Stockton’s Marine Field Station recommended for $1.4M marine debris removal grant

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Friday that Stockton University is recommended for an award of $1.4 million from the $1 trillion federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for marine debris removal. With an additional $300,000 grant from Stockton, the grant’s total exceeds $1.7 million.

The grant — one of the largest awarded to Stockton’s Marine Field Station — has two major components:

  • Expanding a program with local fishing industries to identify and remove lost fishing and aquaculture gear in South Jersey waterways; and
  • Cataloging abandoned watercraft in New Jersey and removing 15-25 target vessels.

“We have partnered with Stockton University for nearly a decade to remove derelict fishing gear, and value their expertise and commitment to tackling marine debris,” Katie Morgan, regional coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program in the Mid-Atlantic, said. “We look forward to continuing this partnership and expanding the impact of Stockton’s efforts in coastal New Jersey to address not only the harmful impacts of derelict fishing gear, but also the dangerous and costly problem of abandoned and derelict vessels.”

“It’s a priority of NOAA to be able to collaborate with any of the commercial industries,” Steve Evert, director of Stockton’s Marine Field Station, said. “It is the program’s goal to strengthen our existing partnerships with commercial fishers and gain the trust and collaboration of more commercial partners.”

Evert, Mark Sullivan, a professor of marine science, and Peter Straub, a professor of biology and coastal zone management, have worked hard to develop relationships with local crabbers, including Warren and Karen Unkert of the Crab Farm in Mullica Township.

The Unkerts have been involved with Stockton since the beginning of the program in 2012. Since then, more than 3,500 traps have been removed, returned to industry partners or recycled. That translates into more than $150,000 of economic benefit to the commercial crabbing industry.

Before working with Stockton, the Unkerts said they would lose up to $2,000 a year due to crab pots that were either cut off, dragged away by boats or lost in a storm. They initially tried to buy a sonar system to locate the pots themselves, but it wasn’t powerful enough. Now, as part of the program, if a pot is lost, they can get it right back.

With the additional funds, Evert said Stockton will expand the program to other commercial partners and encourage licensed crabbers and aquaculture operations to reach out.

Another major part of the project is student involvement. Since 2012, more than 150 undergraduate students have received hands-on experience. Under the new grant, more undergraduate students will receive training on the sonar equipment and general boat-based skills to retrieve pots from the river and bay bottom.

In fact, it was an undergraduate course taught by Straub in 2009 that first identified the problem. Straub was showing his students how to use different types of technology to reveal items on the sea floor, Sullivan said. One of the things they saw was lost crab traps.

“It gives the students a lot of really practical experience, as well as exposure to potential career paths in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math),” Anna Pfeiffer-Herbert, associate professor of marine science, said.

The grant will also allow the marine debris program to expand beyond just crab pots and address other marine retrieval needs, such as oyster cages and other aquaculture items.

This award is the fourth Stockton has received from NOAA as part of the administration’s Marine Debris Program. Stockton received $100,000 in 2012, $119,626 in 2015 and $226,299 in 2018. The money has funded a partnership with local commercial industries to locate derelict crab traps and remove them from New Jersey coastal bays from Mantoloking to Cape May.