Report: Barnegat Bay Is In 'Significant Ecological Decline'

Rutgers report reveals development's effects on the region

Barnegat Bay (Patch File Photo: Daniel Nee)
Barnegat Bay (Patch File Photo: Daniel Nee)
The Barnegat Bay is in "significant ecological decline," as exemplified by harmful algae blooms, loss of eelgrass beds, a shrinking abundance of clams and a loss of marine habitat, a report from Rutgers University has found.

The report, authored by Rutgers researchers Michael Kennish, Benjamin Fertig and Richard Lathrop, says development - combined with the naturally slow flushing of Barnegat Bay with clean sea water - has caused the estuary which runs the length of Ocean County to become overburdened with nutrients and "highly eutrophied."

The culprit? Overdevelopment in the watershed area, the study found. The watershed is 34 percent developed – 25 percent of the area is considered "urban" by scientific standards – and a full 10 percent of the watershed is covered by impervious surfaces. The amount of development, combined with the bay's shallow depth and slow natural flushing mechanism makes it highly susceptible nutrient loading.

Eutrophication, the technical term for the ecosystem's natural response to such nutrient loading, has been effectively killing the waterway even if levels of other pollutants such as bacteria have been less of an issue. Nitrogen and phosphorous levels have been the two main contributors to habitat loss, and levels of both were significantly higher where there was areas of development, the study found. Phosphorous and nitrogen levels were also found to spike during the growing season and trail off during the non-growing season.

Eutrophication was most evident in the northern portion of the bay, with what the study's authors called "eutrophications values" declining at half the rate as the 1990s, indicating eutrophication had already occurred. The researchers scoured 20 years worth of data and found that despite certain periods of improvement – the latest being from 2006 to 2008 – there were much more dramatic drops that proved the waterway is in an overall state of decline.

According to the study, the cover and length of eel grass – which supports a multitude of bay species in the earliest stages of life – fell by more than half just over the course of the last decade.

“This study conclusively documents that Barnegat Bay is in deep trouble and may be spiraling to a point of ecological no return,” said Bill Wolfe, an environmental activist who is director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility's New Jersey chapter. The group, known by the acronym PEER, obtained the Rutgers report and distributed it this week. “The science is inescapable that our land use practices directly affect the health of the Bay.”

Wolfe's group is one of a slew of environmental organizations that have recommended the bay be declared legally "impaired," which would trigger a response under the federal Clean Water Act that would impose what is known as a "total maximum daily load," or TMDL, on the bay. A TMDL is a calculation of the maximum amount of a pollutant that a waterbody can receive and still safely meet water quality standards, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

If a TMDL is declared, New Jersey would likely receive federal funding to help keep the bay within what is effectively its daily pollutant limit by way of grants, education efforts and – sometimes – permitting and legislation.

Helen Henderson, Atlantic Coast Programs Manager for the American Littoral Society, said New Jersey has taken the view that Barnegat Bay needs work, but shouldn't be declared impaired. The state, she charges, accepts a certain level of pollution due to the amount of development.

"I say we can and must do a heck of a lot better than that," said Henderson. "The fact that the watershed is suburbanized has little if anything to do with the [Department of Environmental Protection] listing the Bay as impaired and working towards a pollution budget to bring it to ecological health."

Many environmental groups have applauded the efforts of Gov. Chris Christie to develop a plan to help restore the bay, but say they want it go farther.

Wolfe, a frequent Christie critic at public meetings, calls legislation that restricts the use of polluting fertilizer within the bay watershed "largely cosmetic," despite assurances from state officials that the law is one of the toughest of its kind in the nation.

The state has frequently touted its own efforts to improve the quality of the watershed, including negotiating an early closure of the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station, the organization of bay cleanups, frequent pollution enforcement sweeps during the summer season and funding the creation of a map of ecologically sensitive areas with the hope of developing a plan to preserve them. The state has also funded the installation of millions of dollars worth of stormwater basins to shield the bay from the nutrient loading referenced in the report.

Addtionally, the New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Trust and the DEP have made more than $20 million in low-interest and grant-like loans available to local governments for projects to reduce the impacts of stormwater.

Still, Wolfe said, his group will continue to push for the establishment of a TMDL as the best solution.

“This study should be guiding state policy on Barnegat Bay rather than gathering dust on a shelf,” said Wolfe.
JP July 17, 2014 at 09:46 AM
mike n July 17, 2014 at 10:01 AM
that looks so nice jp
Bill Westervelt July 20, 2014 at 07:04 AM
I attended one of the meetings that was held at their office at Ocean County College and suggested a new inlet be installed which would provide flushing of the bay. They responded with "it would allow invasive species into the bay" Never told me what the invasive species were! Sandy opened Mantalokin but was quickly closed and nearby in the 1800's, Cranbury inlet was where boats entered to port in Toms River but was partially closed by a hurricane and developers jumped on the closure to make Seaside Park. What Rutgers wants is funding to continue to keep study programs in place for their benefit.
SAM July 20, 2014 at 07:07 AM
Rock.n.Roll July 20, 2014 at 07:57 AM
Bill, they were totally mis-informed to give that as a reason. The real reason you cannot open another inlet is because it would raise the level of the bay waters to a point where they come further inland and flood properties. Their are many reasons the bay is in decline. Fertilizers leeching into the waters from residents lawn care, improper use of personal watercraft in back bay natural lagoons, wiping out marine life and killing what eel grass is left, over development along shore lines (even the state with overdeveloping the county park at the Mantoloking Bridge, and putting in too too many boat slips which will even increase more boats (gasoline leakage - I see the slicks every morning on top of the water !), crabbing with chicken for bait (pollutes the bay), I could go on, I live on the bay and see all the bad things going on. We already have an infiltration of sea nettles jelly fish which kills other marine life (came up from the Chessapeak Bay).


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