Report offers bleak outlook for Barnegat Bay

The outlook for Barnegat Bay is getting bleaker all the time.

In a new multiyear study by the Rutgers University Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences, three researchers concluded overdevelopment and the resultant pollution pose a serious threat to the Barnegat Bay/Little Egg Harbor Estuary, leading to a long-term decline in the ecosystem.

“This study paints a bleak picture of the ecological health of the Barnegat Bay/Little Egg Harbor Estuary,” said Michael Kennish, a longtime researcher of problems in the bay.

The estuary’s problems are manifold, the most pressing involves eutrophication of the bay, a process by which nutrients in polluted runoff, primarily nitrogen and phosphorus, generate rapid algae blooms.

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“These and other effects will continue unless highly aggressive management actions and effective planning are implemented,” according to the study “Assessment of Nutrient Loading and Eutrophication in Barnegat Bay-Little Egg Harbor.”

Sobering report

The report is especially sobering given that the Legislature and the Christie administration have made reversing the bay’s decline a top priority, passing a series of bills to thwart some of the biggest pollution threats, including a measure touted as the nation’s toughest law dealing with fertilizers.

But many conservationists say the measures fall short of addressing the core problem in the Barnegat Bay/Little Egg Harbor watershed — overdevelopment. The study dwelled on that issue.

“Nutrient enrichment of the estuary has been closely coupled to development … and the history stretches across decades,” the study noted.

Between 1995 and 2006, the study said, the watershed lost 625 acres of forested land and another 375 acres of wetlands. Tidal marshes, an important habitat to a wide range of marine life, declined by 8 percent. Meanwhile, the amount of urban land area increased from 87,757 acres to 103,766 acres.

The study hardly sounded an optimistic note on reversing that trend, predicting with ongoing population growth in the region, watershed habitats will continue to be partitioned and developed.

“The challenges posed by these changes will require effective management … and improved engineering controls to mitigate future impacts on the estuary,” according to the study.

Conservationists were not hopeful that those measures will take place.

Helen Henderson, policy advocate for the American Littoral Society, noted that Ocean County’s new sewer service plan, would fail to achieve that goal.

“You need to protect the land to protect the bay. We need to protect every acre of forest that we can,” she said. “This proposal doesn’t get us there.”

Tim Dillingham, executive director of the society, agreed. “They are planning to expand the lands that will be developed, which is the root cause of the problems in the bay,” he said. “That’s a huge disconnect, between what we know the science is telling us.”

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the report shows the state needs to take stronger action to protect the bay. “This report is an alarm bell going off that Barnegat Bay will die unless strong programs are put in place to protect the bay,” he said.

Controlling the runoff

The Sierra Club and other environmental organizations have been pressing the Christie administration to declare the entire bay impaired, a designation that would allow the state Department of Environmental Protection to establish limits on how much runoff can flow into the waterway.

One of the most effective tools to control that runoff, they argue, is to establish Total Maximum Discharge Limits to reduce the amount of pollution flowing into the bay. It is similar to what has been done to deal with problem in Chesapeake Bay, but an approach that the state so far has yet to endorse.

In the study, the problems caused by pollution of the Barnegat Bay/Little Egg Harbor Estuary range from a sharp decline in eel grass, an important habitat for marine life, to a sharp decline in hard clam populations, and an increase in sea nettles, a type of jellyfish, which has made it impossible to swim in some areas of the bay.

The study was not hopeful that the situation with sea nettles would be solved anytime soon. “There is no clear solution to the proliferation of sea nettles in the estuary,” it concluded.

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