A brief history of conservation on the Delaware Bayshore with an eye to the future
The conservation of Delaware Bay has evolved many times over in the last hundred years. Some of the changes were a consequence of economic shifts, others a reflection of our growing understanding of the ecological fabric of the land. Reflecting on this past helps us understand where we are today and points to where we should aim for the future.
Before the 1950’s the conservation ethic of the Delaware bayshore was more a consequence of necessity than any explicit doctrine. During the first half of the 20th century the bayshore was a sleepy place that supported a rural population of poor farm laborers, fishermen and working class landowners. The farms were productive but not wealthy. City folk were only an hour away and many came to recreate. Resorts like Seabreeze came and went, others like Fortescue were practically cities compared to the town that exists today. The vegetables of the region were the toast of the Philly farm market and the seafood was a luxury for all, especially for working people. If you couldn’t afford the Atlantic Coast, you could the Bay coast, that is if you could tolerant the biting bugs.
It was during the 50’s professional wildlife management spread into the region. In 1948 the first Fish and Game Council was organized and it included South Jersey sportsmen representatives. For the first time game seasons were set based on data and not the self-interested pressure of politicians. In time NJ’s marine fish agency became one of the best in the east. Sportsmen were a proud of their accomplishments and kept a watchful eye on both illegal activities and meddling politicians. Using funds derived from hunting and fishing licenses, permits and self-imposed taxes on equipment, NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife purchased large tracts of land along the bayshore and managed them for game and sport fish. Wildlife was plentiful.
In the late 70’s to the 90’s bayshore conservation took a new turn. Nationally, biologists and conservationists became more aware of ecosystem function and the role of all species. Increasingly, conservation on the bayshore focused on the Bay’s endangered species and important natural communities. The Nature Conservancy named the Delaware Bay one it’s “Last Great Places”, Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network designated the Bay a site of hemispheric importance for migratory shorebirds, and a United Nations wetland convention called RAMSAR included the Delaware Bay as one of the worlds great wetlands.
Game and sportfish still flourished but signs of decline crept into the landscape. The once-abundant weakfish population of the bay collapsed in the 1980’s, its demise spawning a commission in 1992 to determine the cause. They never did, and weakfish remain a damaged population. The wild turkey population was restored aided by an increasingly-fragmented landscape as development inched south from Philly and west from the Atlantic Coast. Wild populations of Bobwhite quail all but disappeared. On the plus side more land was purchased for the public good, the bald eagle was saved and the declines of many rare species in the area were arrested.
The most recent chapter of conservation on the bayshore is still being written, but its safe to say the challenges are greater than ever before. The Delaware Bay shorebird stopover is in tatters, most of the commercially important fish and shellfish are either over-harvested or heavily degraded by a relentless fish industry and sportfishermen aided by technology that can find the last fish in the last place. The bayshore is pockmarked with the impact of global climate change in towns like Gandy’s Beach which lost 3 vertical feet of sandy beach in one storm. The land management that exists is conducted at too small a scale to reverse the catastrophic declines of game birds like bobwhite quail.
Most of this can be fixed. If there is one enduring legacy of the conservation of the bayshore, it lies in the many public and private lands devoted to wildlife. These lands can serve as core reserves that anchor the bayshore as a wild place and form the basis for productivity for centuries to come. Moreover the great recession has created a temporary breather from wasteful destruction of land from poorly planned development. The public who love and use wildlife now have an opportunity to create a new chapter in the conservation of the bayshore
Many new things can be done, but two stand out. Sportsmen and other wildlife users should formally tie together into one group. If there were no partisan divide between hunters , fishermen, birders, wildlife photographers and other wildlife users they could create one of the most important constituent groups in the state. Today NJ’s State Federation of Sportsmen Clubs represent over 600,000 hunters and fishermen. Think of what could be accomplished if they could work together with the 1 million birders and wildlife photographers in this state.
Second, there is only one sure way to create a strong conservation ethic among the people living on the bayshore — allow them to create wealth from sustainable land-use ventures. To do this they need more infrastructure to support town center commerce, streamlined regulatory programs that aid in creating habitat restoration and enhancement activities like beach restoration or sustainable forestry operations. Local fishermen need greater control of the fisheries of the Bay and a truly effective management system that rewards sustainable ventures, not boom-and-bust industrial exploitation.