The edge of East Pond in the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is lined with the shells of clams and other mollusks, which have been food sources for New Yorkers for centuries. [Credit: Delaney Dryfoos]
A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, Don Riepe noticed small lights roving around Jamaica Bay at night. He suspected they were poachers collecting diamondback terrapins, a turtle that has been harvested from the bay since long before it was a federal wildlife refuge. A team of reporters at The New Yorker investigated his claims last August and found a story not of wide-scale illegal poaching but of desperation, hunger and health risks. Their report was a telling indication that local and state governments in New York need to do much more to help the communities around the bay, especially impoverished Asian communities where subsistence fishing has long been a survival strategy.
A wide variety of shellfish, finfish, marine mammals, reptiles and birds live in the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, an over 12,600 acre estuary at the southern edge of Brooklyn and Queens. The terrapins, which come ashore in June to lay their eggs, have long been a sought-after ingredient in turtle soup. Glass eels, the juvenile stage of the American eel, are another seafood delicacy that can go for more than $1,000 per pound. Other shellfish are collected and sold to fishermen as bait.
Many of these sea creatures are at risk. The terrapin population never recovered from peak poaching in the early 1900s and is still threatened today. American eels are endangered. Many other protected classes of wildlife have made a home in Jamaica Bay or use the ponds as stopover habitat during migration.
While the pandemic brought many new human visitors to the refuge, it also brought new levels of economic hardship and food insecurity to communities surrounding the bay. Some of those people have quite understandably turned to the estuary to help feed their families.
That’s not only an environmental problem, but it’s also a health issue because Jamaica Bay’s waters are still polluted. Inadequately treated sewage and stormwater runoff have been a problem for centuries, and there is a long and ugly history of other environmental insults, too. In the 1800s, New Yorkers dumped trash and even animal carcasses from a nearby glue factory into the bay. Then, from the 1940s to the 1970s, the bay was affected by the catastrophic leaking of 1.3 million pounds of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from two General Electric plants more than 200 miles away in the Upper Hudson River. Those man-made chemicals were banned in 1979 but do not break down easily in nature, and have made their way into Jamacia Bay’s sediments, mollusks and fish. While the Hudson is now being cleaned up, PCBs are still present in Jamaica Bay, where they can cause a range of health problems for people who eat too much local seafood.
Despite the risks, the bay has proven to be an irresistible target for poachers and subsistence fishermen alike. In 2013, for example, under cover of darkness, two men plodded around the bay in an unlit boat in search of an esteemed prize: a haul of horseshoe crabs. A police helicopter arrived, leading to a 30-minute pursuit to capture Robert Wolter and Joseph Knauer, who had plucked 200 horseshoe crabs out of the bay. The bright blue blood of these ancient arthropods is used to detect whether new vaccines are contaminated with bacteria that could sicken humans. A quart can go for $15,000.
More recently, when Don Riepe spotted headlamps moving around the shallow water, he assumed a group was collecting animals to sell illegally. Confronted by a reporter on the scene, the fishermen maintained in Mandarin, Cantonese and the Fuzhounese dialect of Min Chinese that they weren’t doing anything illegal. They were, instead, gathering food to feed their relatives.
Asian Americans make up about 18% of New York City’s population but receive less than 1.5% of social service contract dollars. In March, the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families called on state lawmakers to spend $64.5 million to combat food insecurity in Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, including several next to Jamaica Bay. Instead, the government agreed to spend just $20 million to support Asian communities across the state.
In the meantime, officers of the Department of Environmental Conservation continue to write tickets for people caught fishing in Jamaica Bay. They are charged with misdemeanors and must pay fines ranging from $250 to $1,000. This enforcement is said to protect public health but does so through criminalizing immigrant communities that rely on contaminated seafood. These communities need reliable access to safe food, not fines and misdemeanor charges. Demanding that people caught taking shellfish pay a fine only further perpetuates the cycle of poverty that they have been thrust into.
New York needs to do much more to support its Asian communities, which are suffering from both the recent rise in violence and the ongoing brutality of food insecurity and economic hardship. To conserve the wildlife of Jamaica Bay, we need to conserve the lives of humans living around the estuary. Providing more social service dollars to Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in Brooklyn and Queens would be a win-win for both people and wildlife.