Wind, Current, Love.

 

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Vlad and Johna. Photo by Larson Harley.

HarborLAB incorporated in September 2012. In October Hurricane Sandy hit New York City. The communities and shores we were freshly chartered to serve and steward were devastated. We didn’t have a single boat in our fleet or a home launch, but we had a core of wonderful volunteers ready to help when a call went out from battered Far Rockaway.

The first and largest donors to HarborLAB’s relief work were founding science adviser Vladimir Brezina, his partner Johna Till Johnson, and their colleagues. They pooled thousands for a generator, food, water, sanitary supplies, blankets, and more that HarborLAB volunteers delivered and distributed.

Today we salute their love, and year of marriage, that began on the water. We also salute the generous spirit and fecund mind of Vlad, who passed in December after a years-long struggle with cancer. It’s fitting that Vlad turned to the sea for his neuroscience research. He studied marine invertebrates to blaze trails toward a better understanding of how animals like humans move through, respond, and learn from their environments. For a fuller appreciation of Vlad, the most moving tribute is Johna’s In Memoriam post.

Johna and Vlad’s first day together started with a handshake at Pier 40 in Manhattan. They paddled from Manhattan to Sandy Hook, NJ. Their lunch chatter on the beach was a debate over the relative impacts of the world wars on American culture. “We never did agree,” Johna says, much like their ongoing discussion about the happiness of ducks. But they did agree to more voyages.

“After a while I noticed I was always happier around him than not. After a further while I figured out why, and told him I loved him. Things progressed rather rapidly thereafter,” Johna recalls.

Spreading love across the harbor is something Vlad and Johna did well together. Despite Vlad’s struggle with cancer, they provided HarborLAB with a trip planning workshop (to be published online soon) and they shared their adventures, knowledge, and Vlad’s beautiful photographs through their blog, Wind Against Current: Thoughts on Kayaking, Science, and Life. We’re happy to say Johna is continuing the blog.

Below is one of Vlad’s recent lectures, delivered when he was already deep in his chemotherapy. Still full of energy, and still sharing. No energy is lost. No ideas vanish.

As we salute Vlad, we also solute all scientists and the scientific method, humanity’s surest philosophical approach to material truth and means of equipping ourselves with solutions to the challenges ahead. We HarborLAB volunteers thank you and hope to inspire young people to join your ranks. We love your pursuit of knowledge in service to humanity and ecology.

 

 

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. 

A Night for Snow Pillows

Water Wonk Wednesdays

A weekly column on water news, tips, and innovations.

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Snow Pillow monitoring station. Photo by NYCDEP 

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SNOTEL with snow pillows. Image by USDA/Natural Resources Conservation Service

The term “snow pillow” evokes a peaceful, muffling moonlit whiteness spreading a lull across the countryside. For New Yorkers, however, it’s a critical piece of hardware.

Much of the billion gallons of water used daily by nine million residents of NYC and surrounding counties arrives as snow. The white caps of the old, rounded Catskill Mountains nestling the Neversink Reservoir are a reserve bank that melts to meet our needs in warmer months. Snow melt can also swell rivers, so anticipating flood risks is very important to towns an farms. With so many lives affected by snow, the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, in partnership with City University of New York and National Weather Service, is constantly looking for better ways to measure it.

At the end of the last decade NYCDEP began using “snow pillows,” essentially scales that weigh snow in remote locations and transmit data wirelessly in near real-time. The technology (first developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Alaska) is often integrated into remote sensor stations in rougher terrains out west. The NYCDEP deployed its first snow pillow at the Schoharie Reservoir in 2008, and later near reservoirs in Cannonsville, Pepacton, and Neversink. HarborLAB operates a canoeing and kayaking program at the Neversink for NYC youth groups and public school students to learn about their drinking water sources.

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Inner workings of the NYCDEP’s latest generation snow pillow. Photo by NYCDEP. 

The NYCDEP still uses aerial surveys and good old fashioned field work to measure snowpack, but the agency plans to more than double its constellation of snow pillows to 35 stations in coming years. Another sensor used is the Gmon, which helps researchers estimate snowpack by measuring the absorption of naturally occurring radiation. Future snow data collection might increasingly rely on satellites.

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For more about NYCDEP’s work to measure snowpack, please view this PowerPoint presentation by James H. Porter, PhD, Chief of Water Systems Operations at NYCDEP:

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Eastern White Pine, the “Great Tree of Peace”

Flora and Fauna Fridays

A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.
This week’s entry by Erik Baard, Courtesy of Nature Calendar. 

Eastern White Pines. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Eastern White Pine. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Far inland, a wind
lifts fine snow from ancient pines.
Shimmers like sea spray.

I wrote that haiku over a quarter century ago, intending to show the sensual commonality of contrasting locales, pointing toward our shared experiences across superficial cultural divides. Only later did I learn of the deep connection Eastern White Pines once had with the ocean.

Within twenty years of landing on the Eastern White Pine-spired shores of New England, the Pilgrims were exporting trunks for ship masts to ports as far away as Madagascar. The New World, from Nova Scotia to Georgia and out west to Minnesota, boasted Eastern White Pines standing over 80’ (24m), with reports of individual trees soaring up to 230’ (70m). Though this species is the tallest pine in North America, healthy ones are also pin straight.

As the colonies grew, so did competition for use of Eastern White Pines. In no mood to pay market rates for its materials, the British government carved the trunks of choice trees with the “broad arrow,” reserving them for Navy ships and exacted heavy penalties from violators. Colonists came to resent that heavy-handed claim on what they felt were their assets and began falsely marking lesser stands while selling the navy’s best as more profitable lightweight, strong, knotless, and pale (hence the tree’s name) plank wood. Though it’s little remembered today, friction over the issue contributed to revolutionary sentiments among New Englanders. During the vicious “Pine Tree Riot” a sheriff was lashed with pine switches and his horses were maimed. The Minute Men thumbed their noses at the crown by putting an Eastern White Pine in the white canton of their flag, where the cross of St. George used to be.

You can still see a broad arrow carved into white pine in New York City today, but not in a way one might expect. The pinewood door of an 18th century mansion belonging to the wealthy, rebel Blackwell family of western Queens bears the mark from a British soldier’s saber as a sign of punitive confiscation. The house has long since been demolished, but the door (with melted bottle windows in a neat bit of early recycling) is on display at the Greater Astoria Historical Society.

The rapid growth of the new United States was fed by raging deforestation. Henry David Thoreau was troubled: “The pine is no more lumber than man is, and to be made into boards and houses is no more its true and highest use than the truest use of a man is to be cut down and made into manure,” he wrote in Autumn

Of course, human appreciation the Eastern White Pine long precedes that European imperial tussling and Yankee commodification. Native Americans depended on the trees for much more than their wood. Their Vitamin C-rich needles can be made into a tisane, or “herbal tea.” The inner bark, called the cambium, can be beaten into a flour extender in hard times. Cones can be stewed and the seeds are edible. The sap, resin, and tar have medicinal value. Resin can be used to waterproof materials, from baskets to boats.

Across a wide swath of North America, Eastern White Pines feed white-winged crossbills (whose bills are specialized for prying open cones), pileated woodpeckers, flying squirrels, red squirrels, beavers, snowshoe hares, porcupines, mice, rabbits, and voles. Bald eagles, moths, chickadees, morning doves, common grackles, and nuthatches shelter in them when they stand, while in fallen trees you’ll find woodpeckers and hibernating black bears nesting. They become such a bedrock of the ecosystem because they efficiently spread seeds by wind and mature trees are somewhat fire resistant.

Sadly, it’s tough to find what naturalists reverently call the “virgin whites,” specimens aged over 350 years. After centuries of rampant exploitation (and vulnerability to blister rust that’s carried by cultivated ribes) we’re beginning to make restitution. A few mature stands can be found within the boroughs, notably along the Kazimiroff Nature Trail in Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx and at the Jackson Pond pine grove of Forest Park in Queens. In northern Manhattan, visit Inwood Hill Park near Payson Street. Look for tall, blue-green pines with finely serrated needles measuring between 2” and 5” (5-13cm), and bundled in groups of five. The cones are soft and slender and about 5” long. For me, the most beautiful part of this tree is its almost fractal expression: branches, needles, and cones all spiral in a Fibonacci sequence.

Here’s a great little video lecture snippet:

 

Conifers like the East White Pine are marvelously well adapted to snow and cold. The smaller and more numerous needles (compared with typically broad, deciduous leaves) remain evergreen and exceptionally dark to absorb maximum sunlight in the dim northern winter. Photosynthesis isn’t the aim in the dormant season, but rather simple heat, because like humans, trees survive best in a limited temperature range. With few pores and a waxy coat, they also retain water well. Unlike the skyward reaching branches of some species, their branches angle downwards before curling up at the end, to slough off snow before the weight can cause damage.

Future generations of New Yorkers will enjoy more Eastern White Pines than we do. It’s a core species of the Million Trees NYC drive. I organized a crew of volunteers to plant white pines in Floyd Bennett Field under the guidance of Friends of Gateway. Our little Charlie Brown Christmas Tree-like saplings surrounded dying Japanese black pines, which were planted under a “Beautify America” program spearheaded by Ladybird Johnson. Those exotic transplants are falling to the blue stain fungus, which doesn’t affect indigenous white pines, explained Dave Lutz, chair of Friends of Gateway. Earth Day NY rounded up people to plant some more for the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation this autumn and I was glad to participate. Another recent “Million Trees” planter of a white pine was Carl XVI Gustaf, the King of Sweden. Volunteer tree planters are needed.

For an urbanite, the greatest value of a stand of Eastern White Pines might be spiritual, in a way that transcends any one religion or the Christmas holiday. As Thoreau wrote, “I saw the sun falling on a distant white-pine wood…It was like looking into dreamland.” When we look upon the tree for itself, and not for its uses, the effect is immediate and the cause is clear for why the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) people called this the Great Tree of Peace.”

H2O2: Bubbles Without Troubles

Water Wonk Wednesdays! 

A weekly column on water news, tips, and innovations.

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Even the simple act of cleaning can be chemically problematic! This is especially the case for HarborLAB because we plan to reuse “gray water” to nurture orchard trees, fruiting vines, and native plant areas through underground irrigation hoses.

The antibacterial agent triclosan became nearly ubiquitous but ran afoul of regulators because it does little for human health, disrupts the endocrine systems of marine organisms, and encourages the evolution of antibiotic resistant strains of microbes. Chlorine bleach lasts a long time in our waterways and is toxic at every stage of its existence, emitting pollution in production and forming compounds like dioxin (a carcinogen) with the chemicals it encounters in our estuary. Phosphates can spur algal overgrowth that snuffs out other marine life. Traditional soaps can contain salts, which over time ruin upland soil for plants not evolved to tolerate high salinity.

Here are our recommendations for simple cleaners that will keep soil and water healthy and happy:

Hydrogen Peroxide (H2O2) Solution: Sunshine can fade many stains, and for tougher ones this kissing cousin of water does a great job. Its reaction with the organic compounds of stains — especially the catalase present in living things — breaks chemical bonds and results in molecular oxygen (O2) bubbles that lift particles away. The other product is water.

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Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps: For simple scrubbing and bathing, the liquid line of this old standard is powerful and safe, according to California-based Ecology Center, which developed a great list of “dos and don’ts” for grey water management.

White Vinegar: You can combine this kitchen staple with hydrogen peroxide and soap to amplify their effectiveness. One trick is to spray surfaces with H2O2 and then white vinegar (acetic acid, or CH3CO2H, made by bacteria) before wiping. The acid neutralizes quickly and leaves no harmful traces. You can soak stained, smelly, and rusty objects in it too.

 

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:

MLK Day and Water

In the African American experience, racism perverted even water — the mother of life — into an instrument of oppression. Through the Middle Passage, the Atlantic Ocean connected commerce but separated families and separated people from their right to life and liberty. Fire hoses meant to protect life and property were instead turned on peaceful civil rights protesters. Water fountains marked “white” and “colored” turned a necessity into a daily reminder to African Americans that they were officially regarded as lesser.

Today we too often witness official neglect of water systems in communities with higher percentages of residents of color, most notably in lead-contaminated Flint, Michigan, but well beyond. Solid waste transfer stations and sewer plants cluster more densely on waterfronts in African American and Latino neighborhoods, imposing environmental injustices. Trucks aggravate asthma in the same communities because barging is squeezed out by municipal economic policies. Combined sewer overflows and leaks have fouled areas of respite like Hallets Cove, at the foot of the NYC Housing Authority projects in Astoria.

HarborLAB works to make access and education on our estuary and watershed inclusive and inspiring. We hope that participants come to even more deeply recognize our common humanity through dependence on and celebration of water.

On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service please take a moment to tell us how HarborLAB might bring even more free educational paddle tours, classroom activities, and ecological restoration to underserved communities. Maybe yours? Just drop us a note at edu@harborlab.org with your requests and ideas!

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MLK Jr. Gardens. Raleigh, North Carolina.

HarborLAB Secretary Perry Leung

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Perry Leung, right, with one of our finance crew’s lead volunteers, Fatoumata Magassa.

 

HarborLAB is pleased to announce that volunteer Perry Leung has been elevated to secretary by unanimous vote of the board. Perry is a stellar administrative volunteer, drawing upon his education and experience in business and environmentalism.

“I’m looking forward to serving HarborLAB in the coming year! I’ve been inspired since the start of my engagement with HarborLAB by the amount of positive impact our volunteers have had on the environment and New York and will do my part to make sure we continue to educate and inspire on New York’s waterways,” Perry said.

Perry graduated from NYU Stern School of Business with honors in Economics and Finance before working as a senior manager in global regulatory risk compliance in New York City and Hong Kong. Throughout his demanding career on two continents he’s remained an active and committed grassroots environmental organizer, leading beach cleanups and composting efforts. He also secured a seed grant through the ASHOKA Youth Venture program to start three new Ultimate Frisbee programs in New York City High Schools to engage inner city students in team sports.

All of HarborLAB’s governing documents and financial reports are readily available upon request but Perry is helping Business Manager Katherine Bradford to organize post them for easier sharing. Perry is also spearheading with volunteers Fatoumata Magassa, Ricky Marcello, and Betty Liu much of our outreach for new sponsors and institutional support.

HarborLAB’s bylaws, adopted in 2016, permit volunteers who are not board members to serve as officers. The secretary:

  • Is for the period of one year and will be voted upon at each annual meeting; and
  • Includes these responsibilities: “The Secretary shall keep the minutes of all meetings of the Board in books provided for that purpose. He or she may be responsible for the giving and serving of all notices of the Corporation and shall perform all the duties customarily incident to the office of the Secretary, subject to the control of the Board, and shall perform such other duties as shall from time to time be assigned by the Board.”

Thank you, Perry!

Instruction for Inclusion!

Saturday night pool party? Well, close!  🙂

Community organizations, please contact us at edu@harborlab.org to arrange for your mature teens and adults to learn basic kayaking safety and paddle strokes so that by spring they can join us on longer and more adventurous tours! Our fun outings are based around exploration and service learning, to inspire environmental stewardship and further study. This is also a great way for parents to gain confidence through skills that allow them to help introduce their children to boating, even if (or perhaps especially if) they were deprived of such experiences when they themselves were younger.

Both the pool instruction and youth programs are FREE.

If you’re a kayaking instructor certified by the American Canoe Association, Red Cross, or British Canoe Union and interested in joining the teaching staff, or an experienced kayaker interested in assisting, please email us at volunteer@harborlab.org.

Great thanks to program leaders Steven “Chuubie” Chu, Dee Dee Maucher, and Scott Wolpow; sponsor TF Cornerstone; LIC YMCA for pool use; and Prime Paddlesports for making this program possible!

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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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