The River Project, A Template From New York Ready For Replication

Photograph by Peter Keegan/Keystone/Getty.

Photograph by Peter Keegan/Keystone/Getty.

The news in this New Yorker website blog post is the short and sweet specialty we most enjoy:

On a recent Wednesday that felt like the first of winter, about a hundred and fifty children—mostly under seven—and their parents gathered at Pier 40, over at West Street and Houston. Their mission: to thank for their service the numerous small riverine creatures that have whispered their secrets to the kids since last spring, and liberate them. The River Project’s tanks needed to be drained and emptied for winter. Ergo, fishy freedom.

A cherubic gentleman in a wide-brimmed hat and rumpled attire was, he explained, “sort of the m.c.” This was Jeff Levinton, a professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University and author of the classic text “Marine Biology.” Among fish tanks and little children, Levinton looked blissed-out.

A long table held plastic containers, each confining one or two fish to a ten-inch range. Levinton started listing and pointing. Black sea bass. Blackfish—Native Americans called them tautog. A weird little feather blenny. A summer flounder delayed into autumn. Several specimens of a species called, simply, spot, for the marking behind their gills. Because the project founder Cathy Drew expected kids to outnumber fish, half the table was covered by about a hundred paper cups, each holding a mud dog whelk, a grass shrimp, a sea worm, a baby fish, or a tiny crab.

The River Project has been introducing children to the Hudson since the late nineteen-eighties. Time brings change. “There are no more tomcod,” Cathy says. “We don’t find any more bergalls. But suddenly there’s loads of skillet fish.”

What’s a skillet fish? Jeff?

“I’d never heard of it either.”

It’s Gobiesox strumosus—a new species for the Hudson, never recorded before last year.

“And now,” Cathy says in wonderment, “they’re everywhere.”

The vanishing fish are species that live mainly north of here; this was the southern end of their range. The new things turning up are those that mainly live south of here. Warming is shifting things.

There’s some good news, too: oysters. “Only a couple of years ago,” Levinton says, “when people saw oysters, e-mails would fly. New York harbor got a great set of larvae last year. Now everyone in the harbor is finding them.” Dr. Levinton’s prognosis on this set, though, was less than encouraging. “Two years from now, a lot of these will have died; the water quality gets them.”

But the fact that there are oysters at all is a good sign. Levinton reminds us that water quality used to be much worse. He posits, “I don’t think it was a coincidence that Fifth Avenue was the most fashionable street—it was farthest from the water.” New Yorkers, he says, eschewed the city’s shoreline. It was foul. Unsavory characters inhabited it. “Nobody wanted to be near the river; people hated the waterfront. When I was seventeen, we walked along the river from the Battery to the G.W. Bridge. It was fabulous but it was a mess.” Levinton’s first girlfriend lived next to an uptown river park. “It was really disgusting until it got renovated. Bette Midler donated quite a bit of money to renovate a bunch of public riverside areas.” And then the Clean Water Act made a noticeable impression on how the river looked—and smelled.

We’re still waiting for kids to toddle in. Many are already milling around and, for crowd control, there are plenty of fish-shaped, sugar-frosted cookies.

Two seahorses, also from the river, grasp fake seagrass with their tails.

The pier facility is charmingly decrepit, in a utilitarian way. Plastic pipes with various valves and hoses deliver river water to the tanks. There are some posters. Oyster anatomy is sketched on an erasable board. There’s the heart.

A girl all of four opines, “The cookies are the best.” She is, however, looking forward to the main event: “dumping the fish in the river.”

“Dumping them?” her mother asks. “Or releasing them into the Hudson?”

Levinton announces that the event has begun. Who wants to release the first fish? An eager volunteer is chosen by virtue of proximity. The boy picks the striped bass. Levinton, delighted, announces that the boy has selected “the queen of the river!” He explains that this fish swims all the way up the Hudson, makes babies there, then swims out along the whole coast. Into the bucket goes the fish. Into the river goes the bucket on a rope. Good job…

Read the rest of the post here.

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