Recreational boating and sport fishing are staples in the coastal waters of New Jersey, New York, Delaware and other areas struck hard by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, but debris and sediment buildup left many of those waterways treacherous since the super storm.
However, after nearly eight months of intense cleaning operations, officials have declared the region’s coastal waterways safe but urged boaters to use “extreme caution” as the peak summertime boating periods approach.
Bob Martin, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said the state has stuck to its goal of completing 75 percent of the clean-up project – which carried a price tag of $100 million – by June 1.
“I expect the vast majority of the waterways will be open for boating, fishing and recreation this summer,” Martin told The Record of Hackensack, N.J.
At an estimated $75 billion, Hurricane Sandy was the second most costly hurricane (trailing only 2005’s Hurricane Katrina) in terms of damage. Nearly 300 deaths were blamed on the storm in seven countries from the Caribbean to Canada.
In its aftermath, coastal waterways in the region were brimming with millions of tons of debris. Thousands of boats, cars and docks, complete homes and other debris were washed into the ocean, choking canals, lagoons and tidal waterways.
In addition, significant beach erosion pushed millions of tons of sand into the waterways, filling many boating lanes.
In New Jersey alone, 1,400 vessels had sunk, broken loose or were destroyed during the storm. In just one shore town alone, Mantoloking, N.J., 58 buildings were washed into Barnegat Bay, along with eight vehicles, and a staggering amount of sand carried from the ocean beaches into the bay.
After the storm, area residents knew there was a dire need for a vast cleaning project.
"When people start putting their boats back in the water in April, I know they're going to start hitting stuff," Al Wutkowski, the volunteer Barnegat Bay Guardian for the American Littoral Society environmental group, told The Associated Press in February. “It’s impossible not to hit stuff. It's also a lot shallower in places now. A lot of the lagoons are filled in with sand. People can't get their boats in or out."
But clean-up efforts began shortly after the flood waters receded. Debris removal has been an ongoing process as in most places, as soon as a beach or lagoon is cleared, the tide brings more.
Larger, underwater debris presents bigger problems. Martin said remote sensing and sonar are being used to find and recover underwater debris. Those that cannot be removed immediately will be marked to enable boaters to navigate around them.
The Marine Trades Association of New Jersey has launched a campaign and a website – GoBoatingNJ.org – to share updates on the conditions of waterways. Ed “Skip” Harrison, an official with the group, has been on the water and said there has been significant removal of larger items and most waterways are clear.
“If a person wants to use a boat, they should feel comfortable using it with caution … like it’s the first time they’re boating in the area,” Harrison told The Record.
Sand and sediment that accumulated will soon be dredged, if those efforts have not already started. Since March, more than 30,000 cubic yards of material have been removed from bays, channels, rivers, inlets and estuaries from Bergen County to Cape May County in New Jersey, and along Delaware Bay between New Jersey and Delaware.
Also, crews from the Army Corps of Engineers have worked to clear federal navigational channels such as the Intracoastal Waterway.
Also, the Environmental Protection Agency, in cooperation with the NJEP, took shore water samples from Sandy Hook, N.J., in Gateway National Recreation Area, to Seaside Heights, N.J., further to the south, and analyzed the samples for Enterococcus , an indicator of the presence of human pathogens. The results indicated no measurable effect from the stormwater discharge from the New York/New Jersey Harbor on coastal waters.
In addition, shellfish beds in Barnegat Bay were recently reopened. The beds were closed by the NJEP on Oct. 29 as part of a statewide closure of all New Jersey shellfish beds to commercial and recreational harvesting due to concerns over degradation of coastal water quality.