The environmentally-beleaguered Shark River will probably only have its navigational channels cleared in the future but most likely never be dredged in its entirety, according to a federal environmental official.
“Due to ecological impacts, as well as the logistics and economics of removing that much sediment, the likelihood of a permit being issued for such an activity appears minimal,” said Karen Greene, Mid-Atlantic Field Offices Supervisor for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Habitat Conservation Division, in a statement.
“While dredging the entire river would, in fact, be something desirable for everybody unfortunately, in these times, such a project economically unfeasible. We need to concentrate on things we can do and need to make those things happen,” said Neptune Township Committeeman Randy Bishop, who has been a longtime advocate for dredging the river,
The National Marine Fisheries Service provides advice and recommendations to federal agencies on activities that they fund, authorize or undertake that may affect aquatic resources and their habitats.
Greene’s statement was in response to an inquiry made by Sen. Jennifer Beck earlier this year about dredging the entire river.
“In all likelihood, the federal resource agencies, including the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, would have objections to dredging the entire Shark River due to the ecological impacts that would result from the removal of mudflats and effects that the loss of this valuable habitat would have on fish and wildlife,” Greene said in an April 23 statement.
Environmentalists have previously argued that if the Shark River remains filled in, then it will become dead with little or no marine life,. An original dredging study, conducted more than 10 years ago, estimated that about 1.5 million cubic yards of material would have to be removed to restore the entire river.
According to the Monmouth County Economic Development Office, the Shark River’s 23-mile shoreline generates $59 million annually into the state’s economy. The river was last dredged in 1980 and it borders five municipalities: Wall, Neptune, Neptune City, Avon and Belmar.
A contract to dredge about 106,000 cubic yards of sediment from the Shark River’s navigational channels is expect to be awarded by early September.
Sen. Beck said she realizes that the federal response to dredging the entire river is not what some people want to hear.
“I know this is not the answer people wanted but, in reality, this is what we are dealing with. We should at least celebrate the fact that some channels are being dredged after three decades,” she said.
“Not only is there no funding to undertake this kind of effort, it is not going to be allowed by the federal agencies that oversee it. It is more than apparent that dredging will be to navigational channels only,” said.
Beck said that the current proposal to dredge navigational channels is a “significant project” and that she would like to see some kind of long-term schedule in place to maintain the channels.
“We need to keep up with it over time. We really need to have a long-term plan to dredge so we are not in such a position again,” she said.
Greene said the only way non-navigational areas of the Shark River would be dredged is if contaminants were found.
“In the case of the Shark River, as well as any other water body, dredging should generally be limited to areas where there is a navigational need, unless there is some overriding concern with contaminant remediation,” Greene said.
She said the Passaic River is an example where dredging large areas of the river is being considered to remove high levels of contaminants.
“The Passaic River is a Superfund site and it should not be considered as a typical situation,” she said.
On a much smaller scale, Greene said that sites like Wreck Pond in Spring Lake and Twilight Lake in Point Pleasant Beach have also had dredging done to improve water quality but these waterbodies are coastal lakes that have very limited connection to either the Atlantic Ocean or upper Barnegat Bay and have been impacted severely by upland development.
“They are not comparable to the Shark River which is open to the Atlantic Ocean. Ecologically, the shallow water habitats and mudflats of the Shark River are important for a number of fish and avian species. Winter flounder spawn in the shallows of the river and it is used as a nursery and feeding area for a wide variety of other fish such as alewife, blueback herring, summer flounder, and many others.
‘Numerous species of bird use the area as well, feeding on fish and other aquatic organism found in the sediments. Portions of the river have been mapped as containing harvestable levels of hard clams,” she said.
Greene also said that the EPA has designated mudflats as “special aquatic sites” under a section of the federal Clean Water Act due to their important role in the estuarine ecosystem for spawning, nursery and forage areas for fish and wildlife.