Once it seemed absurd to dunk outdated subway cars in the ocean to provide fish habitats. Now there are dozens strewn from Sandy Hook to Jones Beach. Similarly, Ocean County officials hope to convince state environmental regulators that man-made islands in several of their parks can do the same for Barnegat Bay.


Built through a $30,000 grant issued by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in 2009, the eight-by-five-foot floating filters are in Jake's Branch Park in Beachwood, Atlantis County Golf Course and Freedom Fields Park in Little Egg Harbor, and Forge Pond Golf Course in Brick.

Parks staffers and students of the Ocean County Marine Sciences And Technology Academy (MATES) build them from natural earth, plants endemic to wetlands and recycled plastic mesh. The concept is for roots to filter water while fish, waterfowl, mollusks and insects turn the islands into homes.

"The roots from the plants grow right through this artificial island and attach to the bottom of the waterway," says Freeholder Director Gerry Little. "So it becomes a very small ecosystem of its own."

Environmental advocates including Ocean County Sierra Club Director Greg Auriemma and Theresa Lettman of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance have emphasized repeatedly that the watershed's cure is on dry land - with a tight leash on development that they claim the Chris Christie administration is loosening.

They and others have warned officials that development in critically sensitive areas involves paving that increases the level of toxins not leaching into earth but shooting straight to the bay. The pollutants  sap oxygen, strangle plant life and allow algae to take over - sending undersea life scurrying to less-hostile environments.

Sierra Club New Jersey Director Jeff Tittel and leaders of Environment New Jersey criticize the Governor's 10-Point environmental plan as well as the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection's so-called Waiver Rule, which they categorize as a red carpet for developers into protected land.

County officials say they're the first in New Jersey to use the strategy, taking their lead from similar projects in the Chesapeake Bay Estuary. "The estuary there is environmentally in trouble," says Little, "and they're utilizing these."

DEP Commissioner Bob Martin is scheduled to address the Ocean County Mayors' Association in Toms River April 19. While he's here, Little and Deputy Director John Bartlett, the parks liaison, want him to inspect the islands and consider them for broader-scale use.

Little says their goal is "to see if we can include this as one of the components of Governor Christie's 10-Point Plan to restore Barnegat Bay."