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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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.

 

 

 

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!

June 7 Saturday Science Stumper!

Horseshoe Ctab Blood

SATURDAY SCIENCE STUMPER from HaborLAB!

What is this profoundly ancient, living and life-saving substance from the sea, bottled by science? Hint: It’s at your nearby hospital and coming ashore right now…

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ANSWER TO LAST WEEK’S SATURDAY SCIENCE STUMPER:

While the New York Wheel will be a wonder to paddle beneath, Baltimore paddlers might be more grateful for their solar-powered wheel, which removes tons of garbage from the water daily! More here:http://gizmodo.com/baltimores-solar-wheel-pulls-in-25-tons-of-harbor-garba-1578474782

East River Ice Floes and “Ice Bridges”

HarborLAB launch on the Newtown Creek from the Pulaski Bridge. Photo by Steve Scofield of the Transportation Queens Activist Committee (http://transalt.org/getinvolved/neighborhood/queens).
HarborLAB launch (beige building to the right) on the Newtown Creek from the Pulaski Bridge. The East River and its branches, like the creek, are saltier and so don’t freeze as easily, but perhaps the creek’s water treatment plant’s outflows and street runoffs are freezing? Photo by Steve Scofield of the Transportation Alternatives Queens Activist Committee (http://transalt.org/getinvolved/neighborhood/queens).

1867 etching of a flow of humanity across the frozen East River. One of eight times the strait froze over during that century. Image via Gothamist (click for link).

Ice floes on the East River are a rare sight in recent years, but the Brooklyn Bridge is a daily reminder of how extreme even relatively recent planetary climate fluctuations have been. Let’s explore how that is so, and take a fun detour into the molecular structure of water.

When scientists worry about climate change and global warming, they’re not ignoring the fact that Earth has experienced wildly different atmospheric compositions and temperatures over its 3.8 billion years as a living world. What we’re destabilizing, they worry, are the conditions that for 12,000 years have fostered the neolithic agricultural revolution and civilization itself.

Some worry that the more energy retained by the atmospheric system (global warming) through higher CO2 concentrations, the more chaotic it might become in mid-latitude coastal areas (our temperate zone) as we become a pass-through for storms that transport energy between the tropics and arctic. But just as a cold snap in one region or continent doesn’t refute the mounting evidence of global warming, it can be argued that we can’t say with certainty that storms like Hurricane Sandy are the result of warming.

That said, there are records, written and archeological, of worldwide changes that lasted years or even centuries. Might we enter another “Little Ice Age” like that of roughly 1300-1870? To get an idea of how severe winters of that period could be, several times the East River froze over. Brave souls walked over “ice bridges” from Brooklyn to Manhattan, but ferries vital to commerce were locked in place. After this happened again in the winter of 1866-67, businesses in our growing metropolis had enough and lobbied hard for a long-contemplated “Great East River Bridge” to keep commerce flowing in all weather. As it happens, the Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883, eight years after the East River last froze over solid. In a sense, the Brooklyn Bridge touches down on the shores of two boroughs and on the shores of two climatic ages. And we might have a Brooklyn Bridge because the Sun lacked spots!

A few things can cause the planet to cool. Some ascribe the deepest points of the Little Ice Age to the Maunder Minimum, a period sunspots and solar flares were extremely rare. Our sun is in a lull right now, but a 2012 NASA study found that recent solar inactivity hasn’t impacted our planet’s “energy budget” much.  A 2013 study by researchers with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (part of the National Science Foundation) and partners concluded that a Maunder Minimum redux wouldn’t save us from global warming.

Just as adding carbon dioxide, water vapor, and methane to the atmosphere can warm the planet, kicking up dust and soot can cool it. Volcanoes have caused global cooling, as perhaps have asteroids and comets (even beloved Halley’s Comet). Some people even advocate for “geoengineering” projects that would cool the planet, but implementation could bring their own disasters. Besides, Ocean acidification, which could collapse the planetary ecosystem, would proceed apace if we continue to burn fossil fuels, even if we dust up to cool down.

East River ice floes and Hunter's Point South. Photo by Mark Christie of Friends of Gantry and Neighborhood Parks (http://friendsofgantry.org/).

East River ice floes and Hunter’s Point South (and the ice-whitened mouth of the Newtown Creek). Photo by Mark Christie of Friends of Gantry and Neighborhood Parks (http://friendsofgantry.org/).

East River ice floes floating past Gantry Plaza State Park in Long Island City, Queens. Photo by Mark Christie of Friends of Gantry and Neighborhood Parks (http://friendsofgantry.org/).

East River ice floes. Photo by Steve Sanford (http://www.stevesanfordartist.com)

East River ice floes. Photo by Steve Sanford (http://www.stevesanfordartist.com)

Bald Eagles on Hudson River ice floes. Photo by David Burg of WildMetro (www.wildmetro.org).

Bald Eagles (those little black dots) on Hudson River ice floes. Photo by David Burg of WildMetro (www.wildmetro.org).

Snow covered Palisades with Hudson River ice floes. Photo by David Burg of WildMetro (www.wildmetro.org).

Snow covered Palisades with Hudson River ice floes. Photo by David Burg of WildMetro (www.wildmetro.org).

Finally, a fun thing to ponder: What if ice didn’t float?

Dock Update: Yes we Can(dock)!

Candock floating a car. Yeah, it can handle our kayaks.  :)

Candock floating a car. Yeah, it can handle our kayaks. 🙂

Our plans for purchasing a used dock from the Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club chanced on a sprinkling of Murphy’s Law: donations to our 501(c)(3) fiscal sponsor (Earth Day New York) were returned because of an address change. During that delay while they were being mailed again, the old dock was sold instead to the LIC Community Boathouse (a group founded earlier by Erik Baard, HarborLAB’s founder). May it be used safely and happily by adults recreating there.

HarborLAB will instead purchase a modern, modular Candock with a recent sponsorship from TF Cornerstone, which is developing part of the LIC waterfront. Thank you TF Cornerstone! We look forward to launching exciting educational tours, filled with residents and especially CUNY students, from our Hunters Point South district dock in May.

Volunteers who became among the first to grow HarborLAB previously assembled this kind of modular dock at Governors Island two years ago, in preparation for City of Water Day. It’s durable, easy to assemble, and safe. Our plan is to start small, at 8′ by 14’3″, with an additional stabilizing perimeter. This is adequate for our relatively small throughput of paddlers (typically groups of fewer than 20, with only three people on a dock at once) and we can add modules as HarborLAB grows!

A Candock module.

A Candock module.

“Muskrat Love” on the Newtown Creek…

Muskrat  swimming against the tide and toward the white late afternoon sun trail, past the HarborLAB launch.  Photo by Erik Baard.

Muskrat swimming against the tide and toward the white late afternoon sun trail, past the HarborLAB launch. Photo by Erik Baard.

After a long day of producing a public paddle event at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, HarborLAB volunteers were treated to the sight of a new (or at least newly sighted) neighbor at our Newtown Creek launch. A muskrat!

We believe this creature hasn’t been verifiably reported in the Newtown Creek in living memory. The Newtown Creek’s chief chronicler and photographer, Mitch Waxman, says there have been murmurs about it for over a year. 

For urbanites like us, a muskrat conjures images of fur trappers and musk collectors from centuries past. This indigenous, semi-aquatic burrowing rodent is ubiquitous over much of North America. Indeed, Algonquin and other Native American creation stories credit the muskrat with swimming to the primordial ocean floor to scoop up the mud that formed the lands of the world. This animal is also depicted as the mother of humanity in some tales, and often as an auspicious symbol promising wealth. Perhaps HarborLAB has found a mascot?

Surprised to see this critter in the Newtown Creek? We were too, but perhaps we shouldn’t have been; muskrats survive in sulfurous streams polluted by coal plants, where frogs and fish have been wiped out. These herbivores (they’ll only occasionally eat small amphibians, invertebrates, and shellfish) thrive in wetlands, but have found niches in more challenging areas disrupted by development. One benefit of muskrats is that they eat invasive phragmites reeds, which choke out native plants in fresh and brackish waters. The fate of muskrats (locally breeding or arriving) factored into a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study on the possible scope of industrial damage to the Newtown Creek’s natural resources. No doubt many muskrats once inhabited this waterway, but not in living memory. A study for the Environmental Protection Agency done by HarborLAB sponsor AECOM posited that muskrats might use the creek:

“Birds are likely to be the principal aquatic-dependent wildlife species that occur in and around the Study Area, although some mammals such as muskrats may use the area. Members of various avian feeding guilds may, at one time or another, also be present in the Study Area.” — Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study  Work Plan  Newtown Creek (AECOM Environment)

This muskrat might be living in a burrow dug into the soft slope where the bulkhead has disintegrated on the Queens side of the Newtown Creek. Muskrats are usually nocturnal or crepuscular, so they’re not easy to spot. We have few muskrat predators here, though these rodents (especially their young) might still find themselves on the menu for cats, raptors, some large fish, and turtles.

Muskrats prefer slow-moving waterways, but can transit on swifter courses like the East River. They aren’t likely to drown in strong currents because they can hold their breath for up to 17 minutes!

We’re not sure what this neighbor was up to. It swam against a mild but burgeoning flood tidal current, using its distinctive vertically-flat tail as a flagellum to propel it toward the white sun trail of late afternoon. Its partially webbed hind feet are a secondary means of swimming. What we do know is that it looked so serious about its agenda, which made it look even more painfully cute.

“It’s serious stuff, being an urban muskrat,” remarked Waxman. 

It may have been seeking new territory, for mating advantage or because it belonged to a population that had consumed its food sources. Muskrat populations often boom and bust with available edible plants. Sadly, most muskrats don’t live more than a year.

Where we are, toward the Newtown Creek mouth, water quality is better than inland reaches. This is because ocean water flowing through the East River strait swirls into the creek west of the Pulaski Bridge. Dissolved oxygen levels are higher than the creek average, allowing for more fish and invertebrates and therefore a heartier ecosystem. Also, we’ve had a dry spell, so pipes combining storm water with household sewage haven’t overflowed into the creek recently. That said, however, the sediment pollutants that warrant U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund designation remain a carcinogenic hazard for mammals feeding in the creek or having repeated exposure. Muskrats have been shown to concentrate, or bioaccumulate, metals in their tissues.

As for protecting the human mammal, HarborLAB uses canoes on the creek to reduce water contact greatly. Our sit-on-top kayaks are exclusively for harbor voyages. We never have children paddle from the Newtown Creek site or contaminated nearby sites like Anable Basin and Hallets Cove. We make the effort to host children’s paddling in cleaner regional waters, while advocating for local cleanups.

HarborLAB hopes this little guy finds a healthier habitat to call home soon. But for one afternoon, we enjoyed “Muskrat Love.”

South Brother Island Cleanup! 9/28

South Brother Island in foreground

This is a unique opportunity. Landing on South Brother Island is normally forbidden. Even NYC Parks staff rarely visits.

The event:

The Natural Resources Group of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation has kindly given us the opportunity to continue our volunteers’ tradition of removing plastic debris from South Brother Island as part of the American Littoral Society’s annual New York Beach Cleanup. We’re also grateful to our estuary stewardship and education sponsors, the United Nations Federal Credit Union, Con Ed, and the NY-NJ Harbor Estuary Program (stemming from City of Water Day).

Our primary partner will be CUNY, to bring students on a roughly 1:1 ratio with volunteers. Our capacity is limited. We would welcome Rocking the Boat and Bronx River Alliance to participate if Parks approves and we can keep numbers small and manageable and stay to the same schedule.

Public paddlers will be invited to participate as new volunteers through our outreach (like here and Facebook), but must be screened, selected, and confirmed by HarborLAB — no general “walk ups” may come to the island or be waitlisted. HarborLAB participants must be over 18 years old, approved by HarborLAB (via professors, in the case of CUNY students), and bring waivers signed and dated, with the bottom note, “SBI.” Here’s our waiver: https://harborlab.org/waivers/

Participants must RSVP to edu@harborlab.org for this event. Subject line: South Brother Island. List your skills (we have needs far beyond paddling) and interests if you’re a prospective volunteer. Professors must provide student lists by Friday morning at 10:00 AM. Waitlisted guests can come to Barretto Point Park and have a great picnic if our boats are filled to capacity. We strongly encourage people on the waitlist to come, rather than have empty boats. If volunteers are willing and not exhausted, there’s a chance of a brief pleasure paddle along the Bronx coast for waitlisted people after the event.

Applicants for this event will be notified on Friday if they’re on the trip or waitlisted. Participants will receive more details via email. 

BACKGROUND:

South Brother Island is located between the Bronx mainland (and belongs to that borough) and Queens, twinned with the more famed North Brother Island. Also nearby are Rikers Island Prison and Randalls Island. It’s one of NYC’s most important Harbor Heron refuges and near the western extreme of the project boundary of the Long Island Sound Study. The nearest convenient park is Barretto Point Park, our launch site for the day.

Here are photos from one of the previous cleanups:

https://picasaweb.google.com/103694355762672710514/SouthBrotherIslandCleanup2009?noredirect=1

And photos of some aspects of the island’s natural beauty:

https://picasaweb.google.com/103694355762672710514/SouthBrotherIslandBeauty?noredirect=1

And a brief video of the Monarch butterfly migration sustained by the island’s goldenrod:

This cleanup began at our public initiative, it’s one of HarborLAB’s top service highlights, and we’re very grateful to NRG for making this unique educational opportunity possible. We make no pretense of removing most (or even much) of the plastic debris tossed by waves, wind, and wakes onto this beautiful little island. But we hope our outing will provide students of biology, environmental science, and photojournalism with experiential learning through service. Perhaps our work will also draw positive attention to the island, and thereby resources from foundations and donors.

We visit after the herons have migrated out and land our boats below the high water mark, but must remain extremely sensitive to the island’s ecosystem. NRG’s representative will provide direction or a veto in all matters regarding conservation and protection — where we land, clean, gather filled trash bags, etc.