Thousands of tons of sand are being dumped on the Delaware Bay shoreline in a last-minute effort to restore beaches that were destroyed by superstorm Sandy but could now provide a lifeline for New Jersey’s most endangered shorebird.
Contractors are working to repair a 2.5-mile stretch of coast from Moore’s Beach south to Piece’s Point in Cape May County where the monster storm washed away the gently sloping sand that provided a haven for horseshoe crabs to lay their eggs — a critical food source for the red knot.
Trucks and excavators began work in mid-March and will continue until April 24, when the crabs begin to come ashore for their annual spawning, a couple of weeks before the birds arrive on their epic migration from southern Argentina to breeding grounds in Arctic Canada.
Without refueling on the fatty crab eggs during their annual stopover, the birds won’t be able to complete their migration and may not be able to breed successfully, biologists say. That could further stress a population that has fallen to a critically low level because of the overharvesting of horseshoe crabs, a practice that is now banned in New Jersey in an attempt to save the birds.
“Restoring the horseshoe crabs’ beaches in time for the spring spawning and the return of the red knots is a critical piece of the effort to save these imperiled species,” said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, one of a number of environmental groups that is working with state and federal governments on the project.
“Superstorm Sandy wrecked these beaches, and we needed to move fast to prepare them for the return of these interconnected species.”
Sandy’s damage to bird habitat along the mid-Atlantic coast, including that on the Delaware Bay, was identified in January by a report from two conservation groups, the Manomet Center for Conservation Science, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which is helping to fund the beach-restoration project.
In an interview, Dillingham denied that the nonprofit groups and government agencies have moved slowly ahead of the migration season, or are engaged in a last-minute rush to get the work done.
He said state and federal permits have been obtained and contracts for restoration work
have been signed, all with unusual speed.
“We think we are going to be in time before the crabs come back on the beach,” he said.
Not all of the beaches where horseshoe crabs traditionally spawn will be restored this year, Dillingham said, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the birds will have less to eat than they would have done before Sandy because the population doesn’t distribute itself evenly across the bay beaches.
The stretch of coastline that’s being restored was chosen because it is the most critical habitat where the birds are most likely to congregate, Dillingham said.
Lawrence Hajna, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said government and private agencies have worked with “unprecedented” speed to get the restoration project up and running.
“What happened here is remarkable,” he said. “It was very short.”
Given the limited stretch of coastline where beaches will be restored, Hajna called the current first phase of the project a “stopgap measure.” A second phase, to be conducted later this year, will remove material such as rubble and old pilings from beaches to improve wildlife habitat.
For now, work is scheduled to take place on a stretch of coastline that includes Reed’s Beach, Kimbel’s Beach, and Cook’s Beach.
The restoration is the latest effort to save the red knot whose population, estimated last year at 36,000, is about a third of the size that biologists believe is necessary to ensure the survival of the species.
While its numbers have started to creep up in recent years, the red knot is still seen to be in danger of extinction, explaining why New Jersey last year downgraded its status from “threatened” to “endangered,” a designation that allows the state to protect its habitat.
“There has been some increase but not enough to move these birds off the status of endangered,” Dillingham said. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing the species as endangered.
Other migrating shorebirds that depend on the bay’s crab eggs include ruddy turnstone, short-billed dowitcher, and dunlin.
Under the state’s moratorium on horseshoe-crab harvesting, which has been in effect since 2006, benchmarks were set for the bird’s recovery but those standards have not been met, so the harvest ban must remain in place, Dillingham argued.
Lifting the moratorium — as proposed in a bill by Assemblyman Nelson Albano (D-Atlantic, Cape May, and Cumberland), who wants to protect the livelihoods of local fishermen — would only hasten the bird’s demise, Dillingham said. “Ending the ban would speed up the extinction of the red knot,” he said.
New Jersey is the only Atlantic state to ban the horseshoe crab harvest. Delaware allows the harvest but only of male crabs, and only after the shore birds’ springtime migration ends.
The project is being funded in part with a $415,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and a further $515,000 from the New Jersey Recovery Fund. Smaller grants were provided by the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust and the Corporate Wetlands Partnership.