Saving Barnegat: Development and Pollution Threaten A Delicate Ecosystem

Barnegat Bay was once a vast food factory brimming with marine life. But development has degraded the bay’s ecosystem, affecting everything from the shellfish industry to tourism. Is the state doing enough to turn the tide on this man-made crisis?

Barnegat Bay
Fishermen bemoan the decline of Barnegat Bay’s clam beds. In the town of Barnegat, pleasure boats dock near a public beach. Pollution has increased the number of jellyfish, a menace to swimmers.
Photo by Matthew Wright.

A late March snowfall has begun to speckle the dark surface of Little Egg Harbor and Barnegat Bay. At 8:30 am, the air temperature in the seaport of Tuckerton hovers around freezing as Dale Parsons Jr. prepares to spend another day on the water.

“You need a really good wetsuit on days like this,” says Parsons, 35, as he crunches across a shell-strewn parking lot and into the seafood shop and packinghouse his family has owned for more than a century. “Last thing you want is to be cold and wet out on the bay.”

Since 1909, Parsons Seafood has thrived as one the most successful retail and wholesale shellfish markets in the state. In the 1940s, when Campbell’s Soup churned out cans of chowder by the truckload, Dale Jr.’s grandfather would often ship more than 9 million unshucked clams a year to its Camden factory. Every ounce of that bounty was hauled out of Barnegat Bay.

In its early years, Parsons Seafood regularly bought clams from more than 80 area baymen—rugged, salt-of-the-earth individuals who took to the water every morning and returned every afternoon loaded to the gunwales with hard-shell clams. The equipment was simple: a clamming boat and a rake. You skimmed the bay floor—much of it is less than 5 feet deep—and clams came up by the hundreds.

These days as much as 90 percent of the clams Parsons sells are farm raised. “There just aren’t enough clams in the bay anymore to support the industry,” he says. “If we didn’t have the farm-raised stuff, we’d have gone out of business a long time ago.”

In recent decades, unprecedented residential and commercial development has degraded Barnegat Bay’s ecosystem, adversely affecting everything from the shellfish industry to summer tourism. Lately, the deteriorated condition of the bay has alarmed scientists, advocacy groups and even Governor Chris Christie, who in 2010 called halting the bay’s decline “one of my top environmental priorities.”

Yet despite increased attention, the question remains: Can Barnegat Bay be saved?

“It’s depressing,” Parsons says. “That’s the best way to describe it. Five generations of my family have based their livelihoods off what the bay has offered. And it’s entirely gone. There’ve been marinas, bait shops, boat services and countless other businesses that have closed up shop because there’s no reason to go out into the bay anymore. You’re not going fishing. You’re not going clamming. There’s nothing there.”

At the turn of the 19th century, Barnegat Bay was a vast protein factory brimming with marine life. Flocks of waterfowl would darken the skies above this watery smorgasbord. Generations of baymen supported their families on the bay’s tireless abundance. Hunters slogged around its 42 miles of secluded shoreline to bag ducks and geese.

To the casual observer, Barnegat Bay’s 75 square aquatic mile estuary system appear little changed. In winter, the expanse of brackish water extending from the Point Pleasant Canal south to Little Egg Harbor Inlet looks as pristine and primal as it did more than a century ago. In summer, sunlight glistens on the water, and the gentle lapping of the waves sounds as peaceful as ever.

But below the surface, the bay is quite different. The changes largely are attributed to the rivers and streams of the bay’s 660 square miles of watershed—the massive areas of Ocean County and parts of Monmouth County that naturally drain into the bay.

In the early 1960s, about 107,000 people lived in Ocean County. By the 1980s, the population had more than tripled to about 346,000. By 2010, the number had reached 576,000—and those are just year-round residents. During the summer, the county swells to more than 1.2 million people.

“That’s an extraordinary number of people surrounding a bay that’s less than 100 square miles,” says Mike Kennish, a research professor in the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University. “That’s really the crux of it.”

People bring with them all kinds of baggage beyond suitcases. Start with fertilizers that deposit excess nitrogen and phosphorus into the watershed through runoff. Add impervious surfaces like roads and parking lots that prevent the ground from absorbing and filtering the pollutants before they flow into the bay and its estuaries. Top that off with a nuclear power plant (at Oyster Creek) that sucks more than a billion gallons of bay water a day to cool its reactor, trapping and killing uncountable numbers of aquatic organisms. And those are just the most obvious threats.

“The state of the bay right now is dire,” says Willie deCamp, president of Save Barnegat Bay, a nonprofit educational and advocacy group dedicated to restoring and preserving the bay since 1971. While gratified that awareness of the bay’s plight is growing, he says, “The bay has gone downhill and will continue to go downhill unless the people and the powers that be help make significant changes.”

Even in its troubled state, the bay remains home to a fascinating, interwoven array of marine life. The area is credited with an estimated $4 billion in annual economic value for the state. The commercial fishing ports alone bring in about $48 million in annual revenue—mostly derived from ocean fishing—collectively ranking them 16th among U.S. ports, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

While commercial fishermen can no longer count on the bay, recreational fishing remains a key driver for the bay’s economic machinery. According to a University of Delaware study, summer flounder, the most fished-for species in the bay, accounts for about 2.5 million fishing trips each year. The bay also attracts millions of recreational boaters, bird watchers and beachgoers, totalling more than 4 million visitors each summer.

Swimmers are acutely aware of the bay’s issues, thanks to a dramatic increase in colonies of stinging jellyfish over the past decade. The pesky and painful swarms—believed by scientists to be attracted by the bay’s excess of nitrogen, which depletes the oxygen and allows jellyfish to thrive—have rendered certain portions of the bay extremely unpleasant for swimming, while boaters worry about the creatures clogging their engines.

“The stinging jellies really awakened the public’s consciousness,” says deCamp. “Before that, the water was sparkling and halcyon…. But when the jellies came along, the people who had been swimming off the bay beaches found it harder and harder to do. That alerted the public to what the baymen had known for more than a generation—the bay was in trouble.”

The greatest menace to Barnegat Bay is called eutrophication, an overload of nitrogen and phosphorus that leads to rapid algae blooms. The algae grow so prolifically that they consume much of the oxygen in the water and block sunlight needed to support eel grass, an essential part of the marine habitat for the likes of clams and oysters.

For several decades, the bay has taken on far more nitrogen and phosphorus than is desirable, due to the fallout of overdevelopment, including the proliferation of impervious surfaces like pavement, and the use of fertilizers, which account for about 30 percent of the nitrogen deposited in the watershed.

“It’s like feeding someone too much food,” says Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society in Sandy Hook, an environmental advocacy group formed by scientists, divers and fishermen in 1961. “Estuaries thrive on a very specific amount of nutrients coming in, and when you get too many coming in and not enough going out, you start to see shifts in the natural ecology.”

More than 60 percent of the nitrogen deposited into the bay each year, Kennish says, comes from the northern part of Ocean County—from Metedeconk south to Toms River.

“This all leads to a cascading effect on the larger food web of the bay and its estuaries,” he explains. “It’s such a serious problem that it begins to destroy the network that holds the system together, like a cancer on the natural environment.” The excess nutrients wouldn’t be such a serious problem if not for three characteristics of the bay and its watershed.

First, whatever goes into Barnegat Bay tends to stay there a long time, Kennish says. Bigger bodies of water in the region, such as the Delaware and Raritan bays, are fed by large river-driven estuaries and ocean inlets that act like enormous purifying pumps, rapidly filtering the bay water and sending it out to the sea.

Barnegat Bay, on the other hand, is a coastal lagoon walled off from the Atlantic by long barrier islands and fed by much smaller estuaries. Water entering the bay takes about 74 days to turn over during summer months, less in winter. That means pollutants hang around.

Second, when the Ocean and Monmouth county development boom started in the second half of the 20th century, the soil was compacted to support roads and buildings. That impedes natural filtration. According to recent studies by the Ocean County Soil Conservation District, compacted sands in much of the northern watershed have a density approaching that of concrete.

Finally, more than 2,500 storm-water basins in the area empty into the bay. The basins—built to collect rainwater and prevent flooding—are not designed to filter pollutants. Thus, heavy rainfalls flush the pollutants into the bay.

“Between the compacted soil, these water basins and impervious surfaces like roads, driveways and parking lots, nothing is being filtered,” says Kennish. “Then you add more people, more lawns, more fertilizer, and this is what you get. Our analysis at Rutgers is that things are beyond the tipping point of what the bay can handle.”

In December 2010, Governor Christie thrust Barnegat Bay into the spotlight by unveiling a 10-point action plan to “prevent further degradation of the bay and begin the restoration of this incredible New Jersey resource.”

The ambitious checklist called for funding to reduce storm-water runoff and pollution from fertilizer; the acquistion of land in the watershed to protect it from further development; and the shutdown of the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant in the Forked River section of Lacey Township.

“I think it’s been a very successful plan,” says Kerry Kirk Pflugh, manager of constituent services for the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and liaison to two national estuary programs. “We’re by no means done, and a lot of work remains. But I think we’ve made tremendous progress on each of these points. Some more than others.”

On the plus side, Christie struck a deal with the Chicago-based Exelon Corp. to close Oyster Creek in 2019, a decade earlier than originally slated. The governor also made $28.8 million available for storm-water management projects to help retrofit the existing basins with up-to-date designs that filter out pollutants.

Christie has also committed nearly $3 million to the purchase and preservation of more than 2,000 watershed acres, including 180 acres recently added to the DEP’s Forestry Resource Education Center in Jackson, 306 acres added to Double Trouble State Park, and 836 acres of previously unprotected Pinelands in Ocean Township. The governor has said the state is committed to purchasing about 30,000 acres of watershed property over the next 30 years.

To tackle the nutrient problem, Christie signed legislation in January 2011 that established the strictest fertilizer standards in the nation. Under the new rules, all fertilizer sold in the state must contain at least 20 percent slow-release nitrogen, which is not water-soluble and doesn’t wash away as easily, and zero phosphorus. The law also bars the use of fertilizer between November and March, when the ground is often hard or frozen and impervious.

“He’s made a tremendous commitment to the bay, and I think he deserves credit for that,” says Stan Hales, director of the Barnegat Bay Partnership, one of 28 National Estuary Programs throughout the United States aimed at improving the health of the country’s waterways. “But it’s important to remember that these problems didn’t pop up overnight, and they’re not going to be fixed overnight.”

Hales says he is optimistic that the governor’s plan will produce substantial results in the long run. He notes, however, that 35 percent of the bay’s watershed is developed. The fate of the remaining 65 percent is uncertain.

“We need to think more carefully about how we treat the land,” Hales says. “We’ve let people develop right up to the water’s edge, and that’s generally not a good thing to do anywhere. We need to do a better job addressing the problem at its source.”

Politically speaking, that is a tricky matter. According to Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, the Barnegat watershed falls under three different, and often conflicting, jurisdictions. About a third lies in the Pinelands, which are protected by state and federal law from development. Another third lies in the Coastal Zone, where development is regulated by the state DEP. And the final, northernmost chunk is subject to municipal zoning. Without a coordinated effort, residential and commercial sprawl could conceivably proceed at its current pace.

Consider how much growth has occurred in just one area town. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the population of Lakewood in Ocean County expanded from 60,352 in 2000 to 92,843 in 2010. That 54 percent jump has made Lakewood the seventh most populous municipality in the state.

Like Hales, Montgomery is pleased that an action plan exists, but maintains that the state “has not done enough.” He points out that the governor’s plan calls for the establishment of a Special Area Management Plan (SAMP), comprising members of the Barnegat Bay Partnership and “other planning authorities in the region.” The SAMP’s mission is to forge a political consensus on land use in the watershed, recommend research and restoration projects to the DEP and devise low-impact development standards. To date, only one preliminary SAMP meeting has been held, and no others are scheduled.

Montgomery also notes in regard to the 10-point plan that the state has yet to adopt standards for soil restoration and that storm-water retrofitting “has not gone far enough to make any substantial difference to the bay as a whole.” Of the 2,500 basins, only 10 have been retrofitted.

“When push comes to shove,” he concludes, “saving the bay means protecting the land, and we have not seen a willingness to make the hard choices necessary to protect the land in Ocean County.”

Christie has taken heat from other quarters for not getting tougher on water quality and for underfunding the storm-water basin project.

The Democrat-controlled Legislature approved a bill in 2011 that would have required the DEP to establish Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) for pollutants in water entering the bay through runoff. Christie conditionally vetoed the measure.

“That was very disappointing,” says Dillingham. “TMDLs are basically pollution budgets that allow the DEP to say, ‘Okay, this is specifically how much pollution the bay can handle.’ It was an incredibly powerful tool in saving the Chesapeake Bay and would have been an equally powerful tool for Barnegat.”

In August 2011, the Legislature approved a bill aimed at aggressively improving Ocean County’s storm-water basins. According to state Senator Bob Smith, a Democrat and chairman of the Environmental and Energy Committee, the bill would have levied annual fees on businesses and homes with large, impervious surfaces in the county’s 33 communities. The money would have been used to retrofit basins and establish a storm-water utility in the county.

As the bill moved through the Legislature, the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders unanimously denounced it as a burdensome tax on residents and business owners. Christie eventually vetoed the bill, noting that his 10-point plan sets aside $17 million in state and federal funds for 25 storm-water initiatives in Ocean County. But Smith, a longtime bay advocate, estimates it would cost about $270 million to retrofit all 2,500 watershed basins.

“If you want to call it a tax, fine,” he says. “But there’s no free lunch. If you want to fix the problem, you need to pay to do it. It frustrates me greatly, because we have the tools to solve the problem but people are unwilling to take appropriate action. This is not about partisan politics. It’s about cleaning up this bay.”

Ultimately, the fate of Barnegat Bay rests with the public as much as with politicians. Over the past four decades numerous nonprofits and grassroots partnerships have sprung up devoted to restoring the bay and raising public awareness about the need to do so.

The Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Ocean County started an initiative in 2005 in partnership with the NJ DEP, known as the Barnegat Bay Shellfish Restoration Program. In 2007, the BBSRP created a companion nonprofit known as ReClam the Bay, composed of more than 100 volunteers who each year help repopulate the bay with farm-raised clams and oysters and inform the public about the bay’s health and ways to reduce watershed pollution.

“People definitely know what’s at stake now,” says Gef Flimlin, a marine extension agent with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension. “Remember, people didn’t move to Ocean County to go skiing or horseback riding. They moved here because of the bay and the ocean. They understand that this is a priority and that it’s our responsibility to play a part in protecting it.”

Nick DiUlio is South Jersey bureau chief for New Jersey Monthly.



Sandy Left Her Mark Here, Too
Tons of submerged debris and displaced sand from the hurricane continue to menace the bay.

As if Barnegat Bay didn’t already have enough to deal with, Hurricane Sandy last fall compounded some of the bay’s ecological problems while adding a few new ones.

The first issue is debris. Since February, the state has removed thousands of cubic yards of storm-tossed junk from the bay. Cars, shattered boats, furniture and even entire houses were washed away by the fierce winds and raging floodwaters.

“The amount of debris that’s out there is rather overwhelming,” says Kerry Kirk Pflugh, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

According to Pflugh, most areas of the bay are safe for boating, fishing and swimming, but debris cleanup will continue throughout the summer (along with water-quality tests), at a cost to the state of several million dollars. What’s more, the state has asked boaters to use caution this summer while navigating the bay and its surrounding waterways in order to avoid running into submerged debris that has yet to be removed.

“The effort to remove all of this junk has been tremendous, but a lot of stuff will be missed,” says state Senator Bob Smith, chairman of the Environmental and Energy Committee and a longtime bay advocate.

Sandy also had an ecological impact. According to Mike Kennish, research professor at Rutgers University’s Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences, Sandy’s storm surge carried tons of beach sand from the barrier islands and deposited it into the bay, potentially damaging the bay’s sea-grass beds.

“Too much sand will cause a lot of these sea beds to die off, and if that happens it will have a very negative effect on the organisms that live in them,” says Kennish. “It’s a chain reaction that could wind up compounding the problems the bay’s already facing.”

For the last decade, Kennish and his colleagues have conducted studies on the bay’s ecosystem. This year, their studies will include how Sandy impacted the bay’s ecology.

“We won’t know for sure how this storm affected the bay for another two or three years, maybe more,” says Kennish. “This isn’t just about going out there, vacuuming the bottom of the bay and calling it a day. This was a real tragedy, and the impact is going to be felt for years to come.”

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