The State We’re In: Racing Against Nature’s Deadline

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by Michele S. Byers, Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

Michele S. Byers

Michele S. Byers

The clock is ticking on beach restorations up and down New Jersey’s coast, but one noteworthy project is facing a deadline imposed by nature rather than tourism.

Horseshoe crabs begin breeding in late May, but many prime nesting sites on Delaware Bayshore beaches were destroyed by Superstorm Sandy. The top layer of soft sand was swept away by wind and storm surge, exposing hard rubble and mucky salt marsh remnants not suitable for digging holes and burying eggs.

But a public-private partnership is coming to the rescue of the horseshoe crabs – and the migratory shorebirds that depend on their eggs for food.

In a race against the clock, the American Littoral Society and multiple conservation partners will restore horseshoe crab and shorebird beach habitat just in time for this spring’s crab spawning and shorebird migration. The effort is being funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Nearly a mile of Delaware Bay beach in Lower Township, Cape May County, will be restored, including sections of southern Reeds Beach, Cooks Beach, Kimble Beach, and northern Pierces Point. Sand will be brought in and spread on the beaches.

Monitoring last spring by the state Department of Environmental Protection and L.J. Niles Associates showed that these particular beaches were used by more than half of migrating shorebirds in 2012.

“This project is critical in the ongoing efforts to protect and restore the horseshoe crabs and shorebirds of Delaware Bay,” explains Tim Dillingham, Executive Director of the American Littoral Society.

Horseshoe crabs need sand at the high tide line on these narrow beaches in order to bury their egg masses. Without immediate action to restore the beaches, there will be no crab eggs deposited and no food for migrating shorebirds – especially the imperiled red knot sandpiper, officially listed as endangered in New Jersey.

Red knots make an amazing 10,000-mile migration each spring from the tip of South America to their nesting grounds in the Arctic. When the birds arrive in late May on the Delaware Bayshore, they depend on abundant, fat-rich horseshoe crab eggs to replenish their strength for the final leg of their long journey, and for nutrients needed to lay healthy eggs upon arrival in the Arctic.

The beach restoration project will be carried out by a partnership of the American Littoral Society, the Wetlands Institute, L.J. Niles Associates, Dianne Daly CEP, NJDEP, Middle Township and the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust. Landowners and volunteers will contribute their time and expertise.

“The expertise, cooperation and contributions of all the partners are making this project possible,” said Dillingham. “We are racing against a firm deadline of the horseshoe crabs arriving on the beach, and everyone’s efforts are vital to getting across the finish line in time.”

Kudos to these conservation partners for taking swift action to restore critical crab nesting sites that are so essential to the survival of the red knot!

Unfortunately, damaged beaches are not the only threat to horseshoe crabs. Two months ago, the New Jersey Legislature introduced a bill to lift a moratorium on the commercial harvest of horseshoe crabs for bait. The bill, which has not yet been heard by Senate and Assembly committees, is strongly opposed by the conservation community.

Fixing beaches immediately is critical, but in the long term our coast needs comprehensive and thoughtful planning based on sound science. A new bill, introduced by Assemblyman Peter Barnes on March 7, would create a Coastal Commission to oversee rebuilding in New Jersey’s five coastal counties. If it becomes law, the new commission would oversee planning activities, approvals for development, land use permitting and approvals, and beach erosion and shore protection projects.

Improved planning and coordination for building and rebuilding along the coast, as envisioned by the bill, is a very good idea. And natural resource restorations, like the rebuilding of crab nesting sites, are the type of projects the commission could encourage.

To learn more about the American Littoral Society’s conservation work in the Delaware Bayshore, or to donate to the beach restoration project, go to www.littoralsociety.org. For more information on the relationship between horseshoe crabs and red knots, go to http://www.conservewildlifenj.org/species/fieldguide/view/Calidris%20canutus.

And for more information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.


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