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Is Barnegat Bay on the Verge of Ecological Collapse?

Health Officials Warn That Gas From Rotting Seaweed Could Make Residents Sick

water fleas, from Wired Science. Photo: West Group, Oxford University

water fleas, from Wired Science. Photo: West Group, Oxford University

[Update #3 – 9/14/11 – global warming induced ecological change occurring on a global level: Scientists: Bacteria spreading in warming oceans]

Update #2 – 7/31/11: Kirk Moore writes another killer story in today’s APP, providing more evidence of ecological collapse – Pest report: Bugs down, jellyfish up: Stormwater runoff alters bay’s quality

Bologna has worked on the bay for years, so when jellyfish numbers impress him, you know it’s a problem. The annual eruption of sea nettles seems to get worse every year, and the 2011 outbreak started chasing people out of the water around Father’s Day.

It’s making for a miserable summer in the northern bay, along with washups of rotting algae, twin signals of the bay’s deteriorating ecosystem, scientists say. Along much of the bayfront and residental lagoons, above-ground swimming pools have appeared alongside the docks. – end update]

Update #1: 7/21/11: Don’t worry, DEP’s on it. They took strong action by issuing a press release - it emphasized the lack of sufficient data to take action! DEP wants to collect – at a minimum - 2 more years of data before they 1) “determine the location and extent of water quality problems”, 2) decide whether the Bay is impaired; 3) place the Bay on the Clean Water Act 303(d) list if it is impaired; and 4) then determine whether a TMDL is needed. Hey, but at least they are “beginning“!(that’s DEP’s own word!) The money quote:

“Brown tide outbreaks, declines in hard clam and eel grass populations, and population explosions of sea nettles are some of the most visible signs of the ecological stress the bay is under. Yet the role that specific changes in water quality parameters have in causing these and other bay problems remain unclear.”  WATER MONITORING NETWORK BEGINS WORK TO ADDRESS – BARNEGAT BAY’S ECOLOGICAL RESTORATION

By the time the science is clear and DEP determines, with 95-99% confidence, what the causal mechanisms are, it’ll be an autopsy, not a TMDL.

And how this quote for irony – Dr. Jill Lipoti took one of Bob Martin’s “mad man” management transfers. Dr. Lipoti was the longtime head of DEP’s radiological safety programs. But, ironically, perhaps Barnegat Bay – home of the nation’s oldest Zombie nuke plant with extensive radioactive tritium leaks - is the right place for her:

“Over the course of the project, the DEP and its partners will compile the most comprehensive water quality and flow data set ever developed for Barnegat Bay,” said Jill Lipoti, [new] Director of the DEP’s Division of Water Monitoring Standards.

Dr. Jill Lipoti
New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection

JILL LIPOTI is Director of the Division of Environmental Safety and Health at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Prior to assuming this position, she was an Assistant Director with responsility for directing the state’s radiation protection programs. Dr. Lipoti also serves as adjunct assistant professor, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey – School of Public Health, Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, specializing in radiation exposure, and preparedness for chemical and radiological emergencies. She has provided advice to the International Atomic Energy Agency regarding radiation safety and security, and has served on the Radiation Advisory Committee of EPA’s Science Advisory Board. She has M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in environmental science from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
. – end update]

Back in May, we wrote a post -  one of several - that warned about harmful algal blooms and the potential for ecological collapse (see: More Bad News for Barnegat Bay – Ecological Indicators At Record Lows)

We may be approaching (or have passed) an ecological tipping point that will result in collapse of biological functions in the Bay.

If so, nuisance jellyfish will look like a minor issue and some real nasty organisms could emerge, making the Bay a stagnant putrescent pool, kind of a liquid landfill.

If that happens, what do you think happens to the property value of all those Bay homes?  What happens to the value of homes near a stinking landfill?

What happens to all those local businesses that depend on boating, fishing, swimming, and tourism?

Forgetaboudit.

Prior to that, last December, we warned that:

Ecosystems can crash. A polluted, warm, shallow, coastal lagoon like the Bay is a perfect petrie dish to grow exotic organisms that can create toxic harmful algal blooms (HAB).  A toxic HAB would make stinging jellyfish seem like a picnic, and the media circus and panic that would ensue would make medical waste washups seem mild. A HAB would wipe out billions of dollars of property value and economic tourism.

Well, today Kirk Moore reports:

BRICK — Swimmers, boaters and kayakers should avoid the area around Seaweed Point near the mouth of Kettle Creek, where new washups of rotting sea lettuce and algae have been seen, officials with the Ocean County Health Department said Monday.

Hydrogen sulfide gas from the rotting weed has made life miserable for three weeks and even sickened residents, said Linda Chris of the Seawood Harbor Property Owners Association, which has been pressing government agencies to clean up the shoreline.

“I grew up here. You always got a whiff of swamp gas coming off the marsh, that’s part of life here,” Chris said. “But it’s never been like this. It’s the sick condition of the bay.”

The likely cause is a combination of the (climate change induced) heat wave, which is driving warm water temperatures. [Note: made even warmer by the Oyster Creek nuke plant discharge without cooling towers, thanks to the Christie DEP.]

Warm water exacerbates high pollution levels, loss of freshwater flows into the Bay, and shallow sediment choked conditions. The growth of algae and other biological processes accelerate under these conditions, ultimately leading to dead zones.

In other words, the current Bay conditions provide a perfect petrie dish for the emergence and stimulation of of exotic and toxic biological processes that NOAA refers to as “harmful algal blooms”:

Harmful algal blooms (HAB) affect a number of coastal ecosystems with impacts including the devastation of critical coastal habitats, loss of economically and culturally vital shellfish resources, illness and death in populations of protected marine species, and serious threats to human health posed by algal toxins. Just one harmful algal bloom event can cost tens of millions of dollars to local coastal economies. In 2005, harmful algal bloom events were particularity problematic along the New England Coast (the largest recorded since 1972 forcing shellfish closures from ME to RI) and off the west coast of FL (causing respiratory distress, marine mammal mortalities and widespread hypoxia in bottom waters killing vast areas of coral reefs). In addition to HABs, over half of our Nation’s estuaries experience hypoxic conditions, the largest of which is the recurring “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico which has widespread implications for land-use practices in the US (watershed encompasses greater than 40% of the US) especially with emerging efforts to develop ethanol.

NOAA currently provides bulletins of bloom conditions for the Gulf of Mexico including information on chlorophyll levels, wind conditions, for potential or actual bloom events. A resilient and secure coastal community depends on a vibrant economy, healthy coastal ecosystem, and healthy people. Estimates of the economic impacts of harmful algal blooms (HABs) in the United States average $75 million/year over the period 1987-2000. These impacts are the sum of different kinds of direct output impacts across four categories of effects: public health (divided between ciguatera and shellfish poisonings); commercial fishing; recreation and tourism; and monitoring and management costs (Hoagland and Scatasta, 2006). Pathogens led to 20,000 beach closures in 2005.

The inherent pressures from coastal development, rising population, and related non-point source pollution risks are increasing. For example the population of Puget Sound is expected to double by 2020. Vibrio, long-linked to seafood borne infections, are increasing in US waters. Warmer coastal waters have led to recent outbreaks in Prince William Sound with northward expansion likely. These risks affect all coastal states and impact many states concurrently. The nation’s ability to mitigate these impacts depends on effective early warning, and associated tools and technologies. NOAA, through national capabilities and regional partners, is well-positioned to monitor and predict the impacts from these threats and ensure coastal community security and resilience.

Regional systems will begin in the Gulf of Mexico (2010, pathogens and contaminants prototype, HABs operations), followed by the Great Lakes (2011, HABs operations, pathogen prototype), West Coast (2011, HABs and pathogens prototype), Gulf of Maine (2012, HABs operations), the Southeastern US (2012, pathogens and contaminants prototype), California (2013, HABs operations), and Chesapeake (2014, pathogens prototype, HABs operations).

If the Bay were to collapse, maybe local officials, the Ocean County Freeholders, and Governor Christie might rethink their opposition to funding a real Bay restoration program and limiting future development.

And I wonder just how much more data and science DEP needs – recalling this quote:

“We need more science and data before we decide whether a TMDL is needed,” Ragonese said.

Just maybe – after all, these Christie DEP folks see things exclusively in economic terms through the lens of cost-benefit analysis tools.

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