Jamaica Bay covers 18,000 acres of wetland estuary, sitting between Rockaway Peninsula, Brooklyn and Queens. The total acreage of the bay is almost as large as that covered by Manhattan. It is one of the city’s last wild places, described by an attorney for NRDC (National Resources Defense Council) as “the crown jewel of the city’s green spaces” and by another environmental lawyer as “the one place in New York where nature is so dominant that it makes the city a backdrop.” Despite being located in the most populous city in the country, it is also home to extensive wildlife, including more than 325 species of birds, 50 species of butterflies and 100 species of fish.
Unfortunately, anthropogenic activities have taken their toll. For centuries, there has been a history of adverse human impact on Jamaica Bay through urbanization that has damaged the region and spread a multitude of pollutants across the bay such as metals, oils, hazardous materials, hydrocarbons, pesticides and more.
In July 2012, then Mayor Bloomberg signed a management agreement that formed the Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy (JBRPC) to help preserve and restore natural areas across the park. The JBRPC partners with government agencies and elected officials to achieve their conservation mission. They also host cleanups at the bay for volunteers to join. In 2022, a cleanup at Jamaica Bay yielded 800 pounds of trash. On March 25, 2023, I attended a cleanup alongside other volunteers hosted by JBRPC at Canarsie Pier. The volunteers picked up litter for just short of two hours, but there was ample debris left untouched just in the small area that was covered
Due to changing tides, much of the debris on the Canarsie shoreline was buried in sand, making cleanup efforts more challenging. Widespread contamination affects the hydrology and water quality of the Jamaica Bay.
Jamaica Bay is important to New York City because it is one of the last wild places – but it is also important in the fight against climate change. A focus of state and federal legislation with respect to carbon sequestration has generally been on forested areas, although coastal wetlands contain more carbon per unit than forests. We do see legislation to protect our forests in Congress, for example the FOREST Act that is expected to re-introduced this year, which restricts certain commodities produced on illegally deforested land from accessing the U.S. market. While protecting our forests is important, wetlands should not be overlooked. The U.S. Global Change Research program estimates that terrestrial wetlands in the continental U.S. store a total of 13.5 billion tons of carbon. For reference, in 2021, the U.S. is estimated to have produced around five billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. Because wetland soils are wet, oxygen is less available to aid in decomposition so roots decompose slowly and lead to an increase in the accumulation of stored organic matter in the soil when compared to non-wetland ecosystems. While the focus to reduce warming is often on fossil fuel emissions, approximately 30% of global emissions come from the destruction of natural ecosystems. The amount of carbon stored in wetlands is immense and therefore protection of these wetlands should be prioritized in the fight to reduce atmospheric carbon.
As the areas around Jamaica Bay became more industrialized, several factors have contributed to marsh loss such as dredging (the removal of sediments and debris from the bottom of water bodies), wastewater inputs and rising sea levels. The loss of carbon seen from 1885 to 2019 in Jamaica Bay (96%) outpaces the average carbon loss in wetlands at both the state and federal level. Carbon stock in wetlands is also often underestimated, as much of the time carbon is stored several meters deep but studies are only considering carbon up to one meter deep. There may be even more carbon than we know of stored in wetlands across the country than current statistics show.
It is important for communities across NYC to work with JBRPC on local cleanup efforts in Jamaica Bay, but more needs to be done at the state and federal level. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that protecting and restoring coastal wetlands could potentially mitigate between 1.02 and 9.56 billion tons of CO2-equivalent per year. As one of the largest coastal wetlands in New York and a cherished region to many, Jamaica Bay could be a leader in this fight.