As summer visitors to the shore make their way home for the season, other visitors are making their way from all across the Eastern Seaboard to take in a short visit or a long-term stay along the Delaware Bay.
They're coming for the food, but they're really not into deep-fried Oreos or boardwalk pizza and fries. Instead, they're after the plentiful supply of plankton, crabs, clams, and shrimp found in the bay.
Sharks, sturgeon, and even whales have found their way into the Delaware Bay over the years. The sea creatures have made the bay a prime destination as they move up and down the coast as part of their annual migrations.
While they used to be found in much greater numbers, they still venture into the bay on a regular and sometimes permanent basis.
The bay is home to one of the 10 busiest ports in the country, and while these species of sea creatures love to visit, they're still facing a number of risks even though policies are in place to ensure their protection.
Several species of sharks, ranging from dogfish sharks and brown sharks, also known as sand and sandbar sharks respectively, take up annual residence in the bay. Other species of sharks also regularly find their way into the bay.
"It would not be unusual to find a hammerhead in there," said Jack Carr, science education manager of the New Jersey Academy for Aquatic Sciences in Camden.
Sharks feed on a diet of crabs, clams, and herring, all of which are found in decent supplies in the Delaware Bay.
"The food that fishermen want, sharks want them, too," Carr said.
However, the Delaware Bay's most important shark resource isn't the food.
Carr said sharks have made the Delaware Bay a premiere pupping ground. The bay serves as a sort of shark maternity ward. When female sharks give birth, male sharks tend to be miles away. That's because, if given the chance, the males would most likely end up eating their own young shortly after they're born.
The females don't experience the same temptation because they fast during pregnancy. Sharks have a very low metabolism, so even if the mothers go without eating for weeks, they don't get hungry again until they head back out to sea, according to Carr. This gives the pups a chance to grow up without any risk of cannibalism.
Carr said sharks tend to get a bad reputation, but these female sharks are nothing like Jaws. In more than 300 years of records, New Jersey has only had 17 shark attacks, according to the International Shark Attack File.
"I wish people wouldn't focus on the attacks," Carr said. "They're just part of a much bigger landscape."
While whales don't frequent the Delaware Bay as much as sharks, they do make an impression when they show up.
Humpack whales are often sighted now _ during the late summer and early fall. These creatures measure 55 feet long and often engage in acrobat-like behavior.
Fin whales are another species that sometimes wander around the bay looking for food. These whales are even larger at 80 feet long and weighing 150,000 pounds.
The appearance of a whale can sometimes be cause for concern. A North Atlantic right whale ventured into the Bay in 1994. There are only 350 left in the world, so when the young right whale was spotted, many people feared he was lost or tangled up in fishing equipment.
It didn't take too long for the whale to find his way out and up the coast towards the Bay of Fundy in Canada.
"I think he was just exploring," said Bob Schoelkopf, director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine. "The animal wasn't entangled at all."
The whale, which people took to calling Shackleton, is one of nine whales that wandered their way into the Delaware Bay since 1980, according to Schoelkopf.
Because of their size, whales do get stranded from time to time. One whale had to be euthanized when it got stuck under a house in Reeds Beach, a section of Middle Township in Cape May County, according to Schoelkopft.
"We got this call saying, 'This whale is destroying our house,'" Schoelkopf said. "It was a house right along the shore, and (the whale) was whaling against the wooden supports underneath."
Another species that finds its way into the Delaware is the Atlantic sturgeon. Spawning season in the bay usually occurs in the late spring and early summer.
No one knows how many Atlantic sturgeon call the Delaware Bay home, the species is difficult to track, but the fish has a long history in the Delaware.
The sturgeon has been around for more than 100 million years during the age of the dinosaurs, but in the late 1800s, sturgeon in the area were caught in vast numbers, as many as 6 million each year. The sturgeon were so plentiful that the town of Bayside in Greenwich Township in Cumberland County was once known as Caviar.
"Most people aren't aware that caviar was produced right here in New Jersey," said Lisa Calvo, executive director of the Seaboard Fisheries Institute in Penns Grove.
The sturgeon takes about 10 to 12 years to mature enough to lay eggs, so the species was not able to reproduce enough to offset the number being killed. The population has not been able to successfully rebound since, even with a moratorium on fishing for sturgeon in place, according to Calvo.
"While this fish was getting a break from fishing pressure, it was experiencing a decline in habitat quality," Calvo said.
Pollution from human activity has affected the area. Sturgeon spend most of their adult life in saltwater but need freshwater to spawn. They also need sturdy sediment to lay their eggs, and with constant human activity, the sturgeon's nurseries aren't getting any opportunities to expand.
The good news is that all of these sea creatures continue to reproduce. The bad news is that they still face all kinds of risks to their survival across the globe and close to home.
Whales, sharks, and sturgeon all face similar risks once they venture out of American waters as they're hunted down for food. Carr said the shark population has declined significantly worldwide as sharks are caught for their fins to make shark fin soup, a delicacy in parts of Asia.
Moratoriums on fishing for these species are in place locally, but that doesn't mean these species are totally safe when they visit the Delaware Bay. Sturgeon and sharks sometimes end up getting caught in nets designed for other species. They also get struck by the many boats going in and out of the Delaware Bay.
People who study the sturgeon are also concerned about a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project that would deepen a channel between Cape May and Philadelphia.
The project would deepen the channel by 5 feet to 45 feet. Naturalists have raised concerns that the machinery used for digging up sediment could harm these creatures, but the corps said that shouldn't be the case if the project happens.
"The corps can't bring any project to construction without doing any kind of environmental impact study," said Ed Voigt, a spokesman for the corps.
Voigt said the project would probably remove about 16 million cubic yards of sediment. By comparison, 3.5 million cubic yards of sediment are removed from the same area for other corps projects each year.
Scientists are keeping a close watch on these creatures. They're hoping that practices like electronic tagging and constant monitoring, as well as networking with the fishermen who know the area, will help them understand the creatures and what's being done to turn their fate around.
"If we see a recovery of sturgeon, that's an indication that we have a really healthy bay," Calvo said.
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