The irresponsible exploitation of horseshoe crabs and their blood falls directly on the state and federal agencies that defend them. A lot of local people find this plutocratic big-government approach hard to swallow, considering this sloppy exploitation is only one of many examples of inadequate conservation that fails to address intractable problems: habitat loss from sprawl development, industrial over-exploitation of farmland and marine resources, underfunded and inadequate public lands management, unaddressed insidious impacts of climate change, and many more. Further, they resent that the cost of the failure to solve these pressing problems mostly falls on them. One can easily understand this view with a quick tour of the town of Fortescue, New Jersey.
Hurricane Sandy hit Fortescue ferociously, causing damage on a scale similar to much of New Jersey’s Atlantic coast. But inexplicably, it was left out of the federal largesse that benefits the primarily rich communities of Atlantic coast.
The most obvious sign of decline is the failed tackle shops, which starkly contrast the forthright declaration on a sign at the docks: Fortescue, Weakfish Capital of the World. Robust weakfish populations have long deserted this and every other town on Delaware Bay, and agency biologists are perplexed as to why. The meager catch limits required of all sport fishers rule out any possibility of a cooler full of fish, once common in my youth. Combined with the price of gas, this stops most fishermen at the dock. The people here not unreasoningly look at the huge losses of young weakfish impinged on the Salem nuclear reactor water intakes. The nuclear plant was ordered to stop the destructive intake of huge amounts of Delaware Bay water and build a second cooling tower. But they avoided this with the aid of New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife’s program to mitigate the losses with marsh management. The program has been discredited by a number of groups, but these losses continue to this day.
It may have been accurate once, but this sign at the Fortescue docks is now merely a painful reminder of the recent collapse of the town’s fisheries.
Continue to the eroded beachfront, where citizens cannot afford the costly circumventions of the rules that are common in the wealthy Atlantic Coast towns. Bulkheads remained unfixed, roads erode from thrashing seas, and protective dikes leak water or fail altogether. Local homeowners with damaged houses can hardly afford the costly repairs, let alone the equally high cost of consultants and lawyers to tackle complicated state and federal coastal regulations.
Unlike Atlantic coast beaches, where state and federal agencies shower money to fix infrastructure and replenish beaches, Fortescue receives virtually nothing. And not without good reason – conservation groups and agency staff still wonder whether the town should be abandoned. So bulkheads rot, beaches disappear, houses fall into the sea. Sandy destroyed a considerable portion of the town’s waterfront, but curiously it was left out of the largesse showered on the Atlantic coast after Sandy. Oddly enough, it included Cape May County’s Atlantic coast, a section that suffered little compared to northern New Jersey communities. True to form, however, Cape May County’s Delaware Bay shoreline, which suffered significant losses, received nothing.
The infrastructure on Fortescue has been in decline for decades, and Sandy finished the job. Here, derelict bulkheads and rubble feebly protect a road to a small community east of Fortescue.
Go to the bathroom in Higbee’s Restaurant, the town’s only breakfast and lunch restaurant, and you’ll find yourself staring into the infinite depths of a port-a-potty. You must, because the town has no sewer system, a result of insufficient state funding and agencies’ fear of the spread of development caused by a sewer line to Fortescue. Indeed, it’s a conundrum. Environmentalists reasonably fear the potentially destructive influences of sewers because the notoriously loose land-use planning rules in south Jersey might end in a new rash of sprawl development. Ironically, the same groups champion ecotourism, which depends on facilities that require sewerage. Before Maryland invested in museums, public restrooms, fishing piers, and parking areas in the towns along the eastern shore of the Chesapeake, these towns suffered in the same way as those on the Delaware Bay. A similar program on Delaware Bay could fulfill everyone’s interests. But alas, this is New Jersey, not Maryland.
The collapse of fish populations preceded a similar collapse in Fortescue’s fishing economy. Many businesses, from tackle shops to marinas and boats ramps, have fallen victim. Ironically, the cost of poor fishery management falls not on the perpetrators, the Atlantic coast fishing industry (their profits have exploded in the last 10 years). Instead, it falls on the communities that once relied on the fisheries decimated by the industry.
If you live outside of the Bay region, you can easily dismiss the almost incomprehensible incongruities that exist between rural New Jersey and the rest of the state. But when suffering the consequences, it is hard to avoid the mendacity they represent. Why is the property tax burden so low on the rich residents in Stone Harbor or Avalon and so high in rural Cumberland County? The rich seaside communities thrive because the state underpins risky development with costly beach replenishment, superior and always threatened infrastructure and other amenities of modern life, mostly unavailable to the middle class communities along the Bay. Yet an owner of a million-dollar beach house pays half the property taxes of an average home in Cumberland County, thanks to a property tax rate of less than one-fifth of that in Cumberland.
Another of the many now-shuttered bait and tackle shops in Fortescue.
Clearly no one person or agency meant all this to happen to Fortescue, and many projects have aimed to solve the problem. Why have they not worked?
Next: Good Intentions but Few Results