Tag Archives: Cape May

Students in the Field: Lending Hands to Living Shorelines

The next generation of conservationists are getting a head-start in environmental stewardship thanks to Project PORTS — Promoting Oyster Restoration Through Schools, an education and community-based oyster restoration program supported by Rutgers University’s Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory.

East Windsor Middle School student and families

East Windsor Middle School student and families

For three days in early April, 8th grade students of East Windsor Middle School in Broad Brook, Connecticut, along with their parents and siblings, visited Cape May, New Jersey, to participate in Project PORTS. The interactive field trip included exploration, reflection, and action both in the classroom and out in the field.

“Some students learn best by listening, others by watching and some by doing — we were able to hit all aspects of learning through reinforcement in this program,” said Jenny Paterno, Program Coordinator at Rutgers University. “With this three day program, we could really bring a diverse suite of experiences to the students.”

The adventure began at the Nature Center of Cape May, where students received a simplified introduction to estuarine ecology, oyster biology and ecological restoration. The next morning, families joined staff from The Nature Conservancy (TNC), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Rutgers University, and the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary to help install oyster reef breakwaters on Gandy’s Beach along the Delaware Bay in New Jersey. The students were able to apply some of the new knowledge gathered the day before to hands-on work in the field, and continued to build upon those new concepts throughout the day.

“The oyster reef structure will serve to slow down wave energy and reduce erosional forces while providing enhanced habitat for oysters, ribbed mussels, and a suite of other species,” said Paterno.

At the Gandy’s Beach project site, students worked together to pass oyster bags from one set of hands to the next, like an assembly line, to place them into position to form the breakwater structure. The brigade proved to be an efficient method to move the bags across the beach in an all-hands-on-deck style.

Shell brigade!

Shell brigade!

The materials used to create the shell bags are locally-sourced and New Jersey native. Project partner TNC collects clam and oyster shells from restaurants during scheduled weekly pickups in Atlantic City, and also receives donated surf clam shells from a local processing plant in Millville, New Jersey. The mollusk shells are then “cured” and distributed to schools where students construct the bags. Project PORTS works with over ten schools per year, primarily local students from Cumberland County, New Jersey.

The last stop for the East Windsor students was at the Rutgers University Aquaculture Innovation Center (AIC) in Cape May where various stations were set up for students to explore. Families learned about the culture of marine animals, tested their skill at shucking an oyster, examined oyster anatomy and viewed live oyster larvae and developing fish eggs.

In addition to learning about oysters, the students and their families were helping out with innovative coastal restoration work: building a living shoreline.  Living shorelines incorporate a variety of structural and organic materials, such as sand or aquatic vegetation, to create a natural shoreline that protects and stabilizes the coast while providing habitat for native species.

The efforts of these students are part of a larger project. In 2013, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was awarded $880,000 from Hurricane Sandy resilience funds through Department of the Interior towards a living shoreline project at Gandy’s Beach. The project includes construction of 3,000 feet of living shoreline to restore the salt marsh and adjacent uplands. This work will improve the ability of the beach and neighboring communities to withstand future storm surges and coastal erosion, all while helping to stabilize the decreasing oyster population and enhance habitat for migratory birds, fish, and nearshore marine species.

The project is scheduled to be completed by November 8, 2016. Monitoring will continue for two years after the living shoreline is completed.

“[The project] will help stabilize approximately 3,000 feet of beach and tidal marsh shoreline,” said Katie Conrad, fish and wildlife biologist. “Ongoing monitoring will measure how well the oysters recruit on the different structures, so future restoration projects can benefit from what we have learned.”

Since the birth of the Gandy’s Beach living shoreline project in 2013, TNC and Project PORTS have involved several thousand local students in the ecological construction effort through the construction of shell bags as well as hands-on experience at the project site. To date, this reef has provided habitat for more than 20 million oysters and counting, according to Paterno. Even while only partially installed, the reefs have begun to provide habitat to young oysters.

The East Windsor Middle School students were able to embark on this stewardship adventure at Gandy’s Beach thanks to funding received from Pratt and Whitney’s Green Power Grant.

The benefits of educating future generations on environmental protection and awareness are more important now than ever. And when that education coincides with the enhancement of critical areas of coastal habitat— that’s a double victory.

Work at one of the restored beaches, Kimbles Beach. A wheel loader fills the rubber-tracked dump truck. Credit: Eric Schrading/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Hurricane Sandy restoration saves shorebirds, ‘living fossils’ they rely on

Roughly one million shorebirds pass through the Delaware Bay in the spring, when the largest population of horseshoe crabs in the world turns up to spawn. The largest concentration of red knots can be found in the bay at this time. This photo captures knots at Mispillion Harbor. Credit: Gregory Breese/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Roughly one million shorebirds pass through the Delaware Bay in the spring, when the largest population of horseshoe crabs in the world turns up to spawn. The largest concentration of red knots can be found in the bay at this time. This photo captures knots at Mispillion Harbor. Credit: Gregory Breese/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Today we’re sharing a post from GeoSpace by Kate Wheeling about the successful $1.65 million project to restore Sandy-affected beaches on Cape May’s inner shoreline, work that reinforced some of the most critically important stopover habitat for migrating shorebirds in Delaware Bay. The project was the first of 31 Sandy coastal resilience projects focused on rebuilding natural areas along the Atlantic Coast.

When Hurricane Sandy hit the U.S. East Coast two years ago, it threatened the survival of a 400-million-year-old crab species and about a million shorebirds that rely on the crabs’ eggs for nourishment during long migrations. Retreating storm waters took with them 60 to 90 centimeters (two to three feet) of sand from the Delaware Bay beaches where horseshoe crabs lay eggs and left behind piles of debris, destroying 70 percent of the crab’s prime nesting zones in the area.

Now, preliminary data shows that a speedy rescue project, funded in part by federal Hurricane Sandy emergency relief funds, helped restore the beaches, and that horseshoe-crab and shorebird numbers have returned to their pre-storm levels.

Work at one of the restored beaches, Kimbles Beach. A wheel loader fills the rubber-tracked dump truck. Credit: Eric Schrading/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Work at one of the restored beaches, Kimbles Beach. A wheel loader fills the rubber-tracked dump truck. Credit: Eric Schrading/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

“Some of the hardest hit areas were those that were the most important for shorebirds, as well as horseshoe crabs. We had to restore the beaches immediately to provide the necessary forage for shorebirds before the next spring,” said Eric Schrading, New Jersey Field Office Supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Schrading described the destruction and the rescue operation during a congressional briefing last month about the U.S. Department of the Interior’s response to Hurricane Sandy.

The restoration project, an effort of the American Littoral Society, the Conserve Wildlife Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, removed over 700 metric tons (1.5 million pounds) of debris and laid down more than 40,800 metric tons (nearly 90 million pounds) of sand across five beaches in the Bay. [Check out photos on our Flickr]

“Indications are that we’ve, at least, created a beach that is providing as much ecological value as it did before the storm,” Schrading added.

Every spring, the largest population of horseshoe crabs in the world turns up to spawn in the Delaware Bay, a calm cove sheltered from the choppy Atlantic Ocean waves by a protective arm of the New Jersey Cape. At night, tens of thousands of the dinner-plate sized crabs plod up onto the beach, dig down into the sand and leave behind millions of eggs.

Check out the restored Kimbles Beach! Credit: Eric Schrading/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Check out the restored Kimbles Beach! Credit: Eric Schrading/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Shortly after the crabs invade the bay, flocks of shorebirds, including one species called red knots, pass through the area. The red knots feast on the unlucky eggs that end up on the surface of the overturned sand, fueling the birds on the last leg of their 14,500 kilometer (9,000 mile) journey from the tip of South America to the Arctic.

“Delaware Bay is the top migratory stop for shorebirds in the nation, and one of the top stopovers in the world,” said Larry Niles, a wildlife biologist and one of the founders of Conserve Wildlife Foundation, a New Jersey-based group working to protect rare and threatened species within the state.

The restoration project is just the latest in a series of efforts to protect the horseshoe-crab population on the Atlantic coast.

Although the crabs haven’t changed much since they first appeared in the fossil record over 400 million years ago, harvesting in the 1990s reduced the population of this “living fossil” to just a quarter of its original size, according to Niles. Without an abundance of horseshoe crab eggs to feed on in the spring, shorebird populations also dwindled. Red knot numbers plummeted to fewer than 20,000 birds in the last decade from more than 100,000 birds in the 1980s. [The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to protect the knot as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and we’ll make a final decision by the end of November.]

Increased regulation of horseshoe-crab harvesting in the late 1990s began to turn things around for the crabs and birds. Shorebird numbers had reached a rough equilibrium with the availability of crab eggs when Hurricane Sandy hit, said Niles.

Horseshoe crab eggs from Mispillion Harbor. Credit: Gregory Breese/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Horseshoe crab eggs from Mispillion Harbor. Credit: Gregory Breese/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Now that efforts to restore the beach after the 2012 storm seem to be working, the focus of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has shifted to protecting the bay from future storms, according to Schrading.

One option, he said, is oyster aquaculture. Stretches of oyster-filled cages maintained by New Jersey’s own oystermen could be deployed off the coast of Delaware Bay’s beaches. Scientists believe the cages could act as a buffer for the beach while also benefiting local fishermen.

The cages could be in place as early as next spring, but according to Schrading it will take at least two years of monitoring to tell if they effectively prevent strong waves from eroding the beaches without interfering with horseshoe crab movements in the bay.

“[The project] is experimental in design, but it is something that’s worth looking into,” he said.

The September 19 congressional briefing highlighted the various ways the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) used federal Hurricane Sandy emergency funds to rebuild coastal communities and landscapes after the storm. Schrading was joined by Mary Foley, chief scientist for the National Park Service, and Neil Ganju, a research oceanographer for USGS, who presented on their agencies’ contributions to the restoration and resiliency efforts following the storm.

Read more from GeoSpace on the briefing here.

– Kate Wheeling is a science writing intern in the AGU’s Public Information department.

Beach restorations along New Jersey's Delaware Bay will help horseshoe crabs spawn in early May.

Changing fortunes on Delaware Bay

One might think a creature named the horseshoe crab would be naturally lucky–and in some ways it is. The prehistoric throwback has retained its basic physiology for around 350 million years, so it’s already far outlasted our own species on an evolutionary scale. Evolved as it may be, its luck has been challenged along the shores of the Delaware Bay. Beaches that traditionally serve as one of the crabs’ major spawning grounds were severely eroded by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and the species is projected to be impacted by continuing shore development, frequent intense storms like Sandy and ongoing sea level rise.

The eggs of mating horseshoe crabs at Delaware Bay will sustain thousands of migrating shorebirds on their long trips to the Arctic. Credit: Gregory Breese/USFWS

The eggs of mating horseshoe crabs at Delaware Bay will sustain thousands of migrating shorebirds on their long trips to the Arctic. Credit: Gregory Breese/USFWS

Even less fortunate are the migrating shorebirds who depend on their critical stopover at Delaware Bay to refuel on sustaining horseshoe crab eggs on their way to the Arctic—a journey that, for some, clocks more than 18,000 miles annually. Take the rufa red knot for example, a species whose numbers have declined so sharply that it is being considered for federal Endangered Species Act protection. It’s estimated that more than 50 percent of the entire rufa red knot population stops at Delaware Bay, one of the last undeveloped shores on the Atlantic coast, making the area essential to the continuing survival of the species.

Fifty to 70 truckloads of sand are being added daily to five beaches on Delaware Bay that were badly eroded by Hurricane Sandy. Click below to view video of the beaches being replenished.

But sometimes good fortune is the result of foresight. To help both of these species and the beach habitats upon which they depend, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has broken ground on the first of 31 forward-looking Hurricane Sandy resilience projects: a $1.65 million restoration of several beaches along the Delaware Bay. The effort includes repairing storm surge and erosion damage at Reeds Beach, Kimbles Beach, Cooks Beach and Pierce’s Point in New Jersey’s Cape May County and at Moore’s Beach in Cumberland County (all important habitat areas for both crabs and shorebirds). The project involves  depositing some 50-70 truckloads of locally-mined sand daily to re-establish the diminishing coastline, with total sand replenishment estimated at 45,500 tons.

A map of the Reeds Beach restoration area. Inset: Greater Delaware Bay with beach restoration proposals highlighted in red. Credit: American Littoral Society.

A map of the Reeds Beach restoration area. Inset: Greater Delaware Bay with beach restoration proposals highlighted in red. Credit: American Littoral Society.

Partners in the effort, including the American Littoral Society and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, are coordinating the restoration with the Service’s Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, and with the Conserve Wildlife Foundation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. These partners have not only been instrumental in helping to implement the Service’s core coastal resilience and habitat restoration goals, they’ve also been seeking to secure further funding to restore additional spans of Delaware Bay shoreline.

Restoration crews have been employing something of a hurry-up offense, as the sand must be added, spread and graded by early May, when the horseshoe crabs typically return for spawning.

Cape May National Wildlife Refuge hosts annual nighttime horseshoe crab tagging events on Kimbles Beach. Credit: USFWS.

Cape May National Wildlife Refuge hosts annual nighttime horseshoe crab tagging events on Kimbles Beach. Credit: USFWS.

Cape May Refuge Manager Brian Braudis says the refuge plans to host horseshoe crab taggings on May 15 and May 29 at 8:30 p.m. when the crabs return, on its Kimbles Beach parcel. Last year, volunteers including veterans, retirees and school children—some bussed in from upstate classrooms—tagged 1,000 horseshoe crabs. With a support network like this, who needs luck?

To read more about U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Hurricane Sandy recovery and resilience projects, visit http://www.fws.gov/hurricane/sandy. To view media coverage of Cape May beach restoration projects, click here. To learn about the Service’s broader conservation and habitat restoration efforts on Delaware Bay, click here.