Conserving Wildlife

Effective Conservation Comes With Courageous Choices

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In light of the Inuits’ courageous action, let’s consider our own record on Delaware Bay. In the last 20 years or so, the Atlantic Coast fishing industry has decimated emblematic species of the Delaware Bay such as horseshoe crabs, sturgeon and weakfish. Even now, they continue to resist population restoration with a relentless political campaign to repeal the state’s moratorium on the harvest of horseshoe crabs. Our farmers and nurserymen contributed to the decimation of the bobwhite quail, the quintessential voice of South Jersey farmland wildlife. Simple changes to their method would drastically improve conditions, but even a minor hit in profits is treated as unacceptable. Our drinking water is awash in agricultural chemicals to the extent that my well water is undrinkable without water purification. Unplanned and unwise development kills our natural lands with a death by a thousand cuts. And all the important trends are going the wrong way (see time series map from Rick Lathrop of the CRSSA Lab at Rutgers). In contrast to the Inuit (one of the poorest people in the hemisphere), we the people of New Jersey (one of the richest people in the hemisphere) have traded our conservation ethic for the shortsighted pursuit of easy money. This is not to say that the residents all are at fault – far from it.

a graphic presentation of changes in NJ wildlife habitat since 1972

This animation from CRSSA at Rutgers shows how the regulations protecting animal habitat failed. The losses of habitat continue nearly abated over the last 30 years because loopholes allow commercial developers and the wealthy to evade the restrictions. Rural people have no control and most suffer from zealously applied regulations, because they lack the wealth and power to overcome them.

Here in rural Cumberland County, conservation is mostly imposed through state regulations that fail to protect. Loopholes allow the wealthy to evade them. Land acquisitions are presented to agencies that cannot afford to mange the land. Short-lived conservation programs gobble up millions of taxpayer and philanthropic dollars but do not alter the bay’s ecologically impoverished condition. Politicians pretend they stand for the working fishermen or farmers, all the while undercutting them by solidifying the interests of the rich and powerful. The effect of these conservation failures is to create the apparent contradiction that most rural folk distrust the conservation agendas of state, federal agencies, and politicians but support the need to protect the Bayshore’s wildlife and land.

But there is no contradiction. People of rural communities, like the Inuit, see the obvious signs of failure and resist buying into them. On Delaware Bay, conservation projects both private and public gobble up funding, staff, and good intentions while the problems facing wildlife and rural people keep getting worse. I know many people along the Delaware Bayshore and see their conservation ethic is no different than that of the Inuit on Southampton Island. Ironically, the difference is the Inuit have more control.

The graph on the length perfectly demonstrates the collapse of Atlantic Sturgeon on Delaware Bay and the industry’s approach to management on the Bay. Fishermen quickly decimated the Delaware Bay’s population of sturgeon between the mid 80s and 90s. Once overfished, the population collapsed, and now the fish is federally listed. The impact of that listing now falls on local residents, because they must now deal with the federal endangered species act with every coastal development or management project. The culprits who damaged the species moved on without penalty. The same is now occurring to weakfish. Once the iconic fish species of the Bay, it is now a minor sport for a dwindling number of fishermen. Many other species are facing the same fate.

The graph on the length perfectly demonstrates the collapse of Atlantic Sturgeon on Delaware Bay and the industry’s approach to management on the Bay. Fishermen quickly decimated the Delaware Bay’s population of sturgeon between the mid 80s and 90s. Once overfished, the population collapsed, and now the fish is federally listed. The impact of that listing now falls on local residents, because they must now deal with the federal endangered species act with every coastal development or management project. The culprits who damaged the species moved on without penalty. The same is now occurring to weakfish. Once the iconic fish species of the Bay, it is now a minor sport for a dwindling number of fishermen. Many other species are facing the same fate.

Of course, the Canadian government didn’t stand by while these decisions were made. Smart and productive staff of Environment Canada helped with data gathering, top-flight scientific analysis, and expert guidance. In Southampton Island, Nunavut, local, provincial, and national governments work together to empower the local decision. As with US agencies, one can’t wax unrealistically about the work of a complex government bureaucracy looking through the prism of one action. Still, the agency wisely allowed the Inuit the chance to make this important choice: exploit resources beyond the lands capacity to produce, or wisely steward those resources.

Agriculture in New Jersey cannot be easily characterized, except that it has become more heavily dependent on chemicals and mechanization. The former leaves local folks with water contaminated by agricultural chemicals, while the latter leaves many without productive employment. Agencies are unenthused by more lucrative small farm fresh vegetables and organic operations, preferring to support industrial farming techniques.

Agriculture in New Jersey cannot be easily characterized, except that it has become more heavily dependent on chemicals and mechanization. The former leaves local folks with water contaminated by agricultural chemicals, while the latter leaves many without productive employment. Agencies are unenthused by more lucrative small farm fresh vegetables and organic operations, preferring to support industrial farming techniques.

For me this minor conservation issue speaks to several of the basic problems of conservation on the Delaware Bay. First New Jersey’s rural residents, those with the most to gain or lose from inadequate conservation, have almost no say in what is ostensibly the management of their natural resources. Agencies in Environment Canada supported the Inuit by providing data and expertise, not by preventing them from having any say in the matter, the norm here in New Jersey. This is an important distinction, because from this blogger’s perspective, political considerations prevent courageous action, as agencies and local people given the power to decide might violate the agencies’ political patrons.

But the Inuit also teach us a more important lesson – perhaps the most important lesson for all conservationists and rural people. Effective conservation comes down to simple courageous choices. The Inuit knew this very well when they chose to cut the caribou harvest to allow the herd to increase, eschewing the short-term impact on their meager income. The appearances of their problem and solution mattered not at all. There was no spinning this problem: it had to be solved or not. They chose a tough solution against their interests, but ultimately for their own benefit.