What's That Smell?
Stinky seaweed, eelgrass still plague towns on Barnegat Bay
Seaweed problems, such as the debacle that has unfolded over the past couple of weeks in Brick Township's Seawood Harbor development, are nothing new in Ocean County.
It was those plants that were in the crosshairs of upper bay officials in the summer of 1968. There were too many of them. Brick Township was hiring 15 men during the summer to try to rid its beaches of what were branded “weeds.”
Former Brick Mayor Frank Neri was a councilman who had long warned of the growing weed problems, not only in the bay, but in the Metedeconk River, as well. Neri had been crying “weed’’ for two decades. As bayshore mounds of aquatic plants grew, people started to listen, and not just in Brick Township.
Across the bay, in Seaside Park, Councilman Joseph Cella was on the case.
That borough spent $16,000 for a new bulldozer with a clamshell rake on it to scoop the dead weeds from the bayshore. With no dump of its own, taxpayers had to pay to have the weeds trucked to the mainland and buried in a landfill after a lagoon at Island Beach State Park became so choked with weeds that Seaside Park could no longer dump theirs in the water.
In Brick, men raked the plants into piles on the shore and used pitchforks to put them into trucks so they could be hauled away. Others used garveys - wooden boats used in shallow water - to collect the floating plants, and put them in the boats. A vacuum like the ones used to clean storm drains was used to suck the weeds out of the garvey and into a truck. They were trucked to the landfill and buried.
Why all the fuss? For one thing, the accumulated eel grass and other plant life was slimy where it remained wet along the water’s edge —hardly inviting to swimmers. When it rotted in the summer sun, it gave off a noxious odor — not conducive to selling beach badges. The previous summer there had been a big fish kill in the bay. State biologists blamed the oxygen demand of the plants for reducing oxygen in the water so low that the fish died.
That got the attention of the state Department of Conservation and Economic Development, which gave Brick $7,000 to fight the weeds in the river during 1967. But as spring turned to summer in 1968, a lot of baby flounder were found floating dead along the shores of the bay where the weeds were spreading. Neri and the Brick Council were asking the state for $20,000 to continue the fight.
“This year it is at a point we just can’t handle,’’ said an exasperated Harry Walters, Brick’s assistant public works superintendent.
Homeowners were carting away the weeds using bushel baskets in an attempt to stem the tide.
Neri said the weeds were thriving because of the nutrients flowing into the bay from sewage treatment plants in Brick, Jackson and Lakewood. He got support for that belief from Thomas Mulvey, a state Conservation Officer.
What was needed, according to Neri, was a regional sewer system to collect and treat domestic wastes and discharge the treated effluent far offshore. It wasn’t just the surge in aquatic plants that pointed to problems in the bay. Huge swaths of it were closed to shellfishing because fecal coliform associated with wastes from warm-blooded animals topped state standards. Bayshore septic systems and primitive municipal sewage treatment plants were blamed.
Ocean County’s freeholders acted in the summer of 1970 to create what then was called the Ocean County Sewerage Authority, later the Ocean County Utilities Authority. It built three regional treatment plants and miles of pipelines to collect wastes for treatment. A marked improvement in water quality in the bay resulted. Aquatic plants that once littered the bayshore are now among the things scientists say are threatened by the surge in nitrogen pollution.