The health of New Jersey’s coastal ocean waters is critical to the state’s 38 billion dollar tourism industry, which relies heavily on high-quality environmental conditions in the coastal zone. Since 2007, Rutgers marine scientists have been conducting a comprehensive and innovative ecological assessment of New Jersey’s nearshore ocean waters, working in collaboration with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. This ecosystem-based study titled, Development of Benthic Indicators for Nearshore Coastal Waters of New Jersey, has targeted the state’s ocean waters (shore to 3 nautical miles offshore) subject to impacts from several human and natural sources such as pollutants, organic matter, and freshwater discharged from the Hudson River; wastewater discharges from sewage treatment plants; and episodic coastal upwelling historically associated with the development of recurrent seasonal hypoxia.
These ocean impacts, and others, can be placed in the context of ecosystem health by using benthic invertebrate organisms in seafloor bottom sediments as a biologically meaningful indicator of ecological condition. These organisms are relatively long-lived and sedentary; in addition, they respond predictably to natural and anthropogenic stresses, and therefore can provide a biological meaningful measure of ecological quality, in comparison to physical or chemical measures for which little information is available in regard to biological effects or impacts. Essentially 100% of the state’s coastal ocean waters from Sandy Hook to Cape May were sampled in this project; a probabilistic benthic survey design was used to sample the seafloor in 2007, 2009, and 2010. Analysis of samples indicated that the benthic invertebrate species composition, distribution, and abundance were primarily influenced by natural sources of environmental variation (e.g., sediment type and water depth) rather than by pollution-related factors such as dissolved oxygen and “unnatural” levels of organic carbon associated with organic enrichment. These findings are consistent with non-impaired community and environmental conditions. However, a few stations may be exhibiting initial signs of degradation, and therefore should be monitored in future assessments.
“This study has some good news for the state of New Jersey,” explains Michael J. Kennish, research professor in the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences and the lead investigator of the project for Rutgers. “Our nearshore ocean waters appear to be in relatively good condition based on assessment of key metrics of benthic invertebrate communities."
An integrated assessment report in 2004 by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection noted that 100% of New Jersey’s ocean waters were impaired due to low dissolved oxygen levels (i.e., <5 mg L-1). However, as noted by Patricia Ramey, lead author of the Rutgers final report on this project, “…results of our investigation based on quantitative community measures and multivariate analyses of benthic macrofaunal species composition and abundance in 2007 and 2009 do not support the declaration of 100% impairment of these waters. The water column dissolved oxygen criterion used in the assessment that reported 100% of New Jersey’s oceans waters as impaired due to hypoxia is above the concentration expected to have a severe impact on benthic communities, and the results of the Rutgers study confirm this."
Some Good News About the Ocean from Rutgers - Rutgers marine scientists have discovered that creatures living in seafloor sediments near the New Jersey coast are doing better than scientists had believed. Researchers Patricia Ramey, Michael Kennish, and Rose Petrecca have conducted a comprehensive community assessment, and constructed a “biotic index” – a measure of an environment’s health – by cataloging invertebrate animals living in the ocean bottom from Sandy Hook to Cape May, from the beach to three miles offshore.
New Jersey's ocean floor looks healthy in latest assessment - An innovative study that uses biological indicators to assess the health of the ocean off New Jersey shows life on the sea floor is remarkably healthy, even with the stresses of pollution from the Hudson River and naturally occurring ocean upwellings. The results show a better picture than that portrayed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Environmental Protection, which list the state’s ocean waters as totally impaired because of frequent episodes of low-dissolved oxygen.