sustainable land use, wildlife conservation

Why does the Delaware Bay lack identity?

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I have been working on Delaware Bay for decades, and increasingly I ask the question, “why does Delaware Bay have no identity to the people of this region and what are the consequences?”  I was reminded of this once again, while writing my blog entry on the Atlantic Sturgeon (see here), because of the odd conclusion of the writers of the sturgeon’s Federal Status Assessment.  In that Assessment, the scientists studying the sturgeon repeatedly stated that the Delaware Bay was the heart of the Atlantic Sturgeon population.  Before it’s decades-long crash, over 75% of the east coast catch of sturgeon came from Delaware Bay.  Yet when the same scientists decided on regions of importance for the sturgeon population, they identified five and lumped the Delaware Bay into a “NY Bight” region which includes every sturgeon population from Cape Cod, MA, to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia (the Chesapeake Bay has it’s own region).   They did this despite their own estimate that the Delaware Bay sturgeon population is declining faster than any other population and has a 50% chance of extinction in the next 20 years.  Leroy Parker painting of an Atlantic Sturgeon entered into the “Save Our Sturgeon” contest conducted by the American Littoral Society

The same lack of recognition is embedded in most scientific and conservation initiatives.  Many years ago, when the bald eagle recovery effort was still nascent, the Delaware Bay eagle population was at first considered a part of the Chesapeake, then the NY region, but never its own.   But this lack of recognition goes further than scientific and bureaucratic geography.  There are few books about the Delaware Bay — except for a few personal narratives — while there are bookshelves of books written about the Chesapeake Bay, Cape Cod Bay, Long Island Sound, Gulf of Maine and other places of distinction.   For some reason, the Delaware Bay is a forgotten place with virtually no identify and no “branding”.  Why?

Certainly not because it lacks historical, economic or ecological importance.  I am writing a book on the Delaware Bay right now and have been doing considerable research on all three subjects.  It has a rich history starting with Dutch and Swedish settlers in the early 1600’s  to WWII German subs sinking Allied ships on the Atlantic ocean miles from the Bay’s mouth.  It drains a prosperous region, the Delaware River valley, who’s history is unquestionably one of the richest in the country.  The Bay’s ports are among the most prosperous in the country from Cape May, which has the 4th largest fishery income nationwide, to its oil refining capacity– the Bay is the second busiest oil transport waterway in the country.

Historic town of Mauricetown on Maurice River.

Is the Bay’s wildness its own undoing? Although it is a struggle, the Delaware Bay is an intact natural ecosystem despite being located in the middle of the most dense populations of the country.  Unlike the Chesapeake or Long Island Sound, there are no rich estates on the bayshore because its expansive marshes leave few places to build.  The wildlife and plant diversity is extraordinary earning it various distinctions from being one of the Nature Conservancy’s Last Great Places to a United Nation’s RAMSAR site.  The Bay was the first site of Hemispheric Importance for migratory shorebirds designated under the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network.

Many will point to the abundant bugs as diminishing the Bay’s value.  Its true that biting insects, from greenheads to mosquitoes, rule the bayshore at various times of the year. But biting insects are the bane of every wild area, from Maine’s downeast islands to the lazy coastal estates of southern South Carolina and Georgia.  The biting insects are more a sign of a healthy system than a reason to not value the system.

The answer may lie with the people who live along the Bay. The region is among the poorest in the state — Cumberland County, NJ, struggled with high unemployment long before the big recession which only made it worse.  You can’t blame people fighting to stay solvent for not valuing the ecological treasure that literally laps at their feet.  This is especially true when conservation, more often than not, comes in the form of government agencies and non-profit groups buying up land without regard to the impact to the community.

But this failure to understand value contributes to the many problems of the region.   Without identity, the products of this landscape, from fruit and vegetables to seafood, cannot compete with the products from places with identity, like “The Chesapeake Bay blue claws”. What is more famous than a Jersey tomato, and yet this year I watched most the of the Bay region’s Jersey tomatoes end up in open tractor trailers presumably bound for canning — being smashed into a pulp for juice or soup.  That is in stark contrast to farms surrounding San Francisco Bay that have branded their farm products into some of the most sought-after and expensive agricultural commodities in the country. “Jersey Tomatoes” heading for the cannery.

If the people of the Bay don’t see value in the product that comes from a functioning ecosystem, then who will?  Is this at the heart of the many problems of the Bay: the depletion of fish species, the destruction of a world-class migratory bird stopover,  the conversion of farmlands from high-profit vegetables to low-profit grains?  If so, maybe conservationists are fighting the wrong battle.  Maybe we should help create value from the abundance of this bountiful land and then conservation will come more naturally.

Geese over the Cohansey River Marsh looking out to the bay