Controversial ocean-floor study off N.J. gets final federal go-ahead

A Rutgers study that would aim sound blasts deep into the ocean floor off the New Jersey coast to study sea-level changes from as long as 50 million years ago has passed its final regulatory hurdle.

On Tuesday, the National Marine Fisheries Service gave approval for a "take" of marine mammal species - an acknowledgment that whales, dolphins, and other species may be disturbed or otherwise affected by the sound blasts.

The service has said it does not expect any marine mammals to die.

Environmental and fisheries groups have objected to the study because of the harm they say it will cause not only to marine mammals but also to commercial and recreational fisheries.

"This is a terrible decision," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "It is wrong for our coast because it will hurt our environment and marine animals.

"We believe the Christie administration should not let this go unchallenged," he said.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection had attempted to intervene, asking the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration if it could review the project to determine effects, but it was rebuffed.

Now "they're ready to go," Rutgers spokesman Carl Blesch said of the study participants. A specialized research vessel was in New York Harbor, he said, and preparations were being made to begin the study.

The study area is about 15 miles southeast of Barnegat Inlet on Long Beach Island.

Equipment on the National Science Foundation-owned vessel will release pulses of sound every five seconds over the course of about a month. Acoustic sensors towed behind the vessel will pick up the returning sound waves, and computers will turn the data into a representation of ancient inlets, coastlines, and other features.

Understanding of past sea-level changes could lead to better predictions of what might happen with sea-level rise in the future, the researchers have said.

The project is being led by Rutgers geologist Gregory Mountain, who said recently that "I predict we're going to see things we have never seen off the coast of New Jersey."

Cindy Zipf, executive director of the environmental group Clean Ocean Action, which has fought the project, said last week that state officials had been "blindsided" by the project and had acted promptly when they learned of it.

The group is hosting a town hall meeting at 5 p.m. Wednesday at the Barnegat Light Volunteer Fire Company on Long Beach Island.

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