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Smartphone App Turns Boaters, Residents Into Pollution Fighters

Smartphone users can use app to report pollution, jellyfish and algae

Barnegat Bay from Ortley Beach (Photo: Daniel Nee)
Barnegat Bay from Ortley Beach (Photo: Daniel Nee)
Jersey Shore residents have a lot at stake when it comes to protecting Barnegat Bay and other coastal waterways, but sometimes people don't know where to turn when they see pollution or algae or other biological events taking place.

Now, thanks to a federal grant, iPhone users can access an app developed by the American Littoral Society and SUNY Maritime that can take reports of pollutions or other events in an instant, including photos and the exact GPS position of what is being reported.

The app was first designed in 2012 to spur the reporting of oil spills, but has now been expanded to allow users to report on a wide variety of issues and environmental concerns.

Called "Marine Defenders," the app, available in Apple's App Store, allows boaters, swimmers or anyone near the water to photograph pollution, algae blooms, sea nettle presence or injured animals and automatically send a report, which the Littoral Society relays to an appropriate state agency, such as the Department of Environmental Protection.

Pollution is more of an issue in Barnegat Bay than most people believe, said Al Wutkowski, the Littoral Society's volunteer Barnegat Bay Guardian, who regularly patrols the bay.

"There are gasoline spills, oil spills and I end up rescuing a lot of animals," said Wutkowski. "I do probably a hundred [rescues] a year, whether they're hurt or oiled. Otters, foxes, a little bit of everything."

The app is not just relegated to the bay, however. Environmental incidents can be posted from anywhere in the world, including the ocean, where occasionally a ship will illegally dump spent oil.

"Just about half of all the oil that gets dumped in the ocean is dumped illegally and intentionally from ships," said Tim Dillingham, director of the American Littoral Society.

The grant funding of more than $300,000 to develop the app came from fines levied against polluters, Dillingham said.

"We thought that a great way to use that money is to create a way for people to do more reporting, and become more aware of oil spills and give them a way they can actually respond and trigger law enforcement," said Dillingham.

Helen Henderson, the Littoral Society's policy advocate, said another facet of the app is its ability to better document, from a wide variety of sources, pollution in Barnegat Bay so the waterway can officially be declared impaired. Impaired waterways, under the federal Clean Water Act, trigger regulations on sources of pollution and are eligible to receive grant money for cleanup.

Numerous environmental groups have, for years, called on the state to declare the bay impaired.

"We are putting this tool into the hands of thousands of people who will be eyes on the water, helping to protect and restore our bays and coast," Henderson said.

Dillingham said the Littoral Society has notified law enforcement agencies that there may be an influx of reports coming through once the app gains in popularity. The app also includes instructions for individuals who wish to contact government agencies themselves, categorized by what type of report they submit.

The app has already had hundreds of downloads, with thousands expected once the summer boating season begins in earnest, its developers said.

"We can't undo development, but we can document its impact and then push to enforce the laws available to clean up the bay and other waters as strongly as we can," said Henderson.

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The app is currently available on iOS, which runs on iPhones and iPads. To download, go to: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/marine-defenders/id540964894?mt=8&uo=4

Daniel Nee June 05, 2014 at 06:12 AM
I think the sea nettle aspect of the app is still important. In LBI and much of the southern portion of the bay, sea nettle blooms are still somewhat rare and worth tracking. Plus the documentation can only help the scientific community put into place plans that could improve the health of the estuary as a whole.
Resident of Lacey June 05, 2014 at 07:30 AM
I have never experienced any problems with sea nettles when swimming in the bay. I do not discount the fact that there are at times and abundance of sea nettles at times however I have found it to be the exception and the rule for me. I do however see the value in the app and it will surely be a benefit to be able to reliably report environmental anomalies to the correct authorities.
Lizzy June 05, 2014 at 07:37 AM
Is there really Otters in the Bay?
VJ June 05, 2014 at 09:33 AM
I think it is a great idea!
Daniel Nee June 05, 2014 at 12:54 PM
Lizzy - Yup, otters are pretty common in the bay. They're actually pretty notorious for stealing the baitfish out of baitholders tied to people's backyard docks. They're found across the entire bay but especially prevalent in the southern bay. There's a sizable colony of them in Beach Haven West in Stafford.

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