Let’s Create the Sandy Hook Bay National Marine Sanctuary

December 22, 2015
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trtwebcommentaryby Rik Van Hemmen

I have traveled far and wide as a marine consultant and often try to capture a bit of local maritime culture and beauty in my business travels. There are countless interesting maritime areas and cultures in the world, but I always come back to our Two Rivers estuary with a slight feeling of awe. I simply have not been able to find a small area like it in the world. For many peculiar reasons, this little corner of New Jersey is subject to forces that provide endless change completely out of proportion to its size. It is not just the boats, it is also related to our excellent county park system, to the interaction of sea, shore, beach, land, hills, farms and wooded areas, to the feel of real seasons, to the Atlantic Flyway, to the interaction of blue and white collar occupations, and to both a feeling of local history and a cosmopolitan and international outlook.

Our local waters are a cultural laboratory; an experimental station; a Zen garden. In 400 years these waters have gone from a pre modern native culture, to an idyllic farm community, to a light industrial society, to a somewhat worn out estuary in the 1970’s and then to something else that includes much improved water quality, further development, higher levels of environmental appreciation and a more varied use of the river.

Today, it consists of three layers; the estuary  itself with everything natural in it, the river uses and then the surrounding human community. All three change, not necessarily in concert, but they change and they change remarkably quickly.

During a business trip I met the director of the National Marine Sanctuaries Foundation. National Marine Sanctuaries are the equivalent of National Parks, but exist on (and in) water instead of land. National Marine Sanctuaries range in size from a single submerged shipwreck in the Atlantic, to the size of several states in the Pacific Ocean. Just like National Parks they can fulfill a multitude of purposes ranging from nature preservation, to historical preservation, to education and recreation. Our own Sandy Hook National Park is an example where all these missions and goals come together in one park.

The Director told me that new rules for National Marine Sanctuary nomination have been published and that now the public would take on the most significant role in making nominations for National Marine Sanctuary status.

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So I asked him: “Can you still fish in National Marine Sanctuaries?”

He said: “Yes, but according to a fishery management plan.” “Does it restrict construction around the sanctuary?” He said: “Not specifically, but a well designed sanctuary tries to establish goals that allow the land and the water to work together.”

In 2014 the sanctuary nomination rules were published and they indicate that the following criteria would support nomination and the establishment of a National Marine Sanctuary:

Does the place have natural resources or habitat with special ecological significance?

Does the place have maritime heritage resources with special historical, cultural, archeological significance?

Does the place have important economic uses like tourism, fishing, diving and other recreational activities?

Do all of these things depend on conservation and management of resources?

Then the reviewers look for:

Opportunities for marine research, education or partner ships;

Potential threats & impacts for the place’s marine resources;

Existing management/regulation that could help with conservation efforts; and Importantly, broad community based support.

This is for nomination only, and the actual designation is a national public process and nobody expects a nomination and designation to take place in a few months or even years. Still, can anybody think of a place that fits this list of requirements as well as our Two Rivers? Each question can be reasonable answered with a strong “yes.”

Quite reasonably all of the Raritan Bay and its estuaries would be able to fit within the description, but that is a huge area with possibly too many competing interests. But what if we nominate Sandy Hook Bay, extending from the tip of the Earle Weapon Center to the tip of Sandy Hook and all the estuaries within it? It would be bounded on one side by a federal military installation on the other side by a national park, and upstream it would contain the waterfronts of Middletown, Atlantic Highlands, Highlands, Rumson, Fair Haven, Sea Bright, Red Bank, Shrewsbury, Little Silver, Tinton Falls, Oceanport, Eatontown, Long Branch, West Long Branch, and Monmouth Beach, together with various abutting county parks.

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It is a remarkably varied collection of communities, but each is becoming more and more interested in the sustainable and balanced use of the Two Rivers and Sandy Hook Bay. The Sandy Hook Bay Marine Sanctuary would be a suburban marine sanctuary y that can serve as an example of carefully designed and executed sustainable use and could serve as an example for the world. Possibly, this first experiment will allow gradual expansion of the sanctuary, maybe to include all of the Raritan Bay and all its estuaries. Maybe, in the not too distant future, New York City will be positioned within a National Marine Sanctuary.

The thought of it alone boggles the mind. It will not mean that industry and commerce will leave the area. Instead commerce and industry will be supported for its historical and economic significance, but it will mean that each and every one of us can look at the water and say: “That water is part of me just like our magnificent national parks are part of me and together they pro vide a deeper meaning to our existence on earth.”

Can it be done? Maybe, maybe not, but change is this area’s middle name, and if the experiment is worth starting, it certainly is best started here. Let’s use our community’s ability to create change and create something that will make us all proud for centuries to come.

In the coming year I plan to start working on putting the pieces for the application together. Join me if you are interested in creating something that those who follow us will be thankful for.

Rik van Hemmen is a naval architect and marine engineer and the President of Martin & Ottaway, a 135 year old marine consulting company based in Red Bank that deals with issues ranging from marine sustainability to ship design and construction. He also is the Vice President of Navesink Maritime Heritage Association. He just published the second edition of “A Chronology of Boating on The Navesink.” He can be reached at rhemmen@martinottaway.com.


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