Great Egg Harbor Estuary

List of Species of Special Emphasis



I. SITE NAME: Great Egg Harbor Estuary


II. SITE LOCATION: The Great Egg Harbor estuary is located in southern New Jersey's Atlantic Coastal Plain in Atlantic and Cape May Counties, about 16 kilometers (10 miles) southwest of Atlantic City and 170 kilometers (105 miles) south of New York City.

TOWNS: Corbin City, Egg Harbor, Estell Manor, Hamilton, Ocean City, Somers Point, Upper

COUNTIES: Atlantic, Cape May

USGS 7.5 MIN QUADS: Ocean City, NJ (39074-35), Marmora, NJ (39074-36), Tuckahoe, NJ (39074-37), Mays Landing, NJ (39074-46)

STATE: New Jersey

USGS 30 x 60 MIN QUAD: Atlantic City, NJ (39074-A1)


III. BOUNDARY DESCRIPTION AND JUSTIFICATION: This habitat complex encompasses the entire Great Egg Harbor River and estuary from its headwater streams to its connection with the open marine waters of the New York Bight through Great Egg Harbor Inlet. Included are all riverine and estuarine wetlands and open water of the Great Egg Harbor River and its tributaries to the limit of tidal influence, the open water and islands of Great Egg Harbor Bay and Peck Bay and adjacent saltmarsh habitat from the mouth of the river to the inlet, the inlet itself, and the sandy shoreline at the northern end of Ocean City barrier island. This estuary complex provides seasonal or year-round habitat for anadromous, estuarine, marine, and freshwater fish and shellfish, nesting and migratory waterbirds and raptors, migratory and wintering waterfowl, and rare brackish and freshwater tidal communities and plants. Also included in the habitat complex are several small, palustrine (nontidal) wetlands immediately adjacent to the estuary that contain exemplary rare natural communities and plant occurrences. Great Egg Harbor Bay is part of the New Jersey backbarrier lagoon system, and the fish and wildlife resources using the estuary are similar to those found in the Brigantine Bay and Marsh habitat complex to the north and the Cape May Peninsula habitat complex to the south. The resources in the watershed of the Great Egg Harbor River in the New Jersey Pinelands are described as part of the New Jersey Pinelands habitat complex and the Cape May Peninsula habitat complex narratives.


IV. OWNERSHIP/PROTECTION/RECOGNITION: All the underwater lands of the estuary are in state ownership. Most of the salt marshes west of the Garden State Parkway bridge are part of the 5,380-hectare (13,300-acre) Lester G. MacNamara Wildlife Management Area managed by the New Jersey Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife. Public lands also include county parks such as Atlantic County's Estell Manor Park. About 66% of the Great Egg Harbor River watershed is within the Pinelands Management Area and about 17% is publicly owned. The New Jersey Natural Heritage Program recognizes several Priority Sites for Biodiversity within the Great Egg Harbor River estuary. These sites are listed here along with their biodiversity ranks: Waverly Beach (B3 - high biodiversity significance), Tuckahoe-Corbin Salt Marsh Macrosite (B4 - moderate biodiversity significance), Scullville (B4), and north of Middletown (B4). The Pinelands National Reserve, including portions of the Great Egg Harbor River, is part of the Atlantic Coastal Plain Biosphere Reserve designated by UNESCO under the Man and Biosphere program. Thirty-nine miles of the Great Egg Harbor River and 89 miles of its tributaries were designated as National Wild and Scenic Rivers in recognition of their relatively pristine condition. A river conservation plan has been developed for the Great Egg Harbor River as part of this designation, and participating municipalities are developing local river management plans. All waters in the Pinelands have been designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as Outstanding Natural Resource Waters that are to be protected from any change in water quality. The headwaters and part of the tidal river of Cedar Swamp Creek are within the acquisition boundary of the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated Malibu Beach and Great Egg/Jarvis as priority wetland sites under the federal Emergency Wetlands Resources Act of 1986. Great Egg/Jarvis wetlands is a focus area under the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan; the plan recommends acquisition and protection of 5,423 hectares (13,400 acres) in this area. Wetlands are regulated in New Jersey under several state laws, including the Wetlands Act of 1970, the Freshwater Wetland Protection Act, and the New Jersey State Coastal Area Facilities Review Act (CAFRA); these statutes are in addition to federal regulation under Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, Section 404 of the Clean Water Act of 1977, and various Executive Orders.


V. GENERAL AREA DESCRIPTION: The Great Egg Harbor River drains a 875-square kilometer (338-square mile) area in the southern New Jersey Pinelands. The underlying geologic formation is the unconsolidated sands of the Outer Coastal Plain that support vegetation adapted to edaphic drought and fire regimes on the well-drained soils. The upland vegetation in the watershed is primarily pine-oak and oak-pine forests dominated by pitch pine (Pinus rigida) and oaks (Quercus spp.), with riparian and lowland forests composed of Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides) and hardwoods. Due to the porous sands in this region, surface water drainage is limited and much of the freshwater input to the estuary is through groundwater flow. The Great Egg Harbor River has a more developed watershed than does the Mullica River estuary. About 67% of the land is forested and 22% agricultural, residential, and commercial development. Suburban development is concentrated in the upper watershed in eastern Camden and Gloucester counties.

The estuary of the Great Egg Harbor River receives surface water from two major river sources, the Great Egg Harbor River and the Tuckahoe River (including Cedar Swamp Creek). The Great Egg Harbor River is a 95-kilometer (59-mile) long river that is tidal for its lower 22.5 river kilometers (14 river miles) from the impoundment at May's Landing to its mouth where it joins the Middle and Tuckahoe Rivers at the head of Great Egg Harbor Bay. Smaller tributaries directly entering the estuary include the South River, Stephen Creek, Gibson Creek, and Middle River from the south, and Babcock Creek, Gravelly Run, English Creek, Lakes Creek, and Patcong Creek from the north. The Tuckahoe River is tidal for a distance of 22 river kilometers (13.5 river miles) upriver from the main stem of the Great Egg Harbor River; Patcong Creek is tidal for 9.4 river kilometers (5.8 river miles) from the bay; Cedar Swamp Creek is tidal for about 9.3 river kilometers (5.8 river miles) from its junction with the Tuckahoe; the lower portions of several other tributaries are tidal as well. Salinities in the Great Egg Harbor River vary with the diurnal (twice-daily) tides and the degree of rainfall, evapotranspiration, and consequent freshwater input. Salinities in the main stem of the Great Egg Harbor River range from less than 1 to 30 parts per thousand (ppt), with salt water extending up the mainstem about 18.5 river kilometers (11.5 river miles) to just above Gravelly Run. Salinities above this point are generally less than 1 ppt. Salinities in the Tuckahoe River range from less than 1 to 21.3 ppt, with salt water extending upriver about 22 river kilometers (13.5 river miles). Great Egg Harbor Bay itself is a polyhaline (high salinity), well-mixed estuary with salinities ranging from 17 to 32 ppt.

Great Egg Harbor Bay and Peck Bay include open water, salt marsh, and sandy shoreline habitat. Open water areas vary in depth, from the shallow waters (less than 1 meter [3.3 feet] deep) in and adjoining Peck Bay and the mouth of Patcong Creek, to the deeper channel areas (greater than 10 meters [33 feet] deep) from Great Egg Harbor Inlet up into the mainstem of the Tuckahoe and Great Egg Harbor Rivers. Extensive sandflats and mudflats occur in the bay due to the sediment load from the river and the movement of sand in through Great Egg Harbor Inlet. The barrier islands on the north (Longport) and south (Ocean City) of the inlet are developed and generally bulkheaded, but there are narrow sandy beaches along the inlets and ocean sides of these islands. The estuarine substratum is unconsolidated sands and muds covered with some benthic algae and vascular plants (seagrasses) in those areas of the bay where sufficient light reaches the bottom (areas of shallow water and low turbidity). Benthic invertebrates in the bay include hard substrate residents like mussels and barnacles, epibenthic residents such as crabs, amphipods, and free swimming mysids, and benthic infauna residents including polychaete worms and crustaceans. Several salt marsh and dredged material islands occur in Great Egg Harbor and Peck Bays, and the mainland shoreline of Peck Bay is salt marsh.

Small areas of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) may occur in the brackish waters of the mainstem of the Great Egg Harbor River, as well as the Tuckahoe River and Patcong Creek. Typical submerged aquatic vegetation plant species include horned-pondweed (Zannichellia palustris), water celery (Vallisneria americana), slender pondweed (Potamogeton pusillus), redhead grass (P. perfoliatus), widgeon grass (Ruppia maritima), and naiad (Najas flexilis). In the freshwater tidal reaches, submerged aquatics intersperse with the floating-leaved and emergent plants of the lower tidal marsh that are more characteristic of freshwater communities in the Pinelands; these include ribbonleaf pondweed (Potamogeton epihydrus), arrowheads (Saggitaria latifolia, S. englemannia and S. spatulata), American mannagrass (Glyceria grandis), and bulrush (Scirpus spp.).

There are 7,662 hectares (18,932 acres) of tidal marsh in the estuary, predominantly high marsh dominated by salt-meadow cordgrass (Spartina patens) interspersed by numerous intertidal creeks and ditches with smooth cordgrass (Spartina alternifora). The salt marshes in the estuary are extensively ditched. Smaller areas of brackish tidal marsh complex occur adjacent to the Tuckahoe River, Cedar Swamp Creek, Patcong Creek and along the mainstem, with dominance by narrow-leaved cattail (Typha angustifolia), big cordgrass (Spartina cyosuroides), common reed (Phragmites australis), and Olney three-square bulrush (Scirpus americanus). Freshwater intertidal wetlands are found in a few locations in the upper reaches of tidal influence in the Great Egg Harbor and Tuckahoe Rivers as well as in small areas on other tributaries. These freshwater tidal wetlands can be divided into different zones depending on the degree of tidal inundation: the lower tidal zone, exposed only at low tide, consisting of sparsely vegetated intertidal flats with riverbank quillwort (Isoetes riparia), bluntscale bulrush (Scirpus smithii var. smithii), the regionally rare Parker's pipewort (Eriocaulon parkeri), stiff arrowhead (Sagittaria rigida), grass-leaved arrowhead (S. graminea), and Hudson arrowhead (S. subulata); a mid-tidal zone with wild rice (Zinzania aquatica), spatterdock (Nuphar advena), pickerel-weed (Pontedaria cordata), three-square bulrush (Scirpus pungens), arrow arum (Peltandra virginica), water hemp (Amaranthus cannabinus), and dotted smartweed (Polygonum punctatum); and an upper tidal marsh zone dominated by cattails (Typha angustifolia and T. glauca) and a diversity of other species, including sensitive fern (Onaclea sensibilis), halberd-leaved tearthumb (Polygonum arifolium), arrowheads, river bulrush (Scirpus fluviatalis), sweet flag (Acorus calamus), smooth bur-marigold (Bidens laevis), orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), rose-mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos var. moscheutos), as well as the invasive common reed and exotic purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). Shrubs include knob-styled dogwood (Cornus amomum), buttonbush (Cepahalanthus occidentalis), and swamp rose (Rosa palustris).

The emergent marshes along the tidal mainstem and tributaries grade into seasonally-flooded hardwood and Atlantic white cedar swamps further from the creeks. The hardwood swamps are dominated by red maple (Acer rubrum), black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), sweet bay (Magnolia virginiana), sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua), and ash (Fraxinus spp.).


VI. ECOLOGICAL SIGNIFICANCE/UNIQUENESS OF SITE: The Great Egg Harbor River estuary is a productive coastal ecosystem supporting diverse aquatic and terrestrial habitats and species, especially estuarine and anadromous fisheries populations, nesting and wintering raptors, colonial nesting waterbirds, migrating and wintering waterfowl, rare brackish and freshwater tidal wetland communities, plants, and invertebrates. There are 145 species of special emphasis in the Great Egg Harbor River estuary, incorporating 41 species of fish and 87 species of birds, and including the following federally and state-listed species. Several other state-listed species occur in pine barrens streams and wetlands just inland of the tidal influence (see below and discussion on the New Jersey Pinelands habitat complex). (Living resources and their habitats are dynamic; therefore, the ecological significance and species information presented here may not be complete or up-to-date. State and federal environmental agencies [see Appendix III for office contacts] should be consulted for additional information.)

Federally listed endangered
peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus)

Federally listed threatened
bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
piping plover (Charadrius melodus)
threatened swamp pink (Helonias bullata)

Federal species of concern(1)
rare skipper (Problema bulenta)
precious underwing (Catocola p. pretiosa)
northern diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys t. terrapin)

1Species of special concern listed here include former Category 2 candidates.

State-listed endangered
northern harrier (Circus cyaneus)
least tern (Sterna antillarum)
small-headed beaked-rush (Rhychospora microcephala)
red goosefoot (Chenopodium rubrum)
Koehn's tooth-cup (Ammannia latifolia)

State-listed threatened
eastern mud salamander (Pseudotriton m. montanus)
little blue heron (Egretta caerulea)
yellow-crowned night-heron (Nyctanassa violacea)
osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
barred owl (Strix varia)

A total of 67 species of fish were caught in a one-year fisheries inventory of the Great Egg Harbor estuary. The most abundant species were Atlantic silversides (Menidia menidia), Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus), bay anchovy (Anchoa mitchilli), banded killifish (Fundulus diaphanus), alewife (Alosa psuedoharengus), hogchoker (Trinectes maculatus), white perch (Morone americanus), white catfish (Ameirus catus), and winter flounder (Plueronectes americanus). Great Egg Harbor Bay, with 32 species, had the highest diversity of fish taken. Great Egg Harbor Bay is an important commercial hard clam fishery, and the upper (western) bay inland of the Garden State Parkway is one of the few remaining oyster seed production areas in the state. The 1985 New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection survey indicates that there are over 40 hectares (100 acres) of oyster beds in the Great Egg Harbor River and nearly 16 hectares (40 acres) in the Tuckahoe River. Anadromous fish, including blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis), alewife, and striped bass (Morone saxatilis), spawn in streams of the Pinelands; this estuary serves as the major thoroughfare in the spring to the upriver sections and as the nursery area for newly-hatched fish. Other anadromous species present are hickory shad (Alosa mediocris), Atlantic menhaden, and the catadromous species American eel (Anguilla rostrata). Fish passage, especially upstream migrations, is impeded by obstructions, usually dams, which generally restrict activity to the lower reaches of these rivers.

Significant concentrations of migrating and wintering waterfowl occur in the Great Egg Harbor estuary, with an average of over 12,000 waterfowl counted on midwinter aerial surveys. The most abundant species observed in the estuary, in descending order, are: American black duck (Anas rubripes), greater and lesser scaup (Aythra marila and A. affinis), brant (Branta bernicla), and mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), with lesser numbers of Canada goose (Branta canadensis), bufflehead (Bucephala albeola), northern pintail (Anas acuta), oldsquaw (Clangula hyemalis), scoters (Melanitta spp.), green-winged teal (Anas crecca), American wigeon (Anas americana), red-breasted, common, and hooded mergansers (Mergus serrator, M. merganser, and Lophodytes cucullatus), tundra swan (Cygnus colombianus), canvasback (Aythra valisneria), and common goldeneye (Bucephala clangula). Dabbling ducks and bufflehead are fairly evenly distributed along the shorelines and tidal creeks of the estuary; diving ducks occur mostly in the more open water areas of Great Egg Harbor, and sea ducks occur near the inlet. Small flocks of tundra swan, averaging around 50 birds, are consistently found in or near the impoundments at MacNamara Wildlife Management Area (Tuckahoe Corbin Salt Marsh) before freeze-up. American black duck and northern pintail are common in the marshes at MacNamara. Scaup are found in the deeper open water of Great Egg Harbor Bay, while brant generally occupy the shallower water areas. Breeding waterfowl in the estuary include American black duck, gadwall (Anas strepera), mallard, and Canada goose.

Waterbird colonies occur on most of the salt marsh and dredged material islands in the bay, including a sizable heronry at Cowpens Island with snowy egret (Egretta thula), glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus), great egret (Casmerodius albus), black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), tricolored heron (Egretta tricolor), little blue heron, yellow-crowned night-heron, and cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis). Common terns (over 190 terns in 1995) and gulls (over 870 gulls in 1995) occur on several islands. Nesting gulls are predominantly laughing gull (Larus atricilla), with lesser numbers of herring gull (L. argentatus) and a few great black-backed gull (L. marinus). The sandy shoreline along the inlet and ocean beach of Ocean City (Waverly Beach) supports nesting by small numbers of piping plover and least tern and this beach, as well as the Longport beach on the other side of the inlet, supports occurrences of seaside evening primrose (Oenothera humifusa). Longport Sodbanks Island, just to the north of Great Egg Harbor Bay, has also supported nesting by piping plover, least tern, and Forster's tern (Sterna forsteri). Northern diamondback terrapin feed throughout the estuary and nest on appropriate sandy shoreline habitat.

The entire New Jersey barrier beach/backbarrier lagoon system is extremely important for shorebirds during spring and, especially, fall migration. Great Egg Harbor is considered one of the top 20 sites for spring and fall migration in the eastern United States. Willet (Catoptrophorus semipalmatus) and spotted sandpiper (Actitis macularia) breed in the area. Nearby Delaware Bay is one of the top spring migratory sites in the hemisphere for semipalmated sandpiper (Calidris pusila), ruddy turnstone (Arenaria interpres), red knot (Calidris canutus), and sanderling (Calidris alba), with lesser numbers of dunlin (Calidris alpina) and dowitchers (Limnodromus spp.). These birds utilize the marshes on the Atlantic coast, including those within this complex, for roosting and feeding.

The rich food resources of the tidal marshes and creeks support several rare raptor species. There are numerous osprey nests on platforms within the MacNamara Wildlife Management Area; this area is one of the more important sites in the state for the recovery of the osprey. The marshes are an important bald eagle wintering site and pairs of eagles have also been observed during nesting season, though none have yet nested here. This is an important breeding area for northern harriers who nest and forage in the salt and brackish marshes. Barred owl also nest in the swamps adjoining the marshes. Clapper rail (Rallus longirostrus) nest in the salt marsh area and black rail (Latterallus jamiacensis) may also nest here. Nearly 100 species of birds were recorded as probable or confirmed breeders in or adjacent to the Great Egg Harbor River (tidal river and estuary) in the first two years of the state's Breeding Bird Atlas. These breeding birds include marsh nesters mentioned above, as well as passerines typical of pine barrens such as gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) and pine warbler (Dendroica pinus).

Rare plants within the salt marsh include red goosefoot, and within the brackish marsh include Koehn's tooth-cup, clustered bluets (Oldenlandia uniflora), and small-headed beaked-rush. Brackish marsh habitat also supports rare skipper. A population of eastern mud salamander occurs in the freshwater/brackish marshes along South Creek. Rare freshwater tidal marsh communities occur at the upper reaches of tidal influence, supporting rare plants that include Parker's pipewort and golden club (Orontium aquaticum). Adjacent palustrine wetlands include forested swamps and bogs containing rare species typical of Pinelands wetlands. Rare plants include swamp pink, southern twayblade (Listera australis), pine barren boneset (Eupatorium resinosum), horned-beaked rush (Rhynchospora inundata), federally listed threatened Knieskern's beaked-rush (Rhynchospora knieskernii), and Barratt's sedge (Carex barratii). Rare animal species in these adjacent wetlands include pine barrens tree frog (Hyla andersonii), Cope's gray tree frog (Hyla chyrsoscelis), barred owl, red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), and northern pine snake (Pituophis m. melanoleucus).


VII. THREATS AND SPECIAL PROBLEMS: Nutrients and suspended solids due to inadequately treated wastewater from sewage treatment plants, stormwater runoff, septic system leachate, and agricultural runoff degrade the water quality in the upper Great Egg Harbor River and, to a lesser extent, the estuary. Toxics from the King of Prussia Technical Corporation superfund site have been found in the groundwater and sediments of the Great Egg Harbor River. Surface water withdrawals from Lake Lenape or groundwater withdrawals from the Pinelands aquifers may have impacts on fish and wildlife resources. Residential development in the watershed outside the Pinelands is resulting in a rapid loss of habitat. Sand and gravel mining operations may contaminate groundwater.

An increasing population of gulls is competing with terns for nest sites on the salt marsh islands. There has been a marked decline in beach and island nesting by least terns over the past ten years in this complex and in the state as a whole. This is likely due to factors such as: loss of habitat due to beach erosion and succession of sparsely vegetated dredged material islands and other sites in the bay that were once used for nesting; human disturbance, including vehicles on the beach; and predation by small mammals and, possibly, gulls and crows. Barred owl is threatened by forest fragmentation as well as by competition and predation from great horned owls.

Diamondback terrapins are run over by cars on coastal roads as they cross or attempt to nest. They are frequently caught and drowned in crab traps and are sometimes collected for pets or food. Eggs and hatchlings are susceptible to predation by raccoons, foxes, and gulls. Tire tracks left by off-road vehicles can trap turtle hatchlings.


VIII. CONSERVATION RECOMMENDATIONS: Recommendations in the Great Egg Harbor River Conservation Plan should be supported. Key habitat and watershed areas outside the Pinelands Management Area should be protected. In order to maintain the aquatic communities in the Pinelands and the Great Egg Harbor estuary, stringent land and water management measures must be maintained in the Pinelands through: clustering development; establishing standards for stormwater and sanitary wastes based on ambient physical, chemical, and biological conditions throughout the watershed; encouraging innovative techniques in wastewater management and prohibiting wastewater discharge into pristine surface waters and lakes; discouraging the use of lawn fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides in the watershed; preserving the natural riparian and floodplain vegetation along streams and around lakes; limiting point and nonpoint source pollution into the mainstem and tributaries, especially the upper tributaries that pass through urban and agricultural areas. Control of exotic plant species such as common reed and purple loosestrife in brackish and freshwater tidal marshes may be necessary. River herring spawning habitat should be expanded by placing fish passage facilities at dams and other impediments on the tributaries.

Disturbances to wintering and nesting bird populations need to be minimized or eliminated entirely, particularly for colonial beach-nesting birds such as least terns and piping plovers. Human intrusions into beach nesting areas during the critical nesting season (April to August) should be prevented by various methods, including protective fencing, posting, warden patrols, and public education. Because of the large degree of privately owned lands, public education and cooperative approaches with landowners are essential to successful protection of beach species in this area. When determined to be a problem, as it is at most mainland-connected nesting beaches, predator control and/or removal should be instituted. Those tasks and objectives of the piping plover recovery plan that are applicable to this area should be undertaken, including restoration or enhancement of degraded sites where appropriate.

Important diamondback terrapin nesting sites and foraging areas should be determined and protected through public education and enforcement, and public outreach used to eliminate collection. The use of crab traps in areas of the bay known to support concentrations of diamondback terrapin should be limited. Traps that are used should have terrapin excluder devices on them. The use of off-road vehicles should be limited in diamondback terrapin nesting areas. Predator control should be investigated in terrapin nesting sites.



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National Park Service. 1991. Great Egg Harbor River Wild and Scenic River study, final study report. National Park Service Mid-Atlantic Regional Office, Philadelphia, PA.

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Sutton, C.C. 1988. Barred owl survey of southern New Jersey, 1987. New Jersey Audubon Society Records of New Jersey Birds 24 (1):2-5.

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Widjeskog, L. 1994. Personal communication. New Jersey Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife, Millville, NJ.

List of Species of Special Emphasis


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