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Harbor Ecology 101

The NY-NJ harbor involves a network of freshwater rivers and streams that flow into the salt water of the Atlantic Ocean, creating brackish tidal marshes that host a rich variety of important wildlife.  Tidal marshes near Sandy Hook and Staten Island once produced tons of oysters that were exported nationwide and the Hackensack Meadowlands were a source of salt hay.

But human impact over the past 100-plus years has had a profound effect on the area's natural environment. More than 300,000 acres of wetlands have been filled – over 80 percent of what once existed – resulting in a serious loss of wildlife habitat and natural flood protection and drastically altering the natural shoreline. As the population grew and industrial development flourished, trash and pollutants found their way into the waterways, further degrading the region’s ecology.

Efforts to reverse this trend began in the late 1960s and have had a significant impact.  The Clean Water Act drastically reduced the level of toxins flowing into the harbor, and state and local programs helped reduce uncontrolled dumping and sewer pollution.

Today, the water quality is improving and positive results can be seen throughout the food chain, from the mud-dwelling benthic organisms to fish and to birds. Today more than 300 species of birds live or visit the region’s shorefronts and wetlands, including protected species like Osprey and Peregrine Falcons, and more than 100 species of fish swim in the our waterways.

But much work remains to be done. Sewer system overflows still result in beach closings and boating warnings, and the toxins in the food chain make many fish unsafe to eat. Plans to improve water quality and restore wetlands are in place, but these projects have languished without the needed funding.

That's where the Harbor Coalition comes in. The Coalition was created to build on the existing efforts - decades of scientific research and comprehensive planning -- and to work with elected leaders to secure the resources needed for projects like wetlands restoration, urban parks and public access, and efforts to reduce port pollution and develop green waterfront communities.