Asbury Park Press, 6/7/2007
Brown tide must be studied as ecosystem failure

There is a coastal mayor named Larry Vaughn whose name you probably won’t remember, but you will remember his message. He is the fictional character in the movie “Jaws,” the one who declares that the movie’s tourist-dependent beaches will not be closed on July 4th weekend. We all know what happens next.

Just before the Memorial Day weekend and with little scientific basis, state officials made the prediction that “water quality is expected to be good this summer.” On Memorial Day weekend, a brown algae bloom appeared and stretched from Sandy Hook to Avon, eventually reaching Manasquan after the weekend.

Our coalition of 10 environmental groups pointed out that brown tide is an indicator of poor ecosystem health. Furthermore, we were surprised by the state’s reaction that these algae blooms are normal. State Environmental Protection Commissioner Lisa Jackson then admonished the Coastal Ocean Coalition and paid homage to Mayor Vaughn by saying, “It’s just unsettling that they would choose to sensationalize the algae bloom . . . at the start of the beach season.” She then suggested the coalition has an agenda.

We certainly do have an agenda, and we have been bringing it to the Statehouse and the Legislature for almost two years now. It is called ecosystem-based management. It is one of the major recommendations of both the Pew Oceans Commission and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy.

Ecosystem-based management looks at all the links among living and nonliving resources, rather than considering single issues in isolation. Instead of developing a management plan for one issue, it focuses on the multiple activities occurring within specific areas that are defined by ecosystem, rather than political, boundaries.

Ecosystem-based management would move environmental protection away from the practice of managing species by species and using single parameters to determine environmental health. The current system puts environmental programs into “silos,” isolated from all other programs. This is not the way the natural world works. As the grandfather of the environmental movement, John Muir, said, “Tug on anything at all and you’ll find it connected to everything else in the universe.”

Sen. Ellen Karcher, D-Monmouth, is sponsoring a bill, S-2645, that would encourage the state to use ecosystem-based management. It has already been discussed by the Senate Environment Committee. Other states such as New York and California have adopted this approach to managing their coastal resources. It is up to our Legislature to bring this policy to New Jersey, and it is up to the governor to sign it into law. Once enacted, our preparation for and our response to an event like an algae bloom would be much different.

This recent bloom is most likely a sign of an abnormal nutrient load somewhere in the watershed. It illustrates the limitations of the current monitoring system. We are not suggesting that this particular type of algae bloom is harmful to human health. At its worst, it is aesthetically repulsive. But it is potentially harmful to shellfish, bottom-dwelling finfish and marine plants, and that is where the single parameter monitoring system fails.

It is possible that a severe algae bloom like this could send all the tourists and beachgoers packing for other shores, yet the state’s test for one type of harmful bacteria, enterococcus, would declare our water quality good. Ecosystem-based management would recognize that tourists are not the only species residing at the shore. It would employ parameters that actually measure biological conditions along the coast, not surrogate indicators like dissolved oxygen or single purpose parameters like enterocci bacteria. The result would be a more complete picture of coastal health. This would be good for both the tourist economy and the coastal ecosystem.

We would like to bury the spirit of Mayor Vaughn and use an event like an algae bloom to have a frank discussion about the health of our coasts and oceans – even if it is tourist season. But more importantly, with a policy of ecosystem-based management, we would be assured we have the best policy in place to prevent it and deal with it.

John Weber is the Northeast regional manager for the Surfrider Foundation, a member of the Coastal Ocean Coalition.
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