will remove the tonnage necessary for an ecosystem rebound, but the exercise educates people about the severity of the plastics problem. So what works if picking up plastics is a measure that’s too little, too late? Recycling is also an inadequate solution by itself because it requires a great amount of energy (often from carbon-releasing fossil sources) and sustained administrative focus. With petroleum and other commodity prices low, private carters in New York City are recycling even less material than usual despite New York City’s public commitment to eliminating waste. While a reduction in unthinking, rampant consumerism is laudable, instilling new virtues across the culture will be a slow process. Real penalties and enforcement for littering will help a bit, but not enough. That leaves voters and activists to demand a reduction in wasteful packaging at the design and production stage. We must also push to eliminate combined sewer overflows, which gulch marine debris as well as pathogens and other pollutants.

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Gardening was also a big part of the day, and is a huge part of HarborLAB’s work. Volunteers — especially a group from New Hyde Park High School — made thousands of native pokeweed seed balls that we’ll distribute as we land at rest stops on our harbor journeys across to stabilize shorelines, buffer storm surges and waves, feed birds, and sustain pollinators. Those up for heavier lifting helped restore our shoreline by layering cocoa husks from MAST Brothers Chocolate with burlap sacks, kitchen scraps, and soil in a system called “lasagna composting.” This fresh soil covers a broken brick substrate that mimics the glacially transported rocks of our region. The resulting slop will be planted with staghorn sumac, pokeweed, goldenrod, milkweed, and other indigenous species, and footed by smooth cordgrass and shellfish. Some of these species are already making headway. We were delighted to see that our dozens of shadbush saplings were fruiting copiously and our hackberry and American persimmon are also thriving. Our raised bed and container-grown dessert cultivars are doing great too, including apricots, apples, pears, and figs.

We’re tremendously grateful to all who came and helped, and to Riverkeeper for creating this unifying event and helping direct volunteers to sites.

 

 

 

Spartina, Sumac, and Kid Power!

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HarborLAB partnered with Citizens Committee for New York City and Neuberger Berman for a company day of “Celebration and Service” at the Hunters Point Community Middle School. Volunteers partnered with science teacher Mary Mathai for hands-on education about shoreline habitat restoration. HarborLAB has a longstanding relationship with the school, conducting seed gathering field trips, providing lectures about water quality, and other services. Special thanks to HarborLAB volunteer Diana Szatkowski for making this newest activity a success!

Our first focus was Spartina alterniflora, or smooth cordgrass. HarborLAB Executive Director Erik Baard gave a brief presentation on this saltwater marsh species, which is a bedrock of our coastal ecosystem. We discussed how landfill, runoff pollution, invasive species introduced humans, and other modern impacts have reduced acreage in New York City to less than 10% of historic coverage. Invertebrates shelter within the grass, feeding herons and other shore birds. The complex root systems of spartina marshes anchor sand and mud, stabilizing shorelines. Dense foliage reduces wave and wakes, protecting property and lives. This nearly eliminated grass uniquely sustains a butterfly species, the Saffron skipper.

To restore spartina to HarborLAB’s shore on the Newtown Creek, we’re creating pods made from burlap bags supplied by MAST Brothers Chocolate. Students learned about how burlap is made of fibers drawn from jute, another marsh plant in South Asia, and how generations ago the fibers were softened with whale oil (and now vegetable oils and sometimes mineral oil). We filled the burlap bags with sand, bundled them, and later we’ll slice holes in the tops. Then we’ll place plugs of spartina seedlings in the holes. Our seedlings are provided by the Greenbelt Native Plant Center, a facility operated by the Natural Resources Group of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation. Those seedlings will be ready in June.

Students and volunteers then made seed balls from cocoa husks, natural red clay, a bit of sand, and velvety red staghorn sumac seeds. Sumac is another important species for our region’s shorelines. It grows with very little water and produces berry-like drupes that sustain many birds. Seedballs replicate endozoochory, or seed dispersal by animal droppings.

The Citizens Committee for New York City and Neuberger Berman were vital to the program because it’s otherwise difficult to have adequate volunteer staffing on a weekday. The students benefited from the greater adult-to-minor ratio in safety, attention ,and encouragement.

 

March 29: Reservoir Training!

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Neversink Education Training at LaGuardia Community College

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Learn about our city’s beautiful drinking water system, a wonder of nature and engineering! Share that new knowledge with NYC youth and kids!

LaGuardia Community College, Room C463.

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Please share this to build our volunteer base for this program!
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Come get trained to be a Watershed Docent, a volunteer who’ll help introduce NYC school kids and other youth to our drinking water supply. This is NOT paddling skills training and you needn’t be an expert paddler; this is a night to learn about our drinking water system and the Neversink Reservoir itself. This program will activate HarborLAB’s second boat fleet on the Neversink Reservoir in the Catskills. This program is made possible by the NYC Department of Envionmental Protection, the Catskill Watershed Corporation, and HarborLAB volunteers.
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Please email harborlab@gmail.com with the subject line “Neversink Training” to participate. Additionally, please join and share here: https://www.facebook.com/events/968029069940341/
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Volunteer candidates will be screened by our volunteer co-managers and ED.
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(If you received Red Cross certification funded by HarborLAB’s sponsors you have a special responsibility to this program. Please make every effort to ensure its success.)
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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.