Article, video and photo by Ryan Andrew Wilde
On a cool, sunny afternoon in early May, with the Manhattan skyline in the background, Josh Wool arcs back his arms and casts his line into the East River from India Street Pier in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
Wool, 39, has fished from this pier a few times a week since 2011 when it opened as the Greenpoint terminal for the East River Ferry, and is quick to warn, laughing, “Don’t tell everyone and blow up our spot over here!”
Wool fits a pretty typical profile of the new wave of Greenpoint transplant, and also, Greenpoint fisherman, of the last decade or so: he’s originally from South Carolina, tattooed, big bearded, and a freelance photographer.
Fishing in the East River fills a void from Wool’s past as he spent his youth in South Carolina pursuing the pastime. “I come out to relax,” he said. “It’s nice to be out in the middle of the city, and still get a little bit of nature.”
Robert Piskorski, 50, who has been running the “Dream Fishing Tackle” shop on nearby Manhattan Avenue since 1995, has noticed his customer base shift from local Polish residents to folks much like Josh Wool over the past few years.
The shift reflects a demographic change in Greenpoint as young New Yorkers, priced out of Williamsburg and other trendy Brooklyn neighborhoods, have joined Greenpoint’s heavily Polish population.
Initially discouraged by his core Polish clientele drying up, Piskorski has seen a swell of interest among the newer arrivals and is hopeful his business will survive.
“I’m really optimistic about this neighborhood as far as fishing, because there’s so many people coming in the store,” he said. “Since last year the Polish customer base is gone, but there’s so many young Americans coming, it’s unbelievable. A lot of them have never tried it, or they’re coming from Montana or someplace and want to fish.”
Back on the pier, Wool puts down his fishing pole, lights a cigarette and opens his phone, showing a photo of himself holding a massive fish, which seems almost too big and heavy for him to carry.
“It’s a 36-inch striper. I caught it right here.”
NEWTOWN CREEK, EPA SUPERFUND SITE
Walking towards the India Street Pier, behind adjacent construction scaffolding and fences, one can vaguely make out a nearly concealed green sign that reads: “New York Department of Environmental Correction: Newtown Creek WPCP Discharge Point.”
About 1,000 feet north of the India Street Pier, the mouth of Newtown Creek meets the East River. A natural estuary that cuts 3.5 miles into Brooklyn and Queens, Newtown Creek was once one of the most actively used waterways in the country during industrialization. This in turn, made it one of the most contaminated waterways in the country following a historically large oil spill, numerous chemical spills, and a program of dumping raw sewage into the Creek, which began in 1866.
Raw sewage is still dumped in the creek today after a rainfall, according to Willis Elkins, program director of the Newtown Creek Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group dedicated to revitalization and health of the waterway,
In 2010, the federal Environmental Protection Agency designated Newtown Creek as a “Superfund” site, a designation for only the most contaminated sites that pose a risk to human and environmental health, and require federal funding to clean up. Since then, in unison with advocacy groups such as the Newtown Creek Alliance, Elkins explains that major efforts have begun to tackle three major issues — “cleaning up the contamination and pollution, maintaining the Creek’s industrial core, and increasing public access.”
While the Creek remains very contaminated, according to Elkins, improvements to the first and third issues have resulted in what he sees as an increase of “people wanting to do fishing and crabbing.”
THE FISHING GOES ON
Recently, news broke of another oil spill in the East River — a Con Ed transformer failed, causing an estimated 37,000 gallons of oil to leak into the river from downtown Brooklyn. Oil slicks were visible from the Greenpoint waterfront.
Despite this news, or the hazards of nearby Newtown Creek, Thomas Tamburski, 53, was out fishing from India Street Pier with a group of friends.
“We counted 35 poles out here on Sunday,” Tamburski said. “Yesterday you could smell [the oil spill] a little bit more … we still caught two 27s,” referring to the length in inches of the fish.
Tamburski, who grew up in Greenpoint and has been fishing from this spot for years, said he is aware of the environmental questions surrounding the waters and that “it used to be much worse.”
He and his friend, who identified himself only as Danny, said they ate the fish only “once in a while” and Danny remarked that when he does not take eat his catch but “gives it to a friend, and he cooks it up.”
Wool said, “I just throw them back.”
“There’s still a lot of trash, to be honest,” Wool said. “Every once in a while after a big storm, you’ll see a little bit of an oil slick here or there.”
Elkins believes that many local fishermen are unaware of the risks, “I assume that a lot of the fish that’s being caught, and the crabs especially, are being eaten,” he said.
Although Elkins said he was unaware of any extensive studies being administered on the health of the fish in and around Newtown Creek, and while the creek doesn’t have any specific guidelines for consumption of the fish yet, the state Department of Health does recommend against eating fish and crabs from Newtown Creek because of potential chemical contaminants.
Elkins maintains that more needs to be done to inform residents of the history or health of the waters. “We’ve been working with the EPA to develop more robust signage and education so that people know that if they are going to come fishing and crabbing here, those animals they’re catching are likely posing a health risk to them and their families,” Elkins said. “We want to inform people of what’s happening here, and not just have people exposing themselves to potential contaminants without knowing what’s at risk.”
Tackle shop owner Robert Piskorski had a different view: “Well, mainstream propaganda says the fish isn’t safe to eat, but I would say, in moderation.”
While the efforts under way to improve the health of the waters have people like Elkins optimistic, he believes it will “take a while” for the waters to meet a standard of “fishable and swimmable.”
And despite increasing awareness, improvements, and unfortunately, some setbacks too, like the recent Con Ed spill last week, it seems clear that people will continue to fish in Greenpoint.