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Stories from DEP is a collection of feature articles
published in DEP's internal newsletter, Weekly Pipeline.
This article was originally published June 14, 2011.

Finding the Way to Make the Bay a Good Place to Stay

For thousands of years, Jamaica Bay and its watershed have served as an important ecological resource for flora and fauna, including 91 species of fish, 325 bird species (of which 62 are confirmed to breed locally) and many species of reptiles, amphibians and mammals. Jamaica Bay is a nationally and internationally renowned birding location as well. Although transformed over the years by development and population pressures, an ecologically diverse ecosystem still remains today. However, in spite of these significant changes, it remains an invaluable ecological hotspot and natural resources powerhouse not only for the region, but also internationally.

While there are many daunting challenges in restoring urban ecological communities, DEP and other local professionals have not been deterred to help jumpstart the ecological process by using restoration ecology—the renewal of degraded ecosystems through active human intervention. DEP has been piloting several projects to improve the water quality and the environment of Jamaica Bay, including the feasibility of reintroducing eelgrass, oysters and engineering ribbed mussel habitat to the Jamaica Bay ecosystem to renew the bay’s habitat for aquatic species. If successful, the projects will assist with water filtration to improve water quality and increase biodiversity.

Much like trees function on land, eelgrass stabilizes sediments, reduces erosion, and naturally removes nitrogen from the water. These submerged aquatic vegetation beds are important for a number of fish and shellfish species. Since 2009, DEP has installed about 5,500 plantings. While the plantings have not yet resulted in the sustainable establishment of eelgrass in the bay, they have provided DEP with valuable information and the opportunity to determine appropriate planting depths, timing of plantings and the effects of currents and sediment movement. For example, we have learned that excessive sediment movement may be one factor preventing the establishment
of eelgrass.

Oysters, known as a “keystone species” and “ecosystem engineers,” have the ability to modify their environment. A single mature oyster can filter approximately 2.5 gallons of water per hour and can remove approximately 20% of the nitrogen it takes in. DEP is a partner with several environmental organizations and government agencies in the Oyster Restoration and Research Project, which has constructed six small pilot reefs throughout the harbor to study the effect of planting oysters in the bay. Initial results show that the oyster spat, or larvae, that were placed on the pilot reefs have survived and grown. However, it remains to be seen whether the oysters will reproduce and thrive as a self-sustaining species and whether climatic and environmental conditions within the bay are suitable for oyster growth and reproduction. The project will also study how effective oysters are at filtering various pollutants within the bay, such as nitrogen. If the pilot beds are successful, the oysters could not only help regenerate the natural environment of the bay, but also provide additional water quality benefits.

Like oysters, ribbed mussels are bivalves that filter nutrients and other pollutants from the water. In late June, several A-frame structures will be installed in Jamaica Bay to evaluate ribbed mussel growth and measure the effectiveness of these species in removing nutrients and particulate organic matter from the water.

Improving the quality of New York City’s harbor waters is a long-term effort that will not only revitalize our city’s aquatic ecosystems, but will also offer millions of New Yorkers the opportunity to access areas that have been off limits to recreational use for decades.

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