20 years of shorebird conservation
We begin the 20th year of the Delaware Bay Shorebird Project this year with many of the same team members that helped start the project in 1997. That’s 20 years of studying one of the most intellectually challenging and endlessly fascinating species of wildlife in the world. Few have had the good fortune to do so.
Unfortunately, we do not start this year with the same shorebird population. In the last twenty years the Delaware Bay Stopover fell precipitously from its once lofty perch as one of the top three stopovers in the world. Where once we counted over 1.5 million shorebirds, we now see less than 400,000, a sweet number but far less than the bay’s heyday. Red knot numbers have crashed from over 90,000 to a low of only 13,000. Ruddy Turnstones, the virtual working man of shorebirds, fell from 135,000 to just over 16,000. In this time many intrepid shorebirds came to the bay to find succor provided by a once endless bounty of horseshoe crab eggs only to find empty beaches and no way back to their Arctic home.
Much of this was caused by short-sighted decisions made by the commercial fishing industry in the 1990’s, which decided to spend this bay’s natural (and publicly owned) wealth of horseshoe crabs. They needed bait and relentlessly pursued the crabs. Horseshoe crab populations fell to a quarter of their historic number and may have been driven to extinction without the work of the bay’s conservationists who fought bravely and with determination to stop them. Atlantic sturgeon, weakfish, herring, eels, and many of the bay’s once abundant fisheries weren’t so lucky.
Now a new industry, the oyster aquaculture industry, wants to consume another public natural resource, the bay’s intertidal flats. Cultivating oysters on metal racks placed on the bay’s extensive tidal flats is cheap and easy when you can use public trust lands. The expansion got a crucial assist from the state agencies who side lined crucial environmental reviews to determine impact to species like the red knot and required no public hearing, comment period or the involvement of any shorebird experts. This could have been corrected when the red knot was federally listed.
Unfortunately, the red knot’s federal listing has not helped in this controversial expansion of aquaculture. Instead it proposed growers should be compensated for economic losses caused by the listing and allowed the controversial expansion despite the obvious impacts to birds and crabs. Such decisions speak to Desperate Environmentalism, a term coined by Yale School of Forestry’s Joshua Galperin, describing the increasingly fraught position of conservationists who feel they must play ball with politically powerful industries or lose all. This desperate conservation could have been avoided if growers and conservationists worked together to expand aquaculture without significant impacts because after all everybody loves to oysters.
But this dark cloud cannot diminish the progress made by our team and groups like American Littoral Society and Conserve Wildlife Foundation of NJ. Just one example is the successful effort to restore horseshoe habitat on 2.7 miles of Delaware Bay horseshoe crab breeding habitat. The effort, funded by National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, overcame the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy and prevented what could have been another shorebird disaster. This work has blossomed over the last four years into a network of activities that provides new hope for a long term protection of the bay. This conservation is not desperate but inspirational for hundreds biologists, land managers and volunteers.
So our 20th year is much like our first year, a group of conservation-minded shorebird scientists and volunteers gathering to help these poor birds find a way to make it home. As with most conservation stories in this time, it’s a David and Goliath story that hopefully has the same result.