As municipal officials on the Atlantic coast of New Jersey sprint to get Sandy-ravaged shore communties ready for summer, wildlife officials on the shores of Delaware Bay are frantically prepping for a different species of beach-goer.
They are in a race against time to repair and replenish beaches that are critical to shorebirds.
In about a week, the sand trucks and spreading equipment could be moving in. And not a moment too soon.
For now, red knots — the species in the most serious decline — and other shorebirds are still in South America, bulking up for their long migration on small clams and other delicacies.
But by early May, they’ll be swooping into the bay, in need of refueling.
By then, helmet-shaped horseshoe crabs will have roused from a winter spent in the bay mud and will be heading shoreward to lay their eggs, which are rich in lipids and just the thing the shorebirds need.
This is an ancient dance of species. But last October, when Superstorm Sandy barreled through, the beaches most important to the two species were devastated. Sand washed out into the bay, or up into the marshes.
What was left was the sod-like understory. In other places, the wash-out of the sand exposed piles of rubble that had accumulated over the last 100 years of human settlement — pieces of old docks or pilings or bulkheads.
None of this is suitable for a crab to spawn on.
Larry Niles, a New Jersey biologist who for more than two decades has made it almost a personal mission to try to better understand and help the red knot, was dismayed after he flew of the bay shore in a small plane to assess the damage.
He contributed to a subsequent report, funded by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, that tallied $50 million in projects needed to help birds and bird habitats that were affected by Sandy.
On the Delaware Bay beaches, it was estimated that the “optimal” crab spawning habitat had decreased by 70 percent or more.
With fewer places for the crabs to spawn, the birds would have fewer eggs. With fewer eggs, they might not have the strength to make it to their breeding grounds in the Arctic.
And this, after years of declines in the population. Once numbering close to 100,000 birds on the bay, red knots dropped to about 15,000. Niles and other blamed a growing harvest of horseshoe crabs, which are inedible but are used as bait for eel and conch.
Restrictions were placed on the harvet, but the decline in the birds continued... until last year, when numbers looked good. It seemed as if the red knot popultion might be beginning to rebound.
But after seeing all the damage, Niles concluded, “whatever gain we made in last few years is likely to be lost unless we do something.”
So he and Amanda Dey, a N.J. Department of Environmental Protection zoologist who also has worked on the red knot and is married to Niles, and others began thinking. And meeting. And planning.
Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Foundation has stepped in with $320,000 in grant funding for an initial repair of the beaches.
The money “will satisfy emergency needs,” said David O’Neill, director of the foundation’s Eastern Partnerhip Office. “Then we can build from that project to a larger scale.”
The foundation grant is going to the American Littoral Society, a Jersey-based nonprofit that concentrates on waterway issues.
The socity’s habitat restoration director, Bill Shadel, said that sand from a mine in Cape May County will be trucked to the site and spread on about a mile of beach between Reeds Beach and Pierce's Point --- formerly a prime area for spawning. Rubble will be removed.
Meanwhile, the state DEP is working to remove rubble from two additional areas important to the crabs and birds, Niles said.
Apparently, people keep piling on to help. Middle Township will be providing direct assistance in carrying out the field work, and local landowners have granted permission for the conservation work to be done on their properties.
Permits are required by the DEP and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, both of which have been working to expedite the process.
“We’re very close to having permits,” Shadel said. The tentative start date is March 18.
Another group, the Conserve Wildlife Foundation, has applied for $500,000 from the New Jersey Recovery Fund, a pot of money contributed by numerous foundations, said Michael Catania, president of Conservation Resources, which is reviewing applications. He said a decision could come soon.
“It’s really a compelling project,” Catania said. This is going to be a race against time.”
The goal is to get the sand in before the first big high tide in April, which will help the sand settled in. By the next big high tide at the end of the month, the crabs should be moving in.
Niles and Dey, meanwhile, have just returned from the east coast of Brazil, where their team managed to get to a remote coastal area that constitutes an important wintering ground for juvenile red knots and other shorebirds.
Many of the adult red knots fly to Tierra del Fuego, Chile, at the southern tip of the continent. But younger birds stop short, in Brazil.
In previous years, a Canadian wildlife official, Guy Morrison, has done aeriel surveys and counted perhaps 3,000 red knots there. This year, he counted 15,000.
Is a rebound in the offing?
Niles, Dey and other researchers will be on the bay shore in May, continuing their research and hoping to find out.