Saltwater angler Ken Warchal saw Long Beach Island’s beaches grow, but the fishing decline, when sand was mined a few years ago from an area known as the “Harvey Cedars lump.”
Now, Warchal is worried a similar thing is about to happen to an offshore area known as the Manasquan Ridge. The sand-mining operation would replenish strands and build dunes on North Jersey beaches devastated by Hurricane Sandy — but at what cost to saltwater anglers?
“At Harvey Cedars, they went through a prime fishing area. They got away with that one. The Army Corps of Engineers’ own environmental assessment shows the Manasquan Ridge is prime, essential fish habitat,” said Warchal, vice president of the Jersey Coast Anglers Association.
The association is threatening a lawsuit and pushing political buttons as it tries to get the dredging operation moved to a less fishy part of the ocean.
They have the support of environmental groups.
“They’re sacrificing the health of fish habitat for the protection of housing developments along the beaches,” said Tim Dillingham, director of the American Littoral Society.
State and federal officials are defending the project in part because of its end result.
“What are we supposed to do, not protect billions of dollars in real estate and tens of thousands of lives because someone wants to catch a fish? Sometimes you have to make trade-offs,” said Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Replenishing beaches with sand from just offshore is becoming a bigger issue as sea levels rise and storms get more intense, which means wide beaches and tall dunes become a higher priority than ever.
Sandy has led to a huge increase in beach building along the coast, and a boom is expected to come soon on the Delaware Bay coast as those towns clamor for sand.
The farther out the dredges go, the higher the costs. The sand also has to be the right grain size to meld with what is already on the beach, or it will quickly erode.
The best sand is often in areas with the most fish, or at least the healthiest benthic communities — those with shellfish, worms, invertebrates and other marine organisms that live on the ocean floor and attract fish. As a general rule, there is more marine life closer to shore.
“To the average person, sand is plentiful. It’s there, just go out and get it. That’s not the way it works. You need the right sand, and there are environmental issues,” said Marjorie Weisskohl, a spokeswoman for the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM.
Sand, sand everywhere
There is plenty of sand, even if it isn’t always in the right place. Stewart Farrell, a coastal geologist at Stockton University, said there are an estimated 450 million cubic yards of minable sand in New Jersey waters, which are inside 3 miles, and 800 million cubic yards in federal waters outside 3 miles.
The first project in New Jersey mining federal sand is about to take place off Long Beach Island. As much as 7 million cubic yards will be mined 3 to 4 miles offshore and placed on 11.5 miles of beach between the Barnegat and Little Egg inlets.
The rub is that sand outside prime fishing areas is often not the ideal coarser-grain sand found in the ridges or is farther away.
“There may be sand, but sand has a wide range of grain size. We do a lot of testing to make sure it’s good sand,” said Keith Watson, a coastal engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is doing the project to replenish beaches from Manasquan Inlet to Barnegat Inlet.
Watson noted that there are numerous approvals to obtain before any sand mining is allowed. Cores are studied to check the grain size. Magnetometers are used to find shipwrecks. The projects have to protect endangered species, marine mammals and breeding areas for specific fish such as winter flounder. Archaeological studies and environmental assessments are done. Public hearings are often held.
There also are essential fish habitats charted by the state and federal governments, and mining areas are chosen after consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service. But Watson noted these areas can change. In Manasquan, he said, borrow areas that were chosen years ago were later declared essential fish habitat.
“When we were approved to use these areas, they were not essential fish habitat. It’s the approved borrow area for the hardest-hit reach from Sandy. Everything else is not compatible for grain size or has other issues,” Watson said.
Watson said the Army Corps is willing to reduce the mining from 8 million to 5 million cubic yards from the contested areas and maintain the same contours, but he acknowledged the ridge would still be lower than it is now.
“We will not clear-cut it,” Watson said.
In the early days of beach replenishment, sand often was trucked in from quarries on land. The last quarter-century, the sand has come from state waters. The next wave is looking farther offshore.
“They’re running out of sand in the state areas,” Weisskohl said.
BOEM claims jurisdiction over the sand from 3 to 400 miles offshore. These sands, free to public entities, can be mined only with a finding of “no significant impact” to marine life.
BOEM has allowed mining for 36 beach projects, but the one just beginning off Long Beach Island is the first in New Jersey. Weisskohl said extensive environmental reviews were done, including studies on benthic ecology, before mining was allowed, and a finding of “no significant impact” was issued.
“This has to be done with knowledge of fish populations and where they tend to feed, and things of that nature. We know fishing grounds from different times of the year. BOEM has invested more than $40 million over the last 20 years to identify resources,” Weisskohl said.
Although this is the first New Jersey project, BOEM has given states 94 million cubic yards of sand, enough to cover Manhattan with 4 feet of sand, and expects more requests due to sea-level rise. BOEM is using $13.6 million in Sandy money to update its databases of offshore sand deposits.
“There is plenty of sand out there. It’s just how much are we allowed to use and where can we borrow it from?” Watson said.