CAPE MAY — The lifeguard stand on the beach at Reading Avenue is empty, as are several others along the city’s two-mile stretch of shoreline.
For the first time in at least several decades, the Cape May Beach Patrol has a manpower shortage.
“We’re eight people short,” Lt. Terry Randolph said. “I’m in my 39th year on the Beach Patrol, and this is the first year it’s happened. Usually, we have to turn people away.”
Similar situations are occurring elsewhere in Atlantic and Cape May counties. Some beach patrols are at the bare minimum, had a much smaller contingent of candidates to choose from than in past years or are struggling to fill out rosters.
Longtime Avalon Beach Patrol Capt. Murray Wolf likes to have 110 lifeguards but will settle for 90 to 100. As of Monday afternoon, he had 86.
“We’ve definitely had some problems,” Wolf said. “We’re advertising now, and we’re constantly testing people who are interested. We seem to go up and down in terms of our numbers, but it’s no question it’s been harder this year.”
Lifeguard tests typically consist of a swim and run that must be completed in certain times. During a test, candidates must be able to complete a half-mile swim in under 15 minutes and a mile run in under 7:30 minutes, though the lengths and times vary among patrols.
“This is the first time ever we haven’t had enough lifeguards,” Brigantine Beach Patrol Lt. James Wilkinson said. “We had 20, 21 people try out, but only 12 could pass the test.”
The number of men and women showing up for tryouts is much smaller than in previous years, when patrols would be forced to turn down qualified lifeguards.
Tryouts, which are typically conducted the first week of June, would be so crowded, they would be all-day affairs. Lifeguards who were turned away by one patrol would head up or down the coast to try out for another patrol.
“In the 1970s and ‘80s, we’d have 70 people trying out for seven spots,” Wolf said.
The rising housing costs and the lure of higher-paying summer jobs contributed to Cape May’s shortage, Randolph said.
Mansions have replaced modest homes throughout the town, and owners rent out their properties to vacationers for enormous sums that can range from $2,500 to more than $5,000 per week, which prices out lifeguards.
First-year guards make $97 per day in Cape May and $94 in Wildwood Crest, which would seem like a reasonable wage for a 16-year-old except that other jobs pay better.
“They can just go across the street (to a bar or restaurant) and make $150 or more a day as a busboy,” Randolph said. “It’s tough to compete with that.”
Those jobs also require less commitment.
Throughout the summer, lifeguards are expected to train in the early morning hours before manning their stands.
“You don’t have to pass a running and swimming test or learn how to row if you’re working on the Wildwood Boardwalk,” Wildwood Crest Beach Patrol Chief Bud Johnson said.
High school and college athletes sometimes just don’t have the time.
Sports are fast becoming year-round endeavors. Athletes are required to attend summer camps and training sessions that pull them off the beach.
“There are also college students who are required to do internships over the summer,” North Wildwood Beach Patrol Lt. Blase Fiorino said.
Avalon has sought to entice lifeguards with incentives.
Wolf said first-year guards make $12.50 an hour to start, but the pay is increased to $13.50 after the first 50 days. Those who are still on the beach on Aug. 15 are given an extra $15 per day.
Wildwood Crest’s Johnson may have come up with a way to bolster his talent pool.
Every beach patrol has a Junior Lifeguard program that typically ends at age 13. Johnson and his staff created a “Futures Program” this summer for ages 14 and 15. They gather twice a week for training two hours a day, and when they turn 16, they will be offered full-time jobs.
“We have 12 kids in it this year, and we’re hoping to grow it in the coming years,” Johnson said. “It’s worth a try.”
MAYS LANDING — Court officials in other parts of the state still refer to it as “drug court,” but for Judge Mark Sandson and the Atlantic and Cape May county courts, it’s all about recovery.
“It takes a lot of dedication to graduate because you have to change,” Sandson said. “Change is one of the most difficult things to do.”
The local vicinage held back-to-back graduation ceremonies this week for 143 drug court participants, the largest class ever to graduate in the program’s history.
“Live life all the way through. Don’t just say no, say ‘Hell no!’” one man told his fellow graduates Tuesday. The Press was prohibited from naming the people who complete the program.
The four-phase program run through the state judiciary allows nonviolent offenders struggling with addiction to complete intensive drug and alcohol treatment, gain employment, obtain education and pay court fines. If participants complete the program, they will have their records expunged.
Sandson said he had signed more than 60 expungements Monday. All of the remaining graduates will also have their records expunged.
As the red velvet curtains lifted Tuesday afternoon, a resounding applause filled the auditorium inside the Atlantic County Institute of Technology. Smiles washed over the faces of the 73 graduates from Atlantic County seated on stage. On Wednesday, the remaining graduates from Cape May County will also move on from the program.
“The war against drug addiction has begun,” Sandson said, and employment is a weapon in that war. “What you’re seeing before you is 73 employed people.”
Keynote speaker New Jersey Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said he has strong ties to Atlantic County and an affinity for the drug court program. Asaro-Angelo told the graduates he had a drug charge when he was younger and paid $1,000 for an expungement, but still had to move out of state to find employment.
Now, the state is developing workforce training programs to help drug court graduates find employment, including one in Atlantic City. He said 38 graduates have completed the program.
“For these trainees, a second chance to achieve the victory of work brought smiles and in many cases tears of joy and gratitude,” Asaro-Angelo said. “We know that people are more likely to remain in recovery if they believe they can find success in the workplace.”
Sandson said that with the casino industry being such a huge part of the local economy, expungement is one of the most important components of the recovery court program because convictions are a barrier to obtaining a casino license.
During the program, Sandson and Assignment Judge Julio Mendez also recognized Stockton University as its 2019 Atlantic County Partner of the Year. On Wednesday, the Cape May County Sheriff’s Office will receive the same honor during the southern county’s graduation program.
“The tremendous work of the Atlantic County Recovery Court is more than commendable,” said Stockton President Harvey Kesselman. “It’s a testament to the power of hope.”
Other guest speakers included Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner and Deputy Public Defender Scott Sherwood.
One of the graduates, who was honored with the class MVP award Tuesday, said he was resistant to the drug court program at first, but finally he surrendered.
“My bottom was actually my mom and my sister,” he said, adding he could see the pain and suffering in their faces. “I was killing her.”
During his road to recovery, he went to jail, to treatment and to a halfway house.
“Everything was set in place for a reason,” the graduate said. “It helped me get where I am today. I’m over three years clean right now.”
Conch fisher Ed Blaine’s horseshoe crab dealers travel to his Jersey Shore home from up and down the East Coast to sell him hundreds of the prehistoric sea creatures at a time.
Blaine, of Somers Point, has been using the “living fossils” as bait in the waters off Sea Isle City for decades. A moratorium on harvesting the species has been in place in New Jersey since 2008, but it’s still legal to buy horseshoe crabs that were bred in other states if documentation is obtained.
“We can get them here no problem,” said Blaine, 61.
Like some other fishers, Blaine does not believe the population is in danger, though conservationists say the situation on the Delaware Bay is more complicated and are pushing for states outside New Jersey to also suspend their harvests.
New Jersey’s moratorium was spurred by a drop in the red knot population, a threatened bird that refuels on horseshoe crab eggs during migration.
In the fall and spring, thousands of the hard-shelled animals emerge from the Delaware Bay and spawn along the shoreline. Red knots feed on them for strength during the last leg of their 9,000-mile trip from Latin America to the Arctic tundra each fall and spring.
Overfishing and loss of good beach habitat led to a decrease in horseshoe crabs in the 1990s, and the birds suffered, too. Both species’ populations hit a low in the early 2000s but have been slowly increasing in recent years.
“New Jersey’s actions to restrict the harvest of horseshoe crabs from the Delaware Bay is helping to change the trends in the red knot population,” said Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Hajna.
But birders remain concerned the number of crabs hasn’t returned to prior levels. Stock assessments show the abundance index of all female horseshoe crabs 30 years ago in the Delaware Bay and New Jersey was more than double what it is today, despite increases in relative abundance since 1999.
Horseshoe crab egg density in the bay has fallen from about 100,000 per square meter before overharvesting occurred to 5,000 to 8,000 per square meter in 2017, New Jersey Audubon President Eric Stiles said.
At the same time, David Mizrahi, vice president of research and monitoring of the nonprofit, said there were 80,000 to 100,000 of the tiny, gray and red birds in the 1990s. Now, it’s down to 30,000.
Without a sufficient food source, red knots die on their journey, Mizrahi said. They need to be at least 180 grams in weight to make the trip successfully. Further development along their migration route is also of concern.
“A bird in a compromised condition may not survive the migration,” Mizrahi said.
To protect the Delaware Bay’s biodiversity, New Jersey Audubon, the American Littoral Society and other groups are launching a campaign with environmental groups in surrounding states to fully restore the horseshoe crab population by 2030.
They plan to persuade Delaware, Virginia and Maryland, which have reduced quotas, to suspend the commercial harvest altogether, as South Carolina and New Jersey have done, Stiles said.
“If New Jersey is taking the step to protect horseshoe crabs and others aren’t ... that’s unfair to our water men and women,” Stiles said. “The population available to shore birds pales in comparison to what is needed.”
But Michael Globetti, spokesman for the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, said the state isn’t considering a moratorium and is unaware of data supporting the argument that the bay’s horseshoe crab population hasn’t recovered to pre-1990s levels.
The state implemented a ban in 2006 but was sued by seafood wholesalers and lost the case. It now has a moratorium from Jan. 1 to June 7 and prohibits harvesting female crabs. It follows the quota set by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which doesn’t have statistics prior to the 1990s.
“DNREC Fisheries Section staff are not aware of any imminent threats to the resources in question that would necessitate emergency action, or action independent of the interstate management process,” Globetti said. “The agency prefers to follow a path of cooperative interstate management.”
On a different front, conservationists are calling for biomedical companies to stop buying and using an extract from horseshoe crab blood, called lysate, to test for bacterial contamination in their products.
Instead, they say, a synthetic alternative should be used. Pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and Company began using it last year to test water in laboratories at two of its manufacturing sites.
“Horseshoe crabs are the principal factor in the red knot’s decline,” Mizrahi said. “This is critical.”