From microplastics to PCBs, we are learning more and more about the invisible substances that pollute our waters. But Jamaica Bay is also plagued by a scourge that’s plain to see: hundreds of abandoned boats littering its waterways and shorelines. Owners dump their boats when the cost of maintenance, docking fees, and weatherization becomes too much. The 2008 recession, as well as Superstorm Sandy — after which many boats were damaged past the point of repair — have only amplified the problem. More than just eyesores, the wayward vessels also damage valuable and fragile estuary ecosystems. Who will clean them up?
For more than 20 years, a group of citizen guardians called the Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers have taken on the difficult task of rescuing the bay’s natural habitats. After fighting against the scourge of nitrogen-rich sludge, they are now focused on ridding the bay of marine debris, from boats to beach chairs. Volunteer groups do all they can. The US Army Corps of Engineers and Coast Guard deal with some coastal debris, and closer to shore, New York City’s Department of Sanitation and Parks Department are charged with some of the cleanup. But it’s not enough. Now, a bill before the City Council promises to create an office to dispose of the debris. Below, Daniel Mundy, Jr. and Daniel Mundy, Sr. of the Ecowatchers take Amy Howden-Chapman on a tour of the Bay, and talk about what it takes to keep it tidy.
What is so special about Jamaica Bay? Why is it worth protecting, or cleaning up?
First, the experts’ point of view: one fourth of every bird in North America has been sighted in Jamaica Bay. They say it’s the most important migratory flyover on the Northeast of America. On the marine side, it’s one of the biggest estuaries for fish to come and spawn. It’s been noted by the federal government as an estuary of national significance. For locals, it’s an amazing place to get away from the city and to explore nature. For a lot of city kids, this is their Yosemite. And then you’ve got the bigger climate reasons: the significance of the wetlands and how they offset carbon, and how we’re losing areas that have the ability to produce fish and birds and reptiles and endangered species.
How did the Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers get started?
The City of New York used to take all of the byproducts from sewage treatment plants and put it out in the ocean. A federal judge mandated they stop that in 1993. Shortly after that, the city came up with a system called “dewatering.” They take the sludge, put it in a giant washing machine twice the size of my house, spin it until the water comes out, and sell what’s left for fertilizer. Everybody said this was a fantastic scientific achievement. The water that came out was higher in nitrogen. No one really measured nitrogen back then, because it’s not a noted pollutant. But we started to see fish die-offs and brown water. We started to go to meetings. We became the rabble-rousers — a bunch of firemen, electricians, teachers, showing up. We started to take pictures and then we went to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. We made a very big issue of that fact that we’re losing marshes, that we think it’s connected to dewatering, and that there’s a problem with the water quality.
So the residents of Jamaica Bay were pushing for better water quality.
Better water quality, habitat, preservation, and protection for the bay in every way possible.
Globally, there’s been a lot of awareness of health of the oceans and plastics in the ocean. Is that affecting your work?
The plastic campaign has been fantastic. The awareness campaigns are really helpful for us. When you see those pictures from the South Sea and the Pacific areas with those garbage patches . . . I think people are horrified. And I think that kind of shock makes people want to respond. I hear people say, “Okay, I can’t believe what I see. I’ll donate to that, or I’ll support either a joint international effort or a local effort. And I don’t mind my taxpayer money going to fix that, because my kid, or my grandson, is going to have to deal with ten times that.”
There’s few things in today’s politics that tie people together. We’re so divisive. But around Jamaica Bay, the conservative up the block, the liberal next to them, the middle-of-the-road, and libertarian will all say, “I’m on board with that.” We work that to our advantage, and we think that’s fair. You only have so much political capital.
So now you’re focused on getting the city to clean up marine debris. What is marine debris, anyway?
We use that term as a broad category. It’s abandoned boats, it’s docks that broke loose, and floats, which is where you tie your boat up to. It’s large construction material that may be out there. It could include anything from styrofoam to big bags; from giant ropes that came off tugboats to somebody’s lawn furniture that blew away. It can be as small as a big garbage can, or even smaller, and up to a 40-foot boat — the cabin of a boat.
Or a crane.
Or a crane, thank you. We used to just say abandoned boats and then we realized the problem is much bigger than that. The term “marine debris” is all-inclusive.
Where does the debris come from? Could a beach chair come from New Jersey?
Probably 90 percent of the marine debris comes from the 100,000-plus people who live right on the nearby shorelines. There are over seven major tributaries that connect to the Bay. And every one of them has either a marina or people living along the shore. Storms and other things happen. Stuff floats away. Maybe someone on one of the beaches forgets a chair. Or you get an old person whose husband gets sick; he dies, the boat sits in the water for four years and starts filling up with water. They don’t even mean to let it go — it just breaks loose. Are they going to chase it down? No.
If the boats have numbers on them, they should be tracked to the owner. My boat has numbers on it. People get cute and take the numbers off. But if we can identify them, then it should be, “Okay, Dan Mundy, that’s your boat; so, either you get it or we’re going to charge you for it.”
Outsiders aren’t bringing their stuff in here. It’s our own people, either on purpose or inadvertently.
But the other problem is that there’s no system in place. If you want to get rid of your vehicle, you can take it to a junkyard, you can sign over the thing, they give you $250, and then they recycle it. If you want to get rid of your boat, there is no plan to get rid of your boat. So, if the boat sinks in the back of your house, what are you going to do with it?
And after Hurricane Sandy, of course, the problem has multiplied a hundredfold.
What was the difference?
We just about had the bay in pretty good shape. There were some boats around, but every year you had more of other kinds of debris that entered the bay. Docks rot, they break loose, they fall away. We had it down to a manageable situation, but then Hurricane Sandy came, and everything went into the bay. Even stuff that people owned and had a value. But they had to worry about getting back into their home, not about their $10,000 boat that was sitting out there.
It’s a constant battle, but we’re making headway with it, and getting rid of the marine debris is important because it’s harming the environment. If it lays on a marsh, it kills that amount of square feet of marsh. The next tide takes it and moves it, and it kills that amount. So, it’s like somebody coming out there and hacking away at the marsh.
We had nobody to take care of the boats. So we used our volunteer program, and we removed something like 500 boats over the course of six years. Very hard to do. We have to hire a tow operator, and we were staying somewhat ahead. But it’s always going to be a constant process. We work with the American Littoral Society, and they took some young interns out and mapped over 10,000 noted sites.
So that really meant that there was a lot of work. And are you still working on that?
Yes. We’re still working on it. Around the bay, you have the Littoral Society and you have the Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers. The Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy, with Alex Zablocki, has really gotten involved in the last couple years. The groups all work together for a common goal to ensure beach and shore clean-ups. And the impact is great. But the larger boats, and the debris that’s out on the islands, is just not easily accessible, and it’s so hard to remove. You need a formal agency to handle that.
We’ve got agencies to test the water, we’ve got agencies that do restoration work, but we’ve got nobody, and no agency, that will take on the responsibility of removing debris. So it’s been a volunteer effort, for many years. You could take out small stuff like garbage cans that float out there, and maybe some woods and plastics, but when you see the size of some of these things, you see the challenge.
I come out and I target boats. I GPS them. I hit the mark button, I take pictures, I drop a Google pin, and then I log the coordinates. But this particular tracking program is only helpful if we have an agency to follow up, since this was sponsored by the National Park Service just as a one-time effort. A marine debris bill would be fantastic.
It’s impressive that you’re able to devote so much time to this issue. You are a full-time firefighter, right?
Yeah, I still work. I’ve actually been a Battalion Chief for the last thirteen years, and I’ve been with the Fire Department for almost 35 years.
You must have a strong connection to the Bay.
My father grew up here, his father grew up here, and my mother grew up here. My mother’s father used to run rum during Prohibition. This area was called Little Havana because no one could enforce laws down here. And it was all sand streets, nothing was paved. It was a pretty interesting place. When I was a kid, we had so much freedom. I would leave my house around the corner in a small boat with a motor on it: eight years old with cut-off jeans, no shirt, no sunblock, no phone. We could swim like fish and you’d have a great time and you knew every inch of the bay and where to go to have fun. My daughters grew up in a similar way, with maybe a little more of, “Don’t go here and there, I want to be able to see you.” And now everybody’s got cellphones, but the connection is still there. Just being out on the bay.
To return to the boats: beyond tracking where they are, how do you actually get rid of them? Does the city have its own machinery that can pull these out?
Nate Grove works for the New York City Parks Department in the Marine Division, and for years he’s been trying to create a way to address this. He came up with the idea of crafting a contract for people to bid on: We’ll pay X amount per foot for the boat, and you’ve got to show what they call “cradle to grave.” We didn’t just throw it somewhere; it’s documented, and it was properly disposed of. And then you’ll make some money — good for you. So, the low bidder gets it and then they remove boats.
What does one of these contracts look like? And what kind of gear do private contractors use?
The contract we’re using right now is a bid out to a private hauler, who has very unique equipment. He has a landing craft where the front drops down, like a landing craft from World War II. Out comes a crane, he pulls it, then the crane acts as a barge. Other bulkhead operators with smaller barges would come with that and use a crane to put the boats up there. You leave that to the market, and funding brings the marketplace in. People who are in this industry will do it. I think there would be multiple means and different types of equipment once the effort is funded full time.
Tell me about the bill proposed to create a new Office of Marine Debris Removal.
That was Costas’ idea. Councilman Constantinides has taken on a real environmental activism and, in particular, for Jamaica Bay. We were looking to fund what we call the “one-shot deal,” where we get some funding over to an agency — $50,000 or $100,000 — and maybe we’ll get 20 boats. And he came back and said, “Well, I think we need a bill that thinks bigger than one-shot.” Because, “That won’t last. Let’s create an agency and task them with it under this bill.” So, we think he got way ahead of the curve on this thing.
What is your ideal? In ten years, for you to say “this issue has been fixed,” what are all the pieces that would be in place?
Ten years from now, we’d have an agency that has some staff, that could communicate with local stakeholders as to what they’re seeing out there. They would set multiple dates in the Fall and Spring, to go out and say, “We’re going to gather up 30, 40 boats and clean those areas.” We would also have a voluntary surrender program. They would take a real hard look at the marinas around the city that produce a lot of these boats. I don’t think the marinas mean to produce the problem, but it’s the nature of their business that people start off enthused about a boat, and ten years later it’s been sitting unused for three years, and they’ve moved out of state.
We’re never going to get all of these boats, but we can start to create a system and an awareness in people that if your boat ends up out on the bay, someone might be knocking on your door at some point to say: “This is your responsibility.”