62,000 Bits of Plastic and not a Pound of Sturgeon

I’m an old man. I was born during the Truman administration when Joe DiMaggio was still playing ball and airplanes had propellers. One of the advantages of longevity is perspective. If you live long enough, you can see historical trends. I can remember when things were different in New York City than they are today. In many cases, different was better. I’m unable to escape the conclusion that New York City is in decline. It is literally crumbling before my soot-reddened eyes. I don’t think there’s anything we can do about this. But I take a perverse glee in pointing out how bad things have become.

WNYC’s Steven Valentino recently reported on the discovery of tiny but visible bits of toxin-coated plastic in the Hudson River. Valentino quotes a figure of 62,000 bits of plastic per square kilometer. Immediately, I am thrust into the abstract. To be honest, I can’t picture either 62,000 bits of plastic or a square kilometer of river. But just the ratio of 62,000 to one leads me to assume that this is not a good thing. Throw in those words “toxin-coated,” and this is not a “feel good” story.

A scientist quoted in the report did his best to put me at ease. Rolf Halden of Arizona State University’s Center for Environmental Security mentioned quite casually that contaminants are ubiquitous. “You find them in house dust, ambient air, and drinking water.” So really, what’s the difference if they’re in the river? My apartment will give me cancer long before the river does.

When I was a boy I knew an old man who had grown up in New York City in the early twentieth century. He told me that as a boy he swam in the Hudson River. It was clean. The only problem for young swimmers was dead horses. In 1908 there were 120,000 horses in New York City. When a horse died on the street, it was pushed off the nearest pier. In the summer, young boys often had to swim around the floating horses. No problem. My research has failed to uncover a single case of dead horse poisoning. Not that the city environment was entirely safe. There was the matter of lead paint covering every wall in town. But let’s be honest. Nobody dies of lead poisoning. The main symptoms of lead poisoning are stupidity, irritability, sluggishness and fatigue. How would you even know if most New Yorkers had lead poisoning?

Gone are the days of handsome, chestnut stallions drifting silently down the river on a balmy, summer’s day, bloated like a pig’s bladder in a nineteenth century soccer match. Gone too are the sturgeon. The old man told me that sturgeon was so plentiful in the Hudson River, it was sold as cat food. Even in my own youth, sturgeon was within reach of the common man. Today, it isn’t within sight. Russ and Daughters sturgeon is priced at $53.96/lb. Barney Greengrass – $62. On Zabar’s website it’s $74. And the old man fed it to cats! I’ll bet someone on the upper west side is still feeding her cats sturgeon. But you get the point.

I suppose toxin-coated plastic in the river is ultimately no big deal. Still, I wonder. What happened to the sturgeon?

Photo credit:
Barney Greengrass Sturgeon King featured image from jamesandkarlamurray.blogspot.com