Volume 20 Issue 12 | August. 3 - 9, 2007

Talking Point

There’s nothing fishy about studying the river

By Julie Nadel

At a recent Hudson River Park Trust board meeting, trustee Henry Stern, former city Parks commissioner, asked, “What’s an estuarium?”  It made me think:  With all this recent attention about a river study center (estuarium is the fancy name), maybe it would be helpful to remind people what it is and why it matters. According to Merriam-Webster’s Desk Dictionary, an estuary is “an arm of the sea at the mouth of a river.”  An estuarium is not in this dictionary, but it is a place to study and learn about an estuary.

In 1986, a grassroots organization called The River Project began work on Tribeca’s Pier 26, which at that time was old and abandoned.  I remember because I was working for the state on what to do with the West Side Highway and waterfront.  Westway had just been defeated and the waterfront was like the Wild West:  grungy, unruly, left for dead.

Only a few intrepid souls ventured forth to bring life to the old piers through a variety of programs, which almost invariably involved some interesting use of the river.  Pier 26 had a cinderblock pier shed, unheated, with a large front door for unloading whatever went through the building when the piers were used for shipping and commerce.

In that run-down old building on Pier 26 arose a marine biology field station for studying the river for fish activity and monitoring water quality – and through those doors walked scientists from Cornell, SUNY Stony Brook, the N.Y./N.J. Harbor Estuary Program, the Museum of Natural History, National Marine Fisheries, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and more. Why did they go there?  Quite simply, it gave them the opportunity to get down into the water to take samples, support the research of the River Project, exchange professional information, or work within an environment where they could perform field research.  Remarkably, there were, and still are, very few spots along the river that can accommodate these kinds of activities.  

The River Project’s director and founder, Cathy Drew, has earned the respect of every marine biologist I have ever spoken to who knows her or has worked with her.  It was her vision that created this space all those years ago, but it was the people who went there that kept it going, because there was, and still is, a great need for what it has to offer. It is a fact that The River Project is why an estuarium has been in waterfront plans for Pier 26 from even before there was a Hudson River Park.  It was a model that worked, a location that worked, and it worked well.

But that’s only part of the story.  The rest involves the people of Lower Manhattan and beyond, especially the children, because the unique thing about this river study center was that people could walk in, see what was going on, and view real science taking place first hand.  The place was accessible and open, and the scientists’ work was publicly viewable.  Children could touch a fish, see a live seahorse (who a day ago was living in the river, soon to be returned there) and come to understand that the lower Hudson is an estuary with the river flowing both ways.  My daughter, now 14, went to many school field trips there over the years, with many more individual visits to check in to see what’s new.  The River Project, a community-based organization, was an open book.  It had no admission fee.  Instead of the Disneyfication of the waterfront, this place was the real thing. 

I spent three years on the board of the Sloop Clearwater, the environmental organization started by Pete Seeger.  Its mission was to encourage New Yorkers to appreciate the Hudson River by being directly exposed to this great and wonderful resource, because if people care, they’ll want to keep it from being polluted.  It’s working — the Hudson is cleaner with more thriving marine life than ever.  Making the public stewards of the Hudson is a great thing.

An estuarium at Pier 26 builds on the same idea. Learning about the river leads to appreciation.  Giving people the opportunity to see and understand the ecosystem of a great river like the Hudson makes everyone a better friend to it.

So where are we now?  Community Board 1 has applied for a grant to plan for an estuarium at Pier 26 since the Hudson River Park Trust hasn’t budgeted money to build one.  Who will run a new estuarium if one does get built has not yet been determined.  The River Project has been displaced due to pier reconstruction and is operating off site.  The scientists and marine biologists from many institutions are waiting to get back onto Pier 26 so they can continue their research.  And the kids are waiting for a return of their school field trips, to see and touch the marine creatures living below in the dark waters.

Julie Nadel is a member of the Hudson River Park Trust’s board and the chairperson of Community Board 1’s Waterfront Committee.

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