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The Bronx River Bounces Back

The Bronx River Bounces Back | New York

New York’s Bronx River—once an open sewer—is now teeming with life. We discovered oysters, eels, herons, and even beavers, as we canoed through the poorest congressional district in America.

It was long abused by industry, neglected by the neighborhood, and forgotten by the City. But now New York’s only freshwater river is coming back to life.

The Bronx River Alliance has been spearheading efforts with community organizations and public agencies to clean, restore, and protect the borough’s natural resource. The Alliance has removed tons of debris from the river over the past 15 years and works with the New York Botanical Garden to restore key marsh habitats and remove invasive plant species.

A canoe trip on the river is often the catalyst that inspires Bronxites to lend their hands as volunteers.

“About 2,000 people a year canoe with us on the river, many of them folks who don’t know how to swim and have never canoed in their lives, and this is their first opportunity to have that experience,” Bronx River Alliance Executive Director Linda Cox said. “And it’s just persuasive that this is a resource, that we should be treating it like a resource and that there’s something we can all do about it together. And so people join in on that and they do things for it.”

The Bronx River flows through 15 miles of Westchester County before reaching the New York City borough that shares the river’s name. One of the major goals of the Alliance is to connect the entire 23-mile channel with a system of parks and trails known as the Bronx River Greenway. There are already 44 acres of parks along the Greenway that provide habitat for numerous plant and wildlife species, including beavers—the official animal of New York State.

A baby oyster spat clings to the shell of an adult at a Bronx River oyster reef south of Soundview Park.

Historically, beavers were key to the economic development of New York State and New York City. In the 1800s, beavers were hunted for their fur and castor oil, until the species could no longer be found in the city. Recent beaver-sightings along the Bronx River speak to the improving health of the waterway.

The river also provides habitat for a vast array of aquatic species, including oysters. As part of a citywide effort known as the Oyster Restoration Research Project, an oyster reef was created in the brackish waters south of Soundview Park, where the Bronx River empties into the East River.

The reef is located atop a vast mudflat, and so an acre’s worth of clam shells had to be added to provide a harder substrate floor on which the oysters can reproduce and lay down their larvae, known as spat. As these baby oysters grow into adults, they join together and create dense clusters that form the reef. In order to expedite a self-sustaining population of oysters, thousands of transplanted live oysters were added on top of the shells.

Twice a week before the crack of dawn, Allison Fitzgerald from the New York-New Jersey Baykeeper leads a team of wader-clad scientists and volunteers into the reef during low tides to monitor oyster growth and survival. One of the major ecological benefits the oysters provide is habitat for other organisms, including fish, shrimp, snails, and blue crabs.

Fitzgerald explained that the oyster reef can act as a living breakwater that protects the shore from storm surges and flooding. Oysters also clean sediment and pollutants out of the river through a natural filtration process called benthic-pelagic coupling.

While the reef is helping to improve the river’s overall water quality, there is no need to bring cocktail sauce to the reef just yet, as combined sewer overflows are still contaminating the waterway with untreated sewage.

A migrating eel species uses the Bronx River to travel inland from the Atlantic Ocean as adults before heading back out to sea to spawn. To help these eels travel upstream, a fish ladder was installed at the 182nd Street Dam near the Bronx Zoo. Resembling a moving sidewalk, the fish ladder ascends around the dam in segments, with occasional landings where the eels can rest.

In order to get a closer look at the elusive eels, the Wildlife Conservation Society sends a crew into the river to electroshock the fish. Applying a light electric current into the water from a backpack shocker, the eels are stunned just long enough for Queens College biology professor and aquatic conversation biologist John Waldman to net a few in.

“It has an amazing amount of life in it for a well-known river that has been stressed through time in many ways, and yet it shows the resiliency of urban nature,” Waldman said. “If you give any river a chance, or you give any urban habitat a chance, life will respond and it’s shown in spades right here.”

After being hunted out of New York in the 1800s, beavers have made a return to the reinvigorated waters of the Bronx River. / Julie Larsen Maher,  Wildlife Conservation Society

— Sean Keenehan

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