Estuaries: Where Beach Meets Barrens

My dad’s favorite fishing spots were the backwaters of Brigantine, a series of coves, thoroughfares and channels connected to Absecon Bay and Reed Bay to the west and Little Bay and Great Bay to the north. Great Bay shares many of the same ecological features with Barnegat Bay, both vital estuaries on the Jersey Shore. The Wikipedia article about Great Bay states that it “is part of the New Jersey back barrier lagoon system, and the resources here are similar to those found in the Barnegat Bay complex to the north and the Brigantine Bay and Marsh complex to the south.” 

During Stockton University’s 33rd Annual Pinelands Short Course on March 12th, I attended a  program about Barnegat Bay presented by Karen Walzer, Public Outreach Coordinator at Barnegat Bay Partnership, entitled Water and Wildlife: Pine Barrens to Barnegat Bay.

Barnegat Bay

Karen described Barnegat Bay as a series of barrier islands, which are really “giant sandbars,” where the freshwater of the pinelands mingled with the salt water of the Atlantic ocean, creating a brackish ecosystem of tidal wetlands and salt marshes. Noting the threat of rising sea level, she highlighted the importance of wetlands as a buffer between the bay and nearby homes, protecting them from flooding and storm surge.

She also discussed the impact of pollution caused by overdevelopment and fertilizer runoff. Algae blooms, unhealthy growth of algae fueled by pollution, killed sea life. A Rutgers University study released in 2012 reported that Barnegat Bay’s ecosystem was “highly stressed due to decades of nitrogen and phosphorus entering the waterway from lawns, parking lots and driveways and sewer system overflows” and would “continue to decline unless development and stormwater runoff into the bay are reduced.”

Protecting Estuaries

The end of Karen’s presentation focused on ways to protect and restore Barnegat Bay. Rain barrels, rain gardens, and green infrastructure mimicking nature help protect against runoff. Because shellfish such as scallops, oysters, and clams filter and clean water, efforts to control overharvesting, restore oyster reefs, and increase populations are underway

The Mullica River – Great Bay Estuary
The Mullica River empties into Great Bay, forming the heart of the Mullica River – Great Bay Estuary. In contrast to Barnegat Bay, however, this estuary falls into protected land with restricted development resulting in a sparser human population, making it “the cleanest estuary in the northeastern United States and one of the cleanest ” on the East Coast. This seems especially remarkable given its close proximity to the bustle and bright lights of Atlantic City.

Atlantic City Skyline with great blue heron flying across bay in foreground at Forsythe Wildlife Refuge
Atlantic City Skyline (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

Aunt Dora’s Atlantic City: Neptune’s Playground

My great Aunt Dora owned a modest terrace house in pre-casino Atlantic City just off Georgia Avenue, a short walk from America’s first boardwalk. Aunt Dora made the best pasta and peas, and she drank, danced, and loved life throughout the 90 plus years she graced our family. 

Brigantine borders the famous seaside resort, and Aunt Dora would come to visit our shore house in the summer, riding the #501 bus, the only line serving Brigantine. And when I was little, my parents would take me to visit Aunt Dora. We would spend time on the beach during the day, and at night, visit the Million Dollar Pier on the boardwalk across from what is now Caesars Atlantic City Casino. The pier featured amusement park rides, carnival games, and other entertainment.

Million Dollar Pier

Opened in 1906 by John L. Young and Kennedy Crossan, a builder from Philadelphia, the Million Dollar Pier hosted conventions and entertainment events. It benefited from Atlantic City’s enormous popularity as a summer destination when the resort became known as the “World’s Playground.”

Because of its proximity to Aunt Dora’s house, the pier was a favorite of my family, although my older cousins preferred the famous Steel Pier, claiming it had better attractions. They may have had a point. Both piers suffered financially as Atlantic City entered the era of casino gambling. While Steel Pier endures as an amusement pier, the Million Dollar Pier closed and was demolished with the help of a suspicious fire in the early 80s. A shopping mall pier called Ocean One built to resemble an ocean liner took its place. Today, it’s the location of the Playground Pier.

Miss America

In the 1920s, the Million Dollar Pier served as a venue for the nascent Miss America pageant. Conceived as a way to attract business to Atlantic City’s boardwalk, the first contest was held in 1921. Evolving into a scholarship competition, the pageant survived the Great Depression, scandals, and changing societal expectations and celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. Margaret Gorman, the first Miss America, received a Golden Mermaid trophy in an event presided over by “King Neptune.” Today’s Miss America organization revamped itself in recent years, dropping the traditional swimsuit and evening gown competitions and focusing on talent and achievement instead.

Close up of a sand sculpture of Neptune at the Atlantic City Boat Show
Neptune (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

Convention Hall

The walk from Aunt Dora’s house to the Million Dollar Pier took us past what was then known as Convention Hall, the iconic building with a barrel vault roof that served as Atlantic City’s first convention center. Known today as Boardwalk Hall and longtime home of the Miss America pageant, it became a national historic landmark in 1987.
In 1997, Atlantic City received a new convention center. Designed by a Philadelphia firm, the facility offers venues for conventions, meetings, and receptions as well as trade shows and exhibitions such as the annual Atlantic City Boat Show.

A sand sculpture of Neptune at the Atlantic City Boat Show
Atlantic City Boat Show Sand Sculpture (Photo by Beach and Barrens)