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History of America's Harbor

Once a landscape of gently sloping shores and expansive mudflats, the region’s harbor provided a wealth of resources for Native Americans and early settlers. In the 1800s oysters from the shellfish beds off Staten Island and the Amboy’s were treasured across the nation.

But by the mid-1900s, thousands of acres of wetlands had been filled, docks and piers covered the shoreline and developers claimed that New York City had more miles of bulkhead than any other harbor in the world.

As a result of this growth, more than 80 percent of these original tidal marshes have been filled and highways, rail lines and industrial areas – both thriving and abandoned – now limit public access to much of the region’s waterfront. Even today, sewer system overflows result in beach closings several times a season and metals and other toxins that have built up in the harbor make many fish unsafe to eat.

But change is coming to the waterfront. Thanks to the Clean Water Act, adopted over 40 years ago, and state and local programs that help protect the region's rivers, streams and bays, water quality has started to improve. In 1972 Congress established the 26,000-acre Gateway National Recreation Area, the first urban national park, and in 1987 it formally recognized the importance of the Hudson-Raritan Estuary by creating the NY-NJ Harbor Estuary Program. In 2011, the harbor was also added to the list of national "Great Waters."

Today the NY-NJ Harbor includes more than 700 miles of waterfront – five times more than San Francisco and even more than Hong Kong – with thousands of acres of parks, beaches and piers, as well as cultural icons like Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. It also boasts the East Coast's busiest port, which generates billions of dollars for the region's economy.

But for many of the region's 22 million residents, access to waterfront parks – and the harbor itself – is severely limited. Pollution continues to have an adverse impact on waterfront communities, maritime workers and recreation like boating and fishing.

The NY-NJ Harbor Coalition was created to address these problems by building on existing efforts and working with elected officials to secure the critical resources and policies needed to transform the region's waterfront into a truly world-class harbor.