Story and photo by Rick Geffken
LINCROFT – Rik van Hemmen loves the Navesink River area. Not only for its abundant scenic beauty and recreational opportunities, but also because its impact is inseparable from the lives of hundreds of generations of the people who have lived and prospered on its banks.
Long before Europeans arrived at its verdant shores 352 years ago and met the original inhabitants of the Lenape tribal band called “Neversincks,” this unique estuary had been supporting humans.
But whether or not today’s Monmouth County residents can sustain a similar dependence on the river system is an open question, according to van Hemmen.
Before a crowd of around 75 people who braved heavy rain and gusty winds to attend his Science Monday talk at Brookdale Community College (BCC) on Jan. 23, the vice president of the Navesink Maritime Heritage Association (NMHA) spoke about historic shipping, farming, and fishing along the river. He examined the serious and damaging impacts caused by the last century of recreational boating and fishing, as well as residential and commercial building.
Van Hemmen said that a warning bell was struck by a coalition of groups started last summer by Clean Ocean Action, called Rally For the Navesink, in response to a downgrade of over 500 acres of shell fishing area.
Water pollution is often blamed for every problem in the Navesink, but, van Hemmen emphasized, things are not always what they appear. Witness last summer’s outbreak of clinging jellyfish whose sting can cause excruciating pain, muscle weakness, and serious medical problems, including kidney failure. It now appears that the common jellyfish, called sea nettles, arrived later in our area than they normally do for reasons unknown, and concurrently the invasive clinging jellyfish population in the river increased. Did pollution affect these events? Do sea nettles attack clinging jellyfish, helping to control the latter’s population? We just don’t understand enough yet to establish causal links, Van Hemmen said.
“The 2016 Monmouth County Master Plan doesn’t address all our important concerns,” said van Hemmen. “We have 12,500 acres of water in the county, supporting 200,000 people.” Citing from his report “Strategic Sustainable Man/Nature Interaction in Eastern Monmouth County,” van Hemmen got down to specifics, talking about storm drain run-off, residential overbuilding, lawn fertilizers, and other seemingly innocuous modern behaviors Monmouth County residents engage in.
The talk was co-sponsored by the Jersey Shore Sierra Club Group and the Environmental Club at BCC’s Warner Student Life Center. This is the eleventh year the college has sponsored “Science Monday” speakers, held on the fourth Monday of each month on its Lincroft campus. Typically about 100 people fill the room to hear a wide range of speakers talk on local environmental concerns. BCC biology professor Patricia Dillon said, “These sessions have a lot of value. We’re very grateful to the speakers who appear for nothing, donating their time.”
Students are encouraged to attend. Instructors may offer science students a few extra points on a quiz grade to attend the evening lectures. “I usually hear from my students that they really didn’t want to come, but it was really good,” said Dillon.
Rik van Hemmen is an engineer and president of Martin, Ottaway, van Hemmen and Dolan, Inc. in Red Bank. As a leader of the NMHA, he generated some controversy last year with his proposal to establish a National Marine Sanctuary. Mainly due to opposition from recreational and commercial fisherman who feared governmental overregulation and the formation of the Rally for the Navesink movement, he has since shelved the project.
Van Hemmen devoted a good portion of Monday evening’s presentation discussing a concept called “the tragedy of the commons.” It is about how easy it is for large public spaces to be over used until driven to destruction. He pointed out that all Monmouth County stakeholders can contribute to a new “reality of the commons,” which he defined as “community thinking about the complexity of the Navesink River area in order to make it healthy again.” Because Monmouth County residents are relatively wealthy, he believes residents may have an advantage getting good things done.
Audience members asked van Hemmen a number of questions about solving the issues he identified. He was careful to emphasize that blame is not a winning strategy. Rather, he suggested, “We need to recognize that the Navesink River is a special place with limited resources. We all have to engage in conversations about sharing it to optimize its very real limits.”
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