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!

Seeds to Shining Sea!

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Goldenrod seeds and rose hips bearing seeds. Photo by Erik Baard.

HarborLAB is blessed with 125′ of waterfront facing southeast. That makes for bad sunburns but a vibrantly growing ecosystem! We’re increasing our bounty of flowering and fruiting plants (mostly indigenous), and sharing it with the estuary as a whole through seed gathering and propagation. We choose species that naturally stabilize shorelines and support wildlife.

When the HarborLAB armada salvos the shores of NYC, it’s not with cannon balls. It’s a barrage of seed balls! Good thing, because our canoes and kayaks would sink.  😉     We look forward to perfecting the craft with insights from from this local group: http://www.seedball.us/

We thank our sponsors, allies, and partners in this project: Citizens Committee for NYC; New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation; NYC Department of Parks and Recreation (Greenbelt Native Plant Center); Hunters Point Community Middle School; Hunters Point Parks Conservancy; CUNY LaGuardia Community College; Briermere Farms, and more coming soon!

This winter you can join us as we gather seeds and make seed balls. Just join through our events listing page on Facebook or email volunteer@harborlab.org with the subject line, “Seeds.”

We’re especially dedicated to creating Monarch Butterfly habitat by growing milkweed, goldenrod, beach plums, shadbush, and pokeberry. This program is the kind of kid-friendly, affordable contribution a small volunteer group can make to the environment and education, and have a big impact!

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A seed ball.

Readying for Winter…and Spring! :)

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Diana, Miyeon, and EJ at work on the second shed.

HarborLAB volunteers had an amazingly productive Sunday, and had lots of fun in the process! Our goals were to winterize our Newtown Creek waterfront site and prepare it for transformation into the GreenLaunch in the spring. It sure felt like spring already!

We assembled a second shed and platform, repaired “The Jenni” tandem Folbot kayak for use by Baruch College environmental science classes (named for our late friend and CUNY alumna, Jenni Jenkins), set up planters and protected fruit trees from root freeze with vinyl and bags of cocoa shells, gathered seeds (especially pokeberry, goldenrod, and milkweed) for habitat and shoreline stabilization, and protected public boats from UV degradation with tarps. We donated many bricks to Build it Green, delivering them by van. Our bricks, which are molded with holes, are being built sideways into walls in South Africa to allow air circulation.

Many thanks to Patricia Erickson, who directed the day’s work as HarborLAB’s facilities manager and chair of the GreenLaunch committee. A special acknowledgment to Shawn and Miyeon Cornell, who were married just this month and shared this special time with us as stellar volunteers. They are CUNY students, as is Diana Arias, another fantastic volunteer who threw herself into the work (we met her through the great Baruch College ECO Club). Rounding out the crew were Irene McLoughlin, Alessandro Byther (daring Alpinist of bricks and plastic heights), Jenna Nugent, Davis Janowski, Erik Baard, and EJ Lee (HarborLAB operations manager and a CUNY alumna).

Great thanks also to Schuman Properties for our launch and to Citizens Committee for NYC for the initial GreenLaunch project grant.  Much gratitude also to Folbot, Lamar Outdoors, Dorothy Morehead for our supplies.

The EPA Must Test the Plants of Newtown Creek.

HarborLAB caused quite a stir recently by drawing attention to the fact that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency isn’t testing plant tissues in the Newtown Creek. This great research gap had not been addressed before. We raised the point at the October meeting of the Newtown Creek Community Advisory Group with the EPA about Superfund progress.

Our concern is informed by our periodic biota surveys. We thank the United Nations Federal Credit Union and Con Ed for their support of our environmental work.

The EPA noted in its presentation that it tests the tissues of some fish species, especially those most likely to be eaten by people, but admitted in response to HarborLAB’s questioning that no plant tests were conducted or scheduled to be conducted. The EPA also asserted that because the creek was so thoroughly bulkheaded, there wasn’t a plant population to test. HarborLAB has conducted bioblitzes of the creek and strongly disagreed, suggesting that nonprofits and universities could begin plant tissue tests even if the EPA wouldn’t. Representatives from Riverkeeper, North Brooklyn Boat Club, and LaGuardia Community College quickly seconded HarborLAB’s concerns.

HarborLAB’s launch already boasts indigenous, salt-tolerant goldenrod, pokeberry, milkweed, and other species that support birds and pollinators. We’re working to add cordgrass, beach plum, and more as part of our GreenLaunch project. Marsh grasses, reeds, and other plants fringe the creek where there are no bulkheads or where bulkheads have crumbled. Above the bulkheads but still within occasional flood zones are a number of plant species, whether native, invasive, or cultivated. There are even fruit trees, including fig, apple, pear, and mulberry. Within the creek, HarborLAB has observed sea lettuce, bladderwrack, mosses, and more.

At the request of LaGuardia Community College biologist Sarah Durand, PhD, HarborLAB has been photographing shoreline and aquatic plants. Dr. Durand and her students have begun growing marsh grass in buckets and planters as experiments in anticipation of installing habitat restoration platforms. We will soon join the Newtown Creek CAG, which counts Dr. Durand as a steering committee member, in formally urging the EPA to reconsider its assessment and add plant tissue testing.

It’s absolutely necessary that the EPA expand testing to include plants and smaller animal organisms, like invertebrates and killifish who spend their entire lives in the creek. These are the complex organism building blocks this blighted corner of the estuary. As Newtown Creek Alliance Mitch Waxman remarked to HarborLAB after the meeting on the narrowness of the EPA’s work: “What the EPA is doing is a human health impact study, not an environmental impact study.”

Gallery of Newtown Creek plants by Thomas Zellers and Erik Baard.

Videos by Roy Harp showing moss and algae.

Video by Roy Harp showing spartina installations.

I’ll Take Menhaden!

Okay, maybe Rosemary Clooney never sang “I’ll Take Menhaden,” but this fish is lately turning our city into islands of joy.

Reports are coming in from the Newtown Creek, Hudson River, and upper East River that menhaden, locally known as pogy and most often bunker fish, are appearing in huge numbers. The video above was posted by Riverkeeper, the most active nongovernmental estuary environmental litigator in our estuary. That’s great news for whales and other sea mammals, as well as bluefish, striped bass, herons, egrets, and other larger fish predators. You’ll see huge swaths of water dance and glint when bunkers breach to escape predators below. Before they’re ever visible, they ride currents into our estuary as eggs and hatch here, to grow from larvae into adult fish.

Bunkers do more than directly sustain these other cherished species as food. For their ability to clean water, these silvery schoolers can be seen as mobile oysters. As “Four Fish” author Paul Greenberg notes, “An adult menhaden can rid four to six gallons of water of algae in a minute.” Much like huge baleen whales, little bunkers are filter feeders. When their numbers plummet, brown algal tides overtake bays, creating dead zones.

Before European colonization, Native Americans ate these fish and used them as fertilizer because their oiliness is both delectable (fishers say you’ll never have to butter a bunker) and a powerful nutrient. Indeed, the words menhaden and pogy derive from Algonquin terms referencing the fertilizing practice.

Sadly, bunker fish haven’t had a good century. they died in masses in the 1980s when bluefish herded them into hypoxic shallows in the the Long Island Sound. They’ve been overfished for 32 of the past 54 years, according to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Commercial operators spot schools by airplane, deploy refrigerated ships to the area, and catch bunkers with nets and, because they school so densely, vacuums. A single fish oil and fish meal company, Omega Protein, is responsible for 90% of the nation’s catch. It’s not active in the NYC region.

Interestingly, what could spare the bunker is what it eats: algae. Companies are starting to farm algae in vats to produce omega-3 fatty acids and other goods for nutritional supplements and livestock feeds. The controlled setting also prevents mercury contamination and other potential pollutants from entering human food systems.

May 9: Riverkeeper Sweep Season Opener!

The HarborLAB GreenLaunch on the Newtown Creek.

The HarborLAB GreenLaunch on the Newtown Creek.

Thinking ahead to spring yet? Well, here’s a glimpse of our May 9 season opener!

We’ll hit the water for the first time next season as part of the great Riverkeeper Sweep!

Here’s our Facebook event link:  https://www.facebook.com/events/1637103389849867/

Community groups throughout the estuary will clean our waterways.  Plastic debris is carried into the Newtown Creek from streets by combined sewer overflows (http://www.riverkeeper.org/campaigns/stop-polluters/sewage-contamination/cso/) and wind.

We’ll gather at 9AM, paddle the length of the creek (especially the Queens side) by canoe, and then return by 4PM. High water will be shortly after 2PM. We’ll share a celebratory meal afterwards! Perhaps at The Creek and The Cave (https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Creek-and-The-Cave/113823948652531)? Where else? 🙂

If you can’t participate in HarborLAB’s sweep, sign up with a partnering organization near you:

http://www.riverkeeper.org/news-events/events/rvk-events/riverkeeper-sweep-2015/

Sunday: Newtown Creek Photo BioBlitz!

Come photograph the life of Newtown Creek, starting Sunday morning at 9AM!

Details here:  https://www.facebook.com/events/571214066339086/

Email tours@harborlab.org with the subject line “Photo BioBlitz” to participate.

We’ve seen beautiful and fascinating fauna, including a muskrat, kingfisher, egrets, swallows, cormorants, herons, mussels, oysters, crabs, shrimp, and more! The flora is no less exciting. Goldenrod, an apple tree, mulberry trees, blackberries, and a pear tree. Here’s a short video of a crabs and oodles of shrimp by Sunday’s trip coordinator, Roy Harp.

Aboard with HarborLAB Oct 4 – Oct 11! (Tours, Events, Volunteer Opportunities)

thomas zellers,Though the public paddling season is drawing to a close, we still have fun paddles and volunteer opportunities! We’ll also have autumn and winter activities — as you’ve seen, HarborLAB is not merely a recreational paddling club, but a community organization dedicated to social good and environmental science service learning.

Here are a few events for the coming days.

Oct 5: GreenLaunch Work Day!  (POSTPONED FOR RAIN DAY)

9AM-2PM
 
53-21 Vernon Blvd, LIC, 11101 (directions: https://harborlab.org/location-and-directions/)
Email volunteer@harborlab.org with the subject line, “GreenLaunch Work Day” to participate.
Help HarborLAB create the GreenLaunch! We’ll remove bricks in the morning to donate to Build it Green. In the afternoon we’ll gather wildflower seeds, improve safety, and build planters and raised beds from wooden pallets (and other used wood) and used vinyl billboard posters. Students and artists will also make a Newtown Creek map on vinyl to permanently hang at our site, and decoratively paint the planters!
You needn’t be a big brute to help with the bricks. We’ll be hand carrying therm to two vans at the gate in small batches — don’t overdo it! And you needn’t be a Marie Cassatt to help with the painting either!
After 3PM volunteers are welcome to canoe the creek with volunteers or go for a brief skyline kayak tour!
Oct 5: Newtown Creek Photo BioBlitz!

https://www.facebook.com/events/571214066339086/
53-21 Vernon Blvd, LIC, 11101 (directions: https://harborlab.org/location-and-directions/)
Email tours@harborlab.org with the subject line, “Photo BioBlitz” to participate.
Come canoeing with HarborLAB to photograph the plants (especially spartina. milkweed, goldenrod), animals (especially ribbed mussels), and fungi that are cleaning the Newtown Creek and its shores!
HarborLAB volunteer Roy Harp will coordinate the tour, partnering with GrowNYC Environmental Educator Thomas Zellers. Sadly, because the Newtown Creek is a very polluted waterway, participating is by adult, informed consent. No minors.
We’re doing this in support of the Fall Mud Ball (https://www.facebook.com/events/1469669146637761/) bioremediation event, a fête thrown by Masters of Succession Collective at Smiling Hogshead Ranch urban farm.

To participate click “join” and email tours@harborlab.org with the subject line “Photo BioBlitz.” Roy Harp is the coordinator for this program.

We’ll map our finds bother electronically and on a community billboard at the farm that might be reused at the HarborLAB GreenLaunch.Those who arrive early can help gather milkweed seeds (this is Monarch Butterfly larvae’s sole food — http://www.monarchwatch.org/milkweed/).

You’ll also see surprising areas of life, the city’s little-noted infrastructure, recycling plants. derelict old rail passes and bridges, egrets, herons, and other sights to delight an urban archeologist or naturalist alike. This trip requires some climbing.

HarborLAB is reviving a 125′ shoreline with Newtown Creek’s first true habitat restoration. Our “GreenLaunch” will have a reef of ribbed mussels at its base. We are consulting with experts at CUNY LaGuardia College and Cornel Cooperative Extension to understand how to best seed and nurture the mussels. The first step is to document where ribbed mussels are already living below the high water mark, and whether they’re thriving or struggling.

We’ll map our finds bother electronically and on a community billboard at the farm that might be reused at the HarborLAB GreenLaunch.Those who arrive early can help gather milkweed seeds (this is Monarch Butterfly larvae’s sole food — http://www.monarchwatch.org/milkweed/).
You’ll also see surprising areas of life, the city’s little-noted infrastructure, recycling plants. derelict old rail passes and bridges, egrets, herons, and other sights to delight an urban archeologist or naturalist alike. This trip requires some climbing.
HarborLAB is reviving a 125′ shoreline with Newtown Creek’s first true habitat restoration. Our “GreenLaunch” will have a reef of ribbed mussels at its base. We are consulting with experts at CUNY LaGuardia College and Cornel Cooperative Extension to understand how to best seed and nurture the mussels. The first step is to document where ribbed mussels are already living below the high water mark, and whether they’re thriving or struggling.
Oct 5: SUBMERGE! NYC Marine Science Festival 
Email volunteer@harborlab.org with the subject line, “SUBMERGE” to participate.
HarborLAB needs volunteer ambassadors to participate in this exciting gathering of groups active in teaching and researching our estuary. This is a great fit for students. Share HarborLAB’s work, distribute postcards, network with educators, have fun, and be inspired!
Oct 11: Tree Giveaway! 
40-20 Broadway, LIC/Astoria (east of Steinway)
Email volunteer@harborlab.org with the subject line, “Tree Giveaway” to participate as a volunteer, or register through this link:  http://treegiveaways.com/qnlib
Trees drink up runoff waters that would otherwise overflow sewers into the estuary. They also breathe in CO2 that might otherwise be absorbed by oceans, making them more acidic. We need more trees!
HarborLAB is happy to again distribute 100 trees in partnership with The New Yorker Restoration Project, Triple R Events, and Queens Library at Broadway (4020 Broadway, Long Island City, NY 11103 — just east of Steinway) as part of MillionTreesNYC! Many thanks to New York Restoration Project and Triple R Events for being our partners in this event.
Volunteers set up at 11AM and some meet the tree shipment on Friday.
Giveaway starts Sunday at 1PM, first for those who registered online and then for those who’ve arrived without registering. All recipients must have permission to plant the trees on private property within the five boroughs of NYC.

HarborLAB Intern Presentation on Water Quality

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HarborLAB Environmental Science Intern Erik Yax Garcia of Keuka College made a presentation about water quality sampling and testing to the Hunters Point Community Middle School this week. He demonstrated sampling and explained the need for precise, uniform techniques. Then in the classroom he gave a PowerPoint presentation about the science used to identify water quality problems and solutions.

“For me it was a great experience to work with middle school students and it was very challenging because they would ask for details and deep explanations,” Erik said. He noted that a central question was, “what can we do to have clean water?”

Thanks to a grant from the United Nations Federal Credit Union, Erik takes weekly water samples from Willow Lake and Gantry Plaza State Park for pathogen testing at The River Project. He also picks up Bronx Kill samples taken by Randall’s Island Park Alliance. The lab’s looking for Enterococcus, a kind of bacteria that normally lives in human intestines and can therefore reveal the presence of sewage in a waterway. Rainstorms overwhelm our waste water treatment facilities because household water and street runoffs pour into the same tubes and containments. When that happens, raw sewage is released into the estuary in “combined sewer overflows” (CSOs) to prevent disease-bearing foul waters from backing up into homes and streets.

Erik’s visit melded with the students’ curriculum, said science teacher Mary Mathai. “Erik Yak’s presentation was very informative. This worked very well since in their present unit of study, we have been talking about the enterococcus bacterial levels in the water and about CSO’s,” she said.

Mathai praised how methodical Erik was in his instruction. “He introduced students to the sampling sites in his presentation. He also showed them a video on the CSO’s.  This was followed by a demonstration of how water samples are collected with importance given to preservation of the samples and avoidance of contaminating the samples.Photographs of the enterococcus bacteria were shown to students.  This was very much tied into what students were learning in the classroom, since they were involved in a project based learning activity regarding CSO’s and water quality in New York Harbor.  Students were then taken to the sampling site in Long Island City, where Erik demonstrated the water sample collection.  This was followed by a question and answer session,” she recounted.

 

NYC is behind schedule in fixing the CSO problem, but has spent billions of dollars toward that end in recent years. Traditional engineering solutions are termed “grey infrastructure” because they rely on concrete catch basins and new facilities. Another set of solutions gaining favor now are grouped together as “green infrastructure” because they rely on plants and are sustainable and resilient. Green roofs, bioswales, tree pits, and other planting absorb rainwater into soft earth and up through roots so that less pours into the sewer system.

We’re happy to report that water at Gantry Plaza State Park, where HatbotLAB will offer public paddling this summer, has tested as cleaner than other western Queens sites (Hallets Cove, Anable Basin, Newtown Creek) in this year’s first few weeks. This activity is part of a broader “citizen science” project coordinated by the NYC Water Trail Association, a network of paddling and rowing groups that HarborLAB Founder Erik Baard also initiated and co-founded.
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The students revealed that they have a big stake in improving water quality, Erik said. “I also spoke about HarborLAB’s paddling program and many students seemed to be excited about it!”