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Two River Mayors Tour NOAA Lab

Mayors want to know: Could universities intercede for the lab which may be shut down?

Core members of the Two River Council of Mayors, including and , met up at Sandy Hook last week for a tour of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminsitration's (NOAA) James J. Howard Marine Sciences Laboratory before getting on with their monthly meeting. And they learned some interesting facts.

According to NOAA scientist Beth Phelan who gave the tour, the lab plays host to dozens of universities such as Stevens Institute and Rutgers and Monmouth universities. It also rents space to the Marine Academy of Science and Technology, the county vocational high school right next door.

NOAA and these schools partner on research projects where schools secure the funding for projects and NOAA provides the facilities and the expertise to study everything from how the bio-chemical properties of fish affect the growth of fish after an oil spill.

The lab also tracks the behavior and habitats of local species. One study tagged striped bass, weak fish and blue fish with acoustic receivers to study the movements the fish that live in the waters of the Shrewsbury and Navesink rivers. One interesting finding, Phelan said, was when the July fireworks went off in Red Bank, "the fish took off", but that after the noise and boat traffic dissipated, they returned to their haunts.

The Howard lab also works in conjunction with the American Littoral Society and recreational fisherman who help tag fish and then record data about when and where they later catch tagged fish.

Phelan said that though the lab gathers information about the fishery, it is not involved in regulation. But the findings of research, which are sent to regulators, can ultimately impact how local anglers catch.

The urging the federal government to stave off closing of the facility, which the government has said will save $2 million a year.

The mayors asked Phelan to give her opinion about the possible closure of the lab where she has worked for 27 years as an ecologist who specializes in flat fish.

"I work for the government," she said, "so the president's budget is not something I am going with argue with."

Showing off the facilities 32,000 gallon tank filled with black sea bass, Phelan talked about anecdotal changes she has seen in her tenure here. "There are a lot of species we don't see here anymore. Whether it's because of temperature change or habitat loss, Phelan couldn't say, but added "we don't catch a lot of puffer fish anymore."

Scientists here also keep an eye on global events, that could come to New York and New Jersey harbors. Phelan said that after the oil spill in the gulf caused a huge algae bloom, scientists here questioned their preparedness should a spill occur here. The scientists here recently met with those at Rutgers and Stevens Institute to, Phelan said, "see if we could piece together a response team to go out and take samples."

Hearing about all the universities who do work at the lab prompted Eatontown's Mayor Gerald Tarantolo to ask, "Why doesn't academia form a consortium to take over this place?"

Phelan, speaking carefully acknowledged that "there are parties who could come in and take over."

Click here to see more about the history of the marine lab which has been in operation for 50 years. According to Phelan, the lab was built in the 80s by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

It is operated by the state of New Jersey, which leases it to NOAA. The property itself is owned by the National Park Service, of which Gateway National Recreation Area's Sandy Hook is a unit.

The Two River Council of Mayors, led by Mayor Tarantolo, meet monthly to share information and ideas about how to run their boroughs and work with the towns around them.

Consistent attendees are Don Burden of Shrewsbury (who hosts the meetings), Robert Neff of Little Silver, Janet Tucci of West Long Branch, John Ekdahl of Rumson, Ben Lucarelli of Fair Haven and Sue Howard of Monmouth Beach.

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