The Fish Story

Sand Worth Its Weight in You-Know-What; Nothing Like a Good Bunker Die-off

By JAY MANN | Aug 30, 2016
Supplied Photo

Here’s a weird and sandy story you don’t have to take with a grain of salt. It’s right as desert rains.

Oddly akin to selling ice to Eskimos, it’s apparently a perfect time to sell sand to the Middle East. Dubai and Saudi Arabia are in such pressing need of sand that a billion-dollar business – replete with sand-thieving criminal cartels – has developed.

It’s hard to believe that desert nations of an OPEC ilk, i.e. rich beyond brains and measures, are discovering not all their glittering desert sand is of a golden building-grade, often dubbed white sand.

Colossal-plus cities like Dubai, located within the United Arab Emirates, are now starving for sand while floating on an ocean of the stuff. Sand, sand everywhere but not a grain to build.

It all comes down to granularity – and the fact you can’t make thin sand fat again. Yes, that needs serious explaining.

In recent years, I’ve become a quick-learn on sand granularity, most recently as part of a failing fight to use bayside Holgate sand, now badly clogging channels, to assist the replenishment of LBI oceanfront beaches. It sounds like a win-win, which is apparently never a good thing. I’ve also been immersed in the effort to use sand from the constantly clogging Little Egg Inlet and nearby shoals to assure safe passage.

The first-and-foremost determinant of bay-to-beach sand relocation is the compatibility of bayside and inlet bottom material with our beloved beach sand – somewhat less beloved now that it’s not the same historic sugariness in the wake of the replens – though there’s still a load of sun bleaching to go for that newly-placed sand.

I’ll add here, opportunistically, the south-end bayside and inlet sand is a perfect match with our beach sands, likely exceeding the match of the sand now being pumped in from borrow sites miles off Harvey Cedars.

OK, so maybe I used the Middle East sand crisis to stump a bit about a local sand-seeking cause. At the same time, the building-sand demand in desert regions adds a vivid touch of value to top-quality sand. The value of the sand being pumped onto our beaches is astronomical, when viewed in world economics terms.

So, how does our sand rate in worldly terms? Our sugar sand is sweet. It’s chunky and of a grain size capable of adding muscle if put to concrete usages. What’s more, it has ultimate eye-appeal for a structure that needs to look pretty as a concrete picture. In fact, just imagine gluing together all the sand on an entire stretch of LBI beach. Now, stand it up on end. Check that out!

OK, so maybe that’s not the easiest thing to imagine, but, take it from me, you add in a bunch of Anderson windows, some cool Pella doors, a multi-level parking garage and, maybe a heliport, and you’ve got yourself an OPEC-grade edifice – right there on, say, Brant Beach. “Mommy, mommy! Can we visit the Brant Beach Edifice again? Please?”

With that Brant Beach Build in mind, think in terms of Dubai, an almost imaginable concrete megacity, highlighted by the Burj Khalifa, a building standing 2,717 feet high and containing 209 floors. Makes one wonder what we could build if we concreted all that replenishment sand together. Move over Thundering Surf, there’s a new waterslide in town.

Oh, that’s right, I promised to explain that fat sand v. skinny sand thing.

The kajillions of square yards of sand upon which the Middle East rests is comprised of what might be called ancient sand, blown around for eons. In the process, it has been eroded to a fineness far too anorectic to be reliably used in making weight-bearing concrete, which demands only fat sand be added to gravel and bonding agents. As of today, Middle East nations are paying top oil-earned dollar for any sand that is even only a tad overweight. In blue chip terms, the demand has nurtured a $70 billion industry.

A big hunk of the current sand demand is being met by a highly sand-endowed Australia. That nation’s sand grains are young and less windblown than many other worldwide desert sands. It is proving good enough to buttress Dubai’s effort to someday concrete the stratosphere. But, recently, another sand-needy customer has reared up like a concrete dragon: China.

The red folks in Beijing are unaccustomedly openly begging for sand; willing to rain down yuans for fat sand. China is now saying, screw the good earth – give us the good sand.

There are also other over-sprawling Asian cities willing to pay a paramount leader’s ransom for solid sand. The price is so right that nearby India, itself decently sanded, has entered the picture – though not to everyone’s liking.

This sand rush, vis-à-vis gold and oil rushes, amounts to billion-dollar carrots being dangled about by richies like China and the Middle East. Greed over the golden grains has, in turn, led to veritable sand cartels, hell-bent on cornering the market – hook or crook. It is estimated there is now more sand being acquired through smuggling than via legit over-counter sales. Now that’s gotta be a smuggling sight to behold.

“Uh, sahib, what’s in that 200-car train?”

“Uh, rice and stuff.”

“Oh, how nice. Proceed, please.”

But like everything moneyiferous, things get ugly fast.

A spooky article at, titled “The Deadly Global War for Sand,” exposes the lethal side of sand smuggling, now rampant in India. The story is centered on the murder of agricultural activist Paleram Chauhan, a 52-year-old Indian farmer who has seen his lands stolen … literally!

“For 10 years Paleram had been campaigning to get local authorities to shut down a powerful gang of criminals headquartered in Raipur Khadar. The ‘mafia,’ as people called them, had for years been robbing the village of a coveted natural resource, one of the most sought-after commodities of the 21st century: sand.”

I’m offering this oddish insight into the increasing face value of sand mainly to show another side to the wonderfully fat sand being sucked up and translocated onto our beaches. That stuff is worth its weight in you-know-what.

SWEET STINK: The big stink last weekend is over the impressive baby bunker die-off in the backbay regions of Little Egg Harbor. Fears and concerns of pollution ran rampant. All for naught.

Oddly, such bunker die-offs can have a silver lining, albeit a lining rotten to high heavens, as was the odorous case by the time clean-up crews began vacuuming up the thousands atop thousands of ripening DOAs. There was a markedly silvery side in this Little Egg die-about: namely, the fish were healthy as all get-out, short of that being dead thing.

To make a solid guess at the problem, I only had to dissect a couple from a handful graciously being stored in the fridge for me.

“I’m tellin’ you, he’ll be here any minute, Lois, then you’ll get your precious little Pyrex bowl back.”

It was your everyday asphyxia, as indicated by the open mouths – and local input.

I’ll bet the eelgrass farm they suffocated after being driven into shallows – or lagoon ends – by predators. Entering into the dead-end lagoon picture is the fact many waterways in that area are so shallow – and often super-heated by the sun to over 90 degrees – a fish can’t buy a good swallow of dissolved oxygen (DO), the stuff most marine life can’t live without.

So where’s the silver lining in all this? It comes in a couple forms. Firstly, the pressing-in predators are likely highly angler-desirable gamefish fattening up for fall. Ahhh, I just said fall.

More silver still, is the certainty, in my mind, that the die-off is part and parcel to an astounding, almost unprecedented, crop of bunkies in Barnegat Bay area this year. The 2016 showing of young-of-year bunker has been the talk of many a bayside walk. As recently as last week, I got yet another knowledgeable report of baby bunker so thick in the west bay you could hear them sucking air at night. Of course, that was them sucking their last, down Little Egg way.

The die-offs were simple math – and an accompanying, inevitable mortality. With so many bunkies jammed into the ecosystem, there’s no avoiding forage scenarios, during which they pack in so thickly they literally suck the water clean of oxygen and start sticking their noses out of the water to get at the hard stuff.

Bunker die-offs happen far more than one might think, unless you’re one of those folks who sit at home keenly wondering how those good old nearby bunker are doing out there. Hey, when you’re retired and living a bayside life, stuff like that matters – thus the many reports I got about profuse bunker-age.

In predator-based bunker die-off, the thickly schooling forage fish get herded into watery dead-ends (lagoons) or up onto unforgiving shallows. They have good reason to mass-flee from things that go bite in the night, which is most likely the timeframe these die-offs took place.

After a short investigation, I’m excluding thermal shock as a prime killer, a common culprit in die-offs. We really hadn’t been all that baking hot of late. That said, even the current near normal 80- to 85-degree bay water is already low in dissolved oxygen. The warmer the water, the lower the DO. What’s more, the slightly cooler water of night would throw a few more DO molecules into the water.

The species, due to its jacked up metabolism, has one of highest DO demands in the business. They’re veritable dissolved oxygen hogs. Just try keeping even a handful of baby bunker alive in a five-gallon bucket filled with high-DO seawater. They go belly up in a heartbeat. A ball of baby bunker, especially when packed in like sardines – and in a panic – can quickly suck the DO out of even larger stretches of water.

While there is a mighty mess to clean up in Little Egg – nothing stinks like a dead bunker, hands down – the total number of bunkies lost to the die-offs is microscopic compared to the number of them that have side-stepped attackers.

There could definitely be more Little Egg die-offs due to the huge bunkie population, and, I’m vociferously told, the shallowness of lagoons thereabouts. I’ll add to that, again, a seemingly powerful bayside showing of bunker herders, including sharks galore. Make that, fattening sharks galore.

CLASSIC TWEAK: Regarding the Long Beach Island Surf Fishing Classic, I have to excitedly note a tweak to the number-of-rods rule – and I fought for this tweak. This year, you will be allowed to simultaneously fish two bait rods AND (ta-da) a plugging rod. Thank you, thank you very much.

I see a smile sneaking across the faces of many a contestant, especially those who have gone through the hideously-frustrating, time-consuming nuttiness of seeing a blitz nearby and needing to rush back to spiked rods and crazily reel one in – to not violate the former two-rod-only rule. And anyone who asks, “How much time does it really take to run back and reel in that bait rod?” has never felt the adrenaline surge caused by sudden nearby bustin’ fish action.

I feel a plugging rod allowance is now more appropriate than ever – with circle hooks in play. Those hooks offer a larger degree of takedown forgiveness, should plugging anglers get too far from meat sticks.

As to now possibly needing to abandon plugging because a bait rod goes down – I’ll take that problem any day of the week. Bolting for a pinned rod – quivering in a 9 o’clock bend position – is full-blown surfcasting excitement, providing you’ve properly tweaked your drag. Whenever I hear about a rod getting ripped out of a spike, I know it’s angler error, realizing life can be a drag.

There are also some other tweaks to the Classic rules. You’ll get the rules brochure when you sign up. Mull it over – and notice how highly refined this event has become.

Yes, “highly refined.” There are numerous meetings prior – and after – each year’s Classic. Some of the best folks in the business work well overtime – many a meeting running over two hours – to find the best way to make the contest fair and fun – with a huge emphasis on fun!

What other event, anywhere, offers eight weeks of flowing cash and prizes for a measly $30 entry fee? Age 17 and under get in for $15.

And I hope to keep folks in here posted on the action like never before.

Alert: A sizable and powerful, long-period easterly groundswell is upon us – and might be rockin’ LBI for days to come.

The current swell and beachline set-up is ripe for rip currents. Tropical-system swells pulsate. One minute it’ll look lake-like out there; the next – after bathers have committed to taking a dip – all swell-hell breaks loose. The sudden wrath of waves easily catches in-water folks by surprise. That surprise takes on a whole other look and feel via the rip-forming actions following a wave assault.

Visualize: The waters are calm during one of the typical breaks in tropical swell action, and then, millions of tons of water arrives, pushing beachward. Bathers get a scare but manage to dive under the waves. Then comes the un-fun part. That sudden influx of water has to head back out to sea, quickly. That means rip currents.

Importantly, with the current beach replenishment leveling out the shoreline, those rips can form anywhere, as opposed to the previous tendency to be worst near jetties.

What’s more, the high tide grind of shorebreak waves is more than willing to live up to that “break” part. As waves drive in from nearby deeper water and onto what amounts to a shallow-water sand shelf, they are more than willing and able to drive a body – and accompanying head – into the sand, like the proverbial pile driver.

I don’t want to get overly dramatic here but LBI has seen many catastrophically paralyzing injuries from head-to-sand hits caused by the shorebreak. Never have our shorelines been more arranged to face-plant bathers into the sand.

To be sure, the arriving waves won’t be much on accommodating bathers who try the old jump-up-and-over a shorebreak wave. Recent injuries have occurred by folks trying that very unadvised move. And the waves weren’t all that big at the time.

Here’s hoping we get safely through this warm water, big wave holiday stretch, going from Wednesday through Monday for some. Making things tougher is the fact that many beach patrols will be working massively crowded beaches with skeleton crews, after losing many guards to college. I won’t get into what to do when caught in a rip, short of saying: swim parallel to the beach (north-south); not swimming against it (straight toward shore). My surest rip current survival advice is one I’ve preached for decades: Shout out for help; wave arms; loudly call on anyone nearby with a flotation device, be it surfboard, bodyboard, whatever – and, most of all, remain calm, knowing help is one the way. We watch out for each other in these parts. We’re coming.

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