New artificial bait developed by U of D from project funded by DNREC could reduce number of horseshoe crabs used to catch eel and whelk

LEWES (May 29, 2013) – A new alternative bait product that will help reduce the number of horseshoe crabs harvested from the Delaware Bay was introduced today. A team of University of Delaware researchers led by Dr. Nancy Targett, DuPont scientists, fisheries biologists, watermen and conservation groups were joined by DNREC Secretary Collin O’Mara to make the announcement this morning at UD’s Hugh R. Sharp Campus in Lewes. 

For years, commercial eel and whelk fishers have dealt with a dilemma: They know the best bait to attract eel and whelk, locally known as conch, is a female horseshoe crab. However, harvest limits are in place to protect the Delaware Bay’s horseshoe crab population and the threatened migratory shorebirds that depend on their eggs as a food source. Commercial fishers have long worked within these limits, dividing each bait crab into pieces to bait multiple eel or whelk pots. 

“Horseshoe crabs are an ecologically and economically important species in the Delaware Estuary, which hosts the largest concentrations of horseshoe crabs in the world,” said Governor Jack Markell. “This alternative bait is the result of a great partnership among academic researchers, scientists, government, a private corporation and the commercial fisheries industry. By working together, they have found a solution that has great economic and environmental benefits, both now and for the future of bait development.” 

“Conserving and restoring horseshoe crab populations is critical to supporting Delaware’s shorebird migration and implementing the vision of the Delaware Bayshore Initiative,” said DNREC Secretary O’Mara. “By using this new bait developed by leading scientists at the University of Delaware in partnership with DNREC, watermen will be able to reduce the number of horseshoe crabs used to catch whelk and eel, enjoy more convenient bait storage, help conserve the horseshoe crab population, and support migratory birds that depend on horseshoe crab eggs for food. I applaud my predecessor, Secretary John Hughes, and Dean Nancy Targett for their vision to launch this innovative effort, which will provide a win-win for both the economy and the environment for years to come.”

The new bait came after years of research, which was spurred in part by a surprising fact: Eel and whelk do not typically feed on adult horseshoe crabs in their natural environment, yet they find them hard to resist in baited pots. 

That disconnect intrigued Targett, director of Delaware Sea Grant, dean of UD’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment and an ecologist who studies the chemical cues that influence animal behavior in the sea. She and her research team set out to identify the mysterious “scent” that lures in eels – and come up with a bait alternative to horseshoe crabs, which have experienced population declines in recent decades. 

After years of research, Targett and her colleagues have developed a recipe for just such an artificial attractor that could help reduce the number of horseshoe crabs commercial fishermen use.

“Our hope is that this new bait will meet the fishing community’s needs and at the same time protect the horseshoe crab,” Targett said. “Delaware Sea Grant’s motto is ‘Science Serving the Delaware Coast,’ and we are grateful that so many partners shared in that spirit to move this project forward.”

Horseshoe crabs – which are actually more closely related to spiders than crabs – feed upon marine worms and small shellfish, and are fed upon by the federally threatened loggerhead sea turtle and a number of shark species. Their outer shells often support a whole community of marine life, from bacteria to blue mussels. Horseshoe crab eggs are a key part of the seasonal diet of at least seven commercially and recreationally important fish species and a host of crabs and other invertebrates. 

Each May and June, horseshoe crabs lay large numbers of these small green eggs on Delaware Bay beaches. Migratory shorebirds, such as the endangered red knot, arrive around the same time to feast on surplus eggs before continuing their long journey from South America to their Arctic breeding grounds. In about two weeks, the birds double their weight for the final non-stop leg of the trip. 

As horseshoe crab populations dropped considerably in the 1990s, so did the numbers of red knots. With the horseshoe crab decline largely attributed to their increased demand as bait in the commercial whelk pot fishery, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) established a fisheries management plan with strict harvest quotas. Since the plan was adopted, increases have been noted in segments of the horseshoe crab population. Currently, the ASMFC plan allows for harvesting a limited number of male horseshoe crabs and no harvest of female crabs in Delaware.  

With whelk as a popular seafood staple in Asia and an ingredient used domestically in chowders and fritters, demand for horseshoe crabs as bait continues to be high, particularly for female crabs, making an equally effective alternative appealing both economically and environmentally. 

To reach the goal of finding an alternative bait, Targett partnered with DuPont scientists to analyze the horseshoe crab’s chemical makeup. They identified 100 compounds in tissue samples and were able to rule out some as key components in the scent that appeals so strongly to eel and whelk. 

“We were pleased to provide the expertise of DuPont scientists, as well as business advice to make this project successful,” said Gary Spitzer, DuPont senior vice president of operations and engineering. “This is a great example of the way corporations, universities and governments can collaborate to promote sustainable solutions.” 

Concurrent with the chemical approach, Targett’s lab developed artificial bait made from alginates (compounds found in brown seaweeds and kelp), a small amount of coarsely ground horseshoe crab and food-grade chemicals including baking soda and citric acid. When mixed together, these ingredients form a quick-set gelatin that keeps for up to four days.

Compared with using half of a female horseshoe crab, which is the Delaware limit, the mixture was just as productive in catching eel using only one-eighth of a female. By substituting an invasive species, the Asian shore crab, the researchers cut that amount down to as little as one-sixteenth of a horseshoe crab. They tested catching whelk with the bait and found similarly successful results. 

In addition, despite speculation that female horseshoe crabs were better baits than males, the scientists found that artificial baits composed of males or females were equally effective. The Delaware limit is one whole male per trap or pot. 

The bait research was funded by Delaware Sea Grant, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) and DuPont Chemicals & Fluoroproducts. A faculty member at the Delaware Biotechnology Institute participated in the early stages of the research. DNREC provided logistical assistance in obtaining horseshoe crab specimens and connecting researchers with fishers. 

LaMonica Fine Foods in Millville, N.J., has started producing the bait commercially. Field tests in Delaware Bay with local whelk fishermen have been successful so far. 

“The hallmark of this bait is that everyone wins,” said Jim Roussos of LaMonica Fine Foods LLC. “This is a major step in conserving the natural resource of horseshoe crabs. The conch and eel fishermen are relieved of the pressures of buying, storing and processing horseshoe crabs. The University of Delaware has proven once again that it is a vital, important and valuable institution not only to its students but to the public at large. And commercial fisheries win when we can be conservators of public resources while maintaining our historical way of life.”

To learn more about the project and download the recipe for personal use, visit www.deseagrant.org.

For more information about pre-made bait, call Michael LaVecchia at LaMonica Fine Foods at 856-825-8111, ext. 102. 

Contact: Teresa Messmore, University of Delaware, 302-757-2245, or Joanna Wilson, DNREC Public Affairs, 302-739-9902.

Vol. 43, No. 220

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DNREC’s first beneficial-reuse marsh restoration project succeeds with thin-layer spray application

DAGSBORO (May 22, 2013) – Delaware’s first foray into beneficial-reuse marsh restoration recently twinned maintenance dredging and “thin-layer” spray application of dredge spoil material as a one-two punch for reinvigorating a faltering marsh on Pepper Creek in Dagsboro.Thin-layer application sprayed on Pepper Creek marsh at 3,000 gallons per minute. The project – a collaborative effort with the Center for Inland Bays, spearheaded by DNREC’s Division of Watershed Stewardship and entailing many other department programs – involved extensive planning, environmental permitting and the customizing of equipment for the innovative dredging and thin-layer application.

The opportunity was ripe for a thin-layer beneficial-reuse restoration project at the 47-acre site within a state wildlife area on Piney Point in Sussex County. Upland dredge spoil disposal sites used in the past are filling up, and also can be costly to lease and maintain. The alternative of applying dredge material back onto tidal wetlands  supplies wetlands with extra sediment that helps maintain surface elevations above rising sea levels. Wetlands also use the nutrients in the supplemental material to increase plant cover and surface stability. The maintenance dredge in the navigation channel at the marsh pumping dredge spoil to the spray system.

Thin-layer disposal has been successfully deployed along the Gulf Coast for tidal marsh restoration to treat deteriorating areas, but never before in Delaware. At Pepper Creek, thin-layer dredge disposal applied sediment in the form of silt slurry to the marsh surface by pumping dredge material through a specially-constructed pipeline and spray-nozzle system. Specialized equipment for the project – to transport the dredged material from the main barge in the navigation channel to the shoreline – included flexible piping and a pivoting nozzle mounted on a mini-barge that can be moved along the marsh edge and up channels to extend the reach of sprayed material.

DNREC Secretary Collin O’Mara noted that the thin-layer project at Pepper Creek marsh simultaneously fulfilled multiple objectives for the state and was a model for environmental cooperation. “By working together across the agency and with the Center for the Inland Bays, the Pepper Creek project achieved department goals, at the same time improving boating safety, preserving wildlife habitat, restoring critical wetlands and improving water quality,” he said. “Adopting this innovative approach will significantly improve the environmental outcome for the marsh and other restoration sites, at a fraction of the cost of the traditional way of doing business.”

DNREC had disparate goals at the marsh restoration site, all of which complemented thin-layer beneficial-reuse application. The Shoreline & Waterway Management Section needed to explore alternatives for disposing of material from maintenance dredging. The Watershed Assessment Section has long been interested in the potential of thin-layer application for improving coastal wetlands. DNREC’s Division of Fish & Wildlife has a vested interest in preparing its wildlife areas for sea level rise by way of maintaining important coastal habitat. The Division of Water’s Wetlands and Subaqueous Lands Section was keen on researching the dredge and spray technique to support their permit reviews. Meanwhile, DNREC’s Delaware Coastal Programs lent support during planning and permitting phases, while the Center for Inland Bays was a major partner throughout the project. The CIB also supplied funding for a portion of the pipeline needed on Pepper Creek and continues to monitor aspects of it while helping with planning for future projects using the thin-layer technique.

“This thin-layer project delivered ecological benefits through a collaborative process,” said Frank Piorko, director, DNREC Division of Watershed Stewardship. “Our wetlands science team provided funding and program direction for a shoreline assessment performed by the Center for the Inland Bays. DNREC’s Shoreline & Waterway Management staff provided technical and operations expertise and support to modify equipment, explore a new beneficial use of sediment as a demonstration effort, and the entire team now looks forward to monitoring this location and moving forward in a new direction for waterway management.” 

DNREC’s research crew originally selected the thin-layer spray disposal site along Pepper Creek because it is adjacent to the dredging project and was deemed in need of restoration. Highly-sensitive equipment for measuring surface elevation found it to have lower elevation than other tidal wetlands in the Inland Bays, and therefore more vulnerable to rising sea levels. If tidal wetlands cannot accrue or accrete sediment quickly enough to keep pace with water levels, a marsh will eventually convert to open water. Coastal wetlands can also migrate inland slowly if the shoreline is unobstructed by manmade materials.

The silt slurry was sprayed on the marsh at approximately 3,000 gallons per minute. The slurry was composed of approximately 85-90 percent water with sediment particles suspended in the water. Part of the planning effort involved anticipating potential runoff and reduced water clarity. As a precaution, the team also installed sediment traps in the major wetland guts and ditches using hay bales and straw logs secured with wooden stakes. The traps allowed water to flow past during the tide cycles and did not cutoff fish passage, but caught and held sediment particles until they could settle out of the water column. Work on the project also adhered to state and federal permit conditions that called for avoiding negative impacts to fisheries and marsh dwelling species.

DNREC applied up to 6 inches of sediment to the large emergent wetland. With each tide cycle, the applied material dispersed across the marsh surface, leaving an even layer that will settle over the next few months. The areas of marsh where the work was conducted were monitored daily and found to be accreting uniformly at acceptable levels.

 Small areas where grasses were knocked down by force of the sprayer will be replanted in time for the summer growing season. Site monitoring for detailed indicators such as plant cover, surface elevation and below-ground root volume will continue for two years.  Results gathered from the Pepper Creek project will be used to support similar projects in the future.

 Contact: Michael Globetti, DNREC Public Affairs, 302-739-9902

Vol. 43, No. 212

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Stretch of beach at Cape Henlopen State Park closed to safeguard nesting piping plovers

LEWES (May 21, 2013) – The first piping plover nest of the season at Gordons Pond Beach in Cape Henlopen State Park has been discovered, with the parents-to-be defending their territory, DNREC Wildlife Biologist Matthew Bailey announced on Monday afternoon. The nest was found late last week, and when last observed, contained three eggs.

To minimize disturbances to the tiny endangered shorebirds, a half-mile stretch of beach between the Observation Towers and the Herring Point crossover was closed to the public today with signs, twine and PVC stakes to mark the area.

“Closing off plover nesting areas is an established protocol every year at Cape Henlopen, and this closing is in the typical area that beachgoers are accustomed to,” said Bailey, who serves as coordinator of the Division of Fish and Wildlife’s Piping Plover Protection Program. “The area will remain closed until the last of our plover chicks are fledged, usually in late August.”

Meanwhile, on the Point at Cape Henlopen, a total of five nesting pairs of piping plovers have been seen. One nest has failed, but four others have parents incubating eggs, including a female with bands on her legs.

“We don’t want to disturb the pair at the beginning of their nesting cycle, but we are confident that we will have good opportunity to further observe this female, get a full reading of the band combination and then report it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which tracks endangered species,” Bailey said. The band information will tell who did the banding and hopefully provide access to some of her background, he added.

In other beachnesting bird news, three pairs of American oystercatchers have set up nesting territories on the Point, and a pair has been seen making nest scrapes at Gordons Pond. Large numbers of least terns also are congregating on the shores of Gordons Pond but have not yet started to defend nesting territory.

For more information on piping plovers and volunteer opportunities, please contact Matt Bailey, Division of Fish and Wildlife, at 302-382-4151 or email matthew.bailey@delaware.gov.

Contact: Joanna Wilson, DNREC Public Affairs, 302-739-9902

Vol. 43, No. 211

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State awarded $1 million federal grant to protect critical lands in the Delaware Bayshore

DOVER – More than 800 acres of valuable coastal lands in the Delaware Bayshore, will be conserved and protected thanks to a federal grant awarded to DNREC’s Division of Fish and Wildlife. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s North American Wetlands Conservation Act award of $1 million will be used, along with matching funds from the state Open Space Program, conservation partners and private contributors, to acquire property along the Bayshore in Kent County.  Nearly ten conservation partners have pledged matching funds that helped to make the grant award possible.

Our appreciation to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, our Congressional Delegation and our partners for their tireless efforts in protecting our precious Bayshore lands and providing access to premier Bayshore habitat,” said Governor Jack Markell.  “By conserving this land, we can offer world-class outdoor experiences supporting ecotourism, helping to ensure a diverse natural legacy for future generations.”

The grant and support from critical partners will conserve lands that will fill a gap in a network of more than 4,000 acres of protected wetlands and uplands in the St. Jones River watershed. The conservation of these lands is a key priority of the Delaware Bayshore Initiative that protects coastal wetlands and globally significant wildlife habitat and expands public access and low-impact recreational opportunities. The conserved lands will provide opportunities for hunting, fishing, birding and other wildlife watching, photography and nature study activities.

“We are extremely grateful for the generous financial support of Mt. Cuba Center and the hard work of DNREC’s team in securing this important grant that will help preserve critical lands along the Delaware Bayshore,” said Richie Jones, state director of The Nature Conservancy’s Delaware Chapter.

Delaware’s matching cost share for the grant is anticipated to be about $2.2 million in Open Space Program Funds and partner contributions. Partners include: Mt. Cuba Center; The Nature Conservancy, Delaware Chapter; Ducks Unlimited; Delaware Wild Lands; Delmarva Ornithological Society; DuPont Company; the Town of Bowers Beach and Mayor Ron Hunsicker; Delaware Greenways; and Kent County Conservancy.

“Delaware’s Bayshore is a precious environmental resource and it is vital that we act as good stewards to protect and preserve these important areas for generations to come,” said Senator Tom Carper. “Striking a balance between economic development and environmental protection for Delaware’s coast has been a guiding principle that has proven successful for the First State, and I hope our approach can be a model for other coastal states.”

“Delaware’s majestic wetlands are a source of great beauty and pride in our state and it’s important that we protect them for future generations to enjoy,” Senator Chris Coons said. “With this federal grant, DNREC, the Mt. Cuba Center, The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, Delaware Wild Lands, the Delmarva Ornithological Society, and many other private conservation organizations have significantly advanced the Delaware Bayshore Initiative. The nearly 800 acres that will be acquired will link some of the most beautiful pieces of coastal Delaware, and the land will allow sportsmen, sportswomen and farmers in the future to continue enjoying this undeveloped corner of land.”

“Delaware is blessed with a beautiful natural habitat that draws residents and visitors from across the region.  It is our responsibility to care for this resource and preserve areas like the Bayshore for future generations to enjoy,” said Congressman John Carney.  “Thanks to this federal funding, the support of DNREC, and many other partners throughout the state, we can meet this challenge, while supporting the businesses in our ecotourism industry.  I’m glad to see this project is moving forward and excited for more people to discover the tremendous beauty that’s right in our backyard.”

The Delaware Bayshore Initiative builds on the state’s long-standing commitment to conserving our coastal zone and on the Delaware Bayshore’s reputation as a unique and beautiful natural resource, worthy of protection. The Initiative received national recognition as one of 100 projects included in the U.S. Department of Interior’s America’s Great Outdoors 50-State Report highlighting some of the country’s most promising ways to reconnect Americans to nature. Launched last May at an event in Slaughter Beach, former U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called the Delaware Bayshore a “landscape of national significance.”

“This North American Wetlands Conservation Act grant builds upon a half-century of public-private partnerships that have conserved more than 115,000 acres along the Delaware Bayshore,” said DNREC Secretary Collin O’Mara. “By leveraging federal, state and private resources to meet the goals of the Delaware Bayshore Initiative, we are connecting wildlife areas and enhancing ways for the public to experience our precious natural lands.”

Lands that will be conserved include coastal salt marshes that provide important year-round habitat for waterfowl like American Black Duck as well as nesting habitat for Saltmarsh Sparrow, Seaside Sparrow and Black Rail, a species of high regional importance. Much of the East Coast’s population of the Red Knot feed along central Bayshore beaches during spring migrations and will benefit from protected roosting habitat resulting from this federal grant and key partner contributions. The Bayshore’s coastal forests and wetlands also provide valuable foraging and resting habitat for songbirds during spring and fall migrations.

“Ducks Unlimited is excited to partner with the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife and others on the Delaware Bayshore Land Conservation Initiative,” said Ducks Unlimited (DU) Regional Biologist Jake McPherson.  “The acquisition of significant coastal wetlands into the existing state lands network not only ensures quality habitat for migrating and wintering waterfowl, but also offers increased recreational opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts; both of which are imperative to DU’s mission.”

“The natural beauty, abundant open space, and diversity of habitat along Delaware’s coasts are the result of a long-standing tradition and generations of dedicated commitment to land conservation,” said Kate Hackett, executive director of Delaware Wild Lands. “The award of this highly-competitive federal grant highlights the critical importance of protecting Delaware’s coastal resources and exemplifies what can be achieved when public and private interests work together. Delaware Wild Lands is pleased to work in close partnership with the state and others to protect nearly 800 acres of crucial wildlife habitat, expand networks of conserved lands and natural resources, and foster a greater appreciation and awareness of the defining natural beauty and character of Delaware’s coastal resources.”

“Delmarva Ornithological Society is proud to join the State of Delaware and other partners in supporting the Delaware Bayshore Land Conservation Initiative,” said Society President Matthew Sarver. “The society’s many volunteers raise thousands of dollars for bird conservation through our annual Bird-A-Thon event.  We are pleased to see these hard-earned donations leveraging significant funding for conservation of our coastal marshes, including many bird species most threatened by loss of habitat to sea level rise.  We need to invest now in land conservation to ensure the Delaware Bayshore continues to provide the resources that these birds need into the future.”

The Delaware grant was part of $19.5 million in grants announced today by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe awarded through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act. The funding will support 18 U.S. projects in 15 states and seven projects in Mexico that will protect, restore, or enhance more than 170,000 acres of habitat for migratory birds. The grants will be matched by $57 million in partner contributions.

“Protection of wetlands ensures that hunters, anglers, and wildlife watchers and photographers can continue to enjoy these precious resources,” Director Ashe said.  “Wildlife recreationists make up nearly 30 percent of the U.S. population and contribute more than $100 billion to our economy.”

The North American Wetlands Conservation Act is the only federal grant program dedicated to the conservation of wetland habitats for migratory birds. Through the Act’s U.S. Standard Grants Program, 3,300 partners have been involved in 910 projects affecting more than 7 million acres of habitat.

For more information on the Delaware Bayshore Initiative, contact Karen Bennett, Delaware Bayshore Initiative Coordinator at 302-739-9124 or visit DNREC’s website by clicking Delaware Bayshore.

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This project is part of DNREC’s Delaware Bayshore Initiative, a landscape approach to restore and protect fish and wildlife habitat, increase volunteer participation in habitat stewardship projects, enhance low-impact outdoor recreation and ecotourism opportunities, and promote associated environmentally compatible economic development.


DNREC Falcon Cam update: Four chicks, all fit and outfitted with bands for future flight and fate

The 2013 DNREC Wilmington Falcon Cam chicks sporting new bands - Photo: Craig Koppie/US Fish & Wildlife ServiceWILMINGTON (May 15, 2013) – The four peregrine falcon chicks given starring roles on the DNREC Falcon Cam  – sponsored by the Delaware Ornithological Society and DuPont’s Clear Into the Future initiative – were outfitted for their own ornithological future this week. They were banded Tuesday by the US Fish & Wildlife Service so as to enable the gathering of biological and biographical data from them as they spread their wings into adulthood.

USFWS raptor biologist Craig Koppie gave the chicks colorful leg-bands Tuesday that will further knowledge about the regional peregrine population. Resightings of banded birds has provided valuable information on their movements, ancestry and adaptability to changing environments. “This data becomes even more important when we consider that the peregrine, once an endangered species, now inhabits more urban and suburban areas than natural cliff sites where it once resided,” said DNREC Division of Fish & Wildlife biologist Anthony Gonzon. “Resightings of these colored and numbered bands help us to identify individual birds that may have travelled several hundred miles from their birthplaces to new nesting locations.”

The fourth chick born from this year’s clutch to Red Girl, the female adult peregrine on the DNREC Falcon Cam, is on the right in the photo – and is the only chick not yet displaying colorful downy feathers. The chick hatched more than two days after its siblings. Facing a perilous possibility of survival because of its late arrival, the chick was removed from the nest box on the 19th floor of the Brandywine Building by Mr. Koppie, nurtured by him for two weeks, then returned to the nest box where it has since thrived.

CONTACT:  Michael Globetti, DNREC Public Affairs, 302-739-9902, or Bill Stewart, Delaware Ornithological Society, email: bird-del@earthlink.net

Photo: USFWS/Craig Koppie

Vol. 43, No. 197