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Protecting Offshore Habitats while Rebuilding New Jersey Beaches

Long Beach Island, NJ.  Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries

By Karen Greene, Sandy Hook Habitat Conservation Division Field Office

The State of New Jersey has 130 miles of sandy beaches along the Atlantic Ocean. These beaches are constantly eroding, as waves and wind move the sand around. To protect local communities from storm and flood damage and to provide recreational opportunities for visitors to the Jersey shore, the Federal, State and local governments must regularly replenish the supply of sand.

For decades, the US Army Corps of Engineers has been dredging sand from "borrow areas” in the Atlantic Ocean and placing it on beaches. Local communities also shore up beaches by trucking in sand or dredging sand from back bays. NOAA Fisheries’ Habitat Conservation Division has a role in these projects. We provide advice on the best ways to rebuild depleted coastal beaches while conserving important living marine resources. We recommend ways to minimize impacts to important offshore habitats that might be impacted by sand mining to restore these coastal areas.

We’ve been working with the Corps and the State of New Jersey on beach re-nourishment and shore protection since the 1980s. We’ve consulted on various projects in northern Monmouth County, on Long Beach Island and in Ocean City. Since Superstorm Sandy, we’ve been providing suggestions for ecologically responsible ways to replenish decimated beaches and bayshores along the entire New Jersey coast, Delaware Bay and Raritan, and Sandy Hook Bay.

With demand high, the Corps and the state have stepped up efforts to find more sources of suitable sand offshore in State waters and on the Outer Continental Shelf. Offshore shoals and ridges provide good sources of sand. They also happen to be valuable habitat for fish and other species. Shoals are dynamic features that attract a diversity of marine life. They produce a variety of bottom types and foraging opportunities for finfish, like summer flounder, bluefish, bonito and false albacore and bottom dwelling organisms. Finfish tend to congregate around shoals and ridges. They also provide guiding features for coastal migratory species such as whales, dolphins, sea turtles and tuna. Many of these areas are also important habitat for surf clams. However, sand mining can alter the bathymetric contours (depths and gradients) of shoals and ridges. 

Our staff works with the Corps to help identify and evaluate options for reducing impacts to these ecologically rich habitats. Some options may include simply maintaining the vertical relief (elevation) of shoals and ridges, avoiding areas of high quality surf clam habitat and conducting ongoing monitoring to assess changes to ocean bottom conditions due to the dredging activity. Where we can, we also support the research of other agencies and academic institutions. Through further study, we can learn more about the functions and habitat values of offshore shoals and ridges and the effects of sand mining on these special areas.