With its bird's-eye view, the Coastal Crusader can detect fish kills, sewage, or debris that could mean disaster for the Shore tourism season, and send visitors fleeing the water and beaches.
To the dismay of environmentalists and local officials, the flights have been grounded this year by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which eliminated funding for the $250,000 annual program.
U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D., N.J.) said he learned this week that the federal aerial coastal monitoring program is being cut for budgetary reasons, and appealed to EPA Administrator Gina McCarty to immediately restore funding. Pallone called the action "a penny-wise and pound-foolish" decision.
"I am disappointed to learn that this vital program that helps protect the environmental health of the Jersey Shore has been stopped," Pallone said in a statement. "As we enter the summer tourism season, our economy is still struggling to recover from the devastating impacts of Superstorm Sandy, and we cannot afford for our beaches to be shuttered due to debris washing up along the coast."
New Jersey depends on the federal program to cover the coastline stretching from Sandy Hook to the north - an area not included in the state Department of Environmental Protection's aerial surveillance.
On Wednesdays, the day New Jersey does not fly its helicopter, the Crusader has scanned the entire coastline. So with the end of the EPA flights, there will be no aerial monitoring Wednesdays.
"We would like them to continue their program," said Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. "It provides more thorough coverage of the entire coastline."
In a statement, EPA spokesman John Martin said the agency "has faced serious budget constraints over the past few years that have resulted in tough choices.
"As a result of budget limitations and the need to realign existing resources, the regional helicopter will no longer operate," Martin said.
The EPA helicopter program was created in 1977 to help protect the coastal waterways in New Jersey and New York. It was expanded in 1989 to include additional state and federal agencies and the Coast Guard.
The New Jersey and New York region is the only one with such a helicopter surveillance program, Martin said.
He said the EPA would work with other federal, state, and local agencies to protect coastal waters and the New Jersey and New York shorelines. He offered no specifics.
"The helicopter served as an important sentinel that helped to stop garbage slicks from escaping the harbor and contaminating our ocean and beaches," said Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action. "It also provided important data about the water quality in our ocean offshore."
There is no indication yet on whether the state would assume responsibility for the area monitored under the federal program.
The state monitors water and beach quality through aerial surveillance six days a week from mid-May through mid-September.
A helicopter is deployed to fly over the coastline and makes shorter flights from Manahawkin to Sandy Hook through Raritan Bay to Long Beach Island, Ragonese said. Twice a week, it covers the area from Sandy Hook to Cape May and the Delaware Bay.
Recreational beach water quality is also checked at 175 ocean and 43 bay monitoring stations.
Beaches are closed if samples exceed the health standards for two consecutive days. That would be bad news for businesses and merchants who count on a perfect beach season.
Tourism, a $5.5 billion business, is the third-largest industry in New Jersey. After a disappointing 2013 summer season in the wake of Sandy, the state has high hopes for a rebound this year.
"The ocean and beaches are our life blood. Absent that, people wouldn't be coming here," said Beach Haven Borough Manager Richard Crane.