Just off the New York coastline lives an undersea wilderness. Sharks, sea turtles, dolphins, whales, seals, skates, and rays swim below the many flying shorebirds and seafaring ships of the eastern Atlantic. In all, more than 300 fish species feed, breed, and migrate through the New York Bight, which stretches between Montauk in northern Long Island to Cape May in southern New Jersey.

Launched today, WCS’s New York Seascape Initiative will aim to keep this 15,000-square-mile corner of the Atlantic, and its adjoining tributaries, thriving with an abundance of wildlife.

Within the bight, deep canyons cut into the seafloor and soaring seamounts further offshore rival the topographic majesty of the American West. In fact, the Hudson Canyon, an ancient extension of the Hudson River Valley, is the largest ocean canyon on the Atlantic coast. The canyon is a priority for the new conservation initiative due to its importance as a nursery grounds for marine life.

The New York Seascape aims to conserve this aquatic ecosystem that is vital to ocean wildlife and the economic and cultural strength of New York and surrounding communities,” said Steve Sanderson, WCS president and CEO. “Our local marine waters are a part of our history and vitality, yet too many New Yorkers live their lives with their backs to the sea. We will use this initiative to inspire New Yorkers to turn around and once again discover the wonders of these waters.”

More than 20 million people live within about 10 miles of the seascape, and the New York/New Jersey Harbor is one of the busiest ports in the United States. Maintaining stable fish populations and healthy marine habitats is essential for supporting more than a quarter of a million local jobs. In New York State alone, economic activities reliant on healthy, accessible, and clean oceans, such as tourism/recreation, fisheries, and marine transport, generate more than $14.3 billion each year.

The amount of fish and shellfish the commercial fishing industry caught in 2008 tipped the scales at almost 34 million pounds. That is a lot of seafood, amounting to about $57 million. Even more lucrative are the region's recreational fishing and other sea-sporting activities. In 2006, more than 291,000 anglers cast their lines into New York’s coastal and ocean waters. Still, there is no dollar value equivalent to the seascape’s ecological services and phenomenal biodiversity, which improve and enrich the quality of life for all New Yorkers.

“With New York Seascape, we will help to conserve a major migratory corridor for marine wildlife, as well as the rich, diverse ecosystems upon which they depend” said Caleb McClennen, director of WCS’s Global Marine Program. “As we look increasingly to our oceans for energy, transport, recreation, and food supply, the wildlife within face significant threats if not properly managed, appreciated, and understood. It is important to take action and invest now to save these species and their habitats before we look back and say it is too late.”

The maritime history of these waterways runs as deeps as its wildlife. Henry Hudson and Giovanni da Verrazano explored them centuries ago, and there is still much to see. Yet much has changed as well. Not too long ago, more than half of the U.S. hard clam catch came from Long Island bays and sturgeon were so plentiful in the Hudson that it was known as “Albany beef.”

For more than three centuries, this marine habitat has suffered abuse from the human societies that have relied on it. The ecosystem has run the gamut from the dumping of raw sewage, heavy metals, pesticides, and other toxic chemicals, to countless spills, nutrient overloads, and excessive fishing.

WCS’s first conservation endeavors will include studies of sand tiger sharks, alewives (a species of river herring once abundant in many coastal rivers), and horseshoe crabs. WCS is exploring partnerships with local universities and researchers to map the movements of sharks and other threatened species with acoustic and satellite tracking gadgetry. Better understanding these migratory movements will improve the management of the ecosystem and the protection of its wildlife.

New Yorkers will also gain deeper insight into the ecology of their home through improved curricula in New York schools, new citizen-science programs, and education-based renovations to the New York Aquarium’s Conservation Hall and Aquatheater.

At the launch of the initiative, Jon Forrest Dohlin, director of the aquarium, said, “WCS is a world leader in conservation with marine programs in 20 countries and every ocean from Papua New Guinea to Belize to Madagascar. The Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Seascape will bring this world-class expertise to our own backyard.”