Protection only partly done

Mark Peck of Royal Ontario Museum scans shorebirds on the Delaware BayshoreA few days ago Mark Peck and I did a shorebird survey by boat that took us to all the nooks and crannies of NJ’s Delaware Bayshore. Leaving Smokey’s Marina at Reed’s Beach, we took our 16 ft Carolina Skiff all the way to Gandys Beach on the upper Bay.   It was a stunning journey .  One can’t help but admire the results of decades of conservation that led to this mostly protected and wild shoreline.   A map of the Delaware Bayshore showing the vast tidal and non tidal wetlands. In NJ these areas are protected. The legend refers to lands that are likely or not likely to be protected from the impact of sea level rise

When seen from the sea the bayshore is a wilderness of marsh and forest with only a few small towns.  I am always amazed that this wonderful bit of wild land lies smack in the center of the of one of the most densely populated places in the nation. From Bidwells Creek to Salem Creek, nearly all the bayshore is permanently protected.  All-in-all it’s glorious achievement, a gift to our children and grandchildren. 

This should not be forgotten in the battle to save this migratory shorebird stopover.  The chief problem for horseshoe crabs and shorebirds is not the destruction of habitat but an incompetent fishery management system that, oddly, manages to create a poverty of fish in one of the most productive waters in the world.   Thankfully, the habitat is protected so the bay’s bounty can always create a productive fishery if it was managed with wise care and judicious harvests.

But the conservation of the bay and its resources is thwarted by another serious problem, itself another form of correctable incompetence.    At the end of our boat survey we decided to have breakfast at Higbee’s Lunchenette in Fortescue.  Fortescue is the only town large enough to have restaurants on the bay and Higbee’s is the place to get lunch.   The place is rich with the history of the bay and the owner, Betty Higbee,is a wealth of information.  She has even published a book on Fortescue, Around Fortescue, that I recommend highly to truly understand how bad a blow this town has been dealt. Betty Higbee at Higbee’s Luncheonette

I asked the waitress at the restaurant why they have no bathrooms, only porta-potties.  She said “we did once but we were the only public bathroom in town and the town has no sewage system, so we had to pump out our septic tank every other day.  At $300 bucks a pop we couldn’t afford it. “

In one sentence this women told the long, sad story of this town.  Like other towns on the Bay, Fortescue was once a thriving community. I discussed the collapse of the economy of Fortescue previously on this blog focusing on the collapse of the weakfish fishery.

But the second problem is the short-sightedness of environmental policy that failed to provide sewage treatment and water for this town.  How can anyone expect to have a thriving town when the basic components of prosperity are absent?

The answer is, that was the intention.   It’s a variant of “starve the beast” policy of conservative ideologues.  Our current environmental policy, a reaction to 30 years of unfettered development, hopes to stop unsustainable development by stopping all development and buying as much land as possible before it can be developed.  This policy led to the stunning protection of the bayshore that I so admired in our boat journey up the bay and created much good for animals, plants and the people of the state.  But not for the people of Delaware Bay rural communities.  These people are suffering staggering job losses and unemployment, and this “starve the beast” environmental policy is part of it.   We environmentalists must take a hard look at the impact of current policy on this and other rural economies.  Aerial view of Fortescue, the town is an Island isolated by the bay and extensive marshes.

In this case a sewage plant in Fortescue would be wise environmental policy.   Yes, there will be more development, but it would be restricted to an area defined by the sea.  A good plan for development that takes advantage of the colorful history of Fortescue would help everyone, property values would increase for all, new jobs would be created with new service businesses.  The town would be revitalized.  In this way people from  all over could explore the bayshore and stay in Fortescue instead of Wildwood or Cape May (who, incidentally, have sewer service).  

It’s time to change environmental policy for the sake of the Delaware Bayshore.  Done wisely a new policy initiative that creates wealth for local people would inspire conservation from the bottom up.  In the end, this may be the best path toward sustainable conservation. 

what we still don’t know

Our work here on Delaware Bay has gone into hyper drive.  Surveys nearly everyday just after dawn, then trapping  and scanning the rest of the day.  As with all other years, Mandy and I are indebted to the volunteers that have come to the bay from nearby and those from South America, Australia, Great Britain.  This year we even had a volunteer from Kenya, Chege Wa KariukiPart of our banding team having dinner

The knots have voted with their wings throughout the month.  First in New Jersey, then to Delaware, then back again all in the search of the best feeding conditions for eggs. The birds (and us) have been blessed with settled weather again this year, the third in as many years.   The birds are gaining weights at good rates, and we hope to see at least a modestly-successful departure (however, at a population level that is as much as 90% below historic levels).

The settled weather has helped overcome the lack of any improvement in the number of breeding crabs and eggs.  This cannot last long – truly something needs to be done to avoid tragedy in coming years.  Since 1997, when our intensive study first began, we have had weather that has stopped horseshoe crab egg laying for as long as a week, in all but the last three years.   These last three years of settled weather masks the lack of improvement in crabs as does the tragically low number of shorebirds which reduces demand.The number of mature horseshoe crabs in a survey trawl done by Virginia Tech. The graphs is sanctioned by the Atlantic States Marine Fish Commission and shows no improvement over the last 6 years.

 With no improvement in crab numbers and egg densities a bad year would be a disaster for the birds. We need more crabs to overcome these natural variations in suitable breeding weather and to do this we need to stop the harvest, stop the bleeding of female crabs and significantly reduce bleeding mortality overall until there is a responsible solution to the lack of recovery.  Doing anything else at this stage is irresponsible.

On a more positive note we have recaptured four red knots with geolocators.   The early mapping from the birds is as stunning as the birds I’ve reported about here and there.  We are trying to catch long-distance migrant red knots with geolocators because we have so few, but yesterday we caught a Florida wintering knot that told an intriguing ecological storyRed knot 2AX with a geolocator.

Ever since the early days of work on red knot (the Brits call it “knottery”) here in the US, the prevailing theory held that Florida winterers bred in a different location then those wintering in Tierra del Fuego.  It stood to reason because TDF birds were slightly smaller and their molt schedule was different.  Red knots flying to TDF molt their flight feathers in TDF while birds wintering Florida and other southeast areas tend to molt on the way to the wintering area.  Ultimately, this means distinct breeding populations; otherwise these morphological differences could not be maintained.  The guess was short-distance birds bred west of the TDF birds in the Canadian ArcticA preliminary map of the track recorded by red knot 2AX’s geolocator ( map by Ron Porter)

But the red knot 2AX (its leg flag id) wintered in Indian Shores, Florida, came to Delaware Bay then bred on Southampton Island, Nunuvut, exactly in the same place where two TDF winterers with geolocators bred.

How can two morphologically distinct populations breed in the same area?  How do they maintain separateness in the same place?  The geolocators have shown us much, but most of all they are showing us what we don’t know of one of the most studied birds on the planet. 

new season on Delaware Bay

Curlew Sandpipers have been the great attraction of the Heislerville Impoundments but they are of great value to marsh shorebirds as a roosting area at high tide. Photo by D WelchThe red knots of Delaware Bay have returned and with them the NJ shorebird banding team.  Over the last few days, we and the DE team have counted about 3,500 knot, mostly in Delaware’s Mispillion Harbor, but about 500 in the Reeds Beach area.   We estimate only a small number of ruddy turnstones and sanderlings in the bay but NJ Audubon’s David Mizrahi reports nearly 25,000 semipalmated sandpipers and semipalmated plovers, short billed dowitchers and other species in the Heislerville impoundments.    We are still in the beginning of the season.

Two issues tower above all this season.  The first is the number of birds in the bay.   There is solid evidence of population declines in the wintering areas and the big question for our team is whether  declines will be reflected in the Delaware Bay counts.  I’ve written on the declines before, but its safe to say for a number of species, red knots, ruddy turnstone and semipalmated sandpipers the future is by no means secure.









Tierra del Fuego








Florida west coast








Texas, Mustang Is.








SE United States *










The second big question is what to do about the harvest of crabs.  All of the crab surveys of the previous year point to no improvement in the number of crabs or the density of eggs.  The reasons are at first obvious, the crab harvest has remained unchanged despite a moratorium in NJ and severe reductions in harvest in DE.  Why?  Because more crabs were taken by adjacent states. 


So the question of the harvest of crabs in other states is central to the recovery of the bays crabs.  Agency biologists are tossing around the question of whether crabs taken outside the Delaware Bay are actually Delaware bay breeders.   For example, the technical team of the ASMFC is now suggesting crabs harvested just off the tiny coast of MD and only a 20 miles south of the mouth of the bay are from another unknown breeding area. The first estimate based on a tortured data set was that only 13% of Maryland’s crabs were of Delaware Bay origin.  After acknowledging the difficulty of making an estimate the agency team switched over to the use of genetics information from only a handful of harvest trawls to arrive at an estimate of 50%.    The truth is MD harvest is likely all Delaware Bay crabs, but typical of ASMFC decision making, this will have to be proved.  In any other harvest — waterfowl, deer, bears — hunting agencies have to proof the harvest will have no impact on the population.  In the crazy world of marine fish harvests those hoping to conserve a species will have to prove the damaging effects before a harvest can be reduced or stopped. Most of MD horseshoe crab harvest is landed at Ocean City MD, only 30 miles from Delaware Bay and within the known non-breeding distribution of Delaware Bay crabs. Inexplicably the ASMFC technical team first suggested only 12% of the MD crab harvest is from Delaware Bay and the rest from some unknown breeding area.

But the prevarications of the ASMFC are amateur compared to the drug companies exploiting horseshoe crabs for their blue blood.   The agencies have been accepting, without serous scrutiny, industry estimates of 15% mortality from the bleeding of crabs for the essential chemical limulus amoebocyte lysate (LAL) used to detect bacterial contamination in everything from injectable drugs to surgical instruments and implants.  LAL is a life-saving extract from the blood of the crab that safe-guards the world’s supply of injectable drugs.  The companies drain crabs of their blood until it stops then release them to back to the wild.  Until last week, agencies accepted industry estimates of  15% mortality, but the first independent estimate found mortality of at least 30%.  But it could be worse.  The companies have been accused of dumping crabs from the  Delaware Bay into other locations and giving the crabs to the fishermen to release on their own word.

No one would  argue that bleeding shouldn’t take place — it is the most important use of horseshoe crabs.  But we shouldn’t be killing hundreds of thousands of crabs unnecessarily.    It’s time for a change.   Why not let crabbers catch crabs, sell the blood to the drug companies, then use the dead for bait.  Brutal as this sounds, it will limit the kill to 500,000 males instead of ~500,000 crabs bled and >500,000 crabs taken for bait  —  a more effective way start a recovery.

horseshoe crabs being bled.


Starting a new dialogue on shorebird conservation- come to our celebration on May 9th

Mean horseshoe crab densities in Delaware bay from 2006 to 2010. The Delaware data excludes Mispillion Harbor which had far higher densities but also showed no increase.This January, we learned that a whole suite of artic-nesting shorebirds have plummeted in numbers including red knots, semipalmated sandpipers, ruddy turnstones and lesser yellowlegs.  The magnitude of this problem is still unknown, but real declines of 35 to 90% have been documented.  The reasons are unclear but we know Delaware Bay stopover, the lynchpin place where many shorebirds prepare themselves for breeding, is still in the same miserable condition it was 10 years ago.  Horseshoe crab numbers have not increased and neither has crab egg densities. 

Survey of horseshoe crabs from ocean Trawl conducted by Virginia Tech. This survey is sanctioned by the Atlantic States Marine Fish Commission but not supported by them or any other agency. This year Eric Hallerman, a marine science professor at V Tech had to personally raise funds to keep the trawl active.Adding to the mismanagement of crabs, we are slowly uncovering other problems for shorebirds.  Most US wintering areas like southwest gulf coast of Florida are so crowded with people that where there were once 10,000 birds, there are now only a few hundred.  We also know that the number of threatening storms moving through the equatorial Atlantic are increasing dramatically.  These storms can wipe whole flocks of shorebirds at once as they try to reach South American wintering area.   There is more.

Projection of the number of Hurricanes in the tropical Atlantic based on the present climate and a warmed climate.


The worst of it is that these problems will be with us for decades because it is written in the genetic code of migratory shorebirds.  In ecological terms, most shorebirds are K-selected – their life history strategy is to invest less in making eggs and more in taking care of young.  Adults usually live longer so less young are necessary to maintain the population.  Humans are also K-selected species.   Species like bobwhite quail and other hunted species are R-selected, their strategy is to lay more eggs and invest less in post-fledging care.   Adults are short lived so the population needs to produce more young to maintain the population.


The practical difference between R and K species is their ability to bounce back from catastrophe.  R-selected species can reproduce their way out of severe declines once the problem causing the decline is fixed.  Over-hunt rabbits and, within a few years, protection will bring them back.  When K species decline they can be destroyed forever. 

Author banding eagles along the Cohansey River in early 2000’sWe are in a time when shorebirds species, like the red knot, can be destroyed forever.  Losing a species is not like losing a shoe.  I spent a significant part of my career restoring bald eagles to Delaware Bay.   When we started there was only one pair on Delaware Bay.  Now 25 years later, there are over 100.  Bald Eagles are a K-selected species so the population grew slowly, but they had only one  big problem, loss of young from the insidious effect of DDT and other persistent chemicals.  Once we cleared that up, the work focused on protecting nests from disturbance.   In retrospect, the restoration of this species was a glorious undertaking that had to be done. Imagine life without eagles.  Imagine trying to describe to your grandchildren the glory of a mighty bird that commands both sky and water, afraid of nothing, and yet as humble as a child.  Then imagine the hubris that almost allowed this species to be lost from the world.   


This hubris is destroying Arctic-nesting shorebirds.  We are fast closing on a new world where only pictures and movies will help us understand the thrill of hearing one flock of 10,000 shorebirds, their sound like a jet engine, their movements with the precision of marching soldiers, but flowing like water around a rock.  These birds are hardy, but the odds are against them especially in a world where only a few people care.


But the fate of species is not preordained it is a choice.  This May we hope to restart the dialogue on the recovery of shorebirds.  On May 9th we will celebrate the recognition of Delaware Bay as a Site of Hemispheric Importance to shorebirds.   I was there at the inaugural event in 1986 where Governors Tom Kean of NJ and Mike Castle of DE signed an agreement to designate Delaware Bay as the first shorebird stopover in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN).  Now the network includes 88 sites.  We have high hopes that this celebration will change  the fate of shorebirds.  All people with a love for birds are invited.