MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — A line of cellphone cameras and digital camcorders greeted the first few dump trucks to deliver piles of sand Monday morning to a narrow and eroded stretch of Kimballs Beach on the Delaware Bay.
The event wasn’t the most photogenic, but the sand was the final step in a frenetic effort to restore a portion of what Hurricane Sandy washed away so horseshoe crabs have a place to lay eggs this spring.
The prehistoric crabs provide a critical food link for migratory shorebirds, including the red knot, that use the Delaware Bay as a rest stop on their way to summer breeding grounds in the Arctic.
For the scientists and conservation advocates involved with the effort, the sand deliveries were nothing short of miraculous. The project began in late January, with regulators all but laughing at the proposal because the work needs to be complete by April, said wildlife biologist and shorebird expert Larry Niles. Project leaders needed to obtain a half dozen permits and consult not just with federal and state agencies, but get written permission from landowners, notify shellfish lessees and even wait for the grant check to clear.
The check cleared Monday, said Bill Shadel, habitat restoration program director with the American Littoral Society, which was one of the leaders of the effort. “We were all doing work not knowing if the funding would happen or, if it did, would it come in time,” he said.
Niles said the speed of the effort — about six weeks from proposal to the first truckload of sand arriving — was unprecedented in his 30-year career.
“It’s a big day for the bay,” said Niles, the former head of the state’s Endangered and Nongame Species program. “We’ve been watching things happen in the bay, but this is the first time we’ve actually gotten something done.”
Niles and his wife, Amanda Dey, principal zoologist with the Endangered and Nongame Species program, have worked for years studying the red knots and the horseshoe crabs. They first surveyed the damage on the ground about a week after the storm. In early December, the couple conducted an aerial survey and compared the new data with a survey from 2006. They found that between 50 percent and 70 percent of the most vital horseshoe crab breeding habitat had been washed away or was blocked by massive amounts of debris.
The immediate fear was that if those beaches weren’t at least partially restored in time for the breeding season, the spawn would be similar to the one in 2003, when weather effectively shut the crabs out from laying eggs. That caused the red knot population to drop by 50 percent, Niles said.
“We’ve been working for so many years on this stuff,” Dey said. “You just don’t think of a storm coming in and taking away all the habitat.”
All this excitement is over 17,000 cubic yards of sand costing $210,000, paid for through a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant. It’s enough to cover three stretches of beach totaling about 5,000 feet long and 10 to 15 wide with about 2 feet of sand from a Middle Township quarry. The sand will arrive in 20-cubic-yard dump trucks, one load at a time, likely about 1,000 cubic yards a day. The piles seem huge while still in the truck, but they appear more like lumps of sugar when dumped on the beach.
The sand will be spread on Kimballs Beach, Cooks Beach and Reeds Beach, all well-known and crucial spots for the horseshoe crabs and, thus, the red knot.
When spread out, the sand is hoped to provide just enough space for the throngs of horseshoe crabs that lumber out of the bay around the first spring tide in May to spawn. Each female will lay up to 100,000 eggs. About five males will fertilize the eggs of each female.
Scars from Sandy’s battering waves, which narrowed the shoreline by several feet and lowered what was left by several more feet, are obvious. Expanses of old black marsh peat now sit exposed, almost like cliffs to a horseshoe crab. Up in Reed’s Beach, hunks of concrete, splintered pilings and busted bulkheads that all are decades old, lay exposed. Much of the debris, which would trap a crab trying to reach the high tide line, should be removed this week.
Every time the group approached someone to help, the response was a resounding yes, said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society.
Middle Township offered to help with any permits needed, and the public works department helped remove debris and truck it to the landfill, said Sue DeLanzo, township committeewoman. DeLanzo said she hopes that the emergency project will be a first step in getting funding toward the roughly $20 million beach replenishment and sand berm Army Corps of Engineers project from Reeds Beach to Pierces Point. “It’s always a good thing when you can help the horseshoe crabs and also help people at the same time,” she said.
Scientists want to make sure the work is helping, so once the spawn begins, they will collect samples to compare how many eggs are laid this spring compared with previous years, said Lenore Tedesco, executive director of The Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor, which was one of the groups involved with the restoration project.
“There were a lot of days I wasn’t sure we were going to see a pile of sand on the beach,” she said.
Katie Sellers, a conservation scientist with the Wetlands Institute, worked to get written permission from six landowners. Among the landowners was a Maryland resident, who wrote back saying how excited he was and that his family used to harvest the crabs, she said. Another land owner, the Bayshore Condominium Association, returned their letter in about three hours and offered to provide volunteers, she said. “As soon as they understood what we were doing, they were ecstatic to help out.”
Niles said beach replenishment regulations are mostly written for along the ocean, and permitting is simpler along the Delaware Bay. The project also was primarily habitat restoration, which happens to benefit landowners with a slightly wider beach. Regulatory agencies saw the importance of the restoration, which helped speed things along.
Knowing the clock was ticking didn’t hurt.
“I think the birds and crabs have a lot of friends, and this project was a chance for everyone to play along,” Dey said. “I can’t think of any other explanation, other than a lot of good will and hard work.”
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