Work under way to restore Delaware Bay shorebird beaches

kimbles south day 5 22may13
A bulldozer spreads sand along Kimbles Beach in Cape May County. (Photo by Larry Niles)

The sand trucks are running. The bulldozers are spreading.

A nearly $1 million effort is under way to restore Delaware Bay beaches that are — or were, before Superstorm Sandy ravaged them — crucial turf for spawning horseshoe crabs and migrating shorebirds that depend on crab  eggs for refueling.

On beaches where there was once ample sand for the crabs to dig into and deposit their eggs, biologists surveying the area after the storm found rugged tufts of sod, which had underlain the sand -- part of $50 million in damages to bird habitats affected by Sandy.

“We saw somewhere between a 50 and 70 percent loss of breeding beaches for horseshoe crabs in just one storm,” said Larry Niles, a New Jersey biologist who has been studying the red knot and horseshoe crab connection for decades.

Months ago, he was worried that when the birds and crabs arrived in May, as they do every year, “we’d have a real problem.” The crabs would have no place to spawn, and the birds would have no food.

In a race against time, he and others set out to try to find enough money to restore the beaches.

While some homeowners on the Atlantic shore still wait for insurance money to come through for their properties, private foundations came to the rescue of the wildlife habitat.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expedited the permitting process.

The work will restore a 2.5-mile stretch of beach between Moores Beach and Pierces Point, both in Cape May County.

One chunk of money $415,000 — came from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which gave it as a grant to the American Littoral Society. The society is working with the DEP's Endangered and Nongame Species Program, the Stone Harbor-based Wetlands Institute, the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, LJ Niles Associates, Dianne Daly CEP and Middle Township.

Another chunk — $515,000 — is going to the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey from the New Jersey Recovery Fund, administered by the Community Foundation of New Jersey.

Additional money is coming from the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust and the Corporate Wetlands Partnership.

It will cover two phases of work — first the beach sand restoration, and later this year the removal of rubble from former bulkheads and other ruined structures on some bay beaches.

Describing how everyone chipped in their expertise and money to help, Amanda Dey, project leader with the DEP's Endangered and Nongame Species Program, said that “everybody’s being lit up” by the possibility of getting the beaches ready in time.

Delaware Bay is a globally significant migratory bird stop over site and the epicenter of the horseshoe crab population, noted Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, in a press release issued today by the DEP.

“Superstorm Sandy wrecked these beaches and we needed to move fast to prepare them for the return of these interconnected species,” he said.

One in particular: the red knot.

Niles, Dey and an international team of scientists have been studying red knots for years because the population, once 100,000 on the bay, has declined to less than a third of that.

They realized that an increased harvest of horseshoe crabs — in edible for humans, but used as bait for conch and eel — was largely to blame.

The birds, which arrive exhausted and famished every May from the southern tip of South America, simply didn’t have enough food to build the fat stores needed to continue on to the Arctic and breed successfully.

New Jersey now bans the harvesting of horseshoe crabs, although legislation has been introduced to lift the ban. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission also has limited, but not banned, the harvest in neighboring states.