It is easy to forget that New York City’s waterways are very much alive—living, breathing habitats that ebb and flow based on our behavior as their natural stewards. Industrialization didn’t help: for over a century, factory-lined waterfronts coupled with sub-par environmental practices decimated entire ecosystems that long called the rivers and bays home. But due to a concerted effort amongst local officials and advocates, New York’s waters are cleaner than they’ve been in decades, ushering in a new (or old) era of marine wildlife here.
George Jackman, PhD, is one of those reasons why. A retired N.Y.P.D. officer-turned aquatic ecologist, Jackman is now a habitat restoration manager with Riverkeeper, an environmental organization that focuses on the Hudson River. The key waterway has recently seen whales and other fish communities return to its shores, thanks in large part to improving quality, and hard-fought conservation work. Yet while there has been a number of successes, Jackman says, there’s still a long way to go.
I know that you used to be a NYPD officer. How did you change from police to ecologist?
George Jackman: I tell everyone that I left the NYPD because I wanted to make a difference in my life. I say that somewhat tongue in cheek, somewhat facetiously. I started out with a high school education, and then the NYPD. Then I started riding horses, and I always had an abiding love for animals, and for the environment; I was a hunter and a fisherman and I just needed to know more.
I got kind of disenchanted with the politics as I got higher in the police department. When I started working for a living, I started realizing, "Wow, you’re nothing without an education." I felt something was missing. So I went back to school and realized, "Holy cow, if I study, I can do anything I want!" So I took five semesters of calculus right away and four semesters of physics. Then I decided to be a wildlife biologist. So I started studying aquatic ecology at Queens College. I went to grad school, and I just loved what I was doing. I entered a PhD program, and I’ve never looked back…. One thing led to another and I was up in the tundra working on polar bears and geese. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do.
How does the current debate in Washington over environmental policy impact your work?
I thought being a NYPD cop was sad, but being an ecologist is sadder. What I see happening to the world, I wish I didn’t know. The Endangered Species Act, the Magnuson-Stevens Act under threat—I want to cry. The way we’re treating this planet, I want to cry. Man’s inhumanity toward man is brutal, but man’s inhumanity toward environment and other organisms is appalling. I wish I could just stick my head in the sand. It’s like once you take the pill and see the matrix, you can never go back. I wish I could go back in some ways.
That’s how I got to be where I am. Some of those transcendentalists were my inspiration. Walt Whitman said, "I want to wrap the world around me." That rapture he discusses—I’ve always had that feeling. I grew up in a dysfunctional home, and that was my only solace. The only stability in my life was nature. I wish I could make it my god but you can’t do that. That’s where I am.
Let’s talk New York. People don’t imagine there’s a lot of ecology going on in Manhattan and the other boroughs. So what do you say to them?
There’s life everywhere on this planet. I try to tell people, I don’t care where you are, you gotta look around. When I was on patrol in Bushwick back in the day—when it was still a rough place—I would look up and see solace and inspiration in the merlins and peregrine falcons attacking pigeons. It would give me inspiration at times, in cemeteries and other places. Then I started doing urban ecology working on the Bronx River. I caught the first herring and the first eel in the Bronx River. I was the first to attempt a fish passage in New York City.
In New York City parks, there’s life. But I had to go look for it. The oldest tree in New York City is 450 years old. Life is everywhere, but you have to find it. Anybody can do ecology in rural places, but its urban places… that’s a challenge. As we encroach on nature more and more, we’re going to need to find ways to live more in harmony with nature, not in dominion.
How have you seen New York’s ecology change over the past few decades you’ve been working at Riverkeeper?
You know, it depends. Hey, we’ve got coyotes in New York City... coyotes are cool! They are America’s only endemic dog. It’s really cool. Some people hate them—I find them inspiring! They represent a wildness. There are deer in New York City, and turkey, too. I remember riding my horse in Pelham Bay Park with a wild turkey next to me. I said to myself, "My god, if I shot this thing I’d be the first person to shoot a wild turkey off the back of a horse in New York City since the 1600s." Of course I didn’t, though.
Ecology in New York City, it’s different. The winter flounder are gone, the quahog clams are gone. Where I used to fish, swim and hunt—they’re all million dollar houses now. So much has changed. But the ecology—it’s almost like the movie Trading Places. Some fish have left, but some new fish have come in. New York is an incredible location. It’s the northern zone for southern species and the southern zone for the northern species. It’s this critical junction, so it’s a richly diverse area. I like that analogy to Trading Places. I think it’s hard for us to grasp sometimes that things are just different.
Can you talk a little bit about why the ecology might look different, in terms of legislation or policy?
What has changed in the city is that there’s a lot of grassroots efforts now. People are interested in ecology. New York has attracted a lot of young, educated people from all over country, and world. It has brought an awareness that we didn’t have. There was a time when New York City was considered the ‘rotten apple.’ Now it’s just the ‘Big Apple.’ There was an oil spill in Greenpoint from ExxonMobil, but now they’re being forced to clean it up. GE forced to clean up the Hudson River. Riverkeeper, a tiny environmental organization, sued a nuclear power plant, and we won! That power plant killed a billion fish a year.
So what’s changing? A lot has changed. You know, social media helps change this, too, because now we can galvanize a movement. The river’s getting cleaner in a lot of ways but we’ve still got a long way to go. We lost the rainbow smelt. That’s climate change. Winter flounder are on the way out—that’s death by a thousand cuts. Usually it’s never one incident… it’s a variety of assaults on species.
If you could talk to people in New York City who aren’t really that interested in the environment, what would you tell them to do to help?
Do anything! I don’t care—pick up a plastic bag! Where do you think that thing’s going to end up? In some loggerhead turtle’s mouth. What’s the answer? Become aware. Don’t be a sleepwalker. I see so many people just watching sports—it’s not bad, but there’s more in life. You gotta do something. Sometimes I feel like the Lorax. When, at the end, they say, "Nothing will change unless..." Unless what? Unless somebody like you really, really cares. It becomes a way of life. I don’t know how you become that, but you gotta do something.
So it’s a complex answer. Are things getting better? Yeah. Is there more work to do? Yeah. Our message and our mission is even more important. As species decline, we got more work to do. I don’t care what other people are doing, I know what I have to do. Treat the river like it’s a soul. It’s a beautiful river.
A former New York City resident, Melissa Cronin is a marine ecologist and writer living in California and currently pursuing her PhD at UC Santa Cruz. Her writing has appeared in Grist, Slate, Salon, The Nation, and elsewhere.