Projects to restore habitat post-Sandy begin

Bulldozers work to restore a stretch of Kimbles Beach in Cape May County to its pre-Hurricane Sandy condition. If done in time, horseshoe crabs will be able to spawn, which in turn will give migratory birds something to eat after their long journey north.
Bulldozers work to restore a stretch of Kimbles Beach in Cape May County to its pre-Hurricane Sandy condition. If done in time, horseshoe crabs will be able to spawn, which in turn will give migratory birds something to eat after their long journey north. (ERIC SCHRADING / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Posted: April 04, 2014

Bulldozers began spreading sand on several South Jersey beaches along the Delaware Bay on Wednesday, the first of 31 projects to restore wildlife habitat damaged by Hurricane Sandy up and down the East Coast.

The just-started project, in Cape May County, is a $1.65 million race to replenish beaches before the May horseshoe crab spawn and shorebird migration.

The New Jersey projects are also seen as a way to indirectly benefit residential bay communities, which many feel have not received a fair share of restoration money.

By beefing up the coastline for wildlife, the humans' homes and other infrastructure also get a measure of protection.

So now they have channeled their anger at the government into gratitude for the crabs and birds.

Meghan Wren, a longtime advocate for bayshore communities and director of the nonprofit Bayshore Center at Bivalve, said she had heard a few snide comments. Still, she said, "a lot of the residents are really happy to see beaches regardless."

The beaches are a crucial player in an eons-old natural phenomenon that some describe as a combination of orgy and gluttony. The crabs come ashore to lay their eggs. The eggs provide fat-rich food for huge flocks of birds weakened by up to thousands of miles of northward flight.

In recent decades, populations of shorebirds - especially one called the red knot - have declined. Many blame a reduction in crab eggs.

After Sandy, the beaches where the crabs would have laid their eggs were scoured down to the underlying marsh muck.

The current project will restore five stretches of bayfront - at Kimbles Beach, Moores Beach, Reeds Beach, Cooks Beach, and Pierces Point.

Another New Jersey project, starting soon, uses $880,000 to construct a breakwater and "living" shoreline made of plants to protect the saltmarsh. The marsh, in turn, protects the Cumberland County coastal community of Gandys Beach.

Overall, the 31 projects, $102 million in all, span the coast from Connecticut to Virginia.

They range from a $330,750 creek culvert replacement in Virginia that will benefit fish to a $19.8 million restoration of a large salt marsh and a barrier beach complex at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge along Delaware's bayshore.

The projects are the result of the Hurricane Sandy Disaster Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2013. They are intended to repair the storm damage and also to add resiliency against future storms and sea level rise.

In Cape May County, this year's project builds on an emergency effort cobbled together last year, after Larry Niles, the former head of the state's Endangered and Nongame Species Program - and a biologist who has long studied the red knot - determined that about 50 percent to 70 percent of the beach area needed by both crabs and birds was gone.

Eventually, about a dozen groups joined what became a $1 million beach restoration. It largely held over the winter and is being monitored and analyzed by researchers from Richard Stockton College.

But those efforts were only a partial fix. Niles and his colleagues have yet another proposal before the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for $5 million to restore more beaches and marshes.

Even that won't be permanent.

"The reality is that coastal systems are dynamic and constantly changing, so that requires that we manage them on an ongoing basis," said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, a New Jersey nonprofit partnering with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

How so, when the natural system evidently worked for eons before?

Niles said the bayshore ecology no longer operates naturally. It has been "greatly distorted" over the last 300 years due to human intervention. The restoration aims to "replicate that old resilient system," he said.

Other longterm strategies include building oyster "reefs" that are designed to break the waves that erode the beaches while not preventing the crabs from coming ashore to spawn.

The bay's marshes are another focus.

They are a nursery for many fish species, but were altered long ago by the construction of dikes for salt hay farming.

"What's protecting those marshes is the beach," Niles said. "If you give up on the beach, you lose the marsh." If you lose the marsh, "you lose not only the bay's productivity, but also the storm surge protection for upland residential communities."

Conversely, "if we restore beaches on the bay, then people can use them for whatever use is appropriate," Niles said. "We only want them for the month of May."

When the birds and crabs are there.


sbauers@phillynews.com

215-854-5147 @sbauers

www.inquirer.com/greenspace

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