In June, 2021, the writer Erik Baard shared with The New Yorker a poaching alarm raised by the Broad Channel resident Don Riepe. Riepe had posted on Facebook a video of lights on the bay that turned out to be, as he suspected, poachers collecting diamondback terrapins. For the short documentary “Greywater,” the New Yorker filmmaker Daniel Lombroso set out to stalk these modern-day poachers.
Lombroso hoped to uncover the workings of an international poaching syndicate behind those bobbing lights on the bay. But the men and women Lombroso encountered weren’t from a poaching ring; they were seeking more common quarries, like clams and blue-claw crabs.
“The whole project was a surprise. We went in with the pretty strong expectation that this was illegal poaching activity—that there was big money involved,” Lombroso explained. “Most of the poachers we met were doing it because they had no other choice. They were hungry. This was a cheaper food option than they’d get at the supermarket and, as a result of the pandemic, they were getting squeezed economically in a way they didn’t expect.”
Bucket by bucket, illegal crabbers are less likely to hurt the ecosystem of Jamaica Bay than they are to hurt themselves. Eating bottom-dwellers harvested from the bay—even at quantities that are legal—poses a health risk. Pollutants that accumulate in the sea creatures may make them dangerous to consume. “The film became less about how bad this is environmentally and more about the public-health risks,” Lombroso said.
“I call the Hudson River down to Jamaica Bay a beautiful hazardous-waste site,” remarks David O. Carpenter in “Greywater.” Carpenter is a professor of environmental-health sciences at suny Albany, where he directs the Institute for Health and the Environment. In 1972, the Clean Water Act amendments forced changes that improved the water quality in New York Harbor and its environs; before that, the area was something of an open sewer. But the bottom silt—which the biologist John Waldman called “flocculent material” that resembles “black mayonnaise” in his book “Heartbeats in the Muck”—was saturated with toxins from two G.E. plants’ thirty-year pattern of negligent releases fifty miles north of Albany. G.E. was hosing out routine spills of PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyls, a class of man-made chemicals that don’t readily break down in nature, and that were banned in 1979, thought to cause brain damage and cancer and raise the risk of diabetes and other chronic diseases.
Lombroso was confronting two kinds of invisibility. PCBs are invisible in water and tasteless in the creatures in which they build up. And the people ingesting them are disempowered immigrants who wade out into darkness in a place seldom visited. The bobbing lights in the water turned out not to be a sign of some large-scale poaching operation. Instead, they revealed that several often unseen problems—economic hardship and food insecurity, long-term ecological degradation and pollution—had reached a confluence in the bay.
‘Greywater’ unraveled a complex and multilayered story where it led with great care, extraordinary visual documentation, and beautifully told storytelling.