Three miles of ocean beach closed. On the Jersey Shore, a summer to forget. Troubled times at the shore.

That's just a sample of the news that essentially led New Jersey's coast to become "the laughingstock of the country" not so long ago.

Much has changed since then. Today, beaches are the state's primary draw for tourism, and bring in plenty of out-of-state folks who may have avoided Garden State sand at all costs in the 1980s.

"When I was first elected to the state Legislature, there was a true crisis out there," said former state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos, who moderated a panel discussion this month at Monmouth University, on the past successes and present challenges at the Jersey Shore.

The water off New Jersey was home to several dumping sites for waste. Making matters worse, uncovered barges on their way to the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island would leave a trail of trash in New Jersey's waters — plenty of which would make its way to the shoreline.

Kyrillos, who also serves as the university's 2019 public servant in residence, said a rare, collective effort among government, along with the help of non-governmental groups pushing for change, managed to turn the tide.

"Not too many years there after, we were tarball free, dump free, garbage floatable free, the beaches were filled, you could see your toes in the water," he said.

The panel discussion featured Cindy Zipf, executive director of Highlands-based Clean Ocean Action; Chris Daggett, former commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection; and Tony MacDonald, director of the Urban Coast Institute at Monmouth University.

"There's no doubt, if you look at the people rushing to the Jersey Shore, that we've really done a good job," MacDonald told New Jersey 101.5.

While they still do occur, beach closures in New Jersey are less frequent than they were in the past, MacDonald added. That's mostly due to improvements to the state's combined sewer overflows, although New Jersey's waters still deal with runoff from lawns and roadways.

In 2019, New Jersey has a different round of shore-based problems to tackle. While the most foul forms of pollution have been cleared, the coast is no stranger to everyday trash. The prevalence of microplastics, which are the result of larger pieces breaking down over time, is worsening, MacDonald said.

During two beach sweeps hosted by Clean Ocean Action in 2018, more than 454,000 pieces of debris were plucked from the sand. Nearly 82% of the haul was plastic.

Issues driven by climate change are also on the forefront of leaders' and experts' minds — not only obvious consequences such as more frequent storms and flooding, but subtle changes that can overhaul entire industries.

"If we have warming of the ocean, which we're starting to see, that could impact where fish stocks are," MacDonald said.

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.