Jersey Shore Magazine

Fall/Holiday 2013

Jersey Shore Magazine

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Page 29 of 99

BeachComber Supers tor rs e Je m S t th andy a e y Shore S I M PA C T BARNEGAT on SANDY' The Sentinels Of Sandy Ben Wurst Checking in with Barnegat Bay's keystone species after the Superstorm One of the nests that produced four young ospreys was inside Island Beach State Park. So far, it seems ospreys were not only unaffected by the storm, but are fairing better than in previous years. j e r s e y s h o r e • F a l l / H o l i d a y 2 0 1 3 D 30 arrell Porter isn't sure if the decline in crabs making it into the pots this past summer has something to do with Superstorm Sandy or other factors. But it's a mystery sure to be tied into the delicate nature of the Barnegat Bay ecosystem. "There is definitely a shortage of crabs this year," remarked Porter, owner of the Crab Shack in West Mantoloking. "My suppliers have seen them in the bay, and they swim around the trap and won't go into the pots!" A whole world of flora and fauna is trying to survive under the murky waters of the Barnegat Bay. Most would never guess the importance of this unseen realm on the lives of the birds flying above or on the day's catch of crab or fish. "If you were out on a boat in 1960, and then out in a boat in 2010, the water doesn't necessarily look different. It doesn't tell you from the surface," said Mike Kennish, research professor at Rutgers University's Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences. This underwater world has been struggling due to decades of overdevelopment and pollution. A superstorm bringing in debris and contaminants could potentially hamper the efforts of the many people and organizations working hard to clean up the watershed. How did Barnegat Bay's nature fare after Sandy? Three sentinels of the health of the bay—eelgrass, shellfish, and ospreys—may offer some clues. Eelgrass: Keystone of the Bay's Ecology Once upon a time, there were mermaid forests of eelgrass waving in the currents of Barnegat Bay, a time when the waters of the bay were crystal-clear and teaming with life. Today, the Barnegat Bay watershed BAY is a far cry from that pristine state. Development and population has increased exponentially, altering the natural landscape. Storm water filled with nutrients from lawn fertilizers and other contaminants runs off into the bay, which in turn feed algal blooms. Kennish said, "It's so much, so quickly. Nitrogen and pollutants flush into the bay, algae pick it up, and the water becomes cloudy." Murky water negatively impacts eelgrass. "Sea grasses need intense sunlight. These grasses decline because the sunlight reaching them is inadequate," Kennish stated. Eelgrass isn't sexy. It isn't something visible to boaters and bathers. It has a name that sounds like a peculiar creature. Why should people care about such a strange plant? Akin to the bay's version of a coral reef, "Eelgrass is important for water quality and is a key habitat for communities of organisms—fish, crabs, and marine invertebrates—that inhabit the beds," Kennish stated. "People need to be concerned about it." As such, eelgrass is the venerable canary-in-the-coalmine of Barnegat Bay. "When there is a loss of sea grass, you know that something is wrong with the ecosystem," Kennish said. In the decade that Kennish has been studying the bay's grasses, he's seen the beds steadily dwindle. "Eelgrass had been declining to such a low level before the storm from where it was ten years ago," Kennish said. "Sandy added another element to an ecosystem that was in a state of impact before the storm." Kennish and his team are currently analyzing the effects of Sandy on eelgrass beds. "We didn't know if there was going to be any eelgrass left after the storm," Kennish said. The storm's

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