An aerial image of Barnegat Bay looking north along Long Beach Island.
An aerial image of Barnegat Bay looking north with Barnegat Inlet at the bottom of the photo.

The Barnegat Bay is a special place – a favorite destination for both New Jersey residents and the tourists who visit. People head down to the bay to go sailing, kayaking, boating, and paddleboarding. Fishing, crabbing, and clamming put food on the table and provide families with countless hours of fun on the water.

Tourism, commercial and recreational fishing, boating, and many other income-producing activities make the Barnegat Bay an economic powerhouse. According to an economic study prepared for the Barnegat Bay Partnership by University of Delaware researchers in 2012, the Barnegat Bay and its watershed contribute over $4 billion each year to New Jersey’s economy.

Development Changes the Bay

The Barnegat Bay is an estuary – a mix of salt water from the Atlantic Ocean and fresh water from the rivers and groundwater draining into it. The land area (over 660 square miles) draining fresh water into the bay is called its watershed.

Development is changing the Barnegat Bay watershed. Water-absorbing natural features like forests, wetlands, and agricultural lands have been replaced by hard surfaces like buildings, streets, and parking lots. In fact, almost one-third of the watershed is now covered by these impervious surfaces.

As developed land has increased in the Barnegat Bay watershed, so has the amount of pollution flowing into the bay. Rainwater and melting snow run off the hard surfaces of buildings and paved areas instead of soaking into the ground. This storm water carries pollutants like lawn chemicals, pet waste, oil spills, road salt, and litter down roadway storm drains and into the streams and rivers which eventually enter the Barnegat Bay.

Nitrogen Overload

The bay is also a special place for the fishes, crabs, birds, mammals, and other wildlife which live there.  They depend on the bay for food and shelter and as a “nursery” for raising their young.

A study by the US Geological Survey estimated that about 1.4 million pounds of nitrogen enter the Barnegat Bay every year, with most of that coming from the fertilizers used on land. This overloading of nitrogen in the bay is causing the excessive growth of algae and phytoplankton and upsetting the balance in the bay’s ecosystem.

An underwater photo in Barnegat Bay shows heavy algae growth.
An underwater photo in Barnegat Bay shows heavy algae growth. © Mark Yokoyama

As aquatic plants die, their decay uses oxygen dissolved in the water. With excessive algae and phytoplankton decomposing in the bay, oxygen levels can drop to levels too low to sustain many of the fish and other animal species that make the bay their home.  These low oxygen levels can lead to fish kills and changes in the types of wildlife able to survive in the bay.

Fertilizer-fueled growth of algae and phytoplankton hurts the bay’s wildlife in another way. It can make the water more “turbid,” or cloudy, blocking sunlight from reaching submerged plants called eelgrass. Fish, shellfish, crabs, and other bay animals depend on eelgrass beds for food and shelter and as a nursery area for their young. Any loss of this critical habitat has a ripple effect on wildlife populations throughout the bay.

Learn More: Fertilizers in Our Waterways

Jellyfish in the Bay

One obvious change in the Barnegat Bay has been an increase in populations of bay nettle jellyfish (Chrysaora chesapeakei).  Swimmers, boaters, clammers, and other bay users are well aware of their painful sting and concerned about their growing numbers.

The impact of nitrogen pollution is one of a number of possible causes, or combination of causes, suggested by scientists for the rise in bay nettle populations. Scientists continue to conduct research to answer questions about jellyfish in the bay.  In the meantime, the increasing populations of bay nettles have become a symbol of the changes in the Barnegat Bay ecosystem.

A National Estuary Program for Barnegat Bay

EPA harmful algal bloom graphic

The National Estuary Program (NEP) promotes the conservation and management of nationally significant estuaries threatened by pollution, development, or overuse. One of the 28 National Estuary Programs, the Barnegat Bay Partnership has over 30 partners – government agencies, academic institutions, businesses, non-profit organizations, and citizen groups – all working together for cleaner water and a healthier ecosystem in the Barnegat Bay.

New Jersey’s Comprehensive Plan of Action for the Bay

In 2010, Governor Chris Christie announced a Comprehensive Plan of Action for Barnegat Bay detailing ten action items to address the changes in the bay’s condition. The NJ Department of Environmental Protection, the Barnegat Bay Partnership, and many other partners are taking action on the items in the plan through research, education, planning, land acquisition, legislation, and stormwater management projects.

Jersey-Friendly Yards – An Investment in the Future of the Barnegat Bay

These efforts can only be successful with the help of everyone in the watershed. By using fertilizer responsibly, restoring soil health, and following other steps to a Jersey-Friendly Yard, property owners can help reduce the amount of pollution reaching the bay and make a major contribution toward restoring its health.