Wildlife biologist Larry Niles holds a red knot at Reeds Beach. ‘We were looking at beaches that had been the backbone of the New Jersey shorebird stopover, and they were basically wiped out by Sandy,’ Niles says. June 2013

The race began shortly after Hurricane Sandy struck. How could about a mile of vital habitat be restored by early spring so the horseshoe crab spawn on Delaware Bay beaches would have a place to lay eggs?

But a group of environmental advocates, consultants and experts, fueled with about $1.2 million in grants obtained through numerous foundations and nonprofit organizations, managed to beat the clock.

And as the spawn comes to an end and the shorebirds that feed on the eggs on their way north have departed fat and happy, the overwhelming feeling among those involved is relief and hope.

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By restoring the narrow beaches, the horseshoe crabs have a place to spawn. And if the crabs have a place to spawn, the thousands of migratory shorebirds that use Delaware Bay beaches as a rest stop have a place to feed and pack on the grams before they head north to the Arctic to breed.

"It shows us what can be done when we have the resources and effort," said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society. "I hope it's a model for the future, because there are a lot of places along the entire coast that need this kind of attention."

Shortly after Sandy struck in October, wildlife biologist Larry Niles and state Department of Environmental Protection principal zoologist Amanda Dey flew over the Delaware Bay beaches, where the crabs spawned and the shorebirds fed.

They found that between 50 percent and 70 percent of the habitat had been washed away, and what was left had massive amounts of debris that could be deadly to the crabs as they tried to make their way on or off the beach.

"We were looking at beaches that had been the backbone of the New Jersey shorebird stopover, and they were basically wiped out by Sandy," said Niles, who was once chief of the DEP's Endangered and Nongame Species Program.

In January, Niles and Dillingham obtained grant money through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to truck sand from Middle Township quarries onto several township beaches, including Kimbles Beach, Reeds Beach and Pierces Point.

A frantic effort ensued to get permits and approvals. The project was approved six weeks later - practically the speed of light for a process that involved multiple state and federal permits.

As the sand began arriving, more grants were approved, including through the New Jersey Recovery Fund, the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust and the New Jersey Corporate Wetlands Restoration Partnership. The project paid for 34,000 cubic feet of sand - a microscopic amount compared with the millions of cubic yards involved in oceanside beach projects.

By the end of April, the work had to stop, because the crabs had arrived. Then the birds arrived - as many as 26,000 red knots in New Jersey, almost the entire population that stops over in the Delaware Bay.

Walking through the last shrubs before reaching the beach on a late May afternoon, conversation became difficult as the sound of more than 5,000 shorebirds amplified. At first the cacophony seemed uniform, but listen long enough and one can pick out the raucous cries of laughing gulls and the scratchy cackling of the ruddy turnstone amid the dominant sound of the red knots' muted peep.

The winds of a late spring gale that had Niles and other researchers barely sleeping, because of fear the waves would destroy the new beaches, had unearthed millions of eggs. Each shoal, nook and lump exposed during an unusually low tide was covered in a greenish mat of them.

Each spring, usually about the first full or new moon in May, the horseshoe crabs that call the continental shelf off the mouth of the Delaware Bay home begin to inch out of the water to mate and lay their eggs.

Most of those eggs and larval crabs are destined to become food for birds, fish and other animals. Only a tiny percentage of the baby crabs will live to adulthood - 10 years from birth - to repeat the process.

Along the Delaware Bay, the red knot, ruddy turnstones and sanderlings rely on those piles of easy food to pack on the weight they need to make their final journey north.

The cycle occurred almost uninterrupted for generations until the early 1990s, when fishermen began harvesting the crabs to be used as commercial bait, Dey said. The red knot population dropped from at least 90,000 to about 20,000 in 2003.

As the decline was documented, researchers and environmental advocates began to focus on figuring out the problem and how to fix it.

Calculating how many horseshoe crabs call the bay home is a complicated process. Only Delaware does any comprehensive study of the crab population, and the study is technically designed for fish, said Jordan Zimmerman, environmental scientist with the Delaware Division of Fish & Wildlife.

The study is among those the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission uses to determine how many crabs could be taken from the bay without any effect on the breeding population.

According to the study, the number of adult horseshoe crabs collected in the Delaware Bay has dropped significantly over the years and has stayed relatively flat since about 2005, when Delaware and New Jersey began exploring horseshoe crab fishing moratoriums. In 2008, New Jersey enacted a moratorium by law. That same year, Delaware decided it would allow a limited harvest of males.

Since the moratorium, the study has found a growing number of juveniles in the catch nets. That could be a sign that the moratorium is working, but scientists won't really know for a few more years, when those juveniles reach maturity, Dey said.

Meanwhile, the DEP temporarily closed popular breeding beaches along the Delaware Bay to keep people and dogs from inadvertently disturbing the birds. That action, combined with the moratorium, has drawn strong support from the public and environmental community. But the small group of watermen who harvested the crabs, along with some residents wanting to use the closed beaches, have fought back.

In December, state Sen. Jeff Van Drew and Assemblyman Nelson Albano, both D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, introduced bills to repeal the horseshoe crab moratorium. The bills have languished in committee, and as the end of the session draws near, legislative analysts expect the bills to die.

Just before the red knots left the Delaware Bay in May, Niles, Dey and the rest of the research team conducted a count. They found 26,000 red knots in New Jersey and about 1,000 knots in Delaware. And the birds all had gained more than enough weight to make the journey to the Arctic.

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