An emergency effort is under way to temporarily restore an ecologically critical Delaware Bay beach damaged during Hurricane Sandy in time for horseshoe-crab breeding season and the spring shorebird migration.

Reeds Beach in Middle Township was one of dozens of places along the Delaware Bay to suffer major erosion during the storm. Wildlife experts estimate that between 50 percent and 70 percent of the areas where horseshoe crabs lay eggs every May was destroyed in New Jersey and Delaware.

Now a partnership of national and state environmental groups, along with the Department of Environmental Protection and other regulatory agencies, is working on a plan to truck in sand for about 4,000 linear feet along Reeds Beach. The sand will give the horseshoe crabs a place to lay eggs and, thus, also provide a small area for the red knots to feed during their annual late spring stopover in the Delaware Bay area on the journey from South America to the Arctic.

“We’re trying to put a Band-Aid on before May of this year,” said Amanda Dey, principal zoologist with the Division of Fish and Wildlife’s Endangered and Non-game Species Program. “If we could just put sand on the critical spots, that might tide the crabs over until the larger army corps project.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has had a plan in place for several years to restore two ecologically sensitive sections of Middle and Lower Townships in Cape May County, but there has never been funding for the $9.4 million project, said spokesman Richard Pearsall. While there is a chance that funding may exist within the $51 billion federal aid package, the project likely will be low on the list as the Army Corps begins to determine how the about $1 billion of aid money designated for agency projects will be allocated, Pearsall said.

The larger Army Corps project, which would more than quadruple the amount of sand that the temporary restoration contains, also will require easements from all property owners, something that Middle Township Mayor Dan Lockwood said could be complicated.

Shortly after Sandy, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, along with the Manomet Center for Conservation and other environmental groups, launched an emergency effort to identify the repairs most needed in the short and long term that would restore critical habitat. In a report released in early January, the organizations identified more than 30 projects costing nearly $50 million.

Dey said the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has designated a $300,000 grant for the project, to truck in enough sand that would add about an 18-inch layer on top of what still exists.

Wildlife consultant Larry Niles said the state recently finished restoring Thompsons Beach into suitable breeding habitat and there’s a similar effort underway to restore nearby Moore’s Beach. He said that the major hurdle will be to get permits in place so that work on Reed’s Beach can begin by early March and be complete by early April.

Horseshoe crabs lay billions of egg that provide a critical food source for birds and aquatic life. But the masses of eggs laid along the Delaware Bay provide a crucial ecological niche for migratory shorebirds, particularly the red knot, which flies every spring from South America to the Arctic.

However, a declining horseshoe crab population also has meant fewer red knots because the birds don’t gain enough weight to make the final journey north. Last year about 16,000 red knots were counted during the migration, a slight bump in the population that Niles attributed to several years of excellent later spring weather..

Niles said he fears the lack of eggs could cause another crash in the struggling red knot population, similar to the one that occurred after the 2003 season. That year, Niles said, the unchecked harvesting of the crabs, along with storms that degraded the breeding habitat, resulted in fewer than 5 percent of the red knots gaining enough weight to be able to survive the flight to the Arctic.

“Over the next two to three years, the (red knot) population fell by half,” he said of the 2003 season.

“We think this loss of habitat this year is analogous to that year. That’s why we are so determined to get sand on the beach. At this critical point, we can’t afford to lose any more red knots.”

Contact Sarah Watson:


Follow Sarah Watson on Twitter @acpresssarah