Sustaining the Extraordinary Marine Resources Surrounding New York

New York City has a long, deep, and conflicted relationship with the salty sea that surrounds this city of islands. These waters have been subject to human fishing activity since the Lenape Indians first arrived some 6,500 years ago.

According to historical records, when Giovanni da Verrazano and the first Europeans sailed into New York Harbor in 1524, the bay was full of whales, seals, and porpoises. One found 12-inch oysters, six-foot lobsters, and so many fish that it has been written that they could be pulled from local ponds and streams by hand.

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Atlantic sturgeon, also known as "Albany beef," once swam so abundantly in the Hudson River that they obstructed the passage of boats. Photo by Cephas (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Hudson River Atlantic sturgeon, also known as "Albany beef," swam so abundantly they obstructed the passage of boats, while the annual arrival of river herring signaled the start of spring. New York's diet, economy, and even the streets themselves were built on discarded oyster shells.

The Wildlife Conservation Society's 3rd annual Sip for the Sea event this week, at which New York City restaurants paired sustainably caught sea food dishes with wines from Monterey, California's Jekel Vineyards, asked us to look freshly at historical approaches to the abundance and scarcity of marine resources in the waters of the New York Bight.

For years, New York City's early commercial fisheries thrived on the abundance and diversity of species in the Bight, which includes the waters surrounding Manhattan, Staten Island, and Long Island. These operations made New York Harbor one of the busiest fish market suppliers in New England. By the mid-1700s, however, there were hints that this bounty might not last forever.

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WCS's Sip for the Sea featured sustainably caught sea food dishes prepared by NYC restaurants that encouraged a fresh look at historical approaches to the abundance and scarcity of marine life in New York's local waters. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS.

Unchecked fishing pushed New York's marine resources to their limit, with disastrous results for local species and the fisheries that depended on them. While the range of species has remained stable, the actions of people (from fishing to pollution) have driven many aquatic populations to historic lows.

Today, New York waters fringe one of the world's largest urban centers: New York City hosts a human population of more than eight million. Yet most New Yorkers are unaware of the astounding marine wildlife that once thrived in our waters and that still grace our shores, and few grasp our ongoing dependence on these species.

Our Sip for the Sea event and the corresponding efforts by the New York Aquarium to reintroduce New Yorkers to their local seascape have inspired more and more people to pay attention to the fantastic marine resources that surround them and will continue to provide economic, scientific, and recreational opportunities if we take care of them as we must.

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The New York Aquarium's efforts to reintroduce New Yorkers to their local seascape have inspired more and more people to pay attention to the fantastic marine resources that surround them. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS.

The 18th century saw the repeated collapse of a number of economically important local fish populations. Ironically, government investments into the expansion of fisheries and promotion of seafood consumption took place even in the face of strong evidence of overfishing and the endangerment of some species

While fishery managers knew of these crashes, they did not begin to address depletions and place limits on fishing until the 20th century. Fisheries management has been embraced in an effort to restore exploited populations before we lose them forever. The good news is that marine biodiversity of New York's ocean, coastal, and estuarine waters remains high.

Interestingly, restaurant menus can serve as a valuable indicator of consumer preference, as well as availability of specific seafood species. This line of inquiry may provide a useful approach to engage food-savvy New Yorkers in local marine conservation issues. Which brings us back to Sip for the Sea.

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Tavern on the Green Executive Chef John Stevenson at the Wildlife Conservation Society's 3rd Annual Sip for the Sea event at WCS's Central Park Zoo. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS.

The enthusiasm for this event and its celebration of sustainable seafood options suggests that New Yorkers are increasingly beginning to understand and embrace the connection of marine conservation to their daily lives. It's a connection we hope to reinforce further when the New York Aquarium's new Ocean Wonders: Sharks! exhibit opens in 2017.

In the meantime, we continue to monitor populations of marine species in our local waters. Our findings will be used to educate New Yorkers about their maritime heritage and our long and profound dependence on the diversity and abundance of our local marine fauna, and to inspire them to help conserve the habitats and populations that remain.