SLAUGHTER BEACH, Delaware — With many Delawarens flocking to the beaches of Rehoboth and Dewey this time of year, one of the state’s lesser-known beach towns is experiencing a tourism boom.
For some, the horseshoe crabs, red knots and other wildlife of Slaughter Beach trump the shops, boardwalk and nightlife.
A town with just two businesses, the North Sussex county spot is seeing a surge in visitors interested in ecotourism, according to Mayor Bob Wood, who said its popularity is unlike anything he has seen since he lives there.
Wood, a Baltimore native, bought a house in Slaughter Beach with his wife in December 1999, vacationing at the house before moving there permanently in 2016. He said that while the town has gentrified in over the years, the recent increase in ecotourists reflects an early boom in the region’s history.
It recalled the time when the city was incorporated in the 1930s.
“You have to think there was no Bay Bridge back then, and Rehoboth was really still a religious destination back then. In Slaughter Beach there were hotels, a dance hall, a boardwalk where people in that area wanted to go,” Wood said.
“People came to visit Slaughter Beach during this time, but as Rehoboth comes, the Bay Bridge comes and Ocean City [Maryland] becoming more and more popular, our beach has become that type of sleepy fishing village again.”
The town of 250 people, founded in 1681 and incorporated in 1931, has remained such a destination for ecotourists who visit year-round. Wood said that during the summer Slaughter can see 800 to 900 visitors at any one time and he has noticed more day trippers over the past year than ever before.
Sixteen residents rent out their homes during the summer, Wood said, speculating that many ecotourists use those accommodations.
The mayor first became aware of the increase in this tourism as the calendar approached the mating season for horseshoe crabs, usually between May and June. He said that while walking around town, he noticed all the rentals were full and some visitors had set up campsites.
After speaking with the locals, he learned that the campers were bird enthusiasts, looking for some of the area’s most notable shorebirds, such as sanderlings, semipalmated sandpipers and red knots.
“The ecosystem of this region is quite unique. Each species works together and plays its part, as horseshoe crabs will bring knots, sanderlings and other shorebirds. Horseshoe crabs and red knots are the rock stars, but ultimately people come here to see nature,” Wood said.
While there will always be an audience for the city’s wildlife, he said the increase in ecotourism could be attributed to recent efforts to protect the environment at Slaughter Beach.
In August 2021, a study by the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Finance found that Delaware’s Mispillion and Cedar Creek watersheds – which encompass much of the Milford and Slaughter Beach area – provide millions of dollars to nearby communities and their residents through wildlife viewing and outdoor recreation. . Specifically, the report states that Abbott’s Mill Nature Center in Milford generated up to $6.3 million annually from visitor activity and that wildlife activity at Slaughter Beach generated more. of a million dollars.
The study was conducted by The Pew Charitable Trusts in conjunction with the Waterways Infrastructure & Investment Network, which aims to capitalize on the economic value of the two watersheds by exploring investments to protect them and encourage ecotourism. The network is made up of Resilient and Sustainable Communities League stakeholders, including Delaware Sea Grant, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, and the Delaware Department of Transportation.
WIIN will develop management plans and potential investments to protect the area from hazards created by climate change, such as reduced coastlines that increase the risk of flooding. These projects will be funded by a federal grant provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and will match dollars from Delaware Sea Grant, The Pew Charitable Trusts and others, totaling more than $220,000.
For Danielle Swallow, Delaware Sea Grant coastal risk expert and WIIN project manager, the support of Delaware Sea Grant and other RASCL partners will be a big help.
“All of our work is about supporting the capacity of Delaware communities and undertaking planning to be more resilient to weather and climate change. We talk about capacity building. Milford and Slaughter Beach are relatively small towns in Delaware, and when you have a town like Slaughter Beach, where it’s mostly benevolent government, they don’t have the ability to get major federal grants and implement projects, so RASCL and WIIN go a long way in bringing partners to the table to help,” she said.
The area surrounding the Mispillion and Cedar Creek watersheds — which cover nearly 130 miles of the state’s coastline — is one of the largest stretches of undisturbed natural resources in Delaware, Swallow added. And in addition to being a sanctuary for horseshoe crabs, Slaughter Beach is in the path of an internationally recognized flyway for migrating birds, which feast on the eggs of these animals.
Swallow said it was important to secure funding to build resilience to climate change, as well as to encourage economic opportunity in the region through nature. In Milford, this includes capitalizing on the Mispillion River by expanding the community and inviting commercial development. In Slaughter, initiatives focus on environmentally friendly investing.
She said WIIN not only looks at typical economic indicators, but also at the intrinsic values that the ecosystem brings to communities like Slaughter Beach.
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After considering these factors, a variety of environmentally friendly investments will be considered, such as more kayak launches on the Mispillion River, a more consistent cycle path between Milford and Slaughter Beach, bird watching platforms in cities and environmentally friendly businesses, Swallow said.
The stewardship of residents in these small communities shows how much Delawares cares about the state’s wildlife and natural resources, she added.
“We are a conduit to demonstrate the value and the opportunity that exists to further invest in Slaughter Beach and the region, as there will be a great return on investment if we protect these natural resources,” Swallow said.
“In towns like Slaughter Beach, they are very, very environmentally conscious. They really care about wildlife; they will flip horseshoe crabs when needed and they will maintain the health of their resources. There’s a certain way of life that people in these communities really want to protect, and I think it’s important for us to always try to support these small towns and the rich natural resources that surround them.
According to Wood, while Slaughter isn’t teeming with tourists, it offers a different encounter that vacationers won’t get anywhere else.
“It’s a different vibe, that’s for sure. It is another type of relaxation; some people like to go out on the boardwalk or party, while others like to watch nature. There’s nothing wrong with it either, but it gives people the opportunity to see the natural beauty of our state,” he said.
“You can have a different experience at Slaughter Beach, and I think people have realized that when you think of beaches in Delaware, it’s not just Thrasher’s, Dolle’s and Candy Kitchen.”