Elisa Caref and Melissa Rex of The River Project NYC

A marine science field station in New York is researching, restoring and educating the public about our local ecosystem

Interview by Julio Diaz

I visited The River Project, a marine science field station located at Pier 40 in Hudson River Park in Manhattan, to learn more about their great work researching, restoring and educating the public about our local ecosystem.

I was able to speak and correspond over email with Elisa Caref, Education Programs Coordinator, and Melissa Rex, an Educator at The River Project, about their work and collaborations, including with Duro’s partner the Billion Oyster Project.

Julio Diaz: Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions about The River Project today. I saw from your website that your organization has collected 50 species of fish and other other animals in New York City. How did you do that?

Elisa Caref: We use a passive trapping method, keeping killie traps and crab pots in the water, and we check the traps nearly every day in the summer and every week in the winter.

Melissa Rex: Our traps are located near the river bottom, so they primarily attract benthic [bottom-dwelling] species, although we still often catch pelagic fish [fish that occupy the mid-zone of the water column] as well.

We don’t bait our traps, so the fish we catch are those that were pushed into the traps by the current, or willingly entered them, probably to avoid predators that are too big to get inside. A few species we’ve caught were taken by rod and reel.

Elisa Caref with oyster shells, which are used to harvest more oysters (Source: Julio Diaz)

JD: What challenges did you face setting up the traps and collecting the 50 species?

MR: One of the main challenges we face in setting up our traps is finding a suitable location for them, where our staff and interns can easily access them, but the general public cannot. Because we use the traps as part of a 30-year research study in which we monitor the fish of the lower Hudson River estuary, we want to make sure the traps can’t be tampered with.

We currently have a great partner in the Lilac Preservation Project, which allows us to deploy our study traps off the Lilac, a historic steamship that is permanently docked on Pier 25 and not accessible to the public except during staffed tours and events.

EC: We deal with the normal challenges of field science – weather, staffing, clearing the traps off of animal colonies like sea squirts and ensuring a permanent, locked and safe location for our sampling gear.

JD: How regularly does The River Project work with STEM education?

MR: The River Project works with STEM education every day. During our Wetlab open season from late March to early November, we host field trips most days for students of all ages. We’ve taught hands-on classes in urban ecology to students in pre-K, as well as in a Master’s program. Our trips take place at our Wetlab at Pier 40 or on the Lilac steamship.

At our Wetlab, students learn about the biodiversity of the Hudson River through our aquarium that houses the native species we catch in our traps. Students are also able to participate in hands-on science activities, like performing water quality testing and exploring oysters up-close.

“Current data shows that the population of NYC is projected to continue growing over the next several decades. Given this reality, we must work to understand how a large urban population affects NYC’s surrounding wildlife, and do our best to preserve our natural environment.”

During the winter, we still host interns who are actively involved in marine science, which includes checking our traps, sampling and identifying plankton using microscopy and learning techniques and ecological concepts that they will employ when the Wetlab reopens.

EC: We are always working with STEM, which is part of our organizational goals. Our mission is to help protect and restore the ecosystem of the Hudson River estuary through scientific research, hands-on environmental education and urban habitat improvement. All of our public events and field trips reflect our mission.

Melissa Rex working on the Billion Oyster Project (Source: Billion Oyster Project)

JD: What does TRP’s internship program involve?

EC: Our internship program invites upper high school, college and graduate students to learn about Marine Biology field science through hands-on experiences in animal husbandry, Hudson River ecology field work and independent research and education.

MR: Specifically, we have three Internship Programs—Marine Biology (MBIP), Environmental Education (EEIP), and Water Quality (WQIP). MBIP students check traps several times a week throughout the year and maintain the animals in our aquarium during our open season. They become familiar with their diets and behavior, so that our animals remain healthy and happy until we release them at the end of the season. MBIP interns also sample the Hudson River daily to measure abiotic water quality factors, such as salinity and dissolved oxygen.

EEIP students learn about the ecology of the Hudson River and its animals so that they can help lead field trips. They also gain experience in developing environmental educational programming. WQIP interns assist in our Citizen’s Water Quality Program research, through which our lab assesses the presence of fecal coliform bacteria in various locations of the Hudson River to determine if these areas are safe for recreation, using samples brought to us by volunteer citizen scientists.

JD: How do you collect the live stats of the Hudson River on your website. What kind of equipment do you use and what’s the procedure?

MR: The live stats on our site are provided by the Stevens Institute of Technology. You can learn more about sampling techniques on their website.

At The River Project, we measure temperature with standard underwater thermometers, salinity using hydrometers, turbidity with a Secchi disk and dissolved oxygen using a LaMotte Winkler titration kit. These measurements are taken Monday through Friday at Pier 40, and our results are posted on social media for the public to access. We even have a video for it.

JD: How do you collect the live stats of the Hudson River on your website. What kind of equipment do you use and what’s the procedure?

MR: The live stats on our site are provided by the Stevens Institute of Technology. You can learn more about sampling techniques on their website.

At The River Project, we measure temperature with standard underwater thermometers, salinity using hydrometers, turbidity with a Secchi disk and dissolved oxygen using a LaMotte Winkler titration kit. These measurements are taken Monday through Friday at Pier 40, and our results are posted on social media for the public to access. We even have a video for it.

JD: I saw that TRP has worked with robotic fish in the past. Will you plan on releasing them for the public again?

EC: The robotic fish were residents here because we are a research field station, so that graduate students brought them here as part of his research.

MR: As of now we have no plans for a robotic fish program, but we enjoyed hosting the group from the Stevens Institute that performed the robotic fish study, and always welcome visiting scientists to our Wetlab.

JD: How do you feel about the trend of rising population growth within our cities?

MR: While I can’t speak for all cities, current data shows that the population of NYC is projected to continue growing over the next several decades. Given this reality, we must work to understand how a large urban population affects NYC’s surrounding wildlife, and do our best to preserve our natural environment. One topic we often discuss with our visitors is combined sewer overflows (CSOs), a major source of pollution in New York and other cities, which will only get worse as populations grow if it is not effectively dealt with.

EC: Urban living is clearly on the rise, and I can only hope that environmental awareness continues to grow as well.

Elisa Caref holding up two crabs (Source: Julio Diaz)

JD: Do you also have more information about your STEM programs and events?

MR: The River Project is proud to have provided over 40 free or reduced price trips, primarily to students in Title I schools, in 2015. We also work with partners, like the Billion Oyster project, who are engaged in involving underrepresented students in STEM education. The Billion Oyster Project’s Teaching Fellowship is an ongoing professional development program that trains teachers in Title I NYC schools to develop and implement placed-based restoration science curricula.

EC: We have a great event coming up on November 3rd, the Release of the Fishes, where we return the fishes, crabs, snails and other animals collected during the 2016 season into the Hudson River. We hope you join us! (Thursday 11/3/16 4-7pm @ The River Project Wetlab — Pier 40 at West St. & Houston St. Email jackie@riverprojectnyc.org to RSVP or for any questions.)

JD: Thank you!

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