Jamaica Bay is considered the crown jewel of New York City’s ecological resources. With more than 13,000 acres of water, salt marsh, meadowland, beaches, dunes, and upland woods in Brooklyn and Queens, Jamaica Bay is the most intact remnant of what was once a thriving estuarine ecosystem throughout the city.
Part of the New York/New Jersey Harbor Estuary, Jamaica Bay lies at the confluence of two of the world’s most urban, heavily trafficked, and stressed waterways–the New York Bight and New York Bay. It has been substantially altered by extensive dredging, filling, and development in and around the bay. Virtually the entire watershed of Jamaica Bay is urban, developed land. The bay receives substantial pollution from a variety of point and nonpoint sources; these include municipal waste water discharge from four sewage treatment plants, combined sewer overflows, untreated storm water runoff from the roads and developed areas around the bay (including the runways at John F. Kennedy International Airport), and leaching of contaminants from three large closed landfills. The large amounts of nitrogen discharged into the bay daily cause frequent algae blooms which devastate the marine ecosystem and contribute to the rapid and accelerating loss of the bay’s signature salt marshes.
The salt marshes of Jamaica Bay provide not only invaluable wildlife habitat, but also shoreline erosion control and a protective flood barrier to the neighborhoods ringing the bay. The salt marsh, shorelines, and upland areas in Jamaica Bay are disappearing at a rate estimated to be as high as 40 acres per year.
Jamaica Bay has been designated by New York State Department of Environmnetal Conservation (NYS DEC) as the only Critical Environmental Area in New York City. Despite the pollutants affecting the Bay, the estuary is home to fish and wildlife communities and populations of resident and migratory species, including many that are protected. Over 330 species of birds and over 100 species of finfish have been recorded in the Bay.
The Bay is home to an abundance of horseshoe crabs that require shallow, low-energy beaches with enough dissolved oxygen to lay their eggs. Eroded shorelines, disappearing salt marsh and developed, “hardened” shorelines are threatening the yearly spawning of this prehistoric creature, which serves as a major source of food for migrating shorebirds.
Blue crabs are another important shellfish that relies on the Bay for its lifecycle. During periods of low levels of dissolved oxygen and algae blooms, the bottom-dwelling blue crab will “beach” themselves crawling on docks and shorelines to breathe and subsequently die. This also impacts large numbers of menhaden and juvenile fish which die in large fish kills. These fish form a critical feeding link between plankton and the two top predators in the Bay, striped bass and bluefish.
The geography of the Bay provides for a diverse habitat of bird species. In addition to providing habitat for permanent residents, the Bay is critical feeding and resting grounds for many migrating species along the Atlantic Flyway. Many of the bird species are listed as threatened and/or endangered species including the roseate tern, peregrine falcon, piping plover, pied-billed grebe, northern harrier, and the least tern.
Extensive alteration of the landscape has impacted vital habitat and greatly reduced reptilian/amphibian diversity and abundance. Several species of turtles reside in the Bay including diamondback terrapins and the endangered Atlantic Ridley sea turtle; both are imperiled by the degradation of the Bay.
The Northeast Chapter of the American Littoral Society, headquartered on Jamaica Bay, has partnered with many organizations to champion this remarkable oasis in the middle of New York City. In 2010, the Northeast Chapter, along with the Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers, Natural Resources Defense Council, and NY/NJ Harbor Baykeeper, negotiated a settlement with New York City to secure millions of dollars in funding to upgrade sewage treatment plants and invest in salt marsh restoration projects. Main objectives of the Littoral Society’s efforts on Jamaica Bay are fostering stewardship though education and advocacy efforts. Other ongoing efforts include marine debris removal, marsh restoration, and conservation of birds of prey.