A popularity contest for the best beaches in New Jersey got off to a fast start this winter, with online voting in the first two weeks already surpassing totals from some previous years.

The Top Ten Beaches Survey, a partnership between the New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium and Richard Stockton College of New Jersey's Coastal Research Center, lets voters pick their favorites at www.njtoptenbeaches.org.

Kim Kosko, spokeswoman for the Monmouth-County based New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium, said more than 30,000 online votes were cast in the first week when the contest opened in mid-February.

The contest, which runs through April, started in 2008 and ran annually until Hurricane Sandy placed it on hiatus last year.

The survey's website said the contest was meant "to inspire pride in and stewardship of New Jersey's beaches while promoting a little healthy competition between New Jersey's favorite beach towns."

The outcomes come with bragging rights for shore towns, which often use their ranking in marketing and promotions to vacationers.

"It gets people talking about summer and beaches in February and March," said Diane Wieland, Cape May County's tourism director. "It's fun. It puts it at the top of the mind. ... It's kind of a People's Choice award."

There are some changes to the contest this year, notably one that no longer allows beach towns to bundle as one voting bloc - such as the Wildwoods and Long Beach Island. The Wildwoods, for example, are now listed as North Wildwood, Wildwood and Wildwood Crest, something that was done the first two years of the contest.

"I think some people felt it leveled the playing field a little bit," Kosko said. "We're going to see how that goes. If early voting is any indication, it's going to be an interesting year."

The Wildwoods as a bundle placed first in 2012, 2011 and 2010. In 2009, before bundling took place, Ocean City placed first. In 2008, the contest's first year, Wildwood placed first, Wildwood Crest second, Ocean City third and North Wildwood fourth.

John Siciliano, executive director of the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Development and Improvement Authority, said he was a little disappointed by the changes to the contest this year. "We market ourselves as the Wildwoods," he said. "It is what it is."

"The cool part is right before Memorial Day weekend, there is a lot of PR coming out about the best beaches and the Jersey shore," he said. "And that's really what it's all about, the awareness. We always did look at it as a friendly competition."

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