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The Shore at Risk:The Threats Facing New Jersey's Coastal Treasures and What it Will Take to Address Them
by Tony Dutzik, Frontier Group; Doug O'Malley, Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center
The Jersey shore is an incomparable recreational resource and natural treasure. But the health of the shore is in jeopardy. The warning signs are clear: declining populations of hard clams and seagrasses, increases in harmful algae blooms and jellyfish, continued problems with bacterial contamination at beaches, and problems with low dissolved oxygen levels in our near-shore waters.
There is no single cause of the problems facing the shore, but scientists have narrowed in on one culprit that is at the root of many of these challenges: the rapid development of houses, businesses, highways and parking lots in shore counties over the past several decades.
New Jerseyans have rallied time and again to save the shore. By taking action now to reduce the environmental impacts of development and address other ecological threats, New Jersey can protect the health of the shore for generations to come.
Rapid development in counties along the shore is a major contributor to water quality problems.
- The population of Ocean County has more than doubled since 1970, with 370,000 new residents moving into the county over the last four decades. During the summer, the population of the Barnegat Bay-Little Egg Harbor watershed doubles from 500,000 people to more than 1 million.
- Development brings with it an increase in “impervious surfaces” – roads, parking lots, roofs, etc. – that channel rainwater contaminated with fertilizers, pesticides and other pollutants into waterways. In 1972, development covered 18 percent of the Barnegat Bay-Little Egg Harbor watershed, which includes most of Ocean County and a sliver of Monmouth County. Now, development covers 30 percent of the watershed.
- The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 66 percent of the nitrogen pollution flowing into Barnegat Bay-Little Egg Harbor estuary comes from surface water, with most of the surface water discharge coming from the Metedeconk River and Toms River basins, which have experienced intensive development in recent years. Nitrogen is a key nutrient pollutant that fuels harmful algae blooms.
- Development also alters the natural flow of water along the shore. Each year, for example, 25 billion gallons of freshwater is withdrawn from surface water and groundwater sources in the Barnegat Bay watershed, with 14 billion gallons of that discharged as treated wastewater into the Atlantic Ocean. Excessive water withdrawals can contribute to changes in the salinity of estuaries such as Barnegat Bay, while depletion of groundwater in coastal communities can lead to saltwater intrusion of drinking water supplies, as has already occurred on Cape May.
Waterways along the shore experience nutrient pollution, low levels of dissolved oxygen, bacterial contamination and other problems that jeopardize wildlife and human recreation.
- Barnegat Bay-Little Egg Harbor and New Jersey’s more southerly inland bays from Great Bay (at the mouth of the Mullica River) south to Cape May are considered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to be highly eutrophic – meaning that they are susceptible to nutrient-fueled algae blooms that harm aquatic ecosystems and have the potential to deprive waterways of oxygen. Water quality conditions in Barnegat Bay-Little Egg Harbor have worsened over the past decade, while NOAA projects that nutrient related symptoms in the southern coastal bays are likely to worsen in the years to come.
- The entire Atlantic coast of New Jersey, from Sandy Hook to Cape May, along with some coastal bays, has been designated as “impaired” for dissolved oxygen by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Low dissolved oxygen levels have the potential to harm sea life – a low dissolved oxygen episode off the Jersey shore in 1976, for example, generated a 3,000 square mile “dead zone,” resulted in a federal disaster area declaration, and caused $1.33 billion in lost sales in the seafood industry.
- The number of beach closing days has been risen in recent years, from 79 days in 2005 to 180 days in 2009. Most closures are due to detected or anticipated bacterial contamination. In addition, New Jersey experienced medical waste wash-ups on beaches in each of the three summers from 2007 to 2009, after many years in which such incidents were rare or non-existent.
- The Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station at the southern end of Barnegat Bay imposes its own damage on coastal ecosystems. Since 1992, at least 15 endangered sea turtles have been found dead at the plant, many of them after becoming trapped on the screens protecting the intake to the plant’s cooling system. Those impacts are in addition to the regular discharge of heated water to the bay.
Water quality problems on the shore are damaging wildlife and have the potential to harm recreation and New Jersey’s economy.
- Barnegat Bay-Little Egg Harbor has lost much of its seagrass and shellfish population. Hard clam harvests in Barnegat Bay-Little Egg Harbor declined by more than 99 percent between the early 1970s and 2000, and bay scallops – which sustained a busy fishery in the 1950s – are virtually absent from the bay today. Seagrasses such as eelgrass, which provide shelter and food for a variety of fish species in the bay, have experienced a similar steep decline, with aboveground eelgrass biomass in the bay having declined by 50 percent between 2004 and 2006.
- New Jersey’s coastal waters have seen regular blooms of harmful algae, including “red tides,” “green tides” and “brown tides” that trigger oxygen depletion and can be toxic to sea life and, in some cases, humans. Brown tide, which appeared in Barnegat Bay-Little Egg Harbor for the first time in 1995, is particularly hazardous to bay scallops.
- Barnegat Bay-Little Egg Harbor has also seen repeated “eruptions” of stinging sea nettle jellyfish since they first arrived in the bay in 2000. Research suggests that nutrient pollution can enhance jellyfish blooms, which have periodically driven swimmers from the water in recent summers.
- Numerous species of fish – including many migratory fish such as winter flounder and weakfish – depend on Barnegat Bay-Little Egg Harbor and New Jersey’s near-shore waters as spawning or nursery grounds. The impact of the ecological decline of Barnegat Bay and other Atlantic coastal bays on the declining populations of these fish is unknown. The same is true of the many migratory birds that use New Jersey’s coastal bays as a stop-over on their migrations.
- The decline of shellfish and finfish stocks in coastal bays and in the Atlantic has harmed New Jersey’s once-vibrant fishing industry. The number of clammers in Barnegat Bay has reportedly fallen from 250 to eight since the 1950s, while the state’s total commercial catch from all fisheries in 2008 was just 30 percent of its peak level in the 1950s.
- Threats to water quality and wildlife along the shore also imperil the state’s tourism industry, which creates $28 billion in economic impact in the state annually. New Jersey’s four coastal counties account for six out of every 10 tourism dollars spent in the state. More than 400,000 jobs statewide are linked to the tourism industry, including a growing number of jobs linked to “ecotourism,” such as hunting, fishing and wildlife watching.
New Jersey must take strong and immediate action to protect the shore. Among the most important steps are:
- Curbing nutrient pollution of shore waters by reducing the nutrient content of fertilizer; encouraging proper fertilizer application; establishing strong numerical standards for nitrogen pollution in waterways to accompany the state’s narrative standards; requiring the use of best practices to limit pollution from new development; and moving forward with the establishment of enforceable limits on the amount of nitrogen allowed into Barnegat Bay-Little Egg Harbor and New Jersey’s ocean waters.
- Protecting coastal waterways from excessive runoff by requiring new development to create no new net flow of stormwater into rivers, streams, and bays; establishing stormwater utilities to improve the management of stormwater near the shore, including the upgrading of outdated pollution control basins; upgrading shore-bound waterways to Category 1 status, which requires the preservation of vegetated buffer zones alongside waterways to slow runoff and filter pollution; and preserving existing stormwater and coastal protection rules.
- Reducing the ecological threat from the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station by finalizing a new water discharge permit for the plant that requires the construction of cooling towers within the next three years – a step that will dramatically reduce fish kills and thermal pollution from the plant.
- Increasing monitoring and study of coastal pollution problems and their impacts by ramping up water monitoring efforts in New Jersey’s near-shore ocean waters; assessing coastal waters for a full range of indicators of water quality and biological health; and moving toward daily, same-day testing for bacterial contamination at New Jersey’s beaches.
- Enforcing existing laws, including requiring counties to finally complete wastewater management plans that lay out how they plan to address their future water and sewer needs and address environmental impacts from stormwater.
- Curbing sprawl by encouraging redevelopment in urban areas and ensuring that new development occurs in ways that use land efficiently and reduce the addition of impervious surfaces.
- Protecting land to preserve water quality, by developing a long-term funding source for New Jersey’s popular and environmentally critical land preservation programs.