Chile, Expeditions and Travels, Red Knot, Shorebird, Tierra Del Fuego 2001

Expedition to Tierra del Fuego – February 12, 2001


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Our last two days sped by with the preparations necessary to go back to Punta Arenas and eventually back to the US. Preparing to leave Julian’s house was like breaking camp, we had to gather all of our equipment, personal belongings, cooking utensils and clean so it looked better than when we arrived. Julian was a wonderful host, basically yielding his house to us while we were there. We had all grown fond of him and his home.

On our trip back to Punta Arenas we detoured to Cerro Samberro to fuel and return some equipment. From a distance Samberro rose out of the dusty pampas, looking like ghost town of the old west. Up close it bustled with the normal lives of several thousand people many working for ENAP. In the town center stood a striking sculpture of a oilman attending his rig. It not only spoke of the importance of oil to Samberro, but to the entire region. Without oil the economic base for the people of the this area would be much smaller.

It also stood to remind us that without the cooperation of ENAP, the protection of Bahia Lomas and the red knot would be virtually impossible. Not only because an oil spill on Bahia Lomas would be as devastating to the red knot as would a spill on the Delaware Bay, but also because ENAP’s is an important link between the birds and the people of the area that rely on ENAP for their livelihood.

Initiating protection of the bay remained unfinished work for our expedition. Steve Brown and I hoped to initiate an effort to designate Bahia Lomas a new WHSRN (Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network) Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve. It qualified with last year’s survey, but inclusion requires local support. We hoped for support from ENAP, some of the local farmers and representatives of the Chilean regional or national government. The more support we generated for WHSRN designation the more likely protection would materialize. Jorge and Ricardo promised to help.

Designation might help the bay. Unfortunately the government of Chile lacks the resources to support a strong system for identifying and protecting important wildlife habitats. Much of this work falls to people like Ricardo supported by research teams like our own. Outside recognition plays an important role. We will continue with this job after returning to the states.

My trip closed with a lunch and discussion with Jorge about WHSRN and preparations for next years work. Hupt xxx., The general manager of xxxx an Dutch seafood export company, joined us ultimately in a discussion on the protection of marine species around the world that seemed a fitting close to our trip.

We spoke of the calamity of the overharvest of horseshoe crab on the Delaware Bay. Hupt knew little about it but knew well of a parallel problem in Holland. Ironically Holland’s Waddensea, another important red knot wintering area, suffers from the overharvest of cockles. Thunis Piersma and others lead a battle to influence the government to reduce the harvest. If they can’t the effects on red knots will be as severe as that of the overharvest of the horseshoe crab.

It’s happening all around the world, fishermen over harvest the marine species on which they depend, create all kinds of ecological after effects. Rarely can governments stop it in time to prevent damage to the species and the fishermen. We concluded that it comes down to one significant fact, as long a fish or clam or crab has value, someone will figure out a way to take it to market. We can hardly control in North America where we probably have more biologists and administrators than anywhere else in the world. What can we expect elsewhere?

This single fact interacts with another fact. Wildlife or Marine biologists cannot take snapshots of animal populations. Instead they rely on indirect evidence, like trawl surveys of horseshoe crab on the Delaware Bay. Financial and staff resources, being what they are, force most biologists to develop sometimes crude indicators of population change. These indicators are fallible so decisions based upon them must be conservative otherwise the livelihoods could restricted unnessessarily. In consequence fishermen require proof positive. Certainty often comes when the species population is damaged sometimes beyond repair.

We found in our work that the red knot population in Bahia Lomas fell by at least 20000 birds. As explained earlier we are not certain why, it may be an artifact of the survey or some unknown shift in habitat use. Another more likely possibility, that the horseshoe crab population on the Delaware Bay has declined and red knots have failed to amass the resources they needed to successfully breed in the Arctic, looms large over all others. Other evidence is surfacing such as a paper by Guy Morrison and other Canadian biologists that examined the surveys of shorebirds as they migrant from Arctic breeding areas. All six of the shorebird species that rely on horseshoe crab eggs on the Delaware Bay, including the red knot were among the species in decline. More work on the Delaware Bay and Terra Del Fuego will bring new information.

We wish to thank Ricardo Mateus, Olivia Blank and Jorge Jordan for their interest and unswerving support for this work. From the tedius details of logistical support to slogging it out in the middle of the darkened mudflats of Bahia Lomas, we couldn’t have done it without them. The entire team expresses sincere appreciate for our cook/biologist Steve Paturzo, good food everyday no matter the circumstance. Back home we also thank Jeff Tash and Jeff Smith for the hard work on the web site, Linda Tesauro of the Conserve Wildlife Foundation, Bill Weber and Stacey Lowe of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Lisa Garrison of Dodge Foundation, Kathi Niles and the boys, Kathy Clark and the people who buy Conserve Wildlife License plates and check-off for wildlife on their state income tax.

Lawrence J. Niles, PhD
Chief, NJ Endangered Species Program