Introducing Jamaica Bay

Map of Jamaica Bay in the southeast of New York City
Map of Jamaica Bay in the southeast of New York City. Adapted from Gateway National Recreation Area / NPS

Recalling Jamaica Bay

A wetland estuary that began as Native Canarsee land named Yameco and later colonized as New Netherlands, Jamaica Bay of New York City is an urban ecosystem of willets and horseshoe crabs, overhead planes and subway trains, landfilled islands and shrinking marshland. The Dutch, then English, communities that settled in the 1600s along this pocket of New York thrived on the wealth of the bay’s waters for nearly 300 years.

Jamaica Bay was a fisherman’s paradise that teemed with oysters, menhaden, clams, and sharks. By the 1860s, the community reached the height of their fish oil and fertilizer manufacturing. The bay was also the ideal New Yorker getaway. Broad Channel Islands and the Rockaway shoreline sprouted hotels and bungalows. Recreational boating drew crowds. A railway traversing the bay was built in 1892. During this time of lifestyle and economic bustle, the landscape and wildlife of Jamaica Bay experienced significant and long-lasting change.

Contamination began plaguing the waters in the mid-1800s. Barren Island (now Floyd Bennett Field), in particular, was a hotbed of fish factories and refuse facilities. Newspapers from the 1890s began reporting foul smells and sedimented waters. By the 1910s, concerns arose over the quality of oysters, and cases of typhoid illness were soon linked to the consumption of Jamaica Bay shellfish. From 1859, there were seven or eight refuse facilities on Barren Island at a time. They dumped waste every day until 1934.

The bay also underwent drastic artificial alterations in the 1900s. Sand was dredged to deepen waters for boating and shipping. Separate marsh islands were combined into larger ones, while smaller ones were altogether removed. In the east, previous marshland is now John F. Kennedy International Airport. To make way for construction, the last 200 years saw the filling in of over 80% of the bay's salt marshes.

Today, Jamaica Bay notoriously continues to flow with more than 200 million gallons of treated sewage daily from greater New York City. Though conditions are improving, the bay's waters are not always safe to swim in. Its oysters, clams, and fish are still not safe to eat. Its skies are dotted with noisy planes. Amidst this landscape and undulating history of colonialism and unmanaged exploitation, salt marshes are the remaining oases for wildlife and what Jamaica Bay once was.

Timelapse animation of Channel Islands, 1911-2011
Changes to Jamaica Bay marshes near Broad Channel in the center of the bay, from 1911 to 2011. Graphics adapted from “Jamaica Bay: A History" (F.R. Black).

Bay Marshes, Then and Now

A salt marsh is a kind of tidal middle kingdom between land and water. At Jamaica Bay, Canada geese, cormorants, and over 300 other bird species nest and feed here. Horseshoe crabs mate on its sandy shores, mussels grow in its sandy depths. Salt marshes are biomes with hardy wildlife that can thrive in the ocean salinity of high tides, intermediate salinity at half tides, and the total absence of water during low tides. Marshes store carbon greenhouse gases, protect shorelines from wave erosion, ease the impacts of floods and coastal storms, and filter contaminants to keep coastal waters clean. They are indicators of environmental health and change.

In 1972, Gateway National Recreation Area was named a national park, and Jamaica Bay was included as one of the park units. When researchers began monitoring salt marshes in 1999, scientists and data specialists first gathered aerial photographs of Jamaica Bay dating back to 1924. What they found was a trend of tremendous decline.

“Back in 1924,” Gateway NRA biologist, Dr. George W. Frame, says, “there were about 2,500 acres of salt marsh that hadn’t been filled in yet. And now there are only about 700 acres left.” The 1,700 acres of loss is roughly equivalent to 1,287 football fields’ worth of marshland lost in the last century. In recent decades, George says, “salt marshes have disappeared at a rate of 20 or 25 acres per year, depending on where you’re looking.” That’s about 15 to 19 football fields of loss every year.

The disappearance of Jamaica Bay salt marshes can be pointed to a history of nitrogen contamination. Nitrogen is a key element for growth in plants, including smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora). Smooth cordgrass is the dominant species in Jamaica Bay and is characteristic of salt marshes across the Northeast. It can thrive in extreme conditions, but too much nitrogen can still be harmful. Considering 230 million gallons of wastewater are dumped into the bay each day and trapped in sediment, it’s inevitable that this overwhelming contamination has impacted the growth of salt marsh vegetation.

Another threat to Jamaica Bay salt marshes is sea level rise from recent decades. Elevation above water is critical to the longevity of marshes but climate change is pressing them to keep up and grow as fast as waters are rising. Typically, marshes grow by moving inland to higher elevations. But with urban settlements all around Jamaica Bay, marshes have had little room to adapt. Unable to move inland and subjected to encroaching water, Jamaica Bay salt marshes are at risk of disappearing.

The Anticipated Future

The story of Jamaica Bay is one we’ve heard before. It’s a chronicle of ownership and power, of innovation and exploitation, of how we use and interact with nature, and of learning that change isn’t always immediate. As we continue into the future and cope with environmental changes, what do we want the lifetime of our individual and collective accomplishments to be?

The story of Jamaica Bay continues. The city is working to improve the quality of its waters and the bay is cleaner than before, though it’s difficult to keep waste management in pace with New York City’s ever-growing population. Without intervention, Jamaica Bay salt marsh islands are likely to disappear within decades. The bay would be left with only minor fringe marshes that hug the urban shoreline.

The last two decades, however, have brought about a hopeful change. In 2002, NPS began with an experimental restoration of Big Egg Marsh. Since then, multiple government agencies have cooperated and allocated nearly $50 million of funding to restore over 150 acres of former marshland. Now in 2021, the restoration process itself is improving the health of Jamaica Bay’s greater marine environment.

An estuary is a remarkable trove of urban biodiversity in a place as metropolitan as New York City. It took decades to recognize the impacts of landscape change and centuries of pollution. It took a few years for Big Egg to regain its resilience. And it will take decades more for the improvements we make today to garner significant change. "For us and for the next few generations," George says, the improvements "make everything cleaner and better." What we do to protect and preserve this urban ecosystem and others like it will depend on what kind of future we envision for those who come after us, and after them.

Last updated: March 25, 2022