HACKENSACK, N.J. — Sand-filled dump trucks — up to 50 a day — rolled onto beaches along the Delaware Bay recently in a feverish attempt to restore shorelines that had been washed away by Superstorm Sandy.
Workers were in a rush to prepare for the tourist season — but not the human kind. These beaches in New Jersey were being readied for the hordes of migrating birds expected to drop in over the next few weeks.
The beaches are prime spots for horseshoe crabs to lay eggs — eggs that migrating birds need to add body fat so they can complete a 5,000-mile journey to their breeding grounds in the Arctic. Beaches with no sand could have meant no crab eggs — and another blow to the red knot, a bird already on the state's endangered species list.
"They were facing a real potential catastrophe this spring," said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, one of the groups involved in the sand replenishment project. "We needed to act quickly."
From Bergen County down to Atlantic City and over to the Delaware Bay, Sandy caused widespread devastation to wildlife and habitats that play a pivotal role in New Jersey's environment and economy. Muskrats in the Meadowlands, shorebird habitats in Sandy Hook, seagrass in Barnegat Bay that fish use to hide from predators — they all took a hit. The storm also left leaking drums and other debris in the waterways that experts worry could lead to the contamination of fish and shellfish — which could in turn harm the state's fishing industry.
"The effects could be pretty significant for some species and ecological systems," said Michael Kennish, a marine ecologist at Rutgers University's Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences. "It's going to take years to draw solid conclusions on how devastating the storm has been."
In the Meadowlands, many muskrats apparently drowned or had to leave after their mud nests were washed away in the storm surge.
"I spoke with several trappers who said they caught half what they usually catch this spring," said Michael Newhouse, a naturalist with the Meadowlands Commission. One longtime veteran trapper, he said, usually catches 600 to 700 muskrats, but this year only caught about 300.
Rats and mice in the Meadowlands — a key food source for hawks and other raptors, as well as wading birds, such as herons — also appear to have been depleted. "We had rough-legged hawks show up in the winter and then leave right away," Newhouse said. "Usually they'll stay all winter."
A similar scenario played out at Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, north of Atlantic City, where the lack of marsh rats forced the usual winter residents, such as short-eared owls and harriers, to move elsewhere, said Virginia Rettig, Forsythe's refuge manager.
Crucial habitats were destroyed by the storm. Beaches all along the coast were altered or washed away, which could make it harder for threatened shorebird species, such as the piping plover, to find suitable nesting sites, experts say.
In the Meadowlands, spruces, red cedars and pines, which provide cover and food to migratory birds as well as roosting sites for overwintering birds such as owls, are turning brown, most likely because Sandy's storm surge saturated the ground with saltwater, which the tree roots are soaking up. The red cedars are particularly important to songbirds because they provide berries to help the birds survive cold winter weather, said Newhouse. "We don't know if these trees will survive," he said. "It doesn't look good."
Scientists are particularly worried about the damage to various species of seagrass, from spartina in the Meadowlands to widgeon grass and eelgrass in Barnegat Bay. In some cases, the grasses are being smothered by dense mats of debris. In other cases, the scouring action of the storm surge may have undermined the root structure of the grasses. And perhaps most significant were the tons of sand that the storm surge pushed from the ocean beaches and into the bay, potentially covering grasses and their seeds so deeply that they won't emerge again this spring, said Rutgers' Kennish.
Seagrasses provide a place for many species to hide from predators. They are crucial to winter flounder, blue crabs and other species fished commercially because their young come into the bay to hide in the seagrass while they mature. "The grass provides cover," said Paul Bologna, director of aquatic and coastal sciences at Montclair State University. "If their habitat has been destroyed, that could be a key impact of the storm.
Prior to Sandy, Bologna had been involved in several seagrass restoration projects along Barnegat Bay, including one in which more than 200,000 plants were installed just a few weeks before the storm. Bologna plans to survey the site in a few weeks to see how it fared.
"Looking at some aerial shots, it looks like there's not much eelgrass there, but we don't know — the root structure could still be alive beneath the surface," he said.
At Forsythe, the storm surge pushed debris across the marshes and back up into trees along Route 9, leaving some 22 miles of trash, 50 feet wide and 10 feet high in some places. The debris included more than 130 boats, 100 home heating oil tanks and 55-gallon drums, as well as pressurized propane tanks, many of which could be leaking into the tidal marsh.
A similar problem exists for much of Barnegat Bay. "So much was coming into the bay during the storm — cleaning chemicals from houses, canisters of gasoline, destroyed boats that could be leaking oil," Kennish said. "Oil, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, PCBs were all thrown around. We're concerned about what the effect could be on the back bay ecosystems, and if these get into the food chain. It's not the magnitude of an oil tanker spill, but nobody knows how much stuff there is and where it's buried."
In the midst of the destruction, however, the storm created new habitats.
For instance, the storm surge ripped into Cheesequake State Park in Middlesex County, knocking down hundreds of trees. "These cleared areas create 'light gaps' in the forest," said Larry Hajna of the state Department of Environmental Protection. "These are breaks where native plants such as sassafras, spice bush and hibernum can grow, creating more diversified habitats for more types of wildlife."
The state's plan to buy up flood-prone houses at the Shore could also help wildlife. Homes will be demolished and the land will be preserved. While the work is being done to protect other areas from flooding, the land will provide new habitats for animals.
The administration also passed an emergency rule streamlining the permit process for municipalities and non-profits that want to create natural shorelines of sand or grasses that can serve as a buffer instead of using manmade structures such as bulkheads. "This will create better coastal habitat," Hajna said.