In late September, Brady J. Wilkins was appointed the new Peconic Baykeeper (PBK), an advocacy position dedicated to safeguarding the waters of the Peconic and the South Shore. Wilkins brings to the job a lifetime spent on and around the water, and a background in teaching that will allow him to reach out to the next generation on the East End.
Although Wilkins is new to his post with the nonprofit Peconic Baykeeper organization, he began his relationship with Long Island waterways in his childhood. He grew up in Blue Point, and spent most of his free time on the family boat out on the Patchogue River. “Fire Island was sort of my backyard,” Wilkins says. He also remembers talking with his parents’ friends about the water quality, and the abundance of shellfish in the area. ”My parents were the only ones with young kids—I had a lot of older mentors. I got to see Long Island from a different perspective.” Now, Wilkins has kids of his own, two daughters ages 14 and 9.
Wilson’s professional life on the water began at age 14 when he started working at the Davis Park Ferry Company. By age 20, Wilkins had earned his captain’s license. “I knew I wanted to teach—but I felt I needed some more experience,” he says. He wanted to bring into his classroom a broad scope and understanding, and so he went to the Pacific Northwest to gain experience with different waterways.
On the Puget Sound, Wilkins captained an excursion boat, taking visitors out onto the busy Sound. “We would take people from the middle of the country and take them out on three-day whale watching trips,” he says. During this time, Wilkins continued his education, a theme that is part of his personality. “I’m a lifelong learner,” Wilkins admits. A licensed teacher, Wilkins has a Master’s degree in Childhood Education, and is also a licensed U.S. Coast Guard Merchant Marine officer.
In his position with the PBK, Wilkins is excited to be combining his love of teaching with his passion for and experience on the water, which dovetails perfectly with the PBK’s plan to expand outreach into the area of education.
On the elementary school level, Wilkins can help bring hands-on learning opportunities to create excitement for students—a natural pairing of a school’s science curriculum with the area’s natural resources. “They’re learning about the Mohawk River. Why can’t we focus on the Peconic River? We need to engage our students in the environment before we ask them to protect it. I want to engage people to empower them. The more science-based information they have, the more they can make informed decisions,” Wilkins asserts.
Wilkins’ experience as a teacher has included teaching both science and special education. He says, “I’ve always wanted to make a difference, and I have found that working with children—the world is their oyster.”
Wilkins points out that the PBK is the 19th sanctioned member of the Waterkeeper Alliance (WA), which licenses more than 220 international Waterkeepers on “the principle that protection of a community’s natural resources depends upon the vigilance of its citizens.” The Waterkeeper Alliance’s roots reach back to 1966, when a group of commercial and recreational fisherman joined forces to clean up the Hudson River, at that time in a dangerous state of pollution. By 1992, the network of keepers patrolling U.S. waterways, founded the National Alliance of River, Sound and Baykeepers, adopting in 1999 the current name of the Waterkeeper Alliance. While the PBK is a licensed member of the Waterkeeper Alliance, it is, like all other organizations of the WA, unique, arising from the needs of our community, and self-sustaining with its own board of directors.
Aiding Wilkins and the PBK in their mission to educate the public is Kathy, the PBK’s floating science station. The boat, a 1970s Dyer, received a much-needed facelift last year and is now ready for action. The board of the PBK is hoping to reach out to small school groups and bring them out onto the water.
“The water is our muse,” Wilkins says, but it is also our life. “We have a sole source aquifer,” Wilkins says of the unique circumstance we have with regard to our water source on Long Island. “What happens on Long Island, stays on Long Island. That’s good, because we can control our own destiny. We need systemic change. Anything in the water comes from the land.” With pollution such an omnipresent concern, it’s encouraging to hear Wilkins say “I see this area as a model for sustainable living.” He is a firm believer that “nature can rebuild.”
Wilkins has many of reasons to love the water—he met his wife on the Fire Island Ferry. She was a passenger, he was a deck hand. “She was sort of a captive audience,” he jokes. Together, they are sharing their enthusiasm for life on the water with their daughters. “We take the kids to Fire Island as late in the season as we can. Now, with the new breach,” Wilkins refers to the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy and its impact on Fire Island’s coast, “there are so many opportunities to explore.”
Of his new post as the Peconic Baykeeper, Wilkins remarks that he has been moving toward the position his entire life. “I did not have a clear path,” he says, but all of his experiences, both in the classroom and on the water, have been leading him to this.