Tag Archives: Rutgers University

A new reality for plovers on the Jersey Shore

This story was originally published on our new Medium blog platform

This year’s severe storms underscore the power of nature and the vulnerability of our coasts. While nature can destroy, it can also defend. Supported by federal funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery, we’re working with partners to restore and strengthen natural systems that provide not only habitat for wildlife, but also protection against rising seas and storm surge. This is one in a series of stories highlighting results of our ongoing efforts to build a stronger coast.

On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy plowed ashore near Atlantic City, N.J., with sustained winds of 75 miles per hour. In its wake, state officials declared it the most destructive natural disaster in the history of New Jersey. It changed communities dramatically.

There were flooded roads, fallen power lines, and 346,000 damaged homes.

Storm damage along the New Jersey coast after Hurricane Sandy. (USGS)

Natural features of the coastline underwent significant changes too, but in some cases, those changes presented new conservation opportunities that could protect people and wildlife in the face of future storms.

“We were able to identify places where piping plover habitat had been enhanced by the storm,” explained Todd Pover, a senior biologist for the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey who has been involved in monitoring the federally threatened shorebird for 25 years. Places like Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, where the storm erased the dunes in a three-quarter mile stretch of beach, creating an open expanse from ocean to bay.

Senior biologist for the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey Todd Pover releases a piping plover, a species he has helped monitor for 25 years. (Jim Verhagen)

“It’s what we refer to as an overwash fan,” Pover said. “The most desirable habitat for plover.”

It was a good sign for the future of these birds in New Jersey. Although the number of nesting pairs along the Atlantic coast has nearly doubled since piping plover was placed on the Endangered Species List in 1986 — the species has since been downlisted from from endangered to threatened — New Jersey’s breeding population has failed to launch by comparison. There were 94 nesting pairs in the state in 1986. In 2017, there were 105.

Piping plover with a chick on sandy beach. (USFWS)

More nesting habitat meant the potential for more nesting pairs.

It was also a good sign for the New Jersey shore. Those overwash fans where piping plover like to nest are the product of wind and wave action continually reshaping the coastline, sometimes dramatically as in Sandy. Allowing coastal processes to play out naturally in areas like these helps absorb impacts of future storms.

“In a sense, piping plover represents coastal resilience,” explained Brooke Maslo, assistant professor of ecology at Rutgers University.

But although the creation of habitat gave biologists a reason for hope in the wake of this storm, it also gave them a reason to plan ahead next time. Agencies that typically respond to natural disasters, like the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, follow standard operating procedures — a sort of playbook that identifies roles, responsibilities, and actions to make sure all the bases are covered.

Assistant professor of ecology at Rutgers University Brooke Maslo focuses on developing science to support habitat for beach-nesting shorebirds, including piping plover, black skimmer, and American oystercatcher, the bird in her hands in this photo.

“There wasn’t a similar protocol for biological conservation,” Maslo said. If there was a way to quickly assess and communicate benefits for endangered species, they could incorporate that into the response process too.

Now, thanks to collaboration between Rutgers and CWF New Jersey, there is.

With support from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Hurricane Sandy resilience funding, the partners have developed a standard assessment protocol for identifying opportunities to protect functional beach habitat after big storms based on what they learned from the last one.

They started by comparing nesting habitat for four beach-nesting species — piping plover, American oystercatcher, black skimmer, and least tern — before and after Sandy.

An example of the modeling results showing suitable habitat for American oystercatcher, black skimmer, least terns, and piping plover in Avalon and Stone Harbor, N.J. (Maslo et al. 2016)

“Where did habitat persist? Where was it lost? Where was it newly created? We wanted to be able to quantify habitat changes that occurred as a result of the storm, and to quantify the new habitat areas that could be prioritized for conservation,” Maslo said.

The results have already proven useful as a screening tool when working with communities to develop beach management plans — mandatory for towns that receive federal funding to protect piping plover.

“We suggest what could be the most suitable habitat based on the results, and they give us feedback about what they know to be true about that site on the ground,” Pover said.

It also helps natural resource managers plan for constant change. “The beach will change, so creating set-aside areas interspersed throughout the state gives the birds someplace else to go when it does,” Pover said.

A map showing habitat suitability for piping plover at the Holgate unit of Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge after Hurricane Sandy. Any area in color in the above image is considered “suitable”, with warmer colors indicating higher suitability. (Maslo)

It’s like habitat insurance for plover, and it’s clear they will make the most of their safety net. Although most of the new habitat created by Hurricane Sandy was stabilized to pre-storm conditions, resource managers were able to let nature take its course at the site at Forsythe — a wilderness area where no human infrastructure was at stake.


“In the years after Sandy, we went from 12 to 25 pairs at that site,” Pover said. With a secure place to nest, the birds became more productive, with twice as many fledglings as a typical pair in New Jersey.

“Forsythe is a poster child for what could happen if we protect these sites,” he said.

Biologists now know what to look for in potential nesting sites. With the protocol, resource managers, landowners, and town officials can look for these opportunities in their own communities as well.

And because it was developed with input from agencies like NOAA and FEMA that are on the front lines after a natural disaster, the protocol will help factor benefits for wildlife into the existing response process. That will benefit people too. Wildlife tend to good indicators of threats to communities, or as in New Jersey, a sign that they have reason to hope.

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.

Shells and students: Building living reefs in southern New Jersey

What do thousands of southern New Jersey students, millions of young oysters and Gandy’s Beach have in common? They all benefit from Project PORTS — Promoting Oyster Restoration Through Schools — an education and community-based oyster restoration program, run out of Rutgers University’s Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory.

Whew...shell bags are heavy! 1st grade friends from the  Boys and Girls Club of Vineland, N.J., help carry a shell bag they built to load on the trailer.

Whew…shell bags are heavy! First grade friends from the Boys and Girls Club of Vineland, N.J., help carry a shell bag they built to load on the trailer. Credit: Project PORTS staff

Since 2007, Project PORTS has engaged school communities in a real world oyster restoration project, constructing a living oyster reef more than 5 acres in size near Gandy’s Beach in the upper Delaware Bay. To date, this reef located approximately one mile offshore, has provided habitat for more than 20 million oysters and counting, says Jenny Paterno, a recent Rutgers master’s program graduate, lab technician and project leader for Project PORTS.

In 2013, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was awarded nearly $900,000 from Hurricane Sandy resilience funds through Department of the Interior towards a Gandy’s Beach shoreline protection project, which will improve the ability of the beach to withstand future storm surges and coastal erosion while helping to stabilize the decreasing oyster population. A portion of this work engages youth in oyster education and conservation at the Gandy’s Beach oyster reef breakwater project site.

Since this past March, the Service’s New Jersey Field Office has partnered with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Project PORTS to involve several thousand local students who are building nearly 15,000 shell bags. The bags will be placed by hundreds of local volunteers this fall just off the shoreline at Gandy’s Beach in Downe Township.

Waves crashing at Gandy’s Beach before living shoreline construction. Hurricane Sandy flooded Delaware Bay and eroded salt marsh habitat.

Waves crashing at Gandy’s Beach before living shoreline construction. Hurricane Sandy flooded Delaware Bay and eroded salt marsh habitat. Credit: Katie Conrad/USFWS

Gandy’s Beach is gradually disappearing, losing an estimated 500 feet of shoreline since 1930, based on TNC field observations and historic aerial images. The communities of Money Island and Gandy’s Beach have experienced increased flooding during high tide events and major storms due to the reduction of surrounding salt marsh and beach buffers. This also reduces habitat for spawning horseshoe crabs and foraging habitat for migratory shorebirds such as the rufa red knot, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Katie Conrad, a fish and wildlife biologist at the Service’s New Jersey Field Office and project lead, says the work will construct nearshore oyster reef breakwaters along high energy shoreline, coir biolog living shoreline (logs of coconut fiber wrapped in mesh) on low energy sites, and hybrid living shoreline that uses both techniques in one location. “This will help stabilize approximately 3,000 feet of beach and tidal marsh shoreline, and ongoing monitoring will measure how well the oysters recruit on the different structures, so future restoration projects can benefit from what we have learned,” says Conrad.

The benefits of these living shorelines are three-fold: they help prevent erosion for wildlife and public recreational use; buffer coastal communities against impacts of future storms; and provide habitat for underwater species in the face of climate change and sea-level rise.

A student at West Avenue School proudly shows off a shell bag built for the Gandy's Beach oyster reef. Credit: Project PORTS staff

A student at West Avenue School  in Bridgeton, N.J. proudly shows off a shell bag built for the Gandy’s Beach oyster reef. Credit: Project PORTS staff

For the past year, project partner TNC has been collecting clam and oyster shells from restaurants during scheduled weekly pickups in Atlantic City, as well as a local surf clam processing plant in Millville, N.J., which delivered the shells to a management site maintained by TNC. The “cured” mollusks are then distributed to schools where students build shell bags. There is also a shell pile at the Haskin Lab in Port Norris, N.J., where they are stored or used for bagging activities with after-school groups such as scouts, homeschoolers and Habitat for Humanity teams.

Since mid-March, Project PORTS has engaged more than 650 students at several local southern New Jersey schools, teaching curious K-12 pupils about oyster anatomy, lifecycle and ecosystem benefits while building shell bags that will help prevent erosion and preserve wildlife habitat along the shoreline. Students work in teams of two or three and pull stretchy mesh bags over large diameter PVC tubes, then fill the tubes with shell to efficiently build bags.  “We were at a middle school just last week, and there were 6 classes of seventh graders who worked with us for an hour each, and built 722 bags in a day!” says Paterno.

“A class of 20, 4th graders can build 100 shell bags in a half an hour. Never underestimate the power of a fourth grader. They always impress us with their enthusiasm.” – Jenny Patnerno, lab technician and project leader for Project PORTS

4th grade students from D'Ippolito Elementary School lift their full shell tube up to complete their shell bag.

4th grade students from D’Ippolito Elementary School in Vineland, N.J. lift their tube up to complete their shell bag. Credit: Project PORTS staff

Each bag measures approximately 17-inches long by 10-inches wide and weighs around five to ten pounds per bag. So far, over 3,000 bags have been built by participating students and there are six more Project PORTS partner schools scheduled for activities through mid-June.

As a leader of classroom education and shell-building activities, Paterno recently completed her Master’s thesis on the diverse species which inhabit the Project PORTS Gandy’s Beach subtidal oyster reef, such as striped bass, weakfish, croakers and blue crab. She plans to continue her work with Rutgers and Project PORTS as a lab technician, explaining the reason she enjoys her role in the project. “I really like education and outreach while doing the science and research, so when I get to incorporate those elements together, it’s really rewarding,” says Paterno. “Some kids have never been to the bay even though they live 15 miles from it. I like to inspire kids to be outside and get interested in science — and realize that becoming a scientist is definitely within reach and it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a crazy white-haired, lab-coat clad man with bubbling test tubes,” she says.

Jenny Paterno dissects and oyster with curious students at Assumption school. Credit: Cathryn Flammer/Assumption School

Paterno works with 7th grade and kindergarten students to explore the internal anatomy of an oyster at Assumption Regional Catholic School (ARCS) in Galloway, N.J. Credit: Cathryn Flammer/ARCS

Service partners along with an estimated 500 community volunteers will help construct the nearshore oyster reef breakwaters along the shoreline. The design will be broken into multiple sections and staggered, with each breakwater between 20 to 30-feet long, placing taller sections in front with the shorter breakwater behind it. “Oysters can live under both conditions in intertidal zones, sometimes covered by water, sometimes exposed to the air”, says Paterno.

Close up of partner-funded oyster castle at Gandy's Beach.

Close up of  oyster castle test site at Gandy’s Beach. Credit: Project PORTS staff

In addition to the oyster reef, man-made oyster castles will be placed along the shoreline as part of the restoration project. “The use of oyster castles, which are stackable concrete, blocks that make oyster reefs, will be used as we monitor oyster recruitment. With help from our partners, these living shorelines can help enhance oyster communities in the Delaware Bay,” says Conrad. Reef construction work is expected to start this August and both the reefs and oyster castles will be monitored for effectiveness by the Service and Rutgers staff after the project is completed.

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Project PORTS is an education and community-based oyster restoration program, which targets elementary and middle school communities in New Jersey’s Delaware Bay Shore region, promoting hands-on activities that teach scientific concepts and emphasize the importance of oysters as a resource to the region.

Read more about the Gandy’s Beach effort in an overview of the federally funded living shoreline projects led by the Service, making progress in New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia.