TUCKERTON — Grapples reached down into the waters of Thompson Creek on Thursday, scooping up debris from the water and shoreline as part of a massive cleanup of the state’s waterways.

The race to clean up the waterways will cost the state millions as crews remove debris washed there by Hurricane Sandy from at least 75 percent of the navigable waters by June 1.

The debris is both an environmental threat and a more immediate navigational threat to the region. The contractors are tasked with clearing 180 debris sites identified by the state through sonar mapping.

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From Bergen County down to Cape May Point and back up the Delaware Bay to Salem County, the cleanup follows four months of similar work removing debris from streets and towns. The state Department of Environmental Protection is overseeing the contractors doing the work.

“We’re picking up mostly trees, wood from docks and some sunken vessels and household waste, like refrigerators,” said Brian Locatelli, a project manager for AshBritt, one of the companies working on the cleanup.

Locatelli was riding on a boat to Thompson Creek Thursday morning, where crews pulled debris from the marshline and water. The debris collected was along the high tide line, which contractors use as a gauge for what gets picked up and what doesn’t.

“See that boat over there, up on the land? We can’t remove that because it’s not in the water or the shoreline,” Locatelli said.

The same was true for a household oil tank that appeared to have been thrown in the middle of the marshland.

The priority of the cleanup is to remove wood and debris that could damage a boat’s hull. The work has been broken up into 11 zones, grouped into three regions. The region from Bergen County to the northern bank of the Navesink River in Monmouth County was being cleaned by DonJon Marine Corp. CrowderGulf is responsible for the Navesink River south to Barnegat Bay and to the southern tip of Island Beach State Park in Ocean County.

The region South of Island Beach to the tip of Cape May and up the Delaware Bay, ending at the Delaware Memorial Bridge in Salem County, is being handled by AshBritt.

Work began in each zone last week, with the crews moving from north to south.

Brett Postelli, a safety supervisor with AshBritt, navigated a small boat through the lagoons that snake through the waterways near the Tuckerton Beach section of the borough.

The narrow channels near Tuckerton Beach make it tough to gauge depth when maneuvering a boat through them, Postelli said. And weather conditions have not been kind.

“It all depends on the tide, and I’m out on this boat for 10 to 12 hours a day,” Postelli said.

On Thursday morning, Postelli navigated the boat to where contractors were positioned on a barge in Thompson Creek, pulling debris from the shoreline with a grapple that worked like an arcade claw machine game.

Crews on the ground pulled debris from the shoreline and piled it up as the grapple grabbed mounds of broken wood and tree branches and dropped them on a barge. AshBritt has a fleet of 20 to 48 barges that crews load with debris and move to temporary offload sites.

“Depending on what kind of debris is found, crews may have to segregate it at the temporary offload site before it is taken to its final disposal site,” Locatelli said.

The AshBritt project manager said cleanup crews are also detecting debris underwater through the use of a tow-behind scanner on a boat. The scanner completes sonar readings and collects data to determine what kind of debris is below the water.

“Once debris is removed, we go back and do another sonar scan again to make sure we got it all,” he said.

Debris that is underwater and not removed by the start of the boating season will be marked to allow boaters to safely navigate the area, DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese said.

On March 21, crews reported to the DEP that 115 cubic yards of debris was removed from Tuckerton Beach and Tuckerton Creek, but work there also shut down during the early afternoon due to low visibility, Ragonese said.

“We’ve had to shut down operations for a full day at times because of the weather, wind conditions and waves. Crews cannot work safely in those conditions,” Locatelli said. “Tide is definitely a factor when doing work out here, and boats and barges need a certain depth to operate and get into certain areas.”

The state Department of Transportation's Office of Maritime Resources is working with the DEP and contractors by mapping debris and shoals left by Sandy.

“We’re not finding as much debris as we thought we would in certain places. We’re finding a lot of debris in Cumberland County. Much more than we expected, but with the way the storm was we just don’t know what’s out there,” Ragonese said.

For work to be done through Sunday alone, these are the maximum allowable amounts: DonJon, $18 million; CrowderGulf, $16.7 million; AshBritt, $6.5 million. More money will be paid out as the project continues.

AshBritt, a Florida-based disaster recovery company, was awarded a contract along with DonJon and CrowderGulf as part of a public bidding process, according to the state. That’s unrelated to a contract the state awarded AshBritt last year allowing it to establish prices towns would have to pay for cleanup following Sandy.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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