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  • Eco-Profile: The Hudson-Raritan Estuary

    The Hudson-Raritan Estuary

    Photo Credit: Google Maps

    The Hudson-Raritan Estuary is where the Hudson, Hackensack, Passaic, Rahway, and Raritan rivers come together and mix with the Atlantic Ocean.

    The Hudson-Raritan Estuary contains one of the best natural harbors in the world and is home to the Port of New York and New Jersey, the third busiest in the United States.

    While serving the New York metropolitan area, most of the port facilities are in New Jersey, making it a key economic contributor to the Garden State.

    The Hudson-Raritan Estuary is also heavily polluted. Lax pollution laws in the late 19th and early 20th century and nearly constant ship traffic have significantly impacted the area.

    Wildlife Spotlight: Oysters

    Oysters act as a natural water filtration system

    Photo Credit: National Museum of the American Indian

    Oysters are a keystone species and are important to the survival of the estuary ecosystem as a whole.

    They provide an important food source and habitat for many other creatures. Oysters also act as a natural filtration system for polluted water by straining nutrients from water as they feed.

    Oyster reefs were once plentiful in the Hudson-Raritan Estuary.

    Unfortunately, due to their popularity as a food source and the use of their shells for building materials and chicken feed, the oyster population was greatly reduced by the end of the 19th century. Intense pollution in the area during the early 20th century also contaminated the oysters, creating a public health problem.

    Efforts to return oysters to the bay are now being led by an environmental organization called the NY/NJ Baykeepers.

    The Arthur Kill Oil Spill

    US Coast Guard cleaning up the Arthur Kill

    Photo Credit: NOAA Ocean Service Education

    While much of the pollution in the Hudson-Raritan Estuary comes from illegal dumping, industrial waste, and pollution from urban centers, oil pollution adds yet another layer of risk to this battered environment.

    The Arthur Kill is a tidal strait separating Staten Island from mainland New Jersey. It is a major navigational channel, and thousands of oil tankers pass through it each year.

    The area along the New Jersey side is known as “the Chemical Coast” due to the numerous chemical factories that lined the shore. Just a few decades ago, the Arthur Kill was so polluted that crabs and clams would die within an hour of being submerged in its waters.

    With the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, the water quality improved, allowing crabs and shrimp to re-colonize the area. Birds soon followed. Beginning in 1986, the number of egrets and herons increased by 15 percent each year.

    Then, in January, 1990, a pipe from the Exxon oil refinery began leaking into the Arthur Kill, spilling approximately 567,000 gallons of oil.

    The immediate casualty list included thousands of fish and crabs and more than 700 birds. The oil spill was particularly damaging for birds like snowy egrets and glossy ibises, which are choosy eaters and could no longer dine on the crabs devastated by the massive oil spill.

    Several years before the spill, a group of biologists had begun studying the Arthur Kill habitat closely. When the spill happened, it provided these scientists with the unique opportunity to research the spill’s impact, since they had an area that was studied closely before and after a major oil spill.