By Cathy Drew
For three decades, The River Project has operated an active marine science field station in Hudson River Park, first at Pier 26, and, presently, in temporary quarters on the south walkway of Pier 40 at Houston Street. The Project was founded in 1986 by myself, the current Executive Director, and a longtime neighborhood resident. The River Project helps protect New York Harbor and the ecosystem of the Hudson Estuary through science, education, and community waterfront activities.
As an oceanographer, my fieldwork background is coral reef ecology in the Pacific and Caribbean Oceans. For many years, my day involved diving, preparing to dive, or cleaning up and conducting analysis after the dive: Who is on the team? What and where is the site? How do we get there? What boats and gear do we need? What will we eat? My thoughts and dreams are beneath the surface. At the same time, I have always lived here, on the Lower West Side. I would come home from expeditions and look out the window and wonder: What goes on beneath the Hudson? In the coral reefs you can see everything, but here it is not so easy.
One day, I went over to the old City tow pound auction lot on Pier 26 and asked the parking attendant if we could put out some traps and gear off the pier. He didn’t mind, and with colleagues from the Marine Sciences Research Center at SUNY Stony Brook (now the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences), we deployed rudimentary monitoring equipment and fish traps, and went there regularly to maintain them. Eventually, we asked to use the two abandoned produce sheds left over from the old Washington Market. We set up shop and, over the years, paperwork and permits became necessary. We began to work with the community boards, neighborhood schools, and groups around the Harbor. We started the Downtown Boat Club (now the Downtown Boathouse) in one of the sheds, and The River Project and its Estuarium in the other. The Estuarium, now closed, had a flow-through system of river water, and kept many of the Harbor marine animals for the season.
The River Project was instrumental in designating Hudson River Park’s “lands underwater” a New York State Estuarine Sanctuary in 1998. The eligibility of the 400 underwater acres for the program was based on The River Project’s documentation of 52 species of fish residing within the area, and a habitat and ecosystem as rich and diverse as the other sanctuaries. The other sanctuaries are in “pristine” areas; ours is in the most densely populated and user-competitive area in America.
The River Project’s lab facility and field station, called the Wetlab, was created to provide visitors with a first-hand education about the Hudson River Estuary. Wetlab “look-ins” offer the public free, open-house lab sessions to learn about New York City’s local fish and invertebrates, and see them in a flow-through system of live river water. Other programs include the Marine Biology Internship Program, where students can learn water quality testing, organism identification, behavioral observation, and other marine lab and field skills. Additionally, the Field Trip Program produces tours customized for different age groups and areas of study.
Next in The River Project’s plans is a shift in focus southwards, to the nonprofit’s original home: Pier 26. There, the Project will participate in the planned new Estuarium, and help create a unique waterfront institution for the City and a model for the rest of the world.