I grew up fishing the Shellbank Canal in Howard Beach. We had a boat, but my grandfather and I would sit on the dock, under the "4 Miles Per Hour" sign and fish and crab all day – every day – during the summer months. This year, there is a problem with fish dying in the canal, which makes the bay smell awful. This is the kind of environmental issue where politicians can show some mettle. It also proves that not all fish get wrapped in the Ledger/Star.
The water in the canal this year was murkier than usual, a thicker green. Almost 20 years ago, the canal suffered through a murky summer. That year, however, there was a lot of surveying going on as the old Broad Channel Bridge was being replaced by the Joseph Addabbo (new Broad Channel) Bridge. The odd consistency made some sense then, because there was a lot of activity on the bottom of the bay.
At the end of the canal, near Starbucks, the water is deep. In order to keep oxygen moving in the water, the city keeps air pumping from the bottom. There is some belief that these pumps may have stopped, causing fish, mainly bunker and baitfish, to die. Councilman Joseph Addabbo and the residents of the area are concerned that this may have been a contributing factor.
Closed landfills in nearby Brooklyn are also a possible cause, as are de-icing contaminants from JFK airport. Remember that water in a long canal doesn't really flush out with the tide. So if there are contaminants in the canal, it is hard to wait out such an occurrence.
I wrote a few months ago about how blue claw crabs in Maryland were unable to feed close to the shore because farmers tend to wash nutrients into the water supply. This creates dead zones, where fish cannot live. If nitrates or other chemicals are being flushed into the bay, it can kill the bunker. Without bunker from which to feed, bluefish, weakfish, and striped bass lose a large part of their food stock.
The city needs to find the cause and address it quickly. The oxygen that gets pumped from the bottom could be the problem, but the canal was there long before pumping began – and this was not a problem in the past. And if the problem was purely an issue of oxygen in the water, why are birds dying as well? The issue can be more chemical. If chemicals or high amounts of nitrates got into the canal, they cannot flush out well. Add to that the possibility of diminished oxygen, and you have a foul-smelling problem.
Jamaica Bay itself has the same problem that the canal has – it is very closed in. Water never really goes back into the ocean with the outgoing tide. It moves a considerable distance, and then comes right back.
I posed a question when I was a candidate, as to whether people would support the idea of possibly cutting a canal through the Rockaway Peninsula, connecting the ocean to Jamaica Bay – so fish and water life can flow in and out. The idea was that water would flush out into ocean and stop any stagnation.
It would also create more waterfront property, and allow for boats to come into the bay more easily. The Rockaway Wave newspaper posed the question online. It received about 50 “yes” hits and 50 “no” hits. (The Internet was not as highly trafficked then – and I was three of those votes, I admit.) But the idea goes as far back as 1905, when New York City Comptroller Edward Grout suggested this as a means to build more dock space. It's a bold idea, and I was just curious as to what people thought.
The bay needs more oversight. There are concerned elected officials, and I applaud that. But the city seems to always address the issues of Rockaway and lower Queens with the speed of John Kruk carrying Jason Giambi on his back. Councilman Joe Addabbo pressed the city to move on this issue, and has refused to take rhetoric as an answer.
The Jamaica Bay Watershed Protection Plan addresses the chemical pollutant issues and is a good plan since it focuses nitrogen loading and dissolved oxygen. It was introduced by Councilman James Gennaro and supported by Mayor Bloomberg. But it takes time for such sweeping reforms to take hold. Right now, however, it is most important to let the citizens of Howard Beach know why this is happening and what the strategy is to fix it.