conservation policy, Conserving Wildlife, wildlife conservation

Draining Natural Wealth Free of Responsibility

In the previous post I suggest good conservation starts with all conservationist – sportsmen, birders, at home wildlife feeders and home providers, naturalists of all kinds- having the courage to defend wildlife whose voice is unheard.  The rural areas of Delaware Bay are nothing like the wilderness of the Arctic, but our situation is similar. Here as there, beautiful rural land and water has been set aside with muscular public land acquisitions and very restrictive regulations that in theory should protect it for the benefit of people and wildlife of the state and those of the area. Instead, the land and water resources are wasted and local communities are impoverished. This is not Cape Cod, where significant conservation has led to wealthy communities and abundant resources. Cumberland County is the second poorest county in New Jersey, and its communities are among the poorest in our wealthy state.

To imagine how our valuable resources are squandered, endangering the resource without benefiting local residents, one need look no further than how the blood of the horseshoe crab is exploited. The horseshoe crab serves as the lynchpin of the Arctic-nesting shorebird migration stopover on Delaware Bay and serves a small bait fishery, but its real economic value comes from its unique copper-based blue blood, (ours is iron-based and therefore red), from which drug companies extract the chemical Limulus Amebocyte Lysate. Lysate saves millions of lives every year because it alone can detect a wide range of biological contaminants in syringes, pacemakers, artificial hips, injectable drugs, and other intrusive medical devices (see this movie for a fuller view).

The business is worth hundreds of millions, some guessing over $200 million — but the network of companies that take the blood cloak themselves in secrecy. Yet last year, the horseshoe crab survey, the cornerstone of the management system that sets harvest quotas, will be discontinued because of the lack of adequate funding. Just as the industrial fishery that kills crabs for bait takes no responsibility for the crabs’ decline, so do the companies that drain millions of dollars from the crabs. Both industries benefitting from this public trust resource pay virtually nothing for the privilege of exploiting it.

Technicians take blood from horseshoe crabs for use in the extraction of lysate. The biochemical is vital to human health. Demand for it is growing, and the best source is the Delaware Bay horseshoe crab population, which remains the largest in the world. The industry contributes virtually nothing to horseshoe crab recovery (after overexploitation by the fishing industry) or to the impoverished communities of both New Jersey and Delaware along the Delaware Bay. The industry kills up to one out of every three crabs bled according to peer-reviewed estimates, which differ from industry estimates.

Technicians take blood from horseshoe crabs for use in the extraction of lysate. The biochemical is vital to human health. Demand for it is growing, and the best source is the Delaware Bay horseshoe crab population, which remains the largest in the world. The industry contributes virtually nothing to horseshoe crab recovery (after overexploitation by the fishing industry) or to the impoverished communities of both New Jersey and Delaware along the Delaware Bay. The industry kills up to one out of every three crabs bled according to peer-reviewed estimates, which differ from industry estimates. (Photo from PBS Nature video “Crash, A Tale of Two Species”.)

Adding insult to injury, none of the largess created by lysate goes to citizens of communities along the bayshore. The main labs processing crab blood are in states other than New Jersey and Delaware. The boats taking the crabs are from Atlantic Coast fishing conglomerates. And the drug companies that finish the final product have probably never even heard of Delaware Bay, as all are international corporations.

Horseshoe crab populations are in jeopardy throughout their worldwide range because the international drug companies (and international fishing industries) do as they do in Delaware Bay, take the product, make money and do little to sustain crab populations. They are like foresters that cut trees and do nothing to replant, or farmers who harvest crops without amending the soil. Despite a nearly 70% decline, the Delaware Bay horseshoe crab population is still the largest in the world, but the companies now kill as many as one out of every three crabs bled, according to peer reviewed estimates of mortality.

The need for lysate is expected to grow by over 10-20% annually for the foreseeable future because lysate derived from horseshoe crabs is our best method of testing biocontaminants, despite the existence of synthetics. You do the math and guess the future of Delaware Bay horseshoe crabs.

These graphs show the results of the much-ballyhooed trawl survey that serves as the basis for the model that determines the number of horseshoe crabs that can be harvested every year. Despite the fact that the harvesting of female crabs has been outlawed outright for several years, there has still been no improvement in the population. Making matters worse for the crabs, this survey will be discontinued starting in 2014 due to a lack of funding.

These graphs show the results of the Atlantic Coast Horseshoe Crab Survey, which underpins the model that determines the crab harvest each year. Despite the fact that the harvest of female crabs has been reduced, and now disallowed, there has been no improvement in the population. Making matters worse for the crabs, this survey will be discontinued in 2014 due to lack of funding.

Isn’t the exploitation of this valuable resource an issue important to the people of the Delaware Bayshore? Why aren’t there labs in NJ and DE for manufacturing lysate? Why aren’t Delaware Bay fishermen responsible for capturing and returning the crabs, and the outcome precisely reported, so that experts can decide the best way to minimize mortality. Why don’t the communities along the Bay have a say in the crabs’ management; one could argue it’s their resource too. Wouldn’t they be better stewards than industry- controlled, regional authorities that can trump scientist’s recommendations for economic reasons?

These important questions lie unanswered, in our current conservation of Delaware Bay, because no one dares ask, including residents of the Bay. The system of lysate extraction, like many natural resources extractions, falls within the purview of authorities like the Atlantic States Marine Fish Commission that most directly respond to industries, not local people.

All resource industries front themselves with local farmers or fishermen to pressure agencies to get their way, as if giving the fishing or farming industry what they want will benefit local people. More often than not, however, local people find themselves championing a system that does not benefit them at all but, most often, ends up depleting resources for the benefit of a few rich businessmen or investors. Afterwards, the industry shifts to some other profitable resource, and local people are left impoverished.

They need the help of smart conservationists, the good people that love wildlife.  The next post describes the impact of bad conservation on communities.