MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Tons of sand were hauled, dumped, poured and shifted Wednesday along Pierce’s Point Beach, part of a massive effort to avoid what biologists say could be a catastrophe.
“(Hurricane) Sandy created the possibility of a catastrophe for horseshoe crabs, which in turn could lead to a catastrophe for shore birds,” wildlife biologist Lawrence Niles said as he stood further north at Kimbles Beach.
Both beaches as well as other locations at Moores Beach, Reeds Beach, and Cooks Beach are undergoing a beach-restoration project that will return what Sandy took away when she came crashing into the region at the end of October 2012.
The beaches lining the Delaware Bay serve as a breeding ground for the region’s horseshoe crabs, and their eggs, in turn, serve as a source of food for migratory birds.
The red knot, currently being considered for listing under the nation’s Endangered Species Act as a threatened species, is among the birds that make New Jersey a stopover on their annual flights from places such as Tierra del Fuego to the Canadian Arctic.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the small birds fly more than 9,300 miles from south to north every spring and repeat the trip in reverse every autumn, stopping along the way to rest and refuel.
“These little birds make a cross-hemisphere journey every year. They are tiny, fragile creatures. It’s pretty extraordinary,” said David Wheeler, executive director of the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey.
Horseshoe crabs, Niles said, supply the fuel for the journey in the form of eggs.
“The Delaware Bay is the most important place in the western hemisphere for horseshoe crabs,” said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society.
Recognizing the role the bay beaches play in those migration patterns, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in partnership with the American Littoral Society and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, is removing debris and replacing 2 to 3 feet of sand lost to storm surge and coastal erosion.
The $1.65 million effort, which involves replacing about 45,500 tons of sand, began in February and is expected to be complete by May in time for the horseshoe crab spawning season. H4 Enterprises of Cape May Court House is hauling the sand in from a local sand mine, meaning the sand matches the material that naturally occurs along the bay.
About 60 to 70 trucks, each hauling 25 tons of sand, delivered the sand Wednesday to Pierce’s Point, and that work will be repeated at the other beaches until each is restored.
Niles said the funding and the permitting for the project came swiftly, a recognition of the need to help the birds as soon as possible.
“All the regulators were sympathetic to what we’re doing,” Niles said, adding that the birds are working an inflexible schedule as they need to lay their eggs when they arrive in the Arctic.
Heidi Hanlon, wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said both the horseshoe crabs and shore birds will benefit from the project, though how much of an impact the effort will have on the red knot population is yet to be determined.
The service will decide sometime this year whether the birds should be listed as a threatened species.
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