The Fish Story

Neck-deep in Eelgrass Mat History; No ‘Mr. Nicestop’ for Tinted-Window Types

By JAY MANN | Jul 18, 2017

Weekend surfcasters met with one of the largest eelgrass washups in many Zostera moons. Zostera is the sci-term used by technical-types when talking eelgrass. Its entire Latinly name is Zostera marina.

Washups of dead eelgrass traditionally blow ashore on the wings of northeast winds after a long southeast wind stint. In the wash, the stuff is fully ruinous to surfcasting. There’s no fishing through it; it’s pack up and head home time.

Bobbing mats of arriving eelgrass are also bothersome to bathers. The floating mats can get all too touchy-feely. Bathers come up after diving under a wave to find gobs of eely grass draped over them, black lagoon-like.

Even more to bathers’ loathings are the legions of tiny isopods and amphipods lurking within the grass mats. They’re in there eating the gooey-ish stuff. Aggravatingly, some of those little sea buggers will pinch human skin one good. They’re not biting, per se. Instead, they’re using tiny grabbers to clutch onto anything stable, the way they do with passing DOA vegetation. Humans become perfect cling-to candidates.

All eelgrass is rooted in the bay. In its living, budding form, it creates beds, sometimes called meadows. Eelgrass beds are among the most vibrantly important eco-environments on the planet, matching the dynamic of life-teaming coral reefs, though only seasonally, as in the case of Barnegat Bay eelgrasses.

As to mats of bobbing-about DOA eelgrass, there’s been debate on what it all means.

Many a decade back, I chose Zostera for a college thesis. I tried zipping the paper up a bit with a non-academic intro: “Zostera beds are crawling with life.”

Academia apparently hates any sort of colorful language. I got an A-minus – and was duly enraged with having been minus-ed. Hey, those were the protest and revolution days. One became mandatorily enraged over even a minus sign. As everyone else was marching around, air-bouncing “Stop the War!” signs, there I was in their midst, angrily hoisting a huge sign, “Stop the A-minuses!” The protesters sorta accepted me, assuming I was somehow protesting nuclear A-bomb testing. It was all good back then.

But I digress.

In my Zostera marina thesis, I blamed bayside pleasure boaters for “propellering” eelgrass to bits, leading to dead-grass “surface flows.”

While my A-minus-happy professor wasn’t overly wild about my creating words like “propellering,” such spontaneous terms are far from new in the science realm. He even freely used the word in class, while openly critiquing my research, as “Excellent … but lacking adequate corroboration.” Why, you … where’s my paint? One sign coming up: “Make Love … Not Adequate Corroboration!” This time, my fellow protesters took one look at my sign and began distancing themselves from me.

To this day I stand firm that out-of-channel boats, tooling around in the shallows, take hideous bites out of live eelgrass beds. They leave the confined ecosystem scarred with snakelike propeller-made trenches. Modern aerial shots of Barnegat Bay show muddy, crisscrossing prop gashes across most remaining Zostera beds.

Local eelgrasses can only grow in shallows, due to a growing loss of water clarity in the summer, when Zostera growth shines. Water clarity is a must for eelgrass and its photosynthesizing ways. It can’t live where the sun doesn’t shine down brightly. And things aren’t looking overly bright for Barnegat Bay.

Our bay’s current turbidity shortcomings are due to a slew of things, some natural, most not so much.

We know about the excessive nutrients hitting the bay as rain runoff, over-rich in yard/garden fertilizers and road-related petroleum byproducts. Algae love such nutrification – as in, blooms in love. While generally good guys, algae, when gone wild, becomes an in-water sunblock. Blooms spell doom for any deeper-down eelgrass, unable to take in enough sun to carry on.

Also mucking up water clarity is erosion from never-ending construction and bulkhead building.

Recently, eelgrass aficionados, like myself, are focusing on higher and higher bayside homes, which can cut off sunlight to nearby eelgrass shallows. Any loss in everyday sunbathing time leads to eelgrass beds shrinking. While the bed loss per looming bayfront house is minimal, we simply don’t have enough eelgrass left to take such an accumulative hit along most of LBI’s bayfront. Any eelgrass loss means curtains for loads of life that had once thrived within, including many young-of-year fishes.

Once dead and gone, eelgrass blades ride currents through the bay, out the inlets, and into the ocean – for beach deposition duties.

NATURE TO BLAME: I’ll now admit my first academic forays into Zostera weren’t natural, or historical, enough. Having buffed up on LBI history, I now realize our shores have seen enormous dead eelgrass washups as far back as the 1700s. That’s a tad before boat props.

I somehow underrated the reality that eelgrass goes belly up of its own accord – every year. Like deciduous plants, Zostera blooms like crazy in summer and dies off just as crazily come winter – shedding all its blades.

Once dead to the winter world, shed blades mainly sulk on the bottom. The arrival of spring water warmth kickstarts a decay process, producing gasses that lift untold numbers of darkened blades to the surface. Even when dead as doornails, eelgrass blades keep things lively, feeding many marine creatures, including sometimes grabby isopods and amphipods.

To be sure, a large amount of eelgrass seen afloat on the bay or washed ashore on the beach met an unnatural end. It has been cruelly sheared from its home beds. Floating green blades – the color of healthy growing eelgrass – are usually evidence of a ravaged Zostera bed.

Trying to look at the eelgrass glass as being half full, huge mats of dead eelgrass rafting about might also be a sign of healthy, productive beds from a previous summer.

Simply seen: Floating eelgrass is a welcome-mat sight when part of a natural process. When mats are due to mankind abuses, they’re a sign of bad bay times.

DON’T TINT ME OUT: Who among you wants to have your lives tarnished by accusations of aiding and abetting the torture of small furry creatures, like Guinea pigs or random field mice? Well, neither would I. That’s why I refuse to offer so much as the time of day, or one of my patented courtesy let-ins, for any vehicle with fully-tinted windows. I’ll explain.

The paint-it-black glass look is becoming more and more common on NJ vehicles. It’s occasionally meant to offer an unproven coolness to a vehicle’s overall look. More likely, nowadays, it’s meant to avoid getting cited for texting, cell phoning … or, cruelty to animals.

Hey, who knows what the hell you’re doing behind all that tint!? Poor little gerbils, being repeatedly stuck with pins … right there on the dashboard!

I’m an avowed nice-guy when it comes to signaling stopped side-road traffic into my lane of traffic, most commonly as I do a weekend-crawl along the Boulevard. Sure, I’m often being a sucker. I know full well those side-streeters are most often sneakily trying to beat the traffic by using the zip-down-back streets strategy. Nonetheless, that’s my red Chevy truck slowing down – and me, making eye contact with those pullers-out. After a little eye-on-eye exchange, I hand signal a “Go head, buddy” – indubitably getting a thank-you wave, hopefully not accompanied with an under-breath, “sucker!”

But nowadays, my nice-guy resolve has been compromised. Should I happen upon a fully tinted-out vehicle, there’s no Mr. Nicestopper, i.e. no eye contact, no courtesies.

Again, there’s no guessing what hideous activities might be going on inside that absurdly secretive vehicle. How many small creatures might have their terrified little faces shoved against the blackened glass, hopelessly begging to be rescued?

Just my life luck, if I were to blindly let a tinter into my lane of traffic:

Judge: “Mr. Mann, is it not true that you openly and understandingly allowed the animal torturer’s vehicle onto the Boulevard in a manner indicating blatant agreement with what was being done to small field creatures within said vehicle?”

“What!? The windows were blacked out! I had no way of knowing …”

Judge: “Oh, please, Mr. Mann. Do you know how many bogus ‘I had no way of knowing’ pleas I hear each week? What you did by wholeheartedly allowing the accused to pull out in front of you is the definition of aiding and abetting. Mr. Mann, I see you as being just as guilty, by default. Ten years in the Big House … you, you animal torturer, you!”

“No, no, no, no, no!” I offer in my finest Gene Wilder voice, as I cling to my court chair, while being dragged toward one of those “Guilty” doors, being held up by a glaring PETA-member court officer.

All this hypothetically in mind, I hereby dutifully suggest offering no breaks – or courtesy braking – to vehicles with fully tinted windows. If not for me, do it for the tiny creatures of the world.

IN HOT WATER: It sure seems we’ll break 80 this summer. I’m talking ocean water temps along the beachfront.

On Monday, I used an infrared thermometer to take a 77.6-degree reading in the Surf City suds; Yanni K. took a 79.6 in Holgate, on Tuesday.

There has been some less-than-heated debate over whether or not we ever see 80-degree water in our surf. I swear I’ve taken 80-degree readings in years past, using a tough, mercurial hi-low memory thermometer – on a string. My tethered old-style thermometer could be thrown well out into the surf. However, it sometimes recorded cooler bottom water temps if whipped out too far.

Modern infrared thermometers are highly accurate for taking surface water temps. They record emitted thermal radiation from a target. The higher a target’s emissivity (its ability to emit thermal radiation), the greater a thermometer’s accuracy. Water has a near ideal 0.98 (out of 1.0) emissivity. Infrared thermometer temperatures are usually spot-on.

By the by, the red laser “dot” common to all infrared thermometers has virtually nothing to do with the taking of radiational temperature. Its sole purpose is to simply point out where invisible infrared readings are being taken. In fact, those laser dots can be deceiving. You can aim the dot through a home window and onto a sun-heated car in the driveway. The temp will come back at a comfy 68 degrees. That’s because the infrared read stopped at the air-conditioned window. Car surfaces can easily exceed 125 degrees on a sunny summer day.

RUNDOWN: While I’m hearing of decent showings of nice fluke, caught in the bay, inlet and beyond, I’m simultaneously getting a slew of skunk reports. Many of the skunked folks are simultaneously taking potshots at current fluke regs. Hey, why not? There’s nothing else to do when a fluke drift turns cold.

Brown sharks are showing; mainly smaller ones. Nighttime is sharking time. Far from a sure thing, though I heard of one angler who batted three for three – single sharks for three nights running.

Kingfishing has been highly hampered by eelgrass … and beach throngs. I’m tempted to throw on one of my new full-face diving masks and do a look-about for bottom-feeding kingfish. They are not easily spooked, providing I float on the surface, looking down on them. When nosing along the bottom all day, they barely pay any attention to what’s above. They’ll stop feeding at night and laze about, almost dead-like, on the bottom. Their camouflage coloring intensifies for added nighttime protection.

Had a young’un ask about blowfish – and I was stumped. I heard nothing about puffer action during the spring migration. That said, I’ve seen slow spring showings become fine fall runs.

It’s time I suggest chumming grass shrimp in deeper bay waters, places like Myers Hole. You’ll quickly see what panfish might quietly be out there.

Speaking of Myers Hole, a gorgeous, one-shot weakie was taken near there. Had to be 10 pounds. No, I’m not burning a spot. “Near” can mean a lot of things. Besides, I no longer give a rat’s ass about mentioning popular locations as being “hot.” Rare and secret spots, those are different matters, worth keeping under wraps.

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