NJ pours money into Barnegat Bay studies; critics want action

Poor Barnegat Bay has long been a concern among environmentalists, state officials and even -- or perhaps especially -- summer beach-goers who confront masses of sea nettles, odd sponges washing ashore and a scarcity of clams.

Scientists say one of the chief problems is an overload of nutrients that cause huge blooms of algae that then smother the natural sea grasses, which are the drives of the aquatic ecosystem.

Aside from being an ecological resource in its own right, the Bay also pumps millions of tourism dollars into the local economy.

Today, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection announced $1.2 million in funding for ten studies to be done in partnership with leading research institutions to seal the deal on what's wrong with the bay and what to do about it.

Criticism was swift and vigorous.

"Barnegat Bay being studied to death," said the New Jersey Sierra Club. "Instead of coming up with real polices to clean up the water going in to the Bay, the Christie Administration is more concerned about press releases and studies than putting in place better protections."

The Sierra Club said the bay's deteriorating health has long been confirmed in numerous studies.

“They are studying to see if the Bay is eutrophic but NOAA already did a study saying the Barnegat Bay is the second most eutrophic Bay in the country. While they are doing their studies, the Bay will end up being a dead, stagnant, lifeless body of water,” said Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel.

Indeed, if you check the work of Rutgers University's Mike Kennish, or the website of the Barnegat Bay Partnership, one of 28 Congressionally designated National Estuary Programs, they're thick with studies.

DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese said that earlier studies are all valuable, but that there are gaps in the data. "We intend to fill all those gaps so that we fully understand what makes this bay really tick," he said. Officials are saying the effort will result in the most comprehensive scientific analysis ever for the bay.

"We think it fits right into what the critics have been calling for," he said.

But, yes, it will take a while. Ragonese said that officials anticipated the studies will be completed by 2014, although they expect some results to come in earlier.

The studies will be performed by the Rutgers University Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences, the New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium, Montclair State University, Rider University, Monmouth University and the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, in cooperation with the DEP.

"The results of these studies will fill in data gaps and arm us with critical information that will help define future actions we must take to restore the bay and bring it back from many decades of decline. We are extremely fortunate to have such a pool of talent and expertise in marine sciences so close at hand to assist us as we nurse the bay back to health," said DEP commissioner Bob Martin.

Last year, timed to the announcement that the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant on Barnegat Bay would close by 2019, Gov. Christie put forward a ten-point restoration plan for the bay. Since then, New Jersey has passed what is believed to be the nation's toughest fertilizer law, aimed at addressing the flow of excess fertilizer -- nutrients, in other words -- from the land into the bay.

Other parts of the plan include low-cost funding for local governments to improve stormwater control projects, acquisition and protection of land in the watershed to filter pollutants and provide buffers, and development of a Special Area Management Plan to improve coordination among planning jurisdictions.

Stan Hales, executive director of the Barnegat Bay Partnership, praised today's announcement. "These studies represent the most comprehensive research commitment to the Barnegat Bay in the past 30 to 40 years, perhaps ever," he said. "The studies address numerous information gaps about the bay's fundamental ecology. They should provide us with a more complete understanding of the bay's current condition and the extent to which the bay's ecology has changed."

The DEP said that, over last summer, its Division of Water Quality Monitoring and Standards  launched a bay-wide water quality monitoring network to gather data from both the bay and its tributaries on pollutants, sources of those pollutants, and how water flow affects the health of the bay.

Following are the projects announced today:

Benthic Invertebrate Community Monitoring and Indicator Development for the Barnegat Bay-Little Egg Harbor Estuary

Partner: Rutgers Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences

Project amount: $171,633

The DEP currently uses the presence and abundance of bottom-dwelling, or benthic, invertebrates to gauge the health of streams. This study will evaluate the feasibility of taking the same approach for estuaries, using benthic invertebrate species such as clams and worms to assess nutrient impairments caused by nitrogen and phosphorus.


Barnegat Bay Diatom Nutrient Inference Model

Partners: New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium, Academy of Natural Sciences

Project amount: $108,207

DEP water quality monitoring of Barnegat Bay for nitrogen and phosphorus did not start until 1989, but salt marsh sediments hold signatures of nutrient loadings going back hundreds of years in the form of diatoms from past algae blooms. This study will evaluate these clues for the development of biologically-defensible nutrient criteria for New Jersey’s bays.


Benthic-Pelagic Coupling: Hard Clams as Indicators of Suspended Particulates in the Barnegat Bay

Partner: Rutgers Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences

Project amount: $132,398

Hard clams were once the most commercially important shellfish species in Barnegat Bay, but studies indicate that clam stock decreased by about 67 percent from 1986 to 2001. This study will determine whether a change in food quality is a factor in the decline, and will evaluate whether efforts to deal with the eutrophication process can reverse this trend.


Assessment of Fish and Crab Responses to Human Alteration of Barnegat Bay

Partners: Rutgers Institute for Marine and Coastal Sciences, Rider University

Project amount: $233,297

Fish and crabs are important resources in the bay, harvested both recreationally and commercially. However no comprehensive studies of their populations in the bay have been done since the 1970s, when the pace of development increased greatly in the bay’s watershed. This study will work to determine how fish and crabs responded to this urbanization.


Assessment of the Distribution and Abundance of Stinging Sea Nettles

Partner: Montclair State University

Project amount: $83,333

Little is known about the increase in the abundance and distribution of stinging sea nettles in Barnegat Bay. This study will investigate possible causes for an increase in this type of jellyfish, including the increased construction of hard submerged surfaces such as bulkheads and docks that provide suitable attachments for juvenile jellyfish as well as low oxygen conditions that may give jellyfish an advantage over other species.


Baseline Characterization of Phytoplankton and Harmful Algal Blooms

Partners: New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium, the Academy of Natural Sciences

Project amount: $101,934

Phytoplankton consists of microscopic plants that float in the water column or live on the bottom, forming the base of a complex food web. This study will investigate the interactions between nutrient loadings, phytoplankton responses, and harmful algae blooms.


Baseline Characterization of Zooplankton in Barnegat Bay

Partner: Monmouth University

Project amount: $100,000

Zooplankton includes larval fish and other species that form an important food web link to other species such as crabs, clams and fish. However, the last definitive studies of zooplankton in the bay were conducted in the 1970s in conjunction with operations at the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant. New information will be needed on the abundance and distribution of these organisms as a baseline for comparison once the plant shuts down.


Multi-Trophic Level Modeling of Barnegat Bay

Partner: Rutgers Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences

Project amount: $130,000

Natural resource management within Barnegat Bay has occurred on an individual species level, such as in the management of hard clams on state-approved shellfish beds. The goal of this project is to improve understanding of how natural and human changes have affected the bay’s biota so models can be developed to determine how these resources will respond to management actions.


Tidal Freshwater and Salt Marsh Wetland Studies of Changing Ecological Function and Adaptation Strategies

Partners: New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium, the Academy of Natural Sciences

Project amount: $100,000

More than 28 percent of Barnegat Bay’s tidal marshes were lost to development between 1940 and 1970. However, recent studies show that wetlands in Barnegat Bay can remove some 80 percent of the nitrogen that flows into from the land. This study will improve understanding of this process and how wetlands can prevent algae blooms, low oxygen conditions and fish kills.


Ecological Evaluation of Sedge Island Marine Conservation Area in Barnegat Bay

Partner: Rider University

Project amount: $55,865

Shallow water surrounding the Sedge Islands in the bay off Island Beach State Park serves as a nursery for blue claw crabs, hard clams and fish. This study will evaluate the effectiveness of the state’s Sedge Island Marine Conservation Zone, established to protect ecologically sensitive marshlands, tidal creeks and open water from damage from motorboats and personal water craft.


For more information on the studies, visit: http://www.state.nj.us/dep/barnegatbay/plan-research.htm


For more on the Christie Administration’s 10-point restoration plan, visit: http://www.nj.gov/dep/barnegatbay/