An estuary is a body of water where rivers meet the sea and salt meets fresh water. The unique characteristics of these waters make estuaries rich, productive, and diverse ecosystems where many types of plants and animals live. The geologic history and physical characteristics of the Harbor Estuary particularly contribute to this diversity. Positioned at the confluence of the Hudson River and many smaller rivers such as the East, Hackensack, and Raritan, the estuary opens into the New York Bight and Long Island Sound. Its complex physical history includes a diversity of landforms, bedrock types, and plant and animal communities. Stones and boulders left over from the most recent glacial advance span from Long Island northwest into the New York-New Jersey Highlands (such as in Palisades Interstate Park) and southwest to the southern tip of Staten Island.
The Harbor Estuary is home and essential habitat to many resident and migratory species. A rich human history also surrounds the harbor, as people have been drawn to its beauty and natural resources for centuries. Early inhabitants and visitors to the Estuary’s shores have famously included the Lenape Native American tribe who first settled in the area, European explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano (1524), and the Dutch, who declared the City Nieuw Amsterdam. The New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary is home to one of the most vibrant and economically important metropolitan areas in the country and the world. We use the estuary for swimming, boating, bird watching, and many other benefits that these natural resources provide to our quality of life and economy. The way in which we balance our interactions with these resources can influence (both positively and negatively) the very resources which directly or indirectly support our lives and those of the flora and fauna around us.
The long history of human use of the harbor has come with many environmental impacts and challenges. The majority of the region’s historic wetlands and much of its forests and grasslands have disappeared in the last century. Fish consumption advisories and beach closures are still common. With increasing population and the coming of the Industrial age, habitat in the estuary began a steady path toward degradation. Significant actions such as the Clean Water Act and other environmental legislation have done much to bring the harbor back from the brink. Many ongoing problems and legacies from this industrial past and present are only just being remedied, or have yet to be addressed. By using our natural resources wisely, volunteering with local organizations to make change in your area, or working to raise awareness, you can join us in helping to improve the health of our estuary. In partnership with many other groups and agencies, the New York-New Jersey Harbor & Estuary Program (HEP) is working to protect and restore our estuary, so that we can all experience and benefit from all of the resources our estuary has to offer.