Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Fish Die-Off Update: COA meets with NJDEP officials

For background information on the ongoing menhaden die-off in the Navesink and Shrewsbury Rivers, see COA's blog post from April 2, 2021.

In response to a letter COA sent to Commissioners of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) and NJ Department of Health (NJDOH) on April 16, 2021.

NJDEP responded the next day to set up a meeting on April 19, 2021. NJDEP assembled all the key program top level directors and lead staff for the discussion. Here are some updates from the meeting:

  • NJDEP confirmed fish bacteria Vibrio anguillarum as the cause for this menhaden (aka bunker) die-off.
  • NJDEP has been monitoring these die-offs for years, but this is the most severe mortality event in recent memory. This on-going event is also particularly notable because it is caused by a bacterial infection and occurred in colder months (fall/winter), which is atypical.
  • This bacteria, V. anguillarum, lives in salwater naturally. At this time, the die-off appears to be limited to menhaden, thought it is unclear why, or if other species could be affected. NJDEP suggested that menhaden may be more susceptible due to their schooling pattern of large numbers, in addition to being abundant. Literature suggests that this bacteria can affect other types of fish also.
  • NJDEP is conducting research to determine why this bacterial outbreak is so severe, as there is currently no documented cause. They are also in communication with other state and federal agencies about similar incidents.

  • NJDEP is considering developing a monitoring plan.  COA recommended and discussed year-round and in-water continuous monitoring in the Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers to assess oxygen, temperature, salinity and other basic conditions.  After the meeting, NJDEP confirmed the deployment of a continuous monitoring buoy in the Navesink River off Blossom Cove (east of the Red Bank Rt. 35 Bridge)  to collect information that may be useful in determining causes for future die-offs.
  • While there seems to be no state plan to collect and remove dead fish, COA recommended NJDEP consider deploying skimmer boats to collect fish during high tides to reduce the wash-ups.  These boats have been used in the harbor area to scoop up garbage slicks before they spread out to sea or onto beaches.  They have shallow drafts and are used in many harbors.
  • As NJDEP continues to track the menhaden, they appreciate additional reports from citizens. In addition to reports on dead menhaden, they also welcome citizen observations on other species that are found dead or exhibiting sick/spinning behaviors. To share your observations with COA, please submit reports through the Two Rivers Water Quality Reporting Form. Reports submitted through this form will be shared with NJDEP.
  • NJDEP recommends citizens avoid contact with the fish. NJDEP officials described that while this is a fish-specific bacteria, it is opportunistic, and if someone has a suppressed immune system or has an open cut or wound exposure, they could be at risk.
  • NJDEP plans to post answers to Frequently Asked Questions on the agency website to inform the public soon. Their recent statement from April 16, 2021 can be viewed here.

We applaud and appreciate the swift and detailed briefing from the NJDEP and will continue to follow-up and provide input.

However, COA continues to urge that the NJDEP and NJDOH host a joint virtual public forum to update citizens and provide a means for questions and answers. COA has also reached out to Senator Vin Gopal, who is working to address the problem.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Something Fishy: Fish-Attacking Bacteria is Found Killing Menhaden in New Jersey

All photos and videos in this article were submitted to COA by concerned citizens at locations along the shores of the Navesink and Shrewsbury Rivers.


According to the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), a Vibrio bacteria specific to fish, not low dissolved oxygen, is causing the current menhaden (aka bunker) fish kills in New Jersey including in the Navesink and Shrewsbury River area.

This bacteria-caused fish kill is a part of an ongoing Atlantic Menhaden mortality event in New Jersey which began in November-December 2020, with increased sightings in the Two Rivers Watershed in the last week. However, similar menhaden mortalities have occurred annually during the spring months in the Two Rivers watershed and beyond.

Until recently, the usual explanation for these events was hypoxic conditions triggered by predatorial fish. However, these events have occurred outside of typical hypoxia season which occurs in warm weather months. Moreover, the fish kills included observations of menhaden spinning before death. Recent findings from NJDEP confirmed that a neurological bacteria specific to fish is the cause of death. The Vibrio bacteria that is causing the fish to die, is most closely identified to Vibrio anguillarum. The NJDEP is conducting additional studies to confirm the species. Clean Ocean Action commends the NJDEP for diligently tracking down the cause. 

Concern and call for action:

Menhaden are a keystone species for the food web. While few studies are available, they raise more questions. COA is calling for fast federal and state funding to research this Vibrio species, the effects to menhaden, other fish, and the food chain as well as other impacts and possible solutions. A task force should be established including state and academic researchers, fishing and environmental groups, other interested groups and citizens to help find answers and solutions.

Atlantic Menhaden mortality in New Jersey

Menhaden mortalities are chronic and last from weeks to over a month and are characterized by uncoordinated and erratic swimming behavior. Dying menhadens appear disoriented, and lethargic near the water surface, almost swirling in circles. During the fall of 2020, a similar mortality was observed in large numbers (tens of thousands) and was widespread off the coast of New Jersey including the Navesink River. Specifically, the kills spanned Newark Bay, Raritan Bay, Hudson River and the Navesink River, with one significant kill off Liberty State Park in Dec. 2020. Preliminary investigations made the following observations:

  • Noon time temperature was 11.5°C and dissolved oxygen was 9 mg/L.
  • Predation was a likely factor near Monmouth County, particularly by Bluefish, dolphins, and possibly a humpback whale (NJ Bureau of Marine Fisheries)
  • Industrial vessel strike in the Hudson River (NJDEP Bureau of Water Compliance and Enforcement)
With similar fish kills being reported in other mid-Atlantic states of New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, NJDEP began a series of investigations on moribund fish samples, led by Dr. Jan Lovy at the Pequest Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory. Histopathologic evaluation, gross necropsy, microbiology, and genetic methods including virus isolation and bacteria evaluation were conducted to determine the cause of these menhaden kills. The NJDEP released a preliminary report in early 2021 which was updated with more recent findings in March 2021.

The results showed a common finding that affected multiple organs - hematopoietic cell degeneration in kidney and spleen, perivascular cuffs of cellular necrosis in liver, and hemorrhage with degenerative cellular changes in the brain. Brain tissue genetic evaluation conducted using sequencing indicated high levels of a bacterium, Vibrio sp. in all 30 fish samples. This Vibrio sp. showed the closest identity to Vibrio anguillarum in all the samples, and also the sequence was much higher in the brain than in kidney or spleen. These preliminary results definitely suggest that bacterial infection due to Vibrio sp. is a factor in the recent mortalities arising from neurologic impairment and malfunction. NJDEP is continuing its investigation with recent samples collected from the Navesink River and results are pending. 

Vibrio anguillarum is a gram-negative bacteria commonly found in ocean and brackish waters during warmer temperatures (Spring to early Fall) and causes Vibriosis, which is a fatal hemorrhagic disease for marine and freshwater fishes such as Atlantic salmon, sea beam and rainbow trout. According to research, this bacterium secretes haemolysin RTX which is capable of lysing red blood cells. In addition to affecting red blood cells, different cells are affected and the immune system is weakened.

Clean Ocean Action is following up with NJDEP for updates and would like to acknowledge our observant citizen scientists – especially Oceanport Water Watch Committee and Two River Times – for bringing this to our attention.

Share Your Observations of Fish Kills

Citizen scientist observers are needed to document this ongoing Atlantic Menhaden mortality event, and future events. Observations should be shared with the NJDEP through the WARN DEP Hotline: 1-877-WARN-DEP (1-877-927-6337). For more information on how to report fish kills, including a fish kill reporting form, visit NJDEP Division of Fish & Wildlife. This data will help to inform the NJDEP’s ongoing investigation into the cause of this mortality event.

For more information, please contact Dr. Swarna Muthukrishnan ( and Alison Jones (

Wednesday, December 9, 2020


 New Jersey—You Did It! New Law Passed to Curb Single-Use Waste

Did you hear that? It was the sound of marine mammals and other wildlife jumping for joy now that NJ Governor Murphy signed the strongest, most comprehensive law (S864) in the United States to reduce single-use waste, including harmful plastic items. Often, animals mistakenly ingest or get entangled in plastic items littered in the environment and suffer the consequences, which are sometimes lethal.

“It’s a good day for marine critters and the power of the people,” said Cindy Zipf, Executive Director of Clean Ocean Action (COA). “For over 35 years, thousands of COA’s Beach Sweep volunteers have collected over 7.2 million pieces of trash, mostly plastic, off NJ’s beaches. Thanks to Governor Murphy and the NJ Legislature, we’ve successfully drawn a line in the sand and made NJ a world leader in reducing the plastic plague on this marvel of a planet.”

In an official news release, NJ Governor Murphy said, “Plastic bags are one of the most problematic forms of garbage, leading to millions of discarded bags that stream annually into our landfills, rivers, and oceans…With today’s historic bill signing, we are addressing the problem of plastic pollution head-on with solutions that will help mitigate climate change and strengthen our environment for future generations.”  

In addition to 35 years of beach litter data from our Beach Sweeps program, COA collaborated with numerous groups and citizens to establish and support a law to reduce single-use waste littered throughout the state. COA also actively worked with municipalities to enact single-use waste ordinances, of which there were over 55 municipalities with such ordinances.

The law, which goes into effect in spring 2022, bans single-use plastic carryout bags and polystyrene foam food service ware, allows plastic straws on demand, and phases-out paper bags at large grocery stores. Residents and businesses have 18 months to 2 years to plan for the law when it goes into effect.

Now it is up to all of us to make small changes in our daily lives: bring reusable bags, skip the straw, and use the more eco-friendly and public health-friendly food ware alternatives currently available. Less plastics mean less fossil fuels used to make these items, less stuff to clog landfills for decades, and less litter lurking in our environment, posing harm to wildlife.

Congratulations to all who worked to support this statewide effort to reduce single-use waste, a true-blue win for all. Now get your reusable carry-out items ready, and perhaps buy reusable items for holiday gifts to get people started on their plastic-free journeys!


Friday, November 13, 2020

The Ocean is Calling: Celebrating 35 Years of Beach Sweeps

On Thursday, October 22, viewers tuned-in to COA’s festive virtual celebration, “The Ocean is Calling.” The event featured true-blue friends from COA’s rich history in celebration of 35 Years of Beach Sweeps. Presenting sponsor Tito’s Handmade Vodka kicked-off the 21+ evening by making a toast with the event’s signature cocktail, The American Mule, as viewers settled-in with their own cocktails to hear the story of COA's origin through the comfort of their own viewing screens. 


Presenting Sponsor Tito's Handmade Vodka viewing the event

The evening's Emcee was Tim McLoone, an early supporter of COA, founder of Holiday Express,  restaurateur, and track star (to name a few of his many talents).  Tim highlighted the connection between his restaurant business and a healthy, thriving ocean, and said of COA’s Executive Director during the poor state of local water quality in the 1980s, “Cindy just dug in and decided she was going to do something about it with all of her friends and supporters."

The Ocean is Calling event featured an online silent auction with items donated from generous friends of the ocean. Auction items included a private cocktail cruise from Chick Cunningham of Carriage House Marina and Doug Douty of Lusty Lobster; as well a Private Chef-Led Artisanal Pizza Making Extravaganza in the home of COA Board Member Valerie Montecalvo. Other exclusive auction experiences included a private dinner in the home of world renowned Chef David Burke (wine pairings alone valued at $2000), exquisite art, an electric bike, a private whale watching tour, dog training lessons, family portraits, holiday decor, and more! The auction raised over $16,000 with the event overall raising over $77,000.

Viewers heard from Beach Captains: Crystal DeCaro, Ortley Beach Captain with her pet mini pig Hamlette; and Tyler Thompson, Leonardo Beach Captain.

The evening honored First Lady Tammy Murphy for her Climate Change Education Initiatives, including successfully making New Jersey the first state in the nation to incorporate climate change education across its K-12 learning standards, as well as urging reduction of single use plastics.

Crystal DeCaro, Ortley Beach Captain with her pet mini pig Hamlette

Board Member and Event Co-Chair Bonnie Torcivia thanked donors and supporters and introduced Board President Leo Gasienica and his wife Kathleen, also long-time beach captains. Captain Bill Hudec shared his experiences sailing around the world and the importance of a clean ocean. He noted the increase of marine life thriving along the New Jersey Coast since COA was founded.

The evening concluded with artists Lucy Kalian and Stella Ryan presenting the event’s featured artwork, a mermaid crafted from litter found during the Beach Sweeps, and Marina Owner Chick Cunningham with fish monger Doug Douty (Lusty Lobster) celebrating a clean ocean. 

The evening honored First Lady Tammy Murphy for her Climate Change Education Initiatives

Thanks to the Virtual Event Committee: Co-Chairs Bonnie Torcivia and Kathleen Gasienica; Lydia Bagarozza, Andrea Bonfiglio, Carrie Christensen, Manda Gorsegner, Ann Jordan, Etta Kelly, B. Mahon, Barbara Murphy, Mary Thompson

Waves of Thanks to Sponsors: Presenting Sponsor: Tito's Handmade Vodka; Siren Song: Liz and Charlie Komar; Blue Whale: Bonnie Torcivia, The McManus Family, Lucy Kalian, Tim and Jane Orr, Robbyn and Joe O'Neill, Shorepoint Distributors; Dolphin: OceanFirst Foundation, Trudy and Charlie Parton, Tommy's Tavern & Tap, Nancy and Tom Gravina; Striper: Thompson Memorial Home, Litwin and Provence, Peeka and Art Tildesley, Jill Kerwick and Artie Kontos, Mary-Beth and Jerry Radke, and Geri Skirkanich

Sponsors getting ready to enjoy "The Ocean is Calling" virtual celebration of
35 Years of Beach Sweeps with their party packs!