TOMS RIVER, New Jersey — New Jersey officials and environmentalists have vastly different assessments of the health of Barnegat Bay.
The state Environmental Protection Department on Tuesday presented three years of scientific data that it says shows the bay is healthy overall, with problems such as pollution and stinging jellyfish in spots. Environmental groups, however, say the bay is in far worse shape than the state claims.
"Barnegat Bay is a resilient, very strong ecosystem," said Thomas Belton, the DEP's Barnegat Bay research coordinator. "Overall the system is heathy, but there are parts of it that are sick."
Gary Buchanan, the DEP's director of science, research and environmental health, said the reports show "somewhat of a mixed bag" regarding the bay's health.
"The fish system is in good shape," he said. "The crabs are doing well in several areas. Other areas are stressed."
Determining the health of Barnegat Bay will influence several other environmental, political and business decisions. It is generally accepted that accelerated development along and near the bay has increased the amount of nitrogen from lawn fertilizer and pet waste, along with other pollutants, that get washed into the bay.
Yet calling for development moratoriums or even slowdowns would be politically explosive. The administration of Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican presidential candidate, has resisted calls to set maximum daily limits for pollution that can be allowed to enter the bay.
But as part of a 10-point plan to improve water quality in the bay, New Jersey adopted the nation's strictest fertilizer restrictions in 2010. And it negotiated a deal to close the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant five years earlier than intended, in 2019. The plant sucks fish and small marine animals into its pipes, and discharges hot water that alters the bay's ecosystems.
Environmental groups say the state's assessment is considerably off.
"I feel like I'm in a Hitchcock movie," said Willie deCamp, an official with Save Barnegat Bay. "I talk to people who fish, and they say the fish aren't there. I talk to people who clam and they say the clams aren't there. Some of these scientists are portraying a healthy bay that no users of the bay are experiencing."
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, called the DEP's presentation "a puppet show" and called for the state to adopt a recommendation from a Rutgers University scientist declaring the bay "impaired" under the federal Clean Water Act.
"The bay's deteriorating health is as a result of a drop in dissolved oxygen levels due to high levels of nutrients from storm water problems and overdevelopment that causes pollution runoff," he said. "This has not only lead to harmful algae blooms, but a 'dead bay' that allows jellyfish to thrive."
Bob Considine, a DEP spokesman, said before a maximum daily limit on pollutants can be enacted, officials need to see exactly the type of scientific data the DEP presented on Tuesday.
"The fact of the matter is we are taking all of this data in our holistic approach to bay to determine our next steps," he said. "There is nothing on or off the table at this point."
The state studied such things as tiny worms buried deep in the sand, plankton in the bay's water, and fish and crab populations. The sand-dwelling creatures, called benthic invertebrates, were found in levels that were about the same as they were decades ago.
Jellyfish populations were found to have declined somewhat during the past two years, but boaters and swimmers have complained that stinging sea nettles have greatly increased in the bay's northern reaches over the past decade.
Researchers also say they discovered 200 new species of diatoms, small-celled species of algae that are a major food source for clams, in Barnegat Bay.
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC