Monday, April 8, 2013

Seven Turns Become Six

Eco Ocean Profile: Dan Mundy, co-founder of Eco Watchers 

Talking with Dan Mundy you begin to feel as if Jamaica Bay is part of his family.  The geography helps. 

From his home on Broad Channel Island smack in the middle of the bay, his father’s house lies to the right and his sister’s house to the left.  Straight ahead the bay, just twenty feet from his front door, shimmers to the horizon.

In Broad Channel, the brackish water is everybody’s neighbor.  Broad Channel is the only subway stop in the middle of a large body of water as if you have to swim out the exits. 

All side streets in the small neighborhood end at water.  Squeezed into its northern part is the surprising Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, where hundreds of bird species can be spotted including elusive snowy owls.

Dan and his dad receive some thanks

When I arrived on a mid-winter day, the wind came off the water biting and fierce.  I had walked a fair bit as the subway was knocked out by post-tropical storm Sandy.  Mundy’s warm house, raised high off the water, was a welcome reprieve.

Many man made structures were damaged by the storm but the bay’s natural areas were mostly unaffected.  It’s a kind of basic truth in building sustainably – wetlands do well in the face of a storm surge, man-made structures not so much. 

Like family, Mundy keeps a close eye on the bay.  Literally.  Standing at his wide bay window in his comfortable living room, he points to flat marsh islands under repair just there or ships carrying sludge over there.  On the window sill, large black binoculars are ready for action.  After all, the name of the organization that he and his father, Dan Mundy Sr, founded is the Jamaica Bay Eco Watchers.

The all-volunteer organization does far more than watch.  A more appropriate name might be Jamaica Bay Saviors, though Mundy’s down-to-earth demeanor probably wouldn’t allow such a lofty moniker.

“I’m just a dopey firefighter but I do my homework, and I know when something is right or not,” he said.

It's easy to feel Mundy's comment is a sort of rope-a-dope, like Ali pulled on Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle.  You think you got him, you think you have this “dopey firefighter” beat, and then you find yourself on the canvas looking at the overhead lights.  In a fight for the bay, the smart money is on him.

As the third most visited park in the National Park Service and probably the biggest wetlands in the US, Jamaica Bay is a special place.  It simply goes almost unnoticed tucked away off Brooklyn and Queens with Manhattan’s famous skyline silhouetted in the far off horizon. 

“The bay is one of the oldest living resources in America, it’s like a giant redwood tree, imagine what they’d do if you even chopped off even one branch,” he said.  “I can’t believe what goes on here sometimes.”

It’s Personal

As a kid, Mundy would head off into the bay in a small skiff wearing only cutoffs and carrying a tank of gas and maybe a fishing pole.  He’d putter back at dusk only because it was dinnertime.  He and his friends spent hours exploring the hundreds of small islands that dot the bay -- islands uninhabited by people but full of life. 

They would swim and fish for bunkers or stripers or other fish, check out the annual seal arrivals, or just hang out in the bright green, cord-grass or Spartina soaking in the wildest place in one of the largest cities in the world.

Nature even came home with Mundy.  When his now-grown daughters were very young, he took them on an afternoon on the bay as usual.  This time they stopped by one island full of nesting gulls and their fuzzy little chicks.  Mundy told his daughters not to go near them and certainly not to touch them.  As they drove home in his twenty foot Mako, the young girls giggled quite a bit even for little girls.

Mundy asked them what’s going on and only then he discovered that his youngest daughter had smuggled aboard a tiny seagull chick under her shirt.  Almost everyone knows, true or not, once people touch baby birds, you can’t bring them back because the wild birds will not accept them.  Mundy waves his arms as he tells the story with a bit of mirth.

Mundy and his family named the gull Lucky.  They hand fed it at first and eventually, when it got bigger, it would run around the neighborhood.  He often got a call from a neighbor.  Lucky is in my backyard, Lucky is stuck on my roof, and Dan would walk over with his ladder.

Perhaps moved by the natural, or tired of carrying around the ladder, Mundy taught the bird to fly.  He stood in his boat out on the bay and tossed the bird in the air.  At first it might glide a little or flap its wings before it crashed into the water. 

He repeated it many times until one day, Lucky flapped his wings, turned a nice arc in the sky and glided to a perfect landing.  For a few years after, Lucky might show up once or twice a year but Lucky is now a wild bird, hopefully enjoying the blue skies.

Looking out his window, Mundy’s two boats are raised high out of the winter water.  Most of the year, the boats are in the water and Mundy continues where his youth left off.

He’s pretty sure he’s the only one scuba diving in and around the bay.  In the nearby Rockaways where bay meets ocean, “visibility is not great but there are tons of fish,” he said. 

Unwelcome Changes

Several years ago he noticed changes to his beloved bay that only a local like himself might notice.  One of the islands frequented all his life began to shrink.

“Seven turns became six, and then five,’ he said, describing the navigation cues used by him and his friends for the serpentine waterways winding through the island.  On their time off from putting out fires as part of Battalion 58 in Brooklyn, Mundy and his father set out to do something about his bay islands.
They took pictures and sent letters to scientists. They got them on the phone and told them what they were seeing. The scientists basically told the Mundys that they were likely mistaken.  But with a little cajoling, they finally convinced a number of biologists and wetland experts to take a closer look.  The Mundy’s promised a cup of coffee and a boat ride to the island.

The scientists were astonished. They had never seen anything like it and yes, the Mundy’s were correct: the islands were dying.  Soon after, they learned that the culprit was too much nitrogen in the water.  Their attention turned to two large sewage treatment plants.

The Mundys, Dan and his dad, and other groups like the Littoral Society, headed by another long time Broad Channel local hero Don Riepe, the NY/NJ Baykeeper, and the National Resource Defense Council worked with the city to secure major reductions in nitrogen discharges into the bay.  As part of the agreement, they even nudged the government to spend $15 million to repair and rebuild several of the bay’s deteriorating islands including Black Wall and Rulers Bar.

Eco Watchers and their team of bay defenders did not stop there, not even close.  There are stories of sitting down at long shiny tables with deputy mayors and other government officials.  Finding themselves at an impasse, someone implied the Mundys were making threats.

Dan remembers saying, “I’m not threatening but I just want you to know our plans.  If we can’t get anywhere today, tomorrow we’ll be on the steps of City Hall.  We also might file a Clean Water Act suit.” 
Island restoration

Mundy and his partners have saved abandoned lots from being sold to the highest bidder and delivered them to the parks department.  They coerced the DEC to install a permanent water quality monitoring device on a nearby pier.

Together with hundreds of volunteers, the Mundys have re-planted the bay’s Spartina plugs or young cord-grass in bare spots, and this spring, will re-plant the marsh grass on the newly built islands. 

Eco Watchers and their partners have even taken on the enormous and powerful Port Authority, owner of JFK airport, which hugs the northeastern side of the bay.

“JFK has not been a good neighbor,” said Mundy. 

Everything that splashes onto the tarmacs at JFK ends up in Jamaica Bay including deicing chemicals.  Mundy wants the airport to do something about it.  Talks are ongoing but the Mundys have already won one battle. 

They stood up in a gymnasium full of people and stared down the Authority’s gauntlet of lawyers who said the Authority was doing no wrong.  They tried to hit Mundy and his partners over the head with a nearly 500 page assessment report but the Mundys actually read the tome, and saw that it was misleading.

“When we told the lawyers this, they were speechless,” he said. The rope-a-dope strikes again.

High on the Mundy’s and their partners’ current list are challenging a gas pipeline proposed to cut directly through the bay; preventing JFK from irresponsibly extending runways into the water; and ensuring the city repairs West Pond, a freshwater haven in the middle of the wildlife refuge. 

The battle for the life of the bay is an ongoing effort but there is cause for optimism.  Recently, more than a handful of wild oysters have been spotted living on nearby docks. Not only are oysters a sign of improved water quality but also they filter water themselves, and would be welcome as they once flourished in the bay.

One neighbor stopped Dan in the street and told him that she recently pulled up a killie trap, a small common fish trap, and much to her surprise, she found a large eel inside.  Eels have not been seen in the bay in a long time.

She said “It’s a sign life’s coming back. We can thank you and your dad for that.”

Mundy shrugged like a dopey fireman, “I can’t take credit for that, but it’s great to see.”

To get involved and help restore Jamaica Bay, contact the Eco Watchers or the Littoral Society.  There are numerous opportunities to volunteer and to enjoy the bay


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