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Ocean Currents

Training the Next Generation of Citizen Scientists in Queens, New York

Learn about how the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance is giving students hands-on marine biology experience in an unexpected place.

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© Artie Raslich/Gotham Whale

Queens, New York. It’s a place that I, a northern New Jersey native, primarily associate with the Mets, airports and the Ramones. When I think about Queens, shoreline and sea life aren’t really the first things that come to my mind. However, New York’s largest borough is home to a place that features some of the states’ best beaches, vibrant wildlife, even whales and dolphins. I’m speaking, of course, about the Rockaway Peninsula.

Just an hour and a half’s subway ride from midtown Manhattan, the Rockaways feel far from the hustle and bustle of the city. The peninsula stretches over ten miles, with five miles of boardwalk and one of the nation’s largest urban beaches. It’s a diverse area, home to a thriving surfer community, working parents and everyone in between.

Groups like the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance (RWA) are working with the community to bring awareness to the environmental issues facing the area. From camps for young students to neighborhood dune planting events, RWA provides programming that instills individual and civic respect for nature, and contributes to advancing the physical, economic and social sustainability of the Rockaways.

I recently had the opportunity to learn more about the work that RWA is doing, specifically, the Environmentor Internship program. The program engages local high school students and gives them the chance to become citizen scientists.

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© Courtesy of Rockaway Waterfront Alliance

Juli Schroeger, Program Coordinator for RWA, explains that the students work with her “throughout the school year and come once a week after school to learn more about the environment. Around June they are paired with mentor who is doing environmental science research.”

“Some of that [research] is focused on animals—terrapins, black skimmers and bottlenose dolphins, to name a few. Some is more focused on water quality and environmental impacts. They work with mentors for about seven weeks in the summer and present the projects at RWA and the Museum of Natural History,” Juli says.

This year, 12 students took part in the program. Early this summer, I got to speak with two of them about the projects that they were working on. Eden Chan, 11th grade, was researching how the dorsal fin of the bottlenose dolphin differs based on their location in the New York/New Jersey bight. More specifically, she used previously recorded data from Gotham Whale’s American Princess Cruises as well as medical imaging software to look at the difference between offshore and coastal dolphins.

“I haven’t finished the statistical analysis yet,” Eden said. “But what scientists have studied is that with offshore dolphins there’s more curvature or falcateness than if it’s coastal.” Though there has been research on the morphological differences between dolphins in other communities, Eden and her mentor Kristi Collom are pioneering the photo identification catalogue for these animals in New York along with collaborating Gotham Whale researcher, Celia Ackerman.

Jadon Nembhard, 11th grade, was outlining the surface areas of barnacles on dolphin fins with mentor Eric Ramos, working to determine if the prevalence of barnacles differ due to water quality or temperature. He explained that they hadn’t found any harmful impacts of the barnacles yet, but there’s “limited information on it, and that’s why it’s so important to collect data: so we better understand the impacts.”

Ramos and Collom said “we’re excited because they’re both working on projects that haven’t been done in this area, but we know that they’ll give us some insight into the populations of dolphin here, and there is no other government effort yet to monitor the populations. The data that they’re working with is totally original stuff, which is super exciting.”

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© Courtesy of Rockaway Waterfront Alliance

Many people aren’t aware of the kind of wildlife that New York waters can support. The kind of research that RWA is doing is providing the public with information on how we can best protect the sea creatures that live in the Rockaways.

“If you give people knowledge on where these dolphins are, there can be more measures that protect them,” said Eden. “For example, as offshore wind development increases in the area, it’s vital that these projects coordinate with citizens and scientists on the ground to avoid harm to wildlife.”

In addition to their day-to-day research projects, the Environmentor program has given the students opportunities to get more involved in the Rockaway community. They’ve taken surfing lessons, gone on whale watching expeditions, and even attended a dolphin necropsy, something that Jadon and Eden both said was a highlight of their time.

“We’ve done beach cleanups as well, and I found out there was a whole bunch of trash that washes up to the beach. It destroys the environment and we need to educate people,” Jadon said.

“Before, I didn’t care about nature and trash and stuff,” Eden added. “But because I was part of this program, I learned more about the harm we’re doing to our environment.”

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© Courtesy of Rockaway Waterfront Alliance
“That’s a goal of all of our programs,” Juli explained. “My hope for our students in the Environmentor program is that they develop a better understanding and become stewards of the natural environment, regardless of whatever fields they end up pursuing in the future.”

These programs wouldn’t be possible without the support of the rest of the Rockaway community.

“We’d like to thank our mentors and scientists, as well as Paul Sieswerda and Gotham Whale.  There is a lot collaboration and of passion that goes into this,” said Juli. As RWA’s partnership with Gotham Whale has developed and deepened, the two groups have come together to act as champions for the New York ocean environment. Last year, Paul and Juli came to Washington DC to advocate for ocean funding.

“We have such awesome resources at our doorstep in the environment, and we are able to so easily use our habitat here in the Rockaways to offer these students opportunities.”               

Learn more about the Environmentor program here.

Learn more about Rockaway Waterfront Alliance’s work here

The Rockaway Waterfront Alliance and the Environmentor Internship Program is made possible through the support of individuals, organizations, corporations and government agencies. RWA would like to thank The Pinkerton Foundation, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and The Simons Foundation for their continued support.

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