Over the past few weeks, the North Jersey RC&D and the Musconetcong Watershed Association (MWA) have been dealing with one of the most significant environmental spills in recent memory in the New Jersey Highlands region on West Portal Creek, a tributary of the Musconetcong River in Bethlehem Township.
West Portal Creek is a highly ecologically sensitive waterway. Classified as a FW2-Trout Production (Category 1) stream, it’s known for its wild populations of Brown Trout, and to a much lesser extent, our native Brook Trout. Long suspected as having breeding populations of wild Brook Trout, over the last ten years, West Portal Creek has been the focus of various studies by MWA and NJRCD on how best to protect it.
In the early morning hours of May 5, 2016, a tractor trailer carrying multiple retail packages of a variety of soap and detergent products experienced mechanical problems and pulled to the side of the road. Shortly afterwards the cab and then the trailer caught fire, and the packages began to melt, releasing the soapy contents. Response by local fire companies, Hunterdon County Hazmat Team and NJDEP Emergency Response was swift; several methods were used to keep the material out of a nearby storm drain that led to West Portal Creek, including a dike, a vacuum truck and sand. Despite best efforts, a large amount of detergent entered the creek when containers ruptured during offloading, causing a catastrophic fish kill.
Fish and Wildlife staff were called in and walked from the point of entry of the materials to where the creek joins the Musconetcong River. They were dismayed to observe thousands of dead eels, salamanders, dace, shiners, sculpin, wild brown trout and brook trout. The pollution event had been catastrophic— nearly all the fish residing in the stream downstream of the I-78 spill site had died. On the two days following the pollution incident, a total of 1,179 dead fish, representing 13 species, were collected at several sites on the stream. Its estimated that the total fish mortality over the 2.8-mile section of West Portal Creek affected by the spill (from the I-78 bridge to the confluence of the West Portal Brook to the Musconetcong River), was 4,140 fish– 1,956 being trout. Nearly half of the dead fish collected were found to be wild, naturally-reproducing (not stocked) trout, ranging in size from two to twelve inches in length. The variety of sizes collected indicates that multiple year classes of trout were impacted by the spill, from young-of-the-year fish to adult fish.
A short term, five-day bioassay study, initiated six days after the pollution event, demonstrated the stream water was no longer acutely toxic to fish.
Photo Credit: MWA
Six days after the spill, the NJ Department of Fish and Wildlife decided to run a short term study to determine if the stream water was still toxic to fish. used a number of monitoring stations to determine the remaining toxicity of the water in the stream to fish. There were six total monitoring stations used, with one location (the control for the study) placed upstream of the I-78 spill location, and the remaining 5 monitoring stations were located downstream. Monitoring of these stations indicated to Fish and Wildlife personnel that the water in the stream was no longer at a toxic level to fish, and was acceptable for possible restoration efforts.
Why restoration? The loss of wild Brook Trout, few in number even in this stream, is of grave concern. The Brook Trout is the only trout species native to New Jersey and it is estimated that today they survive in less than half of their original range in the state. This species has recently been identified as a Species of Special Concern in New Jersey. West Portal Creek is among the most southern of New Jersey’s Trout Production streams inhabited by wild Brook Trout. In addition, another fish species impacted by the spill, the Slimy Sculpin, rivals trout as an excellent indicator of cold, clean water and a healthy ecosystem. This species has recently been identified as Threatened in New Jersey.
Despite the magnitude of this environmental loss, this event is being viewed as an opportunity, rather than a tragedy. Of the 525 trout collected in the fish kill of the West Portal Creek, the vast majority were Brown Trout, with only three of the trout collected being identified as wild Brook Trout. In fact, the Brook Trout is the only native species of salmonid native to New Jersey, and are largely out-competed by the non-native Brown Trout throughout most of their range. Today, Brook Trout are found in less than half of their historical native range in New Jersey, and have experienced a similar decline along the entire east coast. There have been efforts in recent years to restore Brook Trout habitat, through such entities as the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, which seeks to restore Brook Trout habitat in key locations from Maine to Georgia.
Photo Credit: MWA
The Division of Fish and Wildlife seeks to recolonize the West Portal Creek with new populations of wild Brook Trout, and not hatchery fish, from nearby watersheds that already have self-sustaining populations. Although the specific locations that will be used as sources for the re-introduction have not yet been identified, this catastrophic event can be used as a catalyst to do something positive in the watershed, and bring a native species back in healthy numbers.
The Bureau of Freshwater Fisheries began the first stage of the fish restoration project on West Portal Creek on May 26. The up-stream section of the West Portal Creek above the I-78 spill site was electro-fished again to ensure the majority of the remaining Brown Trout were removed from the stream. In addition, the main stem of the West Portal Creek immediately downstream and upstream of the culvert under I-78 was electro-fished. A total of 23 brown trout were captured in the sampling, and were relocated to Pohatcong Creek, which has a reproducing brown trout population. This will give the Brook Trout the best possible chance of re-gaining their foothold in the West Portal Creek, with a lessened possibility of being out-competed by the non-native Brown Trout.
Several tributaries that join West Portal Creek but were unaffected by the spill were also electro-fished; one tributary had no fish but another had a number of native species, although no trout. The presence of these native fish species, which are than trout, did however indicate that some did survive the pollution event.
Certainly, an environmental spill to this magnitude was not what anyone wanted. However, it is definitely encouraging that the outlook for the future of the West Portal Creek looks bright, with the re-introduction of a native species, and toxicity levels returning to acceptable levels throughout its reach. The effects of the spill showed what a unique fishery the West Portal had, and with the careful and patient management of those partners dedicated to its remediation, it can be restored.