CAPE MAY POINT — An elderly man walks a line of seaweed pointing out black skate cases and the long, yellow strands full of tiny, perfectly formed whelks to his grandson.
A grandmother takes her grandchildren to the beach to show them ghost crabs, a strange land crustacean with huge eyes that lives in holes in the sand, only has to get its gills wet once a day and scavenges along the wrack line where the last high tide left a smorgasbord of invertebrates.
Both of these events happened this summer, and both were not possible in previous years.
The borough, bucking a New Jersey shore trend that began when medical waste and other debris started washing up in the late 1980s, retired its beach-cleaning machines this year.
Instead, beach tag checkers walk the strand manually picking up debris — but only human-generated waste — by hand. Anything natural is left behind.
The machines — tractors that tow rakes that sift the sand — remove debris as small as a cigarette butt. The problem is they may be too efficient. They remove litter but they also remove everything else, leaving behind a sterile sandbox of sorts with no seashells, plants or the critters that live between the ocean and the dunes.
Mayor George “Skip” Stanger said the email he received from the grandfather who taught his grandson about skate cases and baby whelks was all he needed to realize it was a good decision.
“The response has been overwhelmingly a positive one. It’s a natural beach. Whatever is man-made, we tell them to pick up,” Stanger said.
Emelia Oleson, who leads spring and fall beach cleanups in Cape May Point, spent three years lobbying against beach machines. Oleson was armed with studies showing beach machines can cause more erosion.
“It’s bad for the beaches. It brings the smaller particles to the surface, and they blow away. They take the wrack (high tide) line to the landfill. You’re destroying the little critters in the wrack line, and they help build up the dunes,” Oleson said.
A study in California of 40 beaches, some raked and some left alone, found the machines destroy biodiversity on a beach. They reduce populations of invertebrates, crustaceans, insects, plants and birds. Losing the plants means losing the roots that help hold a beach in place.
The line of detritus along the high tide line is full of insects and feeds a whole other set of marine critters that live in the sand underneath it. It's a specialized ecosystem that includes donax, ghost shrimp, jackknife clams, sand fleas and other strange creatures adapted to eat organic matter that washes ashore or drifts down through the sand.
Each incoming tide brings in more feeding opportunities as finger sponges, clam worms, mussels, seaweeds and barnacles come ashore attached to floating debris. The wrack line and those insects underneath also provide food for shorebirds, including the endangered piping plovers, least terns, black skimmers and gulls.
“Shorebirds work the wrack line. They pick out crustaceans and mole crabs,” Oleson said.
Cleaning the beach used to be the task of such seaside scavengers, but they don’t work quickly enough, and in many shore towns that leads to complaints about the smell. More importantly, they also don’t eat human litter such as plastic bags, cans and cigarette butts.
When the summer residents arrived back in town this year, Oleson said, there were some complaints about the beach not being cleaned. The Beach Patrol also has reported more wear and tear on its vehicles on a beach with a more uneven surface. Oleson dismisses such complaints.
“It’s good for us. It’s good for the beach. It’s good for the natural world. I don’t see a downside, except complaints from people who want white-bread beaches,” Oleson said.
Regular passes from beach-cleaning machines also eliminate beach-combing for shells such as moon snails, jingle shells, angel wings and the knobbed whelk that, when placed over an ear, creates the sound of the sea. Locals are known for their collections of arrowheads and beach glass, but they were gathered before the machines came.
The machines, which became popular in the late 1980s when the shore tourism industry was threatened by wash-ups of trash and other debris, have been blamed for wiping out some insect species in New Jersey, including the beach tiger beetle.
The machines also eliminate a host of beach plants, including sea rocket, common saltwort, seaside spurge, cocklebur and seaside goldenrod. While marine critters are already back, plants are slower to respond.
“People are seeing the ghost crabs, but you have to be out at night and be really fast,” Stanger said.
Beach Director Chris Garrison said a few plants have colonized.
“I’ve noticed a few plants on the beach, and they’re plants I’ve never seen before,” he said.
Garrison arms his checkers with Garbo Grabbers, a set of rings that holds a trash bag and a grabber that pick up something as small as a cigarette butt or a beer can. He rotates the job and said 15 of the 17 checkers, mostly high school and college kids, “don’t mind doing it.”
“I have a couple who take it real seriously. I think it’s good for them. I think they respect Mother Nature a little more,” Garrison said.
A state litter-abatement grant helped give the checkers a small raise this year because of the added duty, but borough Administrator Kimberly Hodsdon said this totaled only $1,400.
Machines were marketed to many shore towns as saving money over manual litter collection. The borough had its Public Works employees running the machines. Hodsdon said until the beach season is over its premature to compare costs.
Garrison said he has received nothing but compliments. He said one woman even brought the checkers brownies for their work. He also acknowledged the manual method may not fit every shore town.
“I don’t know if Wildwood could do this. It works good for us with the size of our beaches and the number of people on them,” Garrison said.
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