Lucy Underwood: Gotham Whale

We are well and truly settled into New York and isn’t it crazy cool! My first thoughts, after getting over the sheer size and pure amazement of this unique concrete jungle, was how do the people of New York deal with pollution? How can citizens of a place that has been so modified by the ‘built environment’ feel a connection to nature, that can empower them to make a change and care about environmental issues? Over 70% of the city of New York contains impervious surfaces, with vegetation restricted to city parks, tree pits, creeping weeds and grassed areas. Water surrounds these islands however the quality is questionable… with a local telling me there is no way you would go fishing in the East River, whilst plastic bottles floated on its surface.

Admittedly my first impressions from an environmental perspective were negative, loving the city yet feeling that a city so immense as this must be leaving its inherent natural environment behind. To a certain extent it is, but I am pleased to say that this blog is not a doom and gloom pitch but one of shifting perceptions caused by the people we have met so far in NYC.

It all started when we went whale watching at Rockaway Beach, not your typical NYC activity, however only a 30 minute ferry ride from downtown Manhattan. Disclaimer: we didn’t see any whales as it was stormy… but that shouldn’t impact this story. I met Catherine Granton, assistant director of Gotham Whale- a citizen science group that tracks and observes behaviour and populations of all migratory whales (namely Humpback Whales), that have been occupying the New York City coastline as they make their way through the Atlantic Ocean. In recent years Catherine said that they have observed a much larger group of mainly juvenile male Humpback Whales in closer proximity to the city than in the past. They believe that this observation is directly related to the schools of Menhaden fish that the Humpback Whales lunge feed on, that bloom in large numbers near the shores. The Menhaden fish along the New York City coastline are not under threat as they are bait fish that are unattractive for commercial fishing, although have been used for cat and dog food production in other east coast areas.

Having sightings of whales in such close proximity to this metropolis is really special. Over the years it becomes the norm that in areas so affected by humans impact you wouldn’t see such amazing marine mammals occupying the waters, but for New York it isn’t the case. Last year, one Humpback Whale in particular named Gotham, was swept up the Hudson River, assumed to be chasing fish or caught in a tidal current at the mouth of the water body. It caused a frenzy and media explosion in NYC, all parties standing together to ensure its protection in this busy harbour so that Gotham could safely return to the open coast. NYPD special operations, ferry companies, NYC fire department, and the public all communicated and ensured that Gotham's location was known and that no boats or ships got in its way. Thankfully Gotham made it back to the coast and has been spotted on numerous occasions since!

The point of this tale is to showcase how some small potential change in whale distributions, a sub-population being found in near coastal waters, can really be important for people to form any sort of connection with these species that have occupied the area long before we have. Having an emotive trigger such as Gotham can spark people’s thoughts into conservation and perhaps make them look into the root of environmental issues that threaten their existence, maybe improving city practice into the future.

For me, I found Catherine a really inspiring person to talk to. Her passion was obvious and I loved how much this project really meant to her. She said it took her 40 years to get to work on what she loved and now she is more determined than ever to protect this population of whales into the future! It was my first taste of environmental action in the city of New York.

Since then, we have met with various environmental groups all having an impact at varying scales. From ‘WE ACT’ an environmental justice group in West Harlem and to Environmental Defence Fund an NGO working on partnerships with state, private sector and federal government for sustainable initiatives. It is awesome to see even more passionate people that are driven by different reasons, however all wanted the same outcome- a sustainable future for all.

New York City faces a lot of legacy issues in their city, some similar to what we face in New Zealand. Combined wastewater and stormwater pipelines causing overflows of contaminated water, lack of stormwater treatment, and a centralised electricity system that is inefficient and wasteful. It was good to hear some of the initiatives that the city of New York is committed to reach. Green infrastructure practices for stormwater management are being used where possible, and there seems to be more urgency within the state to step up when the federal government is slipping.  

There is still a long way to go but let’s hope that a sustainable change in NYC only increases in momentum leading forward!

Bring on the conference next week :) Luce

 Street Art at Rockaway Beach

Street Art at Rockaway Beach

All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not reflect those of the Institute.

Posted on June 3, 2017 .