SEA ISLE CITY, N.J. - Bobby McKeefery, assistant chief of public works in this beach town, is getting an education this year - in seaweed.
As in why seaweed may be a good thing to leave on the beach and not just another affront to Jersey sunbathers to be mechanically raked up with the day's other beach trash.
Truthfully, he's still a bit skeptical.
"We're learning new things every day," McKeefery said. "I guess there's bugs that are eating up the seaweed. The sanderlings and plovers are eating up the bugs. We're learning about the marine food chain. We need to be made more aware of it. We're all suspect of it."
Like public works bosses in other Jersey Shore towns, McKeefery knows his audience: beachgoers who expect to find their beaches mechanically manicured, sifted and raked free of all debris, natural or not.
"There's a lot of highfalutin Gwynnedd Valley types, with their $100 beach chairs, and they don't want to be sitting next to seaweed," he said. "They see a crab shell, and they think it's filthy and that we don't clean the beach. The natural thing? I think it's going to be a hard sell."
This year, spurred by biologists' concerns about preserving shorebirds' nesting habitats and about the disappearance of the birds' natural foods, new state regulations are in place to restrict where towns can rake.
The state rules identify specific sites where piping plovers and least terns are expected to nest. Raking is barred in those areas from April 1 to Aug. 15. The rules also limit raking to 100 yards on either side of lifeguard stands, the designated "recreational beach areas."
Beyond those boundaries, the state hopes, towns will ease up on the grooming practices that result in nothing-but-sand beaches: no shells, no seaweed, what environmentalist Dery Bennett calls "white-bread beaches."
Mark Mauriello, a coastal planner with the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the new rules were a result of observations over the last five years.
The "wrack line" - a prime shorebird feeding zone along the high-tide line that includes crab bits, egg casings, marsh vegetation and seaweed - was being obliterated by the mechanical raking that is such a fixture on Jersey beaches, Mauriello said.
"The biologists were observing that more and more beaches were absolutely sterile in terms of this material," he said. "We wanted to strike some balance between raking the beaches, which we understand is important to the towns, and protecting some of that habitat."
In addition to providing shorebird food, the wrack line helps fortify the beach itself.
"The stuff that washes up on the beach at the high-tide line includes a lot of seeds from beach vegetation," Bennett said. "This is the way it spreads. That is habitat and also a natural way to form dunes."
In some towns, that 100-yard rule is being loosely interpreted, at best. In Ventnor, where some consider even dunes an unsightly inconvenience, public works director David Smith said he would continue to rake the entire beach. He is measuring the 100 yards in the other direction - from the ocean toward the boardwalk.
The public would "hang me up" if he cut back on raking, he said.
"Every block, we have people on the beach," he said. "They expect the beach to be maintained. The birds are not going to migrate where the people are, anyway."
`They want it all pristine'
"In New England, they don't do anything and people walk in the seaweed. At the Jersey Shore, people don't like that. People are from out of town; they want it all pristine. People complain to me about shells on the beach," Smith said.
In other towns, such as Avalon, which has been in the forefront of identifying nesting areas and cutting back on raking, the rules echo arrangements already in place.
State Fish and Wildlife biologist Dave Jenkins has worked with those towns to identify nesting sites and install fencing to keep people and rakers out. The state has identified 28 beach nesting locations that will be off-limits to rakers until Aug. 15.
"I think there will be places," Jenkins said, "where it will be a wake-up call for some people, the towns who thought they didn't have beach-nesting birds or thought they could do whatever they want."
In general, though, he said, the rules were designed to allow towns to continue raking heavily used beaches. And, he said, the state would understand the need to rake in the event of "a washup of a large amount of stuff," such as clams or black seaweed.
In Sea Isle, beach raker Jerry "Jerry Rut" Rutledge said he is always on the lookout for piping plovers. He said the beach-cleaning crew would alert their boss, who would alert the state biologists, about possible nesting sites for the endangered shorebird.
"When we find where they're at, we'll let that go unraked," he said.
Jenkins and Harry deButts, Avalon's public works director, have tried to figure out how to block off a plover nesting area and still have room for a designated area for catamarans. Avalon considers the stretch of beach from 42nd to 60th streets a potential nesting area.
"We used to rake the whole seven miles, the whole thing," deButts said. "If you look at our beaches, tell me where you see a more natural environment."
But even in Avalon - where signs explain that plover nesting sites and natural dunes are the norm - the unraked beach can be a tough sell.
"I think it would be nicer if it were clean," said Susan Hirtle, 18, of St. Davids, Pa., as she sunbathed on the still unraked beach. "When you're playing football, you're stepping on things."