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Supermoon Fishing on the Gowanus

Our OnlyFins columnist contemplates the Gowanus Canal.

10:07 AM EDT on July 26, 2022

The Loujaine, a ship permanently docked in the Gowanus Bay, at dusk.

The Loujaine, a permanent resident of the Gowanus Bay. (Hell Gate)

Welcome to OnlyFins, New York City's freshest column devoted to fishing the city's polluted waters.

"This is our Amazon jungle," Gary Francis proclaimed one recent summer evening, his arm sweeping over the glittering expanse of…the Gowanus. 

Really, he insisted when I professed my skepticism. We were standing on the rocky, trash-strewn shore next to the Home Depot off 19th Street, a plastic water bottle floating serenely off to the side. In the distance was the mouth of the famed canal, discharging its effluvia into the Gowanus Bay.

"It's been maligned and shit-talked by everyone,” Gary said of the Gowanus, a hint of his native England in his voice. (Just one example—in 2007, when a young minke whale wandered into the canal and subsequently died, everyone blamed its polluted waters, yet a postmortem analysis found that "Sludgie" likely died from malnourishment.) "But," Gary noted, "this is a huge biodiversity lifeline directly into the city that no one knows about."

The shore of the Gowanus Bay off of 19th Street.
The shore off of 19th Street. (Hell Gate)

Gary, a wiry, bespectacled man in his fifties, is a true evangelist of the city's waterways, and in particular the Gowanus. Shortly after moving to New York City from the Virgin Islands, he joined the board of the Gowanus Dredgers, an advocacy group that champions the much-beleaguered canal. Where one person might look at the shoreline where we were standing and see the aftermath of decades of industrial abuse, he sees a potential habitat for ribbed mussels—and indeed, when the Dredgers began moving those rocks, they found thousands of the bivalves hiding in the dark. 

"This is the heartbeat of the world right here," he told me. "There’s so much in there." And not just traces of gonorrhea or PCBs or heavy metals or sewage—but life, despite all of the odds—and fish.

I met Gary after I reached out to the Dredgers, asking if it would be possible for me to borrow a canoe and fish the waters of the canal. While not quite one of the city’s premier fishing destinations, I had read that a variety of aquatic creatures, most notably striped bass but also porgy and blue crabs, could be found, and thus caught, in its murky waters. 

Gary offered me one better—not only could I borrow a canoe, but he, himself an avid fisher, would be more than happy to take me out in its waters. The canal itself was off-limits—the Environmental Protection Agency began dredging the waterway in 2020—but we could go out into the bay. Gary consulted the tides. "The week of the 11th is going to be epic," he texted me. We picked the day of the full moon, a supermoon no less.

"The canal is a nursery," Gary told me. In April, it begins to fill up with baitfish like mummichogs—an extraordinarily hardy and fascinating fish that has been shown to develop resistance to toxic chemicals—and Atlantic silversides. Later in the season, striped bass and bluefish and bunker appear. "The bunker will come all the way up the canal and be thick. You can just see them doing their feeding circles, all the way up to Butler Street," he said. 

The canal is the toxic sludge pit it is today thanks to human industry stretching back to the 19th century. Fish returned to the Gowanus about 20 years ago, after the state and the federal government ordered the city to take steps that slowly improved the water quality, beginning with the repair of a flushing system in 1999. But the canal still has a long way to go. The Dredgers regularly drop a cage full of oysters off the dock by their office on 2nd Street, as a way to test the canal's waters. Are they thriving, I asked? "They die within three months,” he replied. Yet Gary is an optimist: "Even at its worst, there was life in there."

Our goal this evening was to catch some striped bass. "I'm hoping there will be a worm hatch tonight," he said, before we climbed into one of the Dredgers' canoes and paddled out into the bay.  

Gary Francis, Esther's tour guide on a recent fishing trip on the Gowanus.
(Hell Gate)

Fishing may not be the first activity that comes to mind when one thinks of the Gowanus, but we can thank the many dedicated Gowanus anglers—at least in part—for the EPA's push to clean up the canal. "When federal officials learned the fishermen were eating what they caught, it prompted [the EPA] to move to get the canal cleaned up through the Superfund program," the Daily News reported in 2009. 

A year later, the EPA made that Superfund designation official, noting in a press release that the taint of the Gowanus "poses a threat to the nearby residents who use the canal for fishing and recreation." (Thank you, EPA, for thinking of us.)

Still, the federal government's alarm doesn't always resonate with the fishers themselves, like this unidentified man for whom the Gowanus Canal is a true fisher's delight. According to one unnamed EPA worker, some canal anglers even sell their catches to local restaurants. As one regular Gowanus Bay angler put it to the Daily News, "I think I have a better shot at catching swine flu than catching a poisoned fish." Another dismissed those concerns more bluntly: "I've been fishing here for 13 years and I ain't dead yet." 

Perhaps these anglers knew something the EPA didn't; after years of studying the canal, the New York State Department of Health announced in 2017 that certain creatures from the canal were safe to eat in limited quantities, although the agency cautioned that women under the age of 50 and children under the age of 15 should never eat fish or crabs caught from the canal (or from anywhere else in the Upper Bay of New York Harbor, for that matter). 

A chart from the NYS Department of Health depicting what fish are safe to eat from the Gowanus Canal.
Sorry to the gizzard shad. (New York State Department of Health)

Last week, a few days after my trip with Gary, I spent a morning fishing along the shores of the Gowanus, right next to the parking lot of the Lowe's on 9th Street. Dotting the banks of the active Superfund site were signs put up by the EPA warning people, in all caps, not to fish. The experience was not pleasant. At one point, the acrid smell of burning plastic wafted all around me, as I gazed out at a slow-moving oil slick atop the water. 

The Gowanus Canal on a recent fishing expedition by our intrepid columnist.

A "No Fishing" sign put up by the EPA near the Gowanus Canal.
One of the many "No Fishing" signs dotting the banks of the Gowanus Canal. (Hell Gate)

But fishing on the bay, as the sounds of the city recede and the sky darkens and an orange supermoon rises heavy in the nighttime sky? Sublime. 

We paddled out next to an abandoned wooden pier, close to the Loujaine, a hulking ship permanently docked in the Gowanus Bay that's now used as a floating cement warehouse, and began methodically casting. Gary had a fly-fishing setup, and I brought along a spinning reel and some plastic swimbaits.

A revitalized, less toxic Gowanus means a very different Gowanus. Real estate developers, who had initially balked at the Superfund designation, now are embracing the prospect of a cleaned-up canal, which has been dubbed by elected officials and developers alike as a potential "Venice of Brooklyn." 

At the end of 2021, the city council approved a major rezoning of the neighborhood, which then-City Councilmember Brad Lander lauded as a plan that would bring much-needed below-market rate housing to the neighborhood. It would also bring more developments like 365 Bond, a luxury apartment building right off the still-fetid canal that advertises itself as "waterfront living." Along with a handful of affordable apartments, there are two-bedroom units renting at just under $7,000/month. 

One section of the future "Venice of Brooklyn." (Hell Gate)

To Gary, as well as neighborhood advocates who filed a lawsuit earlier this year to stop the rezoning, the prospect of more high-rises in the neighborhood is worrying; sewage already flows into the Gowanus after even the smallest amount of rain. "It'll overburden the infrastructure," he told me. (The lawsuit was dismissed at the end of June; in 2020, the Department of City Planning contended that, due to new rules regarding stormwater runoff, future development in the neighborhood wouldn't actually lead to an increase in sewage flowing into the canal.)

That evening, there would indeed be a worm hatch on the bay. "Ooh, there's a cinder worm,” Gary said excitedly. I aimed my headlamp to where he was pointing to find a half-inch long red worm dancing through the water, surrounded by schools of minnows. 

Despite their presence, no stripers were to be found, or caught that evening, at least by us. Just before midnight, we climbed onto the wooden pier, and cast out a few more times—nothing. But that was okay; after all, the payoff of fishing isn't just about the thrill of the catch.

And let’s be real, I'm too chicken to eat a fish from the Gowanus.

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