MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — On both sides of New Jersey, dump trucks are depositing sand and bulldozers are racing against time to spread it out.
Along the ocean, the goal is to restore beaches destroyed by Superstorm Sandy before the tourists arrive. But along Delaware Bay, the beaches need to be ready before the endangered shore birds arrive.
A potential environmental crisis looms that could further deplete the number of already endangered shore birds that depend on beaches along the state's western coast as a stopover in their South America-to-Arctic migration.
The October storm that caused so much devastation along the ocean also pounded the bay's coast, flooding homes and washing away beaches. It is those lost beaches that could spell disaster for species such as the red knot, a bird already on New Jersey's endangered species list and one that's been proposed for inclusion on the federal list.
Red knots and other shore birds land on Delaware Bay beaches by the hundreds of thousands each May, gorging themselves on horseshoe crab eggs to fatten up for the second half of their arduous 10,000-mile migration to Canada. But Sandy washed away about 70 percent of the beaches where horseshoe crabs lay their eggs and where the birds pig out each spring.
New Jersey environmental officials and private ecological groups are teaming up to restore the beaches, racing against time to truck tons of new sand in, spread it around and haul away obstructions such as old, wrecked bulkheads and pilings that keep crabs from reaching their breeding sands.
"If we don't do something about the sand in these places, we're looking at a potentially catastrophic effect on the shore birds when they arrive in May," said Larry Niles, a wildlife biologist supervising the work.
The project started March 18 and will cost more than $900,000 from a mix of public and private sources. Its first phase should be done by late April.
A second phase will involve establishing oyster reefs just offshore to protect the shallow water in which horseshoe crabs spend significant time. The reefs are designed to absorb some of the force of waves before they reach the shore, cutting down on erosion and minimizing stress on the crabs.
Much of the work is centered on a 5.5-mile stretch of bay beaches between Middle Township and Maurice River Township in Cape May County. Tons of sand is being trucked in to Kimbels Beach in Middle Township, which lost most of its sand. The plan is to add a 2-foot-tall beach about 50 feet wide; metal markers 10 yards out into the bay indicate how far east the new sand will eventually be piled.
Niles said 1.5 million shore birds used to land on Delaware Bay beaches as part of their annual migration as recently as 1986; the number is currently about 200,000 to 300,000, he said.
In 2003, a series of winter storms prevented the crabs from spawning along the bay, leaving very few eggs for the ravenous birds when they landed.
"The birds did not gain weight," Niles said. "None of the birds left the bay with sufficient weight for them to breed, and in one year, we saw a 50 percent decline in the number of shore birds. We're afraid that this year we're looking at something similar."
What's more, he said, virtually the entire population of red knots stops at the Delaware Bay beaches each spring.
"If they don't get enough to eat, it's a species-wide impact," Niles said.
New Jersey has prohibited the harvesting of horseshoe crabs since 2008 due to declines in the red knot population, now estimated at 36,000 birds.
Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, called the project "a critical piece of the effort to save these imperiled species."
"Delaware Bay is a globally significant migratory bird stopover site, and the epicenter of the horseshoe crab population," he said. "Superstorm Sandy wrecked these beaches, and we needed to move fast."
Amanda Dey, a project manager with the DEP, said the work "will hopefully give the red knots a fighting chance this spring."
One of the areas to be restored is Moores Beach, in Maurice River Township. The former waterfront community was under threat from the ever-encroaching bay, and the state bought out its dozen or so homes, razed them and let the area return to its natural state — more or less. But there is still debris, including cinder block foundations of homes, a concrete staircase to nowhere rising out of the waves, and asphalt shards at the water's edge from a road that used to run along the shoreline.
The debris is to be removed in a later phase of the project, which also will restore beaches in one of the most remote areas of New Jersey.