‘Turning point’ as key waterway for Delaware Bay oyster fleet is set to be dredged

In the last 20 years, but especially since Superstorm Sandy, the mouth of Nantuxent Creek has become dangerously shallow. At the top of the image, around the second bend of the creek, is where the oyster fleet’s docks are located.

Posted on February 17, 2021

The deepening of Nantuxent Creek is seen as vital for survival of South Jersey’s oyster industry, as well as horseshoe crabs and shorebirds

For more than a decade, Cumberland County’s oystermen have faced a cruel irony at Nantuxent Creek, Money Island, home to the fleet’s most important offloading port during the spring and summer oyster season.

On the highest tides, access to the docks scattered along the creek is impossible, due to flooding that overtakes the only road into Money Island. On the lowest tides, the creek mouth becomes so shallow that the fleet is left stranded inside, unable to reach the bay for several precious hours.

“It really got worse after Hurricane Sandy come in,” said Barney Hollinger, chair of the Delaware Bay Shellfisheries Council. “That’s what really pushed us to start trying to get something done.”

Finally, help is on the way. And not just for the oyster fleet, but also for the bay’s horseshoe crabs and shorebirds, including the endangered red knot.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has submitted permit applications to its Division of Land Use Regulation and the Army Corps of Engineers for a project slated to begin in September that will include both the dredging of Nantuxent Creek and Cove’s navigation channel, as well as the distribution of the sand on the adjacent — and severely eroded — western shoreline of Money Island, to create a habitat restoration area.

Stockton University Coastal Research Center’s Steve Hafner, who is leading the project, said work should take nine to 12 weeks, “depending on Mother Nature.”

Nantuxent Creek was not always so vital 

While it has been a port of call for the fleet for well over a century, Nantuxent Creek was not always so vital to their business. The Bayshore oyster industry was once concentrated 18 miles — and over two hours by boat — away, in the historic hamlet of Bivalve, where the shoreline is lined with offloading docks and processing houses.

In the 1990s, an outbreak of parasitic and bacterial disease decimated the Delaware Bay’s oyster stock and strict health regulations were imposed on the oyster fleet, requiring that no more than seven hours elapse between an oyster being pulled from the seafloor and getting it into refrigeration. With most of the productive oyster grounds some 30 miles up the bay, it became nearly impossible for a boat to reach Bivalve within the required time frame.

Because it sits directly between the oyster grounds and Bivalve, Money Island became the fleet’s primary — and valuable — landing port. Last year, Hollinger said, $5,732,000 worth of oysters were offloaded at Money Island. Adjusted for the government-standard sixfold multiplier, which accounts for the increasing value of seafood as it moves from dock to consumer, Money Island’s annual oyster intake is worth more than $30 million — a small but not insignificant slice of the state’s $1 billion fishery.

Credit: Andrew S. Lewis
The Peter Paynter, a schooner that is more than a century old, is one of several oyster boats that rely on Money Island to deliver the catch during the summer harvest.

Not surprisingly, Hollinger and the council have for years used Money Island’s strategic location and its tens of millions in value to plead with the state for the dredging of Nantuxent Creek and Cove, but without success.

“The state had the dredging money,” Hollinger said, “but they didn’t want to come up with the money for the environmental impact statement.”

Finally, the state will help

So, in 2019, Hollinger and the council proposed using the money it generates, from a per-bushel tax imposed on its oystermen, to pay the Coastal Research Center $25,000 to do the necessary surveys and plans. At first, the oystermen were leery, worried that the state would never commit to dredging. “My thinking was, this is our money and it’s going to help us,” Hollinger said. Eventually, the oystermen warmed to the idea, and the state supported the plan.

The project will be managed by the state’s Office of Maritime Resources, which will hire a contractor to dredge a half-mile stretch of the Nantuxent Cove channel, as well as a 500-foot nuisance shoal that has formed near the oyster docks inside the creek.

In all, 32,000 cubic yards of fine-to-medium-grain sand will be excavated from the seafloor and moved to Money Island’s quarter-mile-long bayfront, which the state recently purchased through its Blue Acres open space acquisition program. The sand will then be graded, seeded and fenced to allow for grasses and other native vegetation to begin growing on it.

Credit: Andrew S. Lewis
A bald eagle flies over the site of the future Money Island habitat restoration area. The shoreline here is critical to horseshoe crabs and sea birds, like the endangered red knot.

The Delaware Bay’s sandy beaches — especially those that are protected in the coves of creeks like the Nantuxent — are crucial to the horseshoe crab, which rely on them to lay their eggs each spring. The crab’s arrival in the first warm months of the year corresponds with that of the endangered red knot, a bird whose migration from South America to the Canadian Arctic is dependent upon a supply of the crab’s eggs. As the bay’s beaches have dwindled due to erosion driven by sea-level rise, so too have horseshoe crab and red knot numbers.

Wildlife Restoration Partnerships’ Larry Niles, who consulted with Hafner and the state on the beach replenishment portion of the project on behalf of the American Littoral Society, said a third component of the project — though it is still in the design phase and would need additional approvals — would include modest “hard” structures, such as groins and oyster reefs that could serve to protect and renourish the new beach.

“We’re monitoring closely all the key metrics, so that we can gradually improve our techniques,” Niles said. “Anyone can protect a place by just putting concrete everywhere; but protecting a place minimally while encouraging productivity — that’s the trick.”

Not a one-off project

September’s dredging is not intended to be a one-off project. Both Hafner and Niles said periodic maintenance dredging, to both keep the channel at a safe depth and to renourish the habitat restoration site onshore, is necessary. (Additional permitting would be required for ongoing maintenance.) Sand dredged in the future may also go to another severely eroded shoreline in nearby Bay Point, where the state also recently purchased land through Blue Acres.

In the past, dredging a navigational channel would have been treated as at odds with a habitat restoration project, but as the state — and Army Corps — increasingly embrace the utilization of dredge materials for shoreline restoration, the two opposites are becoming partners in the fight against climate change.

But for the tiny, yet vibrant, community that once stood on Money Island’s bayfront, the synergy is too late. For decades, the bayfront’s roughly two dozen homeowners complained the state had no interest in helping them save their properties from the rising water, as it did for residents on the Jersey Shore. The homes were badly damaged by Superstorm Sandy, and after resisting for years the state’s efforts to buy them out through the Blue Acres program, in 2018 the last holdouts gave in, their homes purchased and demolished.

Credit: Andrew S. Lewis
Bayfront, Money Island: The homes on Money Island’s bayfront were demolished in 2018, through the state’s Blue Acres home buyout program. The shoreline where they once stood will be the location of the project’s habitat restoration area.

“I feel sorry for the homeowners who maybe didn’t want to go,” said Hollinger, whose Bayshore roots go back generations, but he is pleased that the state has at least stepped up for the oyster industry.

He also sees the habitat restoration aspect of the project as essential. “If we did nothing, the bayfront beach was going to wash away, then the land behind it would start to meadow, and then it would hit the road,” he said. “Then we’d lose access to Money Island.”

“I think this does mark a turning point,” said Niles. “The state has done a really great job at protecting the land, but it has underinvested in these communities. I think now people are recognizing that we should be as concerned about the community as we are about the wildlife.”

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