Background on Nitrogen Pollution

Learn about causes and effects of nitrogen pollution in Barnegat Bay.

American Littoral Society
Clean Ocean Action
Ocean County Sierra Club
Save Barnegat Bay
Sedge Island Natural Resources Education Center

June 1, 2007

For Release:


Tim Dillingham (ALS) 732-291-0055 Cindy Zipf (COA) 732-872-0111
Greg Auriemma (OCSC) 732-451-9220
Willie deCamp, Jen O’Reilly (SBB) 732-830-3600
Helen Henderson (SBB) 908-278-9807
Jim Merritt (SINREC) 609-658-7965

Nitrogen Pollution in Barnegat Bay

“Barnegat Bay is like a garden that is getting too much fertilizer and no weeding,” said William deCamp Jr., Chairman of Save Barnegat Bay. “The result is an unhealthy ecosystem that provides less sustenance and enjoyment for humanity.”

In proper amounts nitrogen, the seventh element on the periodic table, is an essential part of Barnegat Bay’s and other marine ecosystems. Nitrogen promotes the growth of algae and other aquatic plants necessary to the marine food web.

The overabundance of nitrogen that we humans are putting into the water, however – through fertilizer, pet wastes, deforestation, septic systems, and even air pollution – is radically altering the Barnegat Bay ecosystem.

– Fifty percent of the nitrogen entering Barnegat Bay runs off the land from townships as far from the bay as Plumsted and Jackson.

– Ten percent enters from groundwater, which may be thought of as a delayed form of surface runoff.

– The remaining forty percent comes from atmospheric deposition – it comes down in the rain, having entered the atmosphere as emissions from power plants and cars.

Excess nitrogen causes populations of algae to explode, decreasing the transmission of light through the water. This in turn stresses and even destroys the vital eelgrass beds that form the essential nursery habitat for fish and shellfish species. In some lagoons when algae die, they can deplete the water of oxygen.

“I am distressed by the increasing amount of macroaglae smothering eelgrass and other native submerged aquatic vegetation in the Sedge Island Marine Conservation Zone,” said James Merritt, Program Director for the Sedge Island Natural Resource Education Center.

Large algae, such as sea lettuce can sink to the bottom, smothering eelgrass and shellfish habitat. These and other negative impacts are collectively referred to as eutrophication, and Barnegat Bay has a bad case of it.
The result is an altered ecosystem, with less abundant and less healthy life forms.

Baymen are particularly hard hit since the decline of eelgrass beds leads to a decline in clams, scallops, and blue crabs, which use it as habitat.

Excess nutrients and warmer water may be a cause of the proliferation of stinging sea nettles, which close many bay swimming beaches, inconvenience boaters, and interrupt the food chain by consuming small fish and other organisms.

Overdevelopment causes excess nitrogen inputs into the bay in multiple ways. Even a totally clean parking lot adds to the problem because it is replacing trees and other vegetation that formerly absorbed much of the nitrogen that falls in the rain. The resulting fertilizers, dog and cat waste, and emissions from internal combustion engines create additional insults to the Barnegat Bay ecosystem.

Although scientists are certain that excess nitrogen is causing adverse consequences for the bay, much remains to be studied.

In order to accurately assess the degree of excess nitrogen, it will be necessary to biologically monitor the species in the bay. The problem of excess nitrogen cannot be adequately detected from water samples, because aquatic plants absorb nitrogen from the water column too rapidly.

“The pollution washes off the land and builds up in storm water. The chemical cocktail of runoff pours into the bay triggering a negative domino effect” said Cindy Zipf, Executive Director of Clean Ocean Action.

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