Doing their part to protect anglers

Top photos courtesy Amy Rowe; bottom photo by Ron Leir Essex County veterans, working with the Rutgers VETS program, provide Passaic River anglers with warnings not to eat fish from the polluted river and exchange fresh tilapia for the fish caught by anglers from the river, as shown above. At right: plants being grown at greenhouse where the tilapia are harvested.

Top photos courtesy Amy Rowe;
bottom photo by Ron Leir
Essex County veterans, working with
the Rutgers VETS program, provide
Passaic River anglers with warnings
not to eat fish from the polluted river
and exchange fresh tilapia for the fish
caught by anglers from the river, as
shown above. At right: plants being
grown at greenhouse where the
tilapia are harvested.

Some of New Jersey’s veterans who’ve seen combat action overseas have returned to the home front to enlist in a different kind of war: persuading Passaic River anglers from eating their catch by trading it for freshly harvested fish.

They are doing this as part of an outreach service known as Rutgers VETS (Veterans Environmental Technology & Solutions) financed by the Lower Passaic River Study Area Cooperating Parties Group (CPG), which represents 60 companies that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants to provide financing towards the cleanup of the Passaic’s lower eight miles, along with other corporate entities. CPG is awaiting the EPA’s issue of a final cleanup plan before determining what course of action to take.

EPA proposes to dredge the river, bank-to-bank, remove an estimated 4 million cubic yards of sediment containing high levels of dioxin, PCBs and the like deposited as industrial wastes over the years, and cap the river bottom, all at a cost projected at $1.7 billion, while the CPG has pronounced EPA’s plan misguided and wasteful because it’s allegedly based on false assumptions that will lead to more contamination and disruption of commercial enterprises along the river.

EPA, which held public hearings on its plan more than a year ago, has not disclosed when it will proceed with the project. If the CPG opposes the final plan, it could sue to block it.

Meanwhile, the CPG has – with the assistance of the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Essex County (whose staff are paid by the university) and the Newark-based Metropolitan Baptist Church development corporation – moved ahead with a fish exchange program that began last year and was renewed this past June.

From the summer through October, veterans station themselves at the Nutley Boat Ramp at Park Ave. and Rt. 21 on Saturdays, from 7 to 10 a.m., weather permitting, to offer safe tilapia in place of fish anglers haul in from the Passaic. While there’s fishing from the Ironbound to the Dundee Dam, the biggest concentration of anglers along the lower Passaic was found to be in Nutley, according to CPG spokesman Jonathan Jaffe.

Using the technique of aquaponics, the veterans – with guidance by Rutgers staff – have been harvesting the tilapia in huge vats in a greenhouse at 555 Martin Luther King Blvd., Newark, leased by the CPG from the church development corporation.

Actually, until this past Saturday, the trade-off involved frozen fish because it takes at least three months to produce a “grown” fish weighing at least a pound, explained Amy Rowe, environmental & resource agent for the Rutgers co-op extension.

Now the veterans are prepared to offer the real deal, on a pound-for-pound basis, Rowe said. At the same time, the veterans warn the anglers about the dangers of consuming fish from the Passaic. Some have admitted eating their catch, but whether any have fallen ill as a result could not be determined.

In return, she said, the vets have been getting back from the anglers “a lot of eels” which they bring back to the Rutgers lab where they are frozen and stored in hopes that, at some point, the fish can be opened up to see what, if any, toxins may be inside.

Since the trade-offs began on June 20, the exchange post has collected 72 fish from mostly male anglers ranging from their mid-30s to late 50s.

But there’s more to the aquaponics program than just fish.

As part of an eight-month training program, the vets – four women and 11 men, ages 20s to 60s – are also learning how to cultivate plants by circulating the growing tilapia by-products through a hydroponics system that breaks down those excretions by nitrification bacteria used by the plants as nutrients.

The vets spend two days a week laboring in the greenhouse or at a community garden and three days attending classes taught by Rutgers staff, local experts and guest lecturers in an adjoining church building where they also have access to computers to research independent projects.

Garden State veterans have the highest unemployment rate in the U.S. at 10.4% — and up to 16% among recent returning combat vets – so it was decided to recruit Essex County vets for the program in hopes of imparting jobs skills applicable to “sustainable agriculture.”

And the program’s presence proved to be an added benefit to the Newark community. “When we came here,” said Rowe, “we didn’t realize the church had a food pantry.” So staff figured it made sense to distribute the vegetables grown in the greenhouse to the hungry in the community every Tuesday through the church pantry program.

“We had been giving 250 heads of lettuce to the pantry weekly,” Rowe said. “We just switched to kale.” Basil seedlings were being grown last week.

Community members also received many tomato and pepper seedlings to take home to grow to maturity, Rowe said.

Each of the vets also devotes time to cultivating “experimental” gardens just outside the greenhouse where they are growing tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, corn, pumpkins and beans atop raised beds in milk crates. Eventually, Rowe said, staff hopes to arrange a field trip to the Kearny Community Garden to investigate their planting strategies.

Vets receive a $12 per hour stipend for putting in a 40 hour work week and that’s another cost picked up by the CPG which, Jaffe said, has invested more than $1 million in the program, which began in summer 2014 and the program is already paying dividends. Of last year’s graduates, four are doing landscape work for Essex County, two are working for private landscapers and two started their own landscaping businesses in Essex, Rowe said.

Navy vets Tyrone Stewart, Marcus Beaman and Judson Blue, all of Newark, are all hopeful of finding employment after they finish the program.

Stewart, whose dad taught him about gardening in his native Kershaw, S.C., said: “It’s something I could get into doing as a career.” Blue, who credited his mother for showing him “how to prep the ground for growing plants,” was laid off recently from a property management job and he is aiming to “go into aquaponics and work in a greenhouse – you control your environment and it’s the way to the future.” And Beaman, who “came for my own business opportunity,” hopes this experience will give him a boost to that goal.

“The landscaping community is close-knit so it definitely helps to be here and I get to help the community so this is perfect,” Beaman said. Gesturing toward the aquaponics setup, Beaman added: “This is all new and I’m in the forefront of it.”

Ron Leir | Observer Correspondent

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc. He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter. He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based W.H.A.T. Co. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, N.Y.