The Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor got some good news in October, when it received its second $25,000 Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund grant. The money will be used to expand its Jersey Shore Terrapin Project. The nonprofit was one of only 80 organizations to get a Disney grant, which are awarded to groups that use community volunteers for important conservation efforts.
But then Hurricane Sandy hit at month's end, and life at the nonprofit has gotten much more complicated.
At a time when the organization would normally be looking to donors to help it expand its conservation, research and education programs, it also must approach them for help to rebuild a birdwatching boardwalk and the boat dock used by its researchers. Both were destroyed in the storm, as was the pumping station that provided 300 to 400 gallons per week of salt water to its aquarium.
The pumping station brought salt water to the aquarium automatically through a network of underground pipes. Now a staff member must drive a tank truck down to the water, fill it up and drive it back to the aquarium, then pump it from the truck into the tanks, said Executive Director Lenore Tedesco.
The estimates for rebuilding the dock alone vary from $105,000 to $175,000, according to whether the state allows the Institute to rebuild using wood, or meet more stringent recent requirements to use aluminum instead. But the nonprofit remains committed to its mission, in spite of the damage.
"We're not going to let this set us back," Tedesco said of the organization's conservation projects.
The Disney grant will allow the Institute to expand road patrols to rescue injured terrapins and harvest the eggs of dead ones during nesting season from May through July. The Institute also will launch an initiative to study and mitigate the impact of two other major threats to terrapins: ghost traps and storm drains.
Tedesco said researchers have recently removed more than 50 abandoned or lost crab traps from the waterways around Stone Harbor. They are known as ghost traps, and needlessly kill marine life. Most traps haven't been fitted with terrapin excluders, devices required by state regulation to be attached to all crab traps, to prevent terrapins from fitting through the entry.
"We went out this summer and found 55, but couldn't remove them until the (crabbing) season closed Dec. 1," she said. "We use side scan sonar to map where they are, and grappling hooks to retrieve them."
Most of the terrapins found in ghost traps are already dead, she said, but recently a barely alive terrapin was found and is being nursed back to health. Staff members named her Fortunato, Tedesco said.
Tedesco also plans to expand a volunteer program to rescue hatchling terrapins from storm drains. Hatchlings fall into the drains while traveling to the water from their nests. When the baby terrapins run into curbing and other obstacles, they start walking along the curb and right into the drains.
Volunteers must be trained to scoop the quarter-size hatchlings out using fish nets with long handles, Tedesco said. The peak seasons for hatchlings are March to June and August to October. In about three years, volunteers have already saved about 9,000 hatchlings who fell into the drains, she said.
"We'd like to engage the public ... (to help with a) volunteer monitoring program, and adopt a storm drain on their street," she said.
The storm has also provided a new cause of concern for the future of terrapins. As the water table rises, and after storms such as Sandy, there is less suitable nesting habitat.
"If the eggs are flooded, that's probably detrimental," Tedesco said. But often terrapins hatch in the nest, then stay in a state of suspended animation before emerging in spring. Hatchlings probably wouldn't be harmed by flooding, she said.
After Sandy, dozens of hatchlings emerged on the ground around the Institute, and went into the water months earlier than normal, where they will hibernate in the mud at the bottom, she said.
The Institute also wants to expand its efforts on shorebird and horseshoe crab conservation. Horseshoe crab eggs provide an important food source to migrating shorebirds, such as red knots and ruddy turnstones, as they make their way from South America to breeding grounds in the Arctic. They show up in huge numbers along the Delaware Bayshore each May.
But there, too, the specter of Sandy brings troubling news.
The Institute, the National Lands Trust and the Delaware Bay Shorebird Initiative recently finished a rapid assessment of Delaware Bay beaches after Sandy, and found a 70 percent decline in suitable habitat for horseshoe crab nesting.
"The loss levels are staggering," Tedesco said. "At high tide (in many places) there is no beach anymore, and horseshoe crabs spawn at high tide."
Pete Dunne, chief communications officer at New Jersey Audubon, said he and others in the birding and conservation community have been looking at the problem of Delaware Bay beach erosion as well. They are hoping some of the sand returns on its own over time, but are also considering beach replenishment projects for important shorebird areas. The problem is, there's a limited amount of sand for replenishment, and many shore communities are seeking it. There are also permit requirements.
"Anything that can be done, has to be done by March," he said. "The good news is, birds and beaches have been working this out for millions of years. Shorebirds have a low productivity, and are generally long lived. It's a strategy for survival, and they don't necessarily have to breed every single year."
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How to help
The Wetlands Institute is recruiting volunteers to patrol highways and storm drains, to rescue injured or trapped terrapins. The hatching season starts in March and the nesting season starts in May. Adopt-a-Terrapin or Adopt-a-Horseshoe Crab through the Institute. Call 609-368-1211 or visit wetlandsinstitute.org