Several area mayors met up at Sandy Hook last week for a tour of the fisheries lab at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration there before getting on with their monthly Two River Council of Mayors meeting.
According to NOAA scientist Beth Phelan, who gave the tour, the lab plays host to dozens of universities such as Stevens Institute and Rutgers and Monmouth. It also rents space to the Marine Academy of Science and Technology, the county vocational high school right next door. NOAA and the schools partner on research projects where schools secure the funding for projects and NOAA provides the facilities and expertise to study things like how the bio-chemical properties of fish affect their growth after an oil spill.
The lab also tracks the behavior and habitats of local species. One study tagged striped bass, weak fish and blue fish that live in the waters of the Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers with acoustic receivers to study their movements. One interesting finding, Phelan said, was when the July fireworks went off in Red Bank, "the fish took off," but that after the noise and boat traffic dissipated, they returned to their haunts.
The NOAA lab, located in the James J. Howard Marine Sciences Laboratory, also works with groups like the American Littoral Society and recreational fisherman who help tag fish and then record data about when and where they later catch tagged fish.
Phelan said that though the lab gathers information about the fishery, it is not involved in regulation. But the findings of research, which are sent to regulators, can ultimately impact how local anglers catch.
The mayors who visited the lab represent boroughs that have passed resolutions urging the federal government to stave off the closing of the facility, which the government has said will save $2 million a year. The mayors asked Phelan to give her opinion about the possible closure of the lab where she has worked for 27 years as an ecologist who specializes in flat fish.
"I work for the government," she said, "so the president's budget is not something I am going to argue with."
Showing off the facility's 32,000 gallon tank filled with black sea bass, Phelan talked about anecdotal changes she has seen during her tenure. "There are a lot of species we don't see here anymore."
Whether it's because of temperature change or habitat loss, Phelan couldn't say, but she added, "We don't catch a lot of puffer fish anymore."
Scientists at the lab also keep an eye on global events that could come to New York and New Jersey harbors. Phelan said that after the oil spill in the Gulf caused a huge algae bloom, scientists here questioned their preparedness should a spill occur here. In response, a group of scientists from the lab recently met with those at Rutgers and Stevens Institute, Phelan said, "to see if we could piece together a response team to go out and take samples."
Hearing about all the universities who do work at the lab prompted Eatontown Mayor Gerald Tarantolo to ask, "Why doesn't academia form a consortium to take over this place?"
Phelan, speaking carefully acknowledged that "there are parties who could come in and take over."
Click here to see more about the history of the marine lab that has been in operation for 50 years. According to Phelan, the lab was built in the 80s by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. It is operated by the state of New Jersey, which leases it to NOAA. The property itself is owned by the National Park Service.
The Two River Council of Mayors, led by Tarantolo, meets monthly to share information and ideas about how to run their boroughs and work with the towns around them.