Published: Friday, September 28, 2012, 8:07 AM Updated: Friday, September 28, 2012, 8:10 AM
By Richard Khavkine/The Star-Ledger
|(A Slocum Coastal Electric Glider similar to this tested the waters off Sandy Hook this summer)|
State and federal authorities even classified the waters as impaired in 2002 and since then, state Department of Environmental Protection researchers and others have looked for a cause.
But scientists’ take on what their sea water readings meant were likely wrong. The ocean might be healthy after all.
As part of two-year effort, state and federal scientists have been taking account of the coastline and the waters beyond to conclusively prove low oxygen levels at the sea bottom — otherwise known as the benthic zone — are not a permanent feature of life there.
And they say they have found evidence the ocean is, in fact, home to a thriving and diverse community of organisms, none more important to the state’s economy than the $150 million in scallops, oysters, clams and other seafood harvested off New Jersey’s coast each year.
"From what we’re seeing, living in the benthic environment is healthy and good," said Robert Schuster, acting section chief of the DEP’s Bureau of Marine Water Monitoring, alluding to life at the bottom of the seas.
Earlier this month, in calm seas about 3 miles off Sandy Hook, the effort’s key player, a 6-foot yellow submersible that resembles a torpedo with wings, was plunged off the stern of the "Clean Waters," the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s 65-foot, twin-engine boat.
The tide-powered contraption, officially known as a Slocum Coastal Electric Glider, weighs about 100 pounds. It swims slowly — about a half-knot an hour — but can go for long distances. And it’s unfailingly obedient.
As of Thursday afternoon, the submersible had meandered 134 nautical miles, to the southern end of Long Beach Island. It has gone down to 120-foot depths and zigzagged its way to seas as far out as seven miles.
The glider has been taking constant readings of dissolved oxygen, salinity and temperature. It resurfaces every two hours, when it transmits recorded data to technicians at Rutgers University’s Coastal Ocean Observation Lab.
What the data have shown is that the ocean begins to stratify as warmer months approach. During the summer, surface temperatures can reach up to 80 degrees, but dip to 45 degrees about 50 feet below the surface. That chilly environment, isolated from the atmosphere above, contains low levels of oxygen.
But a census of sea creatures commissioned by the DEP and undertaken by Rutgers each of the last three years has shown ocean life that might be most compromised by a dearth of oxygen in those waters is in fact thriving, Schuster said. This has lead researchers to think the stratification, which is now breaking apart as climate patterns shift to cooler weather, is a normal occurrence and not attributable to otherwise adverse conditions.
"If it’s naturally occurring there’s no remedial action to take," Schuster said.
Darvene Adams, the EPA’s monitoring coordinator for the region, agreed, saying much of what is happening under the coastal waters "appears natural." But, she said, more data might be needed before state and federal authorities submit to getting the designation lifted.
"This is giving us a good idea," Adams said. "There’s not been much done in the ocean. So we’re kind of cautious."
Ocean water sampling used to be done by "grab samples," from boats or helicopters. But because they measured the waters at one point in time, rather than on a continued basis, the data collected gave incomplete pictures of the ocean’s overall health, said Josh Kohut, an assistant professor of marine and coastal sciences at Rutgers.
"You can’t always set a number, because it doesn’t accurately reflect what’s going on," Kohut said. "Now you can see the most recent data within minutes of (the glider’s) resurfacing."
But the project is not state vs. feds. In fact, the EPA grants helped purchase the $110,000 glider that’s combing the waters right now.
Rutgers has 18 gliders, each custom-equipped and tailored to its mission, with some tailored to reach ocean depths 1,000 feet deep. Two were deployed during the BP oil spill along the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 to help measure currents, gauge the direction of the spill and allow cleanup crews to move quickly.
The coastal project’s field component concludes next week.
It’s so far confirmed that the ocean "is constantly shifting and dynamic," said Bruce Friedman, chief of the DEP’s Bureau of Marine Water Monitoring.
He and other researchers want to show that’s ideal.
Read more at http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2012/09/nj_coast_ocean_healthy_study.html