By Susan M. Kennedy
YOU’RE DRIVING DOWN Route 36, heading east, cursing under your breath at each light you miss, which is all of them. Shopping centers, gas stations and convenience stores give way to woods and hills as you travel down a steep one, then back up, curve right and left and right again as you approach the Highlands Bridge. Gradual at first, the incline steepens until you crest the span and the Shrewsbury River flows a distant 65 feet below. But your eyes are trained straight ahead until suddenly, it’s right in front of you – a massive dark green swell extending as far as the eye can see, surging towards you and then away, spots of light like glitter dancing across its surface. A twenty-ton tanker glides silently by in the distance, while right in front of you, waves crash on a white strip of sand, empty this time of year except for a spattering of fishermen out to catch spring Stripers.
The approach to Sandy Hook is one of the joys of living in this area, but did you know that all of the things that make it special – the clean ocean, the wide beaches, the recreational fishermen, the fish they seek and even the tanker ship and its cargo – have one thing in common? They, and every single person who enjoys them, have reaped the benefits of the James J. Howard Marine Sciences Laboratory.
Located on Sandy Hook just a few miles from the bridge, the Lab houses a group of scientists who have quietly gone about their business of making this a better place to live for more than 50 years. Recently, it has been announced that, due to federal budget cuts, the Lab will be closed. The current plan is to move the scientists and the work they do to Milford, Connecticut and Oxford, Maryland. This plan makes no sense when you consider the type of work that is done there.
Established in 1961, the Lab was the first federal facility in the nation devoted solely to the research of marine recreational fish species and has remained at the forefront of studies on the impact of human activities on the marine environment. What better place to engage in this important research than at the heart of the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area and within the 15,000 square mile area of the Atlantic Ocean known as the New York Bight? The accomplishments of the Marine Lab are many and ongoing and as a direct result of its Sandy Hook location, New Jersey has been a direct beneficiary of its efforts.
It is the Lab’s science that led to the closure of the sewage dump sites that spoiled our beaches in the 1980’s, and has been critical to the development of regulations for the deepening of New York Harbor, allowing tankers to come and go with ease. The lab also provides guidance to the Army Corps of Engineers for beach replenishment programs, led the State Department of Environmental Protection to a better understanding of the cause of red tides, and conducted exhaustive research on seafood safety to protect our status as a top seafood producer. Since its doors opened, Lab scientists have documented the life cycles, characteristics and distribution of major fish species in the Mid-Atlantic that for decades has served as the main source of information for recreational and commercial fisherman, scientists, universities and the public up and down the eastern seaboard.
The Lab is an important research partner to numerous educational institutions, including Rutgers University, Monmouth University, New York University, Brookdale Community College, the Marine Academy of Science and Technology (M.A.S.T.), Stevens Institute of Technology, Stockton State College, and the New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium with over 30 additional member institutions and universities. In this role the Lab has provided internships for hundreds of students over the years, myself included.
If the importance of the Lab’s work is not readily apparent, it is better understood when you look at the numbers. Recreational fishing contributes approximately $1.6 billion to New Jersey’s economy every year, to which the commercial fishing and aquaculture industry adds another $ 1 billion. Tourism, which is dependent upon our clean, wide beaches, adds a stunning $35.5 billion dollars to our state coffers each year. We simply can’t afford to lose a major force in the protection of these precious resources
The buildings that house the Lab are leased from New Jersey for $2.8 million annually, a cost that will drop to approximately $1.6 million next year when a construction bond for the facility is paid off. It is this cost, and the lease’s 2013 expiration date, that led the federal government to consider it as an opportunity to trim the budget. Given the important contributions the Lab makes to our area, these savings are specious and are simply not worth the cost. Governor Christie must step in to renegotiate the lease and we all must do what we can to keep the Lab in New Jersey where it belongs.
The next time you drive over the Highlands Bridge, look around and enjoy the view. And remember, even though you can’t actually see it from the bridge, the James J. Howard Marine Science Lab is an integral part of that.
Susan M. Kennedy is an environmental attorney who got her start as a summer inern at the James J. Howard Marine Sciences Lab at Sandy Hook