MIDDLE TOWNSHIP, N.J. — Far from the ocean beaches that were lavished with money and attention after the devastation of Superstorm Sandy is the other Jersey shore.
The Delaware Bay beaches are not nearly as famous or as heavily populated, but they could help keep a tiny shorebird from becoming extinct.
A massive project to restore five bayfront beaches has been completed just before the second summer after the storm arrives — and, with it, thousands of red knots and the horseshoe crabs whose eggs they eat on a stopover from their annual 10,000-mile journey from South America to the Arctic.
The Delaware Bay area is home to the largest population of horseshoe crabs in the world, according to Larry Niles, a wildlife biologist working on the project. And because the crabs lay their eggs in the sandy beaches here, the area is the main stopover for red knots, a shorebird listed as endangered in New Jersey and proposed for listing as such with the federal government.
But when Sandy roared through on Oct. 29, 2012, the beaches were devastated, and 70 percent of breeding areas, coves and shoals were lost — not to mention the damage inflicted on waterfront homes.
All that needed to be fixed as quickly as possible.
"There were two main goals: to get good spawning grounds for the horseshoe crabs and to make sure there were sufficient horseshoe crab eggs so that when the shorebirds make their long trip up from South America, they have sufficient food reserves to make it all the way to the Arctic," said Eric Schrading, a supervisor with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. "This is an absolutely critical spot for a host of shorebirds, including the red knot."
The red knot's numbers have declined by 80 percent since 2000, he said. There are about 35,000 left in the world. Other species that depend on the crab eggs include the ruddy turnstone and the short-billed dowitcher.
The birds have already started arriving. Their presence should drastically increase this week.
The red knots are important to the local tourism economy as well. Reeds Beach is a popular spot for the annual New Jersey-based bird-watching competition called the World Series of Birding.
At the same time, horseshoe crabs, while still plentiful here, are under major stress from commercial and recreational fishing (They are used as bait for conch and other species.) and are harvested for use in the medical and pharmaceutical industries. New Jersey has a moratorium on taking the crabs, and Delaware limits harvesting to males only. A steep population decline has been halted, but a hoped-for increase hasn't yet happened, Schrading said.
The crabs' commercial value has soared in recent years, from $1 apiece to $5 or $6 now. Pointing to a beach filled with crabs mating or laying eggs in the sand, Niles said, "Those are basically $5 bills lying all over the beach. So you can see how hard it is to protect them."
The $1.65 million project that started in March 2013 restored five beaches on Cape May County's Delaware Bay shoreline: Kimbles Beach, Reeds Beach, Moores Beach, Cooks Beach and Pierces Point. Over 800 tons of debris, including chunks of asphalt and bricks, concrete pipes, slabs and pilings were cleared from 1.5 miles of beach, and contractors brought in more than 45,000 tons of locally mined sand to replace what was lost in the storm.
"These beaches are not nearly as populated and don't have nearly the economic value as the ocean beaches do, and as a consequence, it's harder to get political resources to repair and maintain them," Niles said. "But people are finally realizing how critical they are to a variety of species and the value of this place."
This is part of a periodic series about the New Jersey shore's efforts to rebuild and return to normalcy in the second summer after Superstorm Sandy ravaged many coastal communities.