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The River Hag of Newtown Creek

Greenpoint resident Karolina Zaniesienko has spent the past year fishing the polluted creek—and has created a living diorama of what she's found in a fish tank in her living room.

A close-up of Karolina Zaniesienko’s Newtown Creek fish tank. (John Taggart / Hell Gate)

On a sunny Wednesday afternoon this fall, Greenpoint resident Karolina Zaniesienko peered down into the murky waters of Newtown Creek, her orange hair blowing in the hefty breeze humming from the northeast. She was there, unlike most visitors to the creek, to fish the long beleaguered Superfund site. But there was a problem—she was missing one of her fish traps. Someone had either cut the rope or stolen it. 

"I do have, I think, an enemy here," she said. "There's some guy who's really mad about me fishing here."

Still, Zaniesienko wasn't deterred. She reached into the plastic granny cart she brings with her on every trip to the creek, which held a five-gallon bucket, a bundle of polypropylene strapping twine, yellow dishwashing gloves, and a plastic Tupperware container that contained a warm, raw chicken breast that appeared to be going fetid. The chicken, she explained, was for bait; the gloves, she said, were for the creek. 

"It's the water," she said. “Honestly, it's because I don't know if I have any cuts or whatever and I don't want sepsis."

Karolina Zaniesienko checking one of her Newtown Creek fish traps. (John Taggart / Hell Gate)

Although she was only half-joking, there is that six-to-ten foot layer of "black mayonnaise" full of PCBs and a century's worth of spilled oil still sitting at the bottom of Newtown Creek that might—and probably should—discourage anyone from collecting anything.

But for Zaniesienko, a lifelong Greenpointer and a self-described "river hag," the reward is worth the potential risks. For the past year, using what she collects in her traps, she has created a living diorama of Newtown Creek in a fish tank in her living room—and has been sharing videos of all that lives in the creek to her steadily growing number of fans. The city's often overlooked waterways rarely excite the imagination of what's under the surface, but Zaniesienko is reminding us that among the pollution, there is life. 

She waved to a woman on one of the many sailboats illegally moored here on this part of Newtown Creek in Greenpoint, as she pulled up one of her other traps. This one, a collapsible mesh trap that expands to the shape of a starfish, was covered in tiny mud snails that fell clattering like gravel on the pavement as she pulled it over the railing. She dumped the rest of the contents into her bucket, which she'd filled with water from the creek—some grass shrimp; a tiny fish that appeared to be barely out of larvae stage; and a very grumpy-looking oyster toadfish, a common trash fish known as "ugly fish" among old East River anglers, with a mossy, "Swamp Thing"-esque profile. (Fun fact: The oyster toadfish is one of the few fish species that NASA has sent into space.)

She threw the toadfish back (it's too big, and voracious, for her tank), but she kept the grass shrimp, she said, to feed "the fucking sea bass" she had lurking in the fish tank in her apartment.

"It's really good at hiding, and I don't think I can catch it," she said of the juvenile sea bass. "So I just have to keep feeding it until it gets big enough so I can catch it and put it back [in the creek]. It’s like, 'Here's some shrimp offerings, bon appetit!'"

(John Taggart / Hell Gate)

I first encountered Zaniesienko online, where I quickly became mesmerized by the videos she posts to her Instagram account—it was thrilling to see tiny, translucent grass shrimp creeping among magenta algae, microscopic tunicates, and snail eggs shining like so many crystals; or a bristle worm flitting in the current like an aquatic millipede; or a northern pipefish with its fins buzzing like a hummingbird huddling among coral, and to know that all of this life came from, of all places, Newtown Creek. There's an educational aspect, too: In an ongoing series of videos she calls "Tank Talk," she describes the oddities of, say, the New Zealand mud snails she often finds (they're all females), and the genitals of the American eel (she's caught a lot of those).

After scrolling through her videos, I suspected Zaniesienko might be a biologist, or at least have some kind of background in marine science. But Zaniesienko, a bartender, is self-taught. "I seriously just Google everything," she said. "And then if I can't figure it out through Google, then I usually just ask Reddit." Usually, she noted, someone on subreddits like r/whatisthiscreature and r/reeftank have the answer to her question. 

Her fascination with the life aquatic began at the end of 2022, when she read an article about the Newtown Creek Alliance, an advocacy group in Greenpoint that promotes awareness of and engagement with the creek. The article mentioned a fish tank the group has in their office, filled with marine life from the creek. "And I was like, 'Are you fuckin' serious? Like there's stuff in there?' I bet I can do that,'" she recalled. "As I was reading, I was on Amazon, searching 'fish tank.'"

Zaniesienko started with a tiny five-gallon tank before being gifted a larger 20-gallon one. Her first catches were humble snails, but even those snails, she said, excited her. 

"My main motivation for continuing the project is curiosity," she said. "There is still a world down there that I've only seen a little bit of, and experienced only a fraction of." She added, "I've experienced the critters behaving differently in different seasons, and I'm only now seeing just a glimpse of these patterns with my own eyes." 

Karolina Zaniesienko at home with her fish tank, filled with the marine life of Newtown Creek. (John Taggart / Hell Gate)

She keeps a rotating cast of characters in her tank, like an East River hostel, before eventually returning them to the waters she plucked them from. Over time, she's learned to be careful about what occupants she allows into her aquatic terrarium. One of her former fish tank residents, a hake she dubbed "Hake Williams, Jr.," was so aggressive and territorial that she couldn't introduce a second hake into her tank. But mostly, she keeps what looks interesting. She usually tosses crabs back because "they eat everything I don't want eaten," like tunicates, snail eggs, and anemones, though she once kept an invasive European green crab because Redditors told her to kill it rather than put it back in the creek.

There's a surreptitious element in what she's doing: While not illegal, it doesn’t feel exactly proper, either. Maybe it's the weird looks and confusion from bystanders that makes it feel like it should be illegal, but—like the many sailboats tied to the bulkheads on the Greenpoint and Long Island City sides of the Creek despite clear "No Mooring" signs—there's an unspoken permissiveness that quietly relies on authorities being too busy doing other things. 

"My biggest sin is that I have a couple of oysters in my tank," she admitted.

(John Taggart / Hell Gate)

Harvesting oysters from the creek isn't against the law, though it does require a special harvesting permit from the DEC (and they definitely should not be eaten). When I reached out to Willis Elkins, the executive director at the Newtown Creek Alliance (NCA), he was also a little cagey about local oysters, but he was eager to talk about Zaniesienko and her tank—through the grapevine and social media, he'd already heard of her.

Over the years, Elkins has come across many people on the creek engaged in what he described as "rogue activities." The NCA, he assured me, is all for efforts like those of Zaniesienko—as long as people are aware of the dangers the creek still harbors.

It takes just a tenth of an inch of rain to cause what's known as a combined sewage overflow event, when the City's sewage system is overwhelmed by rainfall and the runoff pours into our waterways. Over one billion gallons of overflow—untreated sewage, rainwater, street trash, PCBs, pesticides, oil products, plastic, and more pollutants—pour into the creek each year, mostly due to an outdated sewage system. It's one of many issues the NCA is tackling regarding the ecosystem and environment of the creek.

"I think the main thing is limiting and reducing the exposure to the sediment, especially at the back of the creek," Elkins said. "That's the number one safety concern that people should have, that, and staying away from the water after a rain because of bacteria exposure."

(John Taggart / Hell Gate)

Sarah Durand, a professor of environmental science at LaGuardia Community College, recalled the original Newtown Creek aquarium, located in the North Brooklyn community boat house. The goal of that tank, she said, was to counter the prevalent narrative that the waterway was all just a polluted, lifeless creek. "There was a DEC person, this must have been 2009 or so, who said, 'Oh, that's dead water,'" she said, referring to the state's Department of Environmental Conservation. 

It wasn't until later that Durand herself discovered that the creek was not just "dead water." On a classroom expedition at the nature walk that runs along the creek, a student spied something on the granite steps exposed by the low tide.

"There was all kinds of invertebrate life, a lot of mussels, living in there," she said. "It was like a little oasis, a tide pool, a snapshot of what was once a thriving intertidal community of life that lived in the grasses that stretched hundreds of acres on either side into Long Island City, into Greenpoint."

Today, the industrial past is phasing out. There are still obstacles—a little over a month ago, the NCA reported a massive sheen of oil on the creek's surface—but restoration is happening. Increased awareness combined with improved oversight is helping to bring the creek back to life—the appearance of crabs and other ocean life is one sign, and the increased plant life on the many bulkheads is another. 

Newtown Creek, post-rain. (John Taggart / Hell Gate)

Bureaucratic red tape, however, continues to prevail: The EPA has delayed cleanup of Newtown Creek until 2032. Still, speaking to the improved health of the creek, in recent years massive schools of menhaden, one of the primary food sources for all fish and mammals in the Atlantic Ocean, have been spotted in the creek, and there have also been dolphin and seal sightings in the winter.  And of course, there's everything Zaniesienko keeps finding in her traps.

I met again with Zaniesienko on a recent Saturday, fresh from a trip to Philadelphia with refreshed hair color and new bangs, at her usual spot. She'd upgraded her traps and also her bait. Gone were the raw chicken breasts going bad in the container, replaced instead by smaller pieces of bone-in Buffalo chicken wings and drumsticks, leftovers from one of her bartending gigs. A heavy rain had fallen just days earlier, and it showed; the creek looked hazy and greasy, with a yellowish tinge, and it was full of random trash—a surprising number of tampon applicators floated downstream and a pregnancy test lay lodged in the metal grates. Karolina explained about the chicken wings. "Yeah, it's cooked," she said, laughing. "It's fried. [The fish] don't care. I mean, maybe they don't care."

(John Taggart / Hell Gate)

Though the fishing was bad on that day, she did net one black sea bass ("They like chicken," she said). She'd also managed some major scores since our last meeting: mummichogs (found in the cutouts at the Nature Walk); a skilletfish, a tiny, frying-pan shaped sucker fish; and a pair of northern pipefish, a long, thin fish that looks like a straightened-out sea horse.

The skilletfish, she said, was a revelation—an elusive fish, it tends to live in oyster reefs and eelgrass, but one day happened to wander into her fish trap. "It's crazy, because I thought I would have to go and look under oysters and shellfish—I've tried doing that a few times, and I was like, 'This is insane, because I'll never be able to find it,'" she said.

"It is so fucking cool. I think it's doing really well in the tank. It seems happy and it's so active and it just wants to eat everything."

(John Taggart / Hell Gate)
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