By Portfolio Editor Roz Hamlett
There was once a 132-acre island in Jamaica Bay within view of Kennedy Airport known as Elders Point. After years of degradation, the land split into separate islands connected only by mud. The U.S. National Park Service (NPS) observed that Elders Point was sinking, and fast. Because the salt marsh island was in dire straits, Elders Point went to the top of the NPS restoration list.
Salt marshes are where fresh and saltwater mix, their importance extending beyond the environment to the commercial fishing industry as they contribute to healthy fish stocks. Without drastic intervention, not only Elders Point, but all the remaining salt marshes in Jamaica Bay were doomed to disappear at a clip of 44 acres annually – left alone, the marshes could vanish entirely by 2025.
That’s when the Port Authority threw the embattled Elders Point a lifeline, a project that began 10 years ago. The rescue of Elders Point was accomplished as part of the recently completed Harbor Deepening Navigation Program. The program dredged a 50-foot channel access to the six container terminals of the Port of New York and New Jersey (PONYNJ) by deepening Ambrose Channel from deep water in the Atlantic Ocean to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, better enabling PONYNJ to receive the biggest ships from around the world.
Restoring Elders Point involved using some of the dredge material from the channel to create a refuge for habitat and to restore vegetation, with nearly one million plants placed by hand. The project required 17 million cubic yards of clean sand, and blasted rock was used to create fishing reefs.
“The Port Authority, in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, came to the rescue in a way that exceeded our initial goals,” said Atef Ahmed, program manager of the Harbor Deepening Project. “The ecosystem we helped to create is thriving and supporting a vibrant multitude of wildlife habitat.”
But according to Port Authority Wildlife Biologist Laura Francoeur, the agency also works hard to achieve the right balance between aviation safety and the preservation of the disappearing marshes, which are the heart of the urban ecosystem of the bay.
“Because of the close proximity of Jamaica Bay to our airports, we also have to make sure that we’re not creating a hazard for the airports by attracting too many birds that may inadvertently cause a bird strike,” said Francoeur.
The Port Authority’s success with Elders Point has led to an ongoing partnership with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to restore additional islands in Jamaica Bay. The salt marshes are a critical part of the first urban national park that was established in 1972 under the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service – Gateway National Recreation Area. The refuge encompasses 9,155 acres of diverse habitats, including upland field and woods, several fresh and brackish water ponds – all located within New York City. It’s one of the best spots to observe migrating birds.
Francoeur is optimistic about the restorations, but she also sounds a note of caution, “Nothing we ever do is simple. The restoration of salt marshes is about finding the right balance,” she said.