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Introducing The New York Seascape Program

Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Aquarium

“We have more than 20 million people in New York metropolitan area, and many have turned their backs to the sea, as New Yorkers everybody is looking inward, not thinking that we are a maritime city.” —Dr. Merry Camhi, Director of the New York Seascape program at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Aquarium.

Long Island Waters


Long Island is surrounded by many great things — great food, great schools, great people even the greatest city in the world — but many of us forget the one thing that really surrounds us: the water. Many Long Islanders don’t realize that we have one of the most amazing seascapes in the world that plays host to an array of different sea life.

Throughout the year, the New York Bight, a 15,000-square-mile region stretching from Montauk to Cape May, N.J., and the Long Island Sound, serves as a feeding ground, nursery and a migration route for more than 300 different fishes, 14 skates and rays, five sea turtle species, four types of seals, over two dozen different sharks species, many types of shore and sea birds, and more than 15 types of whales, dolphins and porpoises.

The amazing diversity of sea life Long Island welcomes to its shores is due in part to the drastically changing water temperatures that fluctuate with each season. As the subtropical and northern species begin migrations, the sea life uses New York waters as a migratory corridor. You may be thinking New York is just a Long Island Expressway for marine life but that’s far from accurate: New York waters house a vast collection of different habitats and seascapes that include dynamic river systems, hugely productive estuaries, deep canyons, and sea mounts adorned with cold water corals that would challenge the beauty of some Caribbean coral reefs.

Aside from the wildlife, New York waters are crucial to the economy, too. New York tourism, recreation, fisheries and marine transport generate more than $14 billion and create over 500,000 local jobs that depend on the fish populations and healthy marine habitats.


By now, our coastal waters and marine wildlife have suffered through over three centuries of abuse, from the dumping of raw sewage and other toxic chemicals to oil spills and to excessive fishing pressure. Aside from the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1970, not much has been done to protect the waters. As a result, many local marine species have been depleted.

The problem that most sea life faces today is that New York is one of the busiest cities and harbors in the world.  Ongoing and emerging threats include unsustainable fishing practices like overfishing where directed fisheries often take too many fish without management or strict regulations, ship collisions and entanglement, offshore mining and energy development, pollution and habitat loss and climate change.

One problem plaguing sea life populations is bycatch, also known as incidental capture. It is a huge problem for sharks, the majority of sharks taken are taken as bycatch as some fishing gear is very selective; a lot of different species get caught in the massive nets or lines thrown out. Bycatch is difficult to control, often never reported or recorded, or poorly managed.

The Great South Bay was once known as a shark nursery where a variety of sharks would come into the waters and pup. Although we do not know for sure, overfishing and environmental decline of the Bay are thought to have contributed to the decline of sharks here.

The bay also used to be a leading producer of littleneck, chowder and cherrystone clams in the 1970’s.  The clams played a critical role in filtering our waters. Since then their populations have been on the decline (due to pollution and related algal blooms and overfishing).

“Many of the iconic species in the New York Bight are in trouble, and while many of these are listed on federal and state endangered and/or protected species lists, not all are adequately protected, including important species of sharks,” says Merry Camhi of the New York Seascape Program. “Without the increased attention of conservation organizations like the Wildlife Conservation Society, their beleaguered populations will continue to decline.”

The New York Seascape Program

Merry Camhi, a Long Islander, joined the New York Aquarium and Wildlife Conservation Society in July to head an all-new New York Seascape Program that will aim to conserve New York Waters and sea life. With a PhD in Ecology from Rutgers University, Camhi has traveled around the world studying sea life, including to an isolated beach in Costa Rica where she was one of the first people to study the phenomenon of Olive Ridley sea turtles during their arribadas (a mass nesting where hundreds to thousands of females come ashore to lay eggs over just a few nights). She worked for the National Audubon Society’s marine program based in Islip and as a private consultant before joining the Wildlife Conservation Society and the New York Aquarium to develop this new program.

“ Few New Yorkers are aware of the astounding diversity of wildlife that share our coastal and marine waters.  Our goal is to educate and inspire the public to become stewards of our rich yet threatened marine legacy” she says of the program.

The New York Aquarium and its parent company, the Wildlife Conservation Society — one of the biggest and most respected conservation organizations in the world, known for its science-based conservation — announced the launch of the New York Seascape program in July.

The program is designed to restore healthy populations of local marine species and the waters that support them. The program aims to be a multifaceted attack on reducing overfishing, cleaning up the waters, and restoring coastal and marine habitats. It will look to promote conservation through public education, research efforts and policy initiatives.

This would mark the first time the Wildlife Conservation Society would do marine conservation work locally.

With a strong global footprint, performing conservation work in 20 countries around the world and doing terrestrial ecology in 60 countries, this will be the first effort by the marine program of WCS to do marine conservation in the United States.

“Most of WCS’s marine conservation work is in tropical waters around coral reefs. This is our first Seascape in temperate waters and it’s very exciting to be doing this work in the ‘backyard’ of our four New York-based zoos and aquarium,”  says Camhi. “Few people are aware what is beneath the waves just off our shores. Our goal is to educate this local population, turn them around get them to look out to the water and not just see an open canvas of slate blue. This is a big education effort. We hope to connect people to local waters and turn them into wildlife stewards.”

The focus of the program is to restore populations of sharks and other marine fishes, sea turtles and marine mammals that have been depleted and to also to identify and protect habitats which are critical to maintaining these biodiversity hotspots.

“It’s important to realize that the majority of species off our shores are migratory,” says Camhi. “This time of year we have seals moving down from Maine and coming down here in the winter time and a lot of our sharks and sea turtles and fishes have moved south. We want to characterize the corridor these animals are taking advantage of.  We want to understand when things are moving through here, what species are coming through and what habitats they are using so they can do a better job educating the public, and engage them in efforts to protect these species and their habitats.”

Camhi identified canyons as important hotspots. We have 14 of these canyons that extend out from the Atlantic coast. One of the largest in the world, the Hudson Canyon, is in our waters, yet we know rather little about it.

“It is in essence our Grand Canyon, yet despite the fact that we have found it and we know it is there, it’s probably less well known and less explored than the moon,” says Camhi.

Another important hotspot, New York also has a migratory corridor that runs near Long Island and New Jersey that is around 30 miles offshore that works as a transport belt. The program wants to identify what animals are moving

through this corridor and when and where they are going. The program wants to make sure that these areas remain productive. There is also interest in helping to protect offshore seamounts, giant old drowned volcanoes that are covered with some of the oldest living organisms on our planet, cold-water corals.

“You think tropical when you think coral but we have amazingly beautiful and colorful corals right here in our waters and some of them are hundreds to thousands of years old,” says Camhi.

The urgency to protect these colorful corals is that they are very slow growing and once they are destroyed they may be gone forever.

Initial Targets

Initial targets for this program will be sharks and the program will aim to educate the New York population on what is going on in New York waters. Most people don’t know that New York has mako sharks, blue sharks, sand tiger sharks and other shark species that spend their summers here and then some migrate across the Atlantic or across the equator.

“ We have quite a variety of sharks in our waters, most occur offshore and are not dangerous to people, but their populations have been depleted and are in need of conservation measures,” says Camhi.

New York waters may provide important nursery habitat for depleted sand tiger sharks in particular. “ We are going to begin our research program with sand tiger sharks,” says Camhi.

Sharks are very interesting creatures and many species are in great need of protection. In terms of reproductive biology they are more like marine mammals and even humans. They can take up to 20 years to reach sexual maturity, once they reach maturity they produce relatively few young. Sand tiger sharks are some of the slowest growing and the most vulnerable sharks in the world. It takes females almost 10 years to become sexually active and once they do they produce only one or two pups per season every other year. Once those populations are hammered by fishing we are talking decades for populations to have a chance to recover. This is true for many shark species.

Where The Program Is Today

Right now the New York Seascape program is in the fundraising and development stages. This week the group received its first grant to begin a shark research project. The project will begin in the spring when sharks are moving into New York waters and will become a multi-year project.

“We want to know where these sharks are, what they are doing here and what habitats are important to them,” says Camhi.

Researchers will listen for sharks by putting out an acoustic array of receivers in the waters right off of Coney Island and the New York Harbor.

Along with putting out receivers, they will be tagging sharks with transmitters so when the shark passes through an area of receivers it will emit a ping. The pings will be recorded and compiled into a computer where researchers will analyze the data. This will allow them to track the comings and goings of animals and see what kinds of animals are moving through the waters. They will be able to identify where they are when they are here and what habitat is important to them. The group will also apply satellite tags to see where these sharks go once they leave New York waters.

“ New York is one of the busiest seaports in the United States. We have oil tankers, a huge shipping industry, fishing interests and a ton of sea life; we need to work together to keep the waters safe. Evolving work on coastal and marine spatial planning will help ensure that these competing uses are compatible.  We want to make sure there is a space for wildlife,” says Camhi.

Ocean Wonders: Shark

Conservation of the New York Seascape is part of a Sea Change initiative taking place at the New York Aquarium.  This 10-year partnership launched in September 2009 to integrate global marine conservation efforts into new exhibits at WCS’s New York Aquarium, with upgraded animal care, expanded wildlife and an enhanced visitor experience.

Ocean Wonders: Shark will be a new state-of-the-art exhibit that will focus on sharks, especially their biology and conservation. It will house many more species of sharks and other animals as well as larger exhibits and tanks.

“The public is so focused on sharks both with fear factor and amazement. The animal is a great vehicle to talk about conservation,” says Camhi.

Shark biology and ecology will be covered in the new exhibit and will introduce visitors to the Seascape program and educate them on the mission of conservation. The New York Aquarium welcomes 750,000 visitors a year, most of them school children.

The New York Aquarium will break ground on Ocean Wonders: Shark in 2012 and plans to open in 2015.

Bringing Ocean Wonders: Shark to the New York Aquarium will not only educate visitors to the mission of the New York Seascape program but also bring economic growth. Ocean Wonders: Shark will attract more visitors to the oldest aquarium in the United States and the biggest cultural attraction in Brooklyn. It will also bring more employment opportunities to the area.

Next time you take a look around at your Long Island paradise don’t forget to look out to the salty marine paradise that surrounds us.

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