MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Conservation groups and volunteers helped build a new oyster reef Saturday off a Delaware Bay beach pummeled by Superstorm Sandy.
More than 100 volunteers helped stake down mesh bags filled with old whelk shells that with luck will attract oysters to become a living shoreline, said Tim Dillingham, director of the American Littoral Society.
His group, and the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, organized the reef construction off Reeds Beach in Middle Township.
“We’re testing whether the reefs will calm the water and minimize the movement of sand. Part of the experiment is to see if oysters will set on the whelks and create a natural oyster reef,” he said.
Many bayfront homes on Reeds Beach were destroyed by the 2012 storm. Some remain boarded up and vacant. The beaches, too, were severely eroded, prompting an unusual emergency beach fill by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect wildlife habitat.
These beaches are prime spawning grounds for horseshoe crabs each May. The freshly laid crab eggs in turn attract thousands of migrating shorebirds, including the red knot which was placed on the federal Endangered Species List last year.
The 200-foot reef was built with gaps to let the horseshoe crabs reach the beach, he said.
Conservation groups hope the reef helps protect the beach for birds and people alike, Dillingham said.
In the early part of their lifecycle, oysters are free-floating in the water until they find a hard surface to attach to, Dillingham said. But the Delaware Bay does not have many of these old shell beds for oysters, he said.
Oyster reefs have been used successfully to stem erosion of marshes, Dillingham said. His group will monitor the reef to see if free-floating oyster spat latch onto the whelk shells.
“We’re hoping they’ll grow and become a healthy oyster reef that will contribute to the ecology,” he said.
South Jersey oystermen, too, have a stake in the reef’s success. Barney Hollinger, of Commercial Township, harvests wild oysters from deep waters off East Point Lighthouse. But he also grows laboratory-bred oysters along the bayshore that end up on diner’s plates in restaurants across the Mid-Atlantic.
“Oysters should set on these bags of whelks,” he said. “We haven’t had good sets here for some reason.”
Hundreds of volunteers helped move the bags to designated areas to be staked down under the outgoing tide. Representatives from the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge participated. The project is funded through a Hurricane Sandy resiliency grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
Rian Rauscher, 7, of Gloucester Township, wore his waders for the occasion and plowed into the freezing water with bags of shells in tow while his mother, Jennifer Rauscher, watched from shore.
They are part of a club called Hooked on Fishing, Not Drugs that participates in a lot of community-service projects, she said.
“We usually fish for bass or crappie in freshwater,” she said. “But we’re getting more into saltwater fishing. The boys will be doing a couple boat trips this year.”
The groups hosted a barbecue “shellabration” afterward to thank the volunteers with games of cornhole on the beach.