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Posts Tagged ‘New York Harbor’

Harvested beach plums. Photo courtesy of Cornell University.

When explorer Giovanni da Verrazano sailed into New York Harbor in 1524, he remarked on the multitude of this sweet fruit thriving in sand. In 1609, Henry Hudson was similarly delighted. This vision of our estuary is long lost, but not irrecoverable despite massive urbanization.

Imagine waterfronts swaying with white flowers that grow into delicious plums the size of fat cherries. We can do it inexpensively in a way that’s a fun learning experience for youth!

Beach plum flower. Photo courtesy of Cornell University.

These indigenous fruits are better known in luxury summer communities like the Hamptons, Block Island, Martha’s Vineyard, Cape Cod, and Nantucket. They’re difficult to grow in yields demanded commercially, but but there’s nothing stopping us from making them a signature of New York Harbor again, from waterfronts to nearby community gardens and schools. The NYC Department of Parks and Recreation and Friends of Gateway are leading parallel efforts to replant beach plums in key sites like Soundview Park, Floyd Bennett Field, and Plumb Beach. Regarding the last location, many already mistakenly call it “Plum Beach,” so we have a happy instance of reality catching up to a misnomer!

A community effort could share the fun of beach plums on a much greater scale. As some readers know, I founded the Newtown Pippin Restoration and Celebration to plant hundreds of apple saplings throughout the five boroughs, with a special focus on our local heirloom variety. That project is now maturing (two new orchards this season, on Governors Island and in Red Hook!), thanks to the support of New York Restoration Project, Green Apple Cleaners, Slow Food NYC, the Greenbelt Native Plant Center, and a host of other allies and volunteers. Looking to the future, I spoke with Cornell University plant ecologist Dr. Thomas Whitlow, who is the leading expert on beach plums in New York, about how we might contribute to the return of beach plums.

Thanks to Friends of Gateway, I’ve delivered beach plum bushes and elderberry trees to Greenpoint, Red Hook, Astoria, Dumbo, Manhattan, and LIC. What Dr. Whitlow envisions is having students gather beach plums at the East End of Long Island, enjoy them (perhaps we could makes jams with a local canning instructor) and then germinate the seeds. In partnership with a native plant group, the seeds could be potted and grown for distribution to public spaces.

If you’d like to be part of this, please drop a note to erikbaard@gmail.com and we’ll get started!

Wild beach plums. Photo courtesy of Cornell University.

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Paddler with porpoise.

Mutually fascinated mammals in New York Harbor.

PLEASE FORGIVE SPACING ISSUES. WORDPRESS PROBLEM.

Neuroscientist and kayaker Vladimir Brezina paddled with a harbor porpoise in New York Harbor recently, and got great photos! Unlike harbor seals, which congregate and bask in the sun, these dark-backed loners are hard to spot and even more difficult to photograph. Fortunately for Vlad and friends, this porpoise seems to have bored with the pensive, hermetic life and so tagged along with a few odd fellow mammals for two miles around the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
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Here are write ups from the discovery crew, which included excellent kayak blogger Bonnie (aka “Frogma”):
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Being sociable with other species isn’t always a winning strategy for harbor porpoises, which occupy habitats hugging shorelines and inlets quite near humans and other predators. The species name comes to us via French from compounding two Latin words: porco (pig) and piscus (fish). This name doesn’t hold the promise of reverence.
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Harbor porpoises mate promiscuously but have only one pup per year.  Some researchers argue that the species might be divided into “races” by region in the northern Atlantic and Pacific and the Black Sea.  Despite having such a slow rate of reproduction, the species isn’t endangered. Existence is perilous, however, for individual porpoises. They were once hunted for blubber and are still often ensnared in fishing nets. An ongoing hazard in such close quarters with humans  is poisoning by pollution. Even dolphins slaughter small and often solitary harbor porpoises to eliminate competition for food in lean times. Naturalists have recently witnessed this intra-cetacean ruthlessness along the shores of Scotland.
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New York Harbor, on the other hand, is experiencing a resurgence of marine mammal populations in recent decades. It’s unclear if this is because of local environmental improvements or an unrelated increase in ocean prey stocks that sustain whales, dolphins, porpoises, and seals. Vlad and other paddlers, including myself, first documented the return of seals to New York Harbor in numbers after a 120-year absence. I broke the story is this New York Times article (the editor made the headline, which confuses seals with sea lions).
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The Narrows passage seems to be a unsung hot spot for sighting large creatures. Perhaps this is because migrating fish and tide-riding food sources tightly funnel through this stretch between the Upper and Lower Bays of New York Harbor. Earlier in the last decade I enjoyed a blue shark encounter (rare for inland waters) here and Wildlife Conservation Society marine biologist Paul Sieswerda was once privileged to see a juvenile fin whale between 40′-50′ long swimming toward the bridge and then back out to sea. Sadly, large ships sometimes drag fin whale carcasses into the harbor on their bulbous bows.
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If you ever spot a sea mammal or turtle in New York Harbor (either healthy or in distress), or want to volunteer with rescues and care, please contact the Riverhead Foundation.
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The best way to get out there with the porpoises, whales, seals, and other aquatic wildlife is by kayak, sailboat, or rowboat. To get started, volunteer with the NYC Water Trail Association community boathouse that’s best for you or go for instruction with one of our fine local outfitters. Another option is to bike along one of our greater waterfront greenways.

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Forgive us if we go a little oyster crazy ahead of the Tuesday, June 17 event at Pier 40 to celebrate this species with The River Project and NY-NJ Baykeeper.

 

Below is a fun and informative interview with acclaimed author Mark Kurlansky about his New York Harbor-centered book, The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell. New York City’s history is revealed to be one of early dependence upon, and later despoilment of, this pivotal estuary species. Kurlansky takes New York City to task for fouling its own nest, but also mines enormous humor, wisdom, and human stories from the middens of history. You might be surprised by his insights into Native American use of oysters, and the important role the bivalve played in the history of women and African Americans.

 

We thank TCS Daily Editor-in-Chief Nick Schultz for making teleconference and transcript used for this interview possible.

 The Big Oyster, Mark Kurlansky

 

Erik Baard: You start off with the despoilment of New York Harbor, and it’s a pretty brave thing to do, to start off a book on a down note. But clearly New York is a lot more than a blight upon nature. A lot of wonderful things have come out of New York. How much of that trade off has been fair?
 
Mark Kurlansky: I think that we could have achieved everything that we did achieve without the spoiling. I think that it is one of the great tragic fallacies of development, that to build the city you have to destroy nature. You know if you build a city on a site that’s a natural wonder, like New York is, you could build it with nature in mind and have this wonderful place that was every bit as powerful and important.

Because after all, you know, it was nature that gave New York its importance, the extremely extensive and protected harbor. And there’s no reason that it had to be developed in the way it was. Just like when Peter Stuyvesant built the wall, that did not necessarily mean that everybody had to throw their trash over it.

Erik Baard: Right. The wall you’re talking about is by what later became known as the “Collect,” a beautiful pond north of the early Dutch Manhattan settlement.
 
Mark Kurlansky: Right, right.

Erik Baard: And they built it to keep the English out, who naturally arrived by sea.

Mark Kurlansky: Yeah, yeah I don’t know why they would arrive by land. I mean why would the world’s greatest naval power attack a sea going port from the land, and in fact they didn’t.

Erik Baard: And looking at that kind of short-sightedness and environmental issues, how responsive to crises are we today? For example New York Harbor is cleaning up, but it had to nearly die first. We lost one of the world’s greatest oyster beds. Green house gases are a greater current war. What have we learned?

Mark Kurlansky: Yeah, I think that’s right. I mean, if you look at the history of the pollution and clean up of New York Harbor, when are we going to address global warming, after Cape Cod is underwater? You know, what’s it going to take? We tend to allow things to get to an incredible level of calamity before we deal with them.

Erik Baard: You mentioned in the book how New Yorkers don’t plan, but rather create situations then deal with them.

Mark Kurlansky: Right.

Erik Baard: Is that maybe more than just a New Yorker quirk? Maybe that’s just a human quality?

Mark Kurlansky: Yeah, I don’t think it’s unique to New York at all. In fact I think it’s true of all American cities. And maybe a characteristic of human nature, though it’s often been commented that that was how American born policy’s been made.

Erik Baard: I mean it’s hard to look at China today, for an example of a very different culture, and see greater wisdom at work.

Mark Kurlansky: No, they’re doing the exact same thing. Unfortunately, as countries develop they do not look at our model and say, “Let’s do it better.” They say very arrogantly, “We have the right to do what you did.” It’s one of the big problems in world environmental issues, that developing countries say, you know, “you polluted to develop, now it’s our turn.”

Erik Baard: But even the Native Americans, as you point out in the book, were straining the oyster supplies, that even though the population was much lower than ours today, they were already straining the oyster supplies.

Mark Kurlansky: That’s right, contrary to, you know the classic picture we have of the Native American living within his resources, you could look through those ancient piles of shells and see that the deeper you go the bigger the shells are. They were over-harvesting oysters.

Erik Baard: And also just tossing these shells into these middens. It took modern science in the 19th century to catch on that putting the shells back in the water restored lime to the water and provided anchorage for more oyster beds to grow.

Mark Kurlansky: Yeah, not only that, but since oysters grow by creating shell material out of the lime in the water, the higher the lime content of the water, the better the oyster grow.

Erik Baard: Right.

Mark Kurlansky: So dumping shells into oyster beds is a very beneficial thing.

Erik Baard: The Dutch and British settlers used that shell lime to construct stone homes. And I’m kind of curious about the many ways oysters were used. It’s a very versatile product, the meat, the shell being used for construction of buildings… How else were they used?

Mark Kurlansky: They were used in roads, you know, paving roads and in landfill. They were use to fertilize soil, to increase the lime content of the soil, which used to be called “sweetening the soil.” You could just plow oysters under. In fact, Europeans who visited were surprised to see that. The European way was always to grind it up and create this lime powder that you use as fertilizer, but New York farmers used to just take whole shells and put them in the earth.

Erik Baard: And this would lower the acidity?

Mark Kurlansky: Right. Okay.

Erik Baard: Now also, Pearl Street, you clarified some mythologies on that.

Mark Kurlansky: Yes, for some reason there’s a lot of mythologies about Pearl Street. I was just on Pearl Street last Saturday, I was thinking about this. Pearl Street was the waterfront in Dutch times, in the original Manhattan. It continues now several blocks further because of landfill. And there’s lots of stories about why it was called Pearl Street. But the real reason seems to be that on the waters edge there, the Indians had left large piles of shells. 

Erik Baard: It wasn’t paved with the oyster shells?

Mark Kurlansky: No you often hear that but, one of the first things I noticed when I was researching this book was that the street got its name before it was paved.

Erik Baard: And there are no pearls associated with the oysters in New York Harbor?

Mark Kurlansky: Or anywhere else in the Eastern United States. The pearl oyster is not an oyster, it’s not the same family or genus. It’s an animal that’s closer to a mussel, and lives in the tropics. When it takes in material that it find indigestible, it coats it and this coating eventually turns into a pearl. When the true oyster runs into material like that, it just spits it out.

 
Erik Baard: Now that’s the other thing that’s kind of funny about oysters, that they were once a delicacy and at the same time a nearly worthless commodity. You even mentioned how Chaucer had invoked the image of the oyster as essentially not worth one’s salt. A very low-grade commodity.

Mark Kurlansky: Right. And Dickens said that poverty is always associated with oysters. And in fact, in most of New York City’s history poor people ate oysters. In fact some poor people ate nothing but oysters and bread. You know and they had something called the “Canal Street Plan” in the 19th century that was all you could eat for six cents. The price of oysters barely moved in New York City between the American Revolution and when the last bed was closed in 1927.

Erik Baard: They were apparently eccentric enough that sometimes they would trick people to dissuade them from over indulging on that deal, as I recall.

Mark Kurlansky: Yes, yeah, if, if you ate more than your six cents worth, you know, you just kept eating them and eating them they would find a special oyster for you and you wouldn’t eat any more for a few days.

Erik Baard: So they were deliberating giving you contaminated oysters at that point?

Mark Kurlansky: Yeah, that was the safety catch in the all-you-can-eat program.

Erik Baard: So now looking at this, you mentioned how this associated with poverty. But even before European settlement, women were the gatherers of oysters. You had mentioned that it was woman’s work. And also that African Americans later on were very deeply involved with the trade, from gathering to operating oyster cellars.

Mark Kurlansky: Yeah and street stands also.

Erik Baard: Street stands.

Mark Kurlansky: It’s very interesting history. In the early 19th Century native beds in New York City started to become exhausted, and they started replanting them with seeds from the Chesapeake Bay. Three black men from Maryland would come up to do this. And this was before the Civil War and Maryland was a slave state. And free blacks in Maryland had a lot of repressive laws, they weren’t allowed to own property, so they weren’t allowed to own their own oyster bed. They weren’t allowed to captain a ship.

 

They came to New York and they found that they had all these rights. So they stayed and they built oystering communities, one famous one on Staten Island. But they also ran oyster cellars and street stands.

Thomas Downing was one of these men from Maryland who ran a famous oyster cellars on Broad Street that all the leading politicians and businessmen went to. And everybody who was anybody in New York knew him, and he shipped oysters to Queen Victoria. It was kind of like the way New Yorkers away from New York will try to get lox from Zabars. It used to be Downing’s Oysters, Americans ex-pats would have American theme parties in Paris and they’d serve real Downing Oysters.

Erik Baard: He also kind of created the Starbucks of his time. He took what was a devalued commodity and he, by creating a refined atmosphere, had raised the value of it tremendously. Even more so, he took something that was associated with prostitution and all these other things, you know, that were marginalized and stigmatized, and even though he himself came from freed black slaves, he managed to create this center of power.

Mark Kurlansky: That’s right. Cellars were sort of just disreputable places in the slums that were frequented by prostitutes, and they were marked by a red light, yes. But Downing’s was a very respectable place. He was a very interesting man involved with the Abolitionist movement and sent his kids to abolitionist schools and was thought to be involved with the Underground Railroad. He was among the first prominent Afro-American New Yorkers.

Erik Baard: And now who are the big oyster eaters and producers today?

Mark Kurlansky: Well, not, as far as producers go, not New York City because the water has never become clean enough to go back to producing oysters.

Erik Baard: Still, they can grow here again. Even if they’re not edible, that’s a step in the right direction.

Mark Kurlansky: That’s right. Because for a time they couldn’t even survive in the water. Thanks to the Clean Water Act in the 1970s, the water is now cleaned up enough so that oysters can live. The environmentalists are replanting beds because oysters are very good for water. They suck in the water and take out algae and impurities and pump out clear water. So that when Henry Hudson first arrived in New York Harbor, the water must have been incredibly clear because of all those oysters.

 

But what they will do for you is to eat up PCBs and heavy metals. And of course you’ll eat them if you eat the oysters, so there’s still no oyster production in New York City, although they’re growing oysters. But New Yorkers are eating oysters, I think more than they ever have since the beds were closed in 1927. Oysters are once again becoming tremendously trendy. It seems every time I turn around there’s a new oyster restaurant.

Erik Baard: Well, where are they coming in from?

Mark Kurlansky: Well, it’s become a fashionable thing. I mean this is something that’s happened to food in general, which is a product of our global age. You know, when people eat something they want to sample it from all over the world. You know this has happened with salt. You know, it’s very trendy to get five kinds of salts from different places in the world and you know, oyster places nowadays try to offer you 20 different kinds of oysters from the East Coast and the West Coast and New Zealand and Chile. The more places, the better.

Erik Baard: You remark about how the North American East Coast oyster is pretty much a monoculture.

Mark Kurlansky: Right, from Louisiana to all of the Gulf and Florida and Chesapeake Bay all the way up to Newfoundland, they’re biologically identical oysters. But you know, if you plant them in one side of the cove and also the other side of the cove, you’ll get two oysters that not only taste completely different but look different and have different shells. The oysters are all like wine grapes: it’s all about where you grow them.

The temperature of the water, the salinity, and the types of nutrients, and the speed of the current, all these things change oysters. But New York City was an oyster center. There were more than half a dozen different types of New York City oysters: different bays and Staten Islanders, Rockaways and East River, and Saddle Rocks, and they were all quite different.

Erik Baard: You said that the region accounted for half of the world’s production at one point.

Mark Kurlansky: Yes, yes. Hundreds of millions of oysters a year. It was known as the oyster center. If you were to say, “I’m going to New York,” chances are someone would say, “Enjoy the oysters.” You know, it’s what New York was known for.

Erik Baard: Of course, the Europeans and other cultures ate oysters before the New World was even a dream for Henry Hudson. So looking at that, then what species survive today and how are they being transplanted around the world? I remember you mentioned French oysters had been planted in Maine? Is that correct?

Mark Kurlansky: Yes, yes.

Erik Baard: And in Washington state, also.

Mark Kurlansky: There’s a lot of types of oysters, but the two leading genera are the Crassostrea and the Ostrea. The Ostrea is the more common in Europe, and in North America it’s mostly Crassostrea, which is considerably different. They reproduce differently and they grow in a somewhat different environment, grow at a different rate.  Crassostrea is much more durable and can grow in a wider range of environments.  They’re kind of taking over.

Erik Baard: And now are some species better than other species for aphrodisiacs?

Mark Kurlansky: I’m not sure. You know I think…

Erik Baard: I think the zinc levels are a critical part of that in terms of being a building block for testosterone.

Mark Kurlansky: I suppose. You know, the closest thing to any science on it is that there’s a lot of zinc in oysters and as you say, that’s a building block for testosterone. But you know, I think the key thing for aphrodisiacs is believing in them. And people have always believed that oysters were aphrodisiacs. It was the food of Roman orgies.

Erik Baard: And I guess it would be very fashionable for today’s club kids as well. But now, looking at oysters the same way you would look at salt and cod, what did you learn uniquely from oysters as a window into world economic history?

Mark Kurlansky: Well, one of the things that I thought tremendously interesting about oysters in New York is that their market crossed all socioeconomic levels. That’s a very rare thing for food. Generally, if you keep the price down they become a food for poor people and then rich people don’t want them. But that didn’t happen with oysters. They were as popular with the rich as with the poor eaten the exact same ways. So, it’s an example that defies everything we know about the price mechanism in marketing a commodity.

 

I was also surprised that we would tend to think of oysters as fragile, which of course wouldn’t be as much of an issue today with airplanes, but with transportation in the 18th century and 19th century, you wouldn’t think you’d be able to ship oysters very far. You know they ship them from New York to Europe to San Francisco and you know it turns out they’re quite durable if you pack them right.

Erik Baard: Yes, you had mentioned that you had to pack them with the (curved) side down.

Mark Kurlansky: Yes, yes, to hold the liquid in.

Erik Baard: One oddity. The American government tried to encourage people to
anesthetize their oysters?

Mark Kurlansky: Yes, because oysters are eaten live and so there’s this idea that it would be more humane to put them to sleep before you eat them. But the problem the people in the oyster business had with all this is that it was going to point out to everybody that you were eating live creatures, which most people don’t realize. So they decided it was better to just not bring up the subject.

Erik Baard: Well, on that note, now that we’ve ruined a lot of meals, thank you so much for your time and we look forward to your next book.

Mark Kurlansky: Thanks, great talking to you.

 

 

 

 

 
 
 

 

 

 

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Bladderwrack seaweed at Roosevelt Island. Photo by Erik Baard. 

 

By Erik Baard

 

One one the many torments my “poor, sainted mother” (as she calls herself) endured from me was a screamingly Pavlovian response to the jingle of the ice cream truck as it rumbled down 159th Street in Flushing, Queens, where I was raised. Little did I know then how intimately my love of the sweet dessert, the salty harbor, and my maternal heritage were bound.

 

A very common, yet fascinating, plant growing in our estuary is bladderwrack seaweed, scientifically known as fucus vesiculosus. Just a few of its other common names are popweed, black tang, rockweed, bladder fucus, seawrack, sea oak, black tany, cut weed, and rock wrack. I snapped the above picture of a healthy mat of its bubble form on riprap rock fringing Roosevelt Island (click to enlarge).

 

Bladderwrack is quite widespread in sheltered bays and inlets in the northern hemisphere, and has ancient pedigree. It’s a close relative of the first plants to colonize land. Of course the distinctive feature of this species is its air sacks, which lift fronds toward the surface, an evolutionary edge in the competition for sunlight for photosynthesis. Today beds of bladderwrack shelter young fish and crustaceans, and stabilizes intertidal sediment by slowing water movement.

 

You might not realize it, but there’s a very good chance you’ve eaten bladderwrack. Ice cream is one of the most common food products to include bladderwrack seaweed. Mass market foods often list it in the ingredients as simply “kelp” or note the chemicals derived from it, especially carrageenan. That thickening agent is named for the organism from which it was first extracted, Irish moss, known in Irish as carraig.

 

Iodine, beta carotene, and potassium are also refined from bladderwrack, though less often in recent years, and this seaweed has traditionally been used to treat thyroid illnesses and (with less solid evidence) obesity. Recent research also points to applications fighting estrogen-dependent diseases like breast cancer.

 

While people with certain medical conditions can suffer complications from consuming too many concentrated supplements made from bladderwrack, in Japan the plant is enjoyed as a popular food in its natural state. Sadly, there could be a pollution danger from eating bladderwrack growing in our harbor (as excited as we are about the estuary’s ongoing ecological recovery). Please consult the Department of Health and Department of Environmental Protection (dial 311) regarding any culinary experimentation.

 

 

Asian cultures are known for seaweed cuisine, but for thousands of years the Irish have eaten dulaman and dyed fabrics with it.

   

I can easily picture that kind of trade in a place like my maternal ancestral home of Sligo, Ireland. One of Ireland’s most popular traditional songs, about a monger of edible seaweed marrying (perhaps threatening to elope with) a seaweed dye monger’s daughter, makes that fancy all the more vivid. An interesting note on the lyrics is that in Irish, or Gaeilge, the gatherers and sellers of seaweed were addressed by the same noun as the product itself. That lends itself to some playful word-painting, comparing the fair hair and dark cap and black shoes of the suitor (or rogue?) to the top and base of the plant.

 

Dulaman

A ‘níon mhín ó, sin anall na fir shúirí
Oh gentle daughter, here come the wooing men
A mháithairin mhín ó, cuir na roithléan go dtí mé
Oh gentle mother, put the wheels in motion for me

Curfá: Chorus:
Dúlamán na binne buí, dúlamán Gaelach
Seaweed from the yellow cliff, Irish seaweed
Dúlamán na farraige, b’fhearr a bhí in Éirinn
Seaweed from the ocean, the best in all of Ireland
Tá ceann buí óir ar an dúlamán gaelach
There is a yellow gold head on the Gaelic seaweed
Tá dhá chluais mhaol ar an dúlamán maorach
There are two blunt ears on the stately seaweed
Bróga breaca dubha ar an dúlamán gaelach
The Irish seaweed has beautiful black shoes
Tá bearéad agus triús ar an dúlamán maorach
The stately seaweed has a beret and trousers

(Curfá 2x) (Chorus 2x)
Góide a thug na tíre thú? arsa an dúlamán gaelach
“What are you doing here?” says the Irish seaweed
Ag súirí le do níon, arsa an dúlamán maorach
“At courting with your daughter,” says the stately seaweed
Rachaimid chun Niúir leis an dúlamán gaelach
I would go to Niúir with the Irish seaweed
Ceannóimid bróga daora ar an dúlamán maorach
“I would buy expensive shoes,” said the Irish seaweed

(Curfá) (Chorus)
Ó chuir mé scéala chuici, go gceannóinn cíor dí
I spent time telling her the story that I would buy a comb for her
‘Sé’n scéal a chuir sí chugam, go raibh a ceann cíortha
The story she told back to me, that she is well-groomed

(Curfá) (Chorus)
Cha bhfaigheann tú mo ‘níon, arsa an dúlamán gaelach
“Oh where are you taking my daughter?” says the Irish seaweed
Bheul, fuadóidh mé liom í, arsa an dúlamán maorach
“Well, I’d take her with me,” says the stately seaweed
Dúlamán na binne buí, dúlamán Gaelach
Seaweed from the yellow cliff, Irish seaweed

(Curfá) (Chorus)
Dúlamán na binne buí, dúlamán Gaelach
Seaweed from the yellow cliff, Irish seaweed
Dúlamán na farraige, b’fhearr a bhí, b’fhearr a bhí

Seaweed from the ocean, the best, the best
Dúlamán na binne buí, dúlamán Gaelach
Seaweed from the yellow cliff, Irish seaweed
Dúlamán na farraige, b’fhearr a bhí, b’fhearr a bhí
Seaweed from the ocean, the best, the best

B’fhearr a bhí in Éirinn

The best in all of Ireland

 

The song has enjoyed many modern interpretations:

 

 Anúna

 

Clannad

 

Altan

 

Celtic Woman

 

A dance remix

 

And fan of the song even gives it the anime treatment.

 

I hope all Irish love their mothers as much as they love dulaman seaweed!

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by Erik Baard 

 

One of the most beautiful contrasts in New York Harbor is that of the verdant tip of Roosevelt Island against the sheen of Manhattan’s glass towers. That is in danger of being replaced with what might be described as a $40 million, concrete press-on nail for the island.

 

The sterile, largely paved and walled Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial and Four Freedoms Park designed by Louis I. Kahn would run counter to our city’s progress toward reconciliation with the estuary, restoration of both marine and uplands habitats, and recreational enjoyment of the harbor. One look at the model in the image at top reveals the travesty awaiting the island, one that ends in what is literally a high-walled room.

 

he future FDR Memorial, as designed by Louis I. Kahn, as it will look in a new Southpoint Park (rendering from the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute).

 The future FDR Memorial, as designed by Louis I. Kahn, as it will look in a new Southpoint Park (rendering from the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute).

 

It’s a shame when quite easily the form of the memorial can be reinterpreted through natural forms and materials. The southern point of the island, in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo below, doesn’t need much improvement.

 

Roosevelt Island by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

 

Imagine that key elements of the Kahn design were expressed through natural forms and materials.

 

Native NYC bedrock quarried from construction and tunneling to pave necessary walkways and be incorporated into the monument itself. This would better respect the environment and ground visitors in ubiety. Bedrock would also symbolize the role that the Roosevelt family has played in our city’s culture and civics. Excerpts of the “Four Freedoms” speech could be engraved into inclined slabs that allow viewers to read the immortal quotations while exhilarated by the wide open freedom of the openness around them. It would be sadly ironic to have the Four Freedoms speech carved into confining walls, especially in our overly-imprisoned era.

 

The V-shaped colonnade of trees should be indigenous. This stand could edge the existing landfill hillock, which should be made rich in indigenous meadow wildflowers and grasses. According to the Audubon Society, wild meadow is vanishing without the attention given wetlands. A soft edge, guarded by thoughtfully placed riprap rock would allow harbor birds, tidal pool creatures, and saltwater plants to live. It would also offer safe landings to paddlers in distress.

 

A bit over a week ago I spoke with a prominent young Roosevelt and asked, half in jest, if one could still love the family without loving the memorial. After teasing me about the “one” pronoun deflection, he reassuringly said, “we all love green.”

 

Regardless of the final form of the park, stopping the outdated version of this monument is a goal that people throughout the harbor community should share with the residents of Roosevelt Island, who have expressed their overwhelming preference for a natural restoration for the southern end of the island in repeated polls and a design exercise by the Trust for Public Land.

 

Yet the project boasts mystifying institutional backing – the New York Times editorial department, and local politicians at city, state, and federal levels. Sentiment in some circles of the architectural profession runs in favor of the plan, perhaps because of the biography of the architect behind it. Louis Kahn died in a Pennsylvania Station bathroom in 1974, ending his life deeply in debt and without this vision realized. But it’s incalculably important to bear in mind the dawn that was concurrent with his death: the national Clean Water Act of 1973 stated “wherever attainable, an interim goal of water quality which provides for the protection and propagation of fish, shellfish, and wildlife and provides for recreation in and on the water be achieved by July 1, 1983.”

 

We missed that goal by a decade in NYC, but our increasingly cleaner harbor and resurging ecosystems will afford adventure and beautiful experiences to people for decades to come. Yes, honor Kahn’s life story and work, but also honor the biographies yet to be written. Let children on Roosevelt Island (thousands more of whom are being added with dense, large-scale development) walk out their doors and into a soul-fortifying relationship with nature. Great Egrets have found nearby Long Island City and Mill Rock Island, so why not invite them to Roosevelt Island?

 

Roosevelt Island is full of paddlers and rowers eager to hit the water, and plans for a boathouse are afoot. A hardscape doesn’t fit the new desire for a landscape that invites residents and visitors alike into uplifting green and blue.

 

“It’s called an FDR memorial but it really seems to be a Louis Kahn memorial,” said a Roosevelt Island resident kayaker who asked not to be identified. “It looks like a Soviet era, Eastern European thing. It will impede the views of the UN and surroundings. The focus should be on looking out, not looking in.”

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by Erik Baard

Three kayakers launched into the Hudson River estuary from the 56th Street annex of the Downtown Boathouse late Saturday afternoon for a leisurely outing. The paddle was fun but unremarkable. It was upon their return near sunset that things became quite unusual.

As one of the paddlers, Tim Gamble, shared with others on the NYC Kayaker email list hosted by the Hudson River Watertrail Association, a seal appeared and got friendlier than any on record in these parts:

“It was very curious and followed us, popping up, first behind, then in front again. It seemed very interested and was getting closer and closer. So I made the classic keetch keetch noise and held my hand out like I had some food. It always works with dogs, so I figured it might work with a seal too. The seal swam closer and closer, and then put its paws up on my front hatch. It looked at me once more, then hauled itself up ONTO MY FRONT HATCH COVER. It sat up there for about 30 seconds while I carefully balanced, then it jumped back in the water on the other side of my boat. Really incredible!!!”

Indeed. Though seals are curious and playful creatures, marine mammal protection groups in the New York City area seek to deter overeager humans from unintentionally harassing them, and must often tend to stranded animals. When a seal initiates contact so boldly, it’s cause for alarm.

“That seal’s behavior was absolutely bizarre,” said SUNY Fashion Institute of Technology science professor and Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island president Arthur Kopelman. “That shouldn’t happen. That seal was in need of help or was used to being fed by people. You should call the stranding hotline at that point.”

Immediately after being told of the incident by Nature Calendar, Kopelman alerted biologist Kimberly Durham, the rescue program director of the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation. Kopelman noted that in photos posted elsewhere, the young seal seemed to be recovering from an injury to its left eye.

Durham told Nature Calendar that her organization has been monitoring the juvenile, which they believe is healthy, since March 15. She strongly admonished against any kind of interference that would alter a seal’s normal conduct, such as summoning it. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration levies heavy penalties on those found to feed or harass seals, dolphins, whales, and other wildlife.

Gamble, and the experienced kayakers who shared  his close encounter, are harbor veterans and committed estuary preservationists who never approach seals hauled out for rest or chase them down in the water.

Back in December of 2001, a pod of kayakers observed seals hauled out at Swinburne Island, a former crematorium off the coast of Staten Island that’s now part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. I returned with them a week later to confirm that sighting and report on it for the New York Times. It was newsworthy because until then no community of seals had lived in the harbor for over a century. Individuals might have swam in here and there, but there was no populated “haul out.” Now seal watching at Swinburne Island is so reliable that New York Water Taxi promotes tours in late autumn.

Last week, kayakers voyaging down the Buttermilk Channel to Red Hook, Brooklyn for the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation inauguration of the NYC Water Trail saw a seal on Governors Island’s small beach. The small seal that decided to befriend Gamble was photographed hauled up on the Downtown Boathouse’s 72nd Street floating dock hours earlier (captured in the photograph above by Elizabeth Powers). A harp seal, an arctic species that accounts for less than one percent of local sightings, sojourned on the former Downtown Boathouse dock in Tribeca a few years ago.

All five boroughs can claim seal sightings in the new millennium. The event is exciting for eye witnesses but no longer cause for a NYC media sensation. Seals live in our relatively warmer waters between November and June before heading north to the Gulf of Maine and the Canadian Maritime Provinces.

Seals once gathered here in such multitudes that linguistic legacies remain; Robbins Reef lighthouse comes down to us from the Dutch “rob,” for seal. But harbor seals are less sociable than they appear, congregating at haul-out spots that offer safety and convenience, not necessarily camaraderie (excepting oddballs like Hoover, the talking seal). Such locations are ideally near food, though they’ll swim over twenty miles for a good meal.

Today’s pinniped restoration comes as New Yorkers are stampeding to their waterfronts and splashing into their waterways to paddle, row, and swim. Aquatic coexistence between the harbor’s two largest resident mammals is inevitable. If deftly handled, that could be a great thing for both species.

“Kayakers are out there on the water all winter and could provide information beyond the traditional seal count week,” said New York Aquarium animal curator Paul Sieswerda, who is leads annual seal counting expeditions by motorboat to Swinburne Island with Kingsborough Community College. The aquarium reported roughly a dozen seals in its previous counts, but a single outing is unreliable because individuals tend to “spy hop” and reemerge elsewhere, getting tallied redundantly, or stealthily slip past even sharp professionals.

Sieswerda encouraged kayak boathouses to post a marine mammal and turtle spreadsheets to their websites and offered to pass that data along to the Riverhead Foundation so that “a picture will form over the years of just where the seals are and what times they can be expected.”

Photographs are critical, especially now that the 72nd street juvenile has been documented. Harbor seal mating and courtship occurs underwater, but evidence is mounting that New York has become a breeding area. “I’m absolutely sure I’ve got photos of pregnant females,” Kopelman said, adding that his surveys evidence that one of the outer islands of the Long Island Sound is particularly fecund for grey seals, a much rarer species.

Does this seal baby boom signal a broader ecological recovery? Kopelman isn’t sanguine.

The Clean Water Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act (more stringent in the U.S. than anywhere else) have certainly contributed to the rebound over the past three decades. Flounder, striped bass, squid, and alewife, and crustacean stocks must be adequate to support the NYC returnees and their pups. But is the food chain contaminated from the bottom up?

“Coastal ecosystems are in a lot worse shape than they had been. I’m surprised regularly that we don’t see a reduction in seal populations. I’m sure if we studied them we’d find they have high levels of toxins” in their bodies and brains, he said, citing garbage and poisons like methyl mercury (from power plants and industry) to organic chlorines that exist beyond their intended uses in pesticides and herbicides to become general biocides in the environment.

The most intensive study of New York Harbor’s pollution challenges has been conducted by the New York Academy of Sciences. Among the locally active groups translating that information into action are Storm Water Infrastructure Matters, the River Project, and Riverkeeper.

Much of the support these groups get, both financial and volunteerism, comes from recreational water users. What’s good for the seals is good for us.

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By Erik Baard

Easter eggs are hunted in “Eggstravaganzas” and “Eggstreme” events across the city, from the Bronx Zoo to the Queens Zoo, and south to the Leon Kaiser Playground in Brooklyn and the West Brighton Zoo on Staten Island. But the best-hidden eggs in the very center of Gotham right now may be those laid by Winter Flounder.

The mighty machinery of our industrial port city has been stayed so that the roughly million tiny eggs (the fertilized flounder eggs magnified in the photo above are from a Virginia Institute of Technology laboratory) dropped by each mature female can be deposited right on the sandy substrate, and incubate undisturbed for two or three weeks.

“From February first through the end of May for the past several years we’ve suspended dredging the shipping channels where the eggs are laid,” said William Slezak, Chief of the Harbor Operations Branch of the U.S. Army Corps of engineers. Winter flounder prefer sheltered shallows with cool water, such as you’ll find in the kills (Dutch for creek, a linguistic colonial legacy) surrounding Staten Island, Newark Bay (a main commercial hub of the mid-Atlantic region), Jamaica Bay, and Raritan Bay.

That surprising deference to a not-so-pretty bottom feeder reflects not only how far natural resources public policy has come hereabouts, but how dire the winter flounder crisis has become.

“It’s pretty amazing that winter flounder is steering dredging policy in the harbor these days. These ‘conservation windows’ are certainly very progressive, working our way around a species’ critical periods to cause as little harm as possible,” said Queens College marine biologist John Waldman, author of Heartbeats in the Muck. “But something has happened and the local stock is really crashing.”

Waldman, who grew up on the western Long Island Sound, recalls that in his youth the species was “common as hell.” Now, after a decline in population that began in the ‘70s, “You can fish all day and catch one or two.”

Waldman points to a pincer of culprits threatening the species: global climate change and “a whole suite of hungry mouths.”

The species is clearly sensitive to warmth; when water temperatures cross 73 degrees Fahrenheit (23C) they bury themselves in muddy bottoms and wait out the heat wave. A few degrees more and they are dead. Also, as Waldman pointed out, a change in water temperatures could disrupt previously reliable detritus-based food production at the microbial level before it can rain down to the flounders below.

As for all those “hungry mouths,” winter flounder certainly remain prized by local anglers, including those in New Jersey ready at this very moment to sneak out from family gatherings to hook them; fishing season for the species begins today. But natural predators, often themselves benefitting from government protection, are removing much more winter flounder, both in terms of numbers and biomass. Species like striped bass, bluefish, summer flounder and fluke, and even seals in the Gateway National Recreation Area, are feasting on winter flounder. Cormorants are a new arrival to our estuary, having expanded their range north. These extraordinarily effective fishing birds put greater pressure on an already stretched resource.

But there’s some cause for optimism about the estuary as a whole, even if winter flounder fans aren’t ready to pop the cork on the champagne. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration section for Ecological Applications views the species as a maritime canary in a coal mine, signaling befouled habitats in decades past. Note this report based on data from decades past:

Winter flounder are particularly susceptible to pollution (Grosslein and Azarovitz 1982). The eggs are laid directly on the substrate and therefore any toxins in the sediment can affect their viability. This species’ close association with the benthos also potentially exposes the fish to sediment toxins. Grosslein and Azarovitz (1982) noted that few larvae survived in polluted estuaries, and that winter flounder were entirely absent from polluted sections of NY/NJ Harbor. In particular, winter flounder experience increased mortality as a result of exposure to insecticides, especially DDT (Buckley 1989).

But now, while winter flounders are scarcer than ever, their re-colonization of our bays and inlets testifies to a cleaner and healthier estuary.

“It’s interesting, a kind if dualistic situation. The Upper Bay and some of these other places in the harbor were once written off as wastelands, and now they’ve recovered so much that they are recognized as productive ecosystems,” Waldman observed. “So in a way, there’s some good news here.”

Yeah, but just try to get a flounder to see any situation from both sides.

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