Improving Conservation on Delaware Bay 4: Inadequate Conservation Impoverishes People and Wildlife Populations

The irresponsible exploitation of horseshoe crabs and their blood falls directly on the state and federal agencies that defend them. A lot of local people find this plutocratic big-government approach hard to swallow, considering this sloppy exploitation is only one of many examples of inadequate conservation that fails to address intractable problems: habitat loss from sprawl development, industrial over-exploitation of farmland and marine resources, underfunded and inadequate public lands management, unaddressed insidious impacts of climate change, and many more. Further, they resent that the cost of the failure to solve these pressing problems mostly falls on them. One can easily understand this view with a quick tour of the town of Fortescue, New Jersey.

Hurricane Sandy hit Fortescue ferociously, causing damage on a scale similar to much of New Jersey’s Atlantic coast. But inexplicably, it was left out of the federal largesse that benefits the primarily rich communities of Atlantic coast.

Hurricane Sandy hit Fortescue ferociously, causing damage on a scale similar to much of New Jersey’s Atlantic coast. But inexplicably, it was left out of the federal largesse that benefits the primarily rich communities of Atlantic coast.

The most obvious sign of decline is the failed tackle shops, which starkly contrast the forthright declaration on a sign at the docks: Fortescue, Weakfish Capital of the World. Robust weakfish populations have long deserted this and every other town on Delaware Bay, and agency biologists are perplexed as to why. The meager catch limits required of all sport fishers rule out any possibility of a cooler full of fish, once common in my youth. Combined with the price of gas, this stops most fishermen at the dock. The people here not unreasoningly look at the huge losses of young weakfish impinged on the Salem nuclear reactor water intakes. The nuclear plant was ordered to stop the destructive intake of huge amounts of Delaware Bay water and build a second cooling tower. But they avoided this with the aid of New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife’s program to mitigate the losses with marsh management. The program has been discredited by a number of groups, but these losses continue to this day.

It may have been accurate once, but this sign at the Fortescue docks is now merely a painful reminder of the recent collapse of the town's fisheries.

It may have been accurate once, but this sign at the Fortescue docks is now merely a painful reminder of the recent collapse of the town’s fisheries.

Continue to the eroded beachfront, where citizens cannot afford the costly circumventions of the rules that are common in the wealthy Atlantic Coast towns. Bulkheads remained unfixed, roads erode from thrashing seas, and protective dikes leak water or fail altogether. Local homeowners with damaged houses can hardly afford the costly repairs, let alone the equally high cost of consultants and lawyers to tackle complicated state and federal coastal regulations.

Unlike Atlantic coast beaches, where state and federal agencies shower money to fix infrastructure and replenish beaches, Fortescue receives virtually nothing. And not without good reason – conservation groups and agency staff still wonder whether the town should be abandoned. So bulkheads rot, beaches disappear, houses fall into the sea. Sandy destroyed a considerable portion of the town’s waterfront, but curiously it was left out of the largesse showered on the Atlantic coast after Sandy. Oddly enough, it included Cape May County’s Atlantic coast, a section that suffered little compared to northern New Jersey communities. True to form, however, Cape May County’s Delaware Bay shoreline, which suffered significant losses, received nothing.

The infrastructure on Fortescue has been in decline for decades, and Sandy finished the job. Here, derelict bulkheads and rubble feebly protect a road to a small community east of Fortescue.

The infrastructure on Fortescue has been in decline for decades, and Sandy finished the job. Here, derelict bulkheads and rubble feebly protect a road to a small community east of Fortescue.

Go to the bathroom in Higbee’s Restaurant, the town’s only breakfast and lunch restaurant, and you’ll find yourself staring into the infinite depths of a port-a-potty. You must, because the town has no sewer system, a result of insufficient state funding and agencies’ fear of the spread of development caused by a sewer line to Fortescue. Indeed, it’s a conundrum. Environmentalists reasonably fear the potentially destructive influences of sewers because the notoriously loose land-use planning rules in south Jersey might end in a new rash of sprawl development. Ironically, the same groups champion ecotourism, which depends on facilities that require sewerage. Before Maryland invested in museums, public restrooms, fishing piers, and parking areas in the towns along the eastern shore of the Chesapeake, these towns suffered in the same way as those on the Delaware Bay. A similar program on Delaware Bay could fulfill everyone’s interests. But alas, this is New Jersey, not Maryland.

The collapse of fish populations preceded a similar collapse in Fortescue’s fishing economy. Many businesses, from tackle shops to marinas and boats ramps, have fallen victim. Ironically, the cost of poor fishery management falls not on the perpetrators, the Atlantic coast fishing industry (their profits have exploded in the last 10 years). Instead, it falls on the communities that once relied on the fisheries decimated by the industry.

The collapse of fish populations preceded a similar collapse in Fortescue’s fishing economy. Many businesses, from tackle shops to marinas and boats ramps, have fallen victim. Ironically, the cost of poor fishery management falls not on the perpetrators, the Atlantic coast fishing industry (their profits have exploded in the last 10 years). Instead, it falls on the communities that once relied on the fisheries decimated by the industry.

If you live outside of the Bay region, you can easily dismiss the almost incomprehensible incongruities that exist between rural New Jersey and the rest of the state. But when suffering the consequences, it is hard to avoid the mendacity they represent. Why is the property tax burden so low on the rich residents in Stone Harbor or Avalon and so high in rural Cumberland County? The rich seaside communities thrive because the state underpins risky development with costly beach replenishment, superior and always threatened infrastructure and other amenities of modern life, mostly unavailable to the middle class communities along the Bay. Yet an owner of a million-dollar beach house pays half the property taxes of an average home in Cumberland County, thanks to a property tax rate of less than one-fifth of that in Cumberland.

Another of the many now-shuttered bait and tackle shops in Fortescue.

Another of the many now-shuttered bait and tackle shops in Fortescue.

Clearly no one person or agency meant all this to happen to Fortescue, and many projects have aimed to solve the problem. Why have they not worked?

Next: Good Intentions but Few Results

Improving Conservation on Delaware Bay 3: Draining Wealth Free of Responsibility

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 this 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 lystate 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.  Resource industries will 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.

Improving Conservation on Delaware Bay 2: Arctic Courage, New Jersey’s Cowardice

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.

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.

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.

Improving Conservation on Delaware Bay 1: Good Conservation Starts With Courageous Choices

In July of this year, I led an intrepid but older than usual team of biologists on a rugged expedition to search for red knots on Southampton Island in the Canadian Arctic. We spent time in the island’s only town, Coral Harbour, a tiny hamlet of about 800 souls perched precariously on the icy strait between Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean. For my wife Mandy and I, the trip from Delaware Bay in New Jersey to Southampton Island took us to some of the most remote wilderness in this hemisphere. But we also leaped from a socially connected modern world to one with third world communication and economic systems. You can’t use your cell phone in Coral Harbour, and neither can the mostly Inuit population. They use Facebook with enthusiasm, but have virtually dial-up internet speeds. The cost of a case of Coca-Cola is $45. An overnight stay in a modest room is $200 per person, and a dinner of mostly food from cans runs $50 per person. Conducting research in the Canadian Arctic can easily break even the most well planned budget, especially when one attempts a vigorous venture such as ours.

Our team in the Arctic included Mark Peck, Amanda Dey, Steve Gates, Rick Lathrop, Joshua Keenainak, and the author.

Our team in the Arctic included Mark Peck, Joshua Keenainak, Steve Gates, Rick Lathrop, Amanda Dey, and the author.

Before we returned, we spent our last night in the home of Suzy McKitrick, the partner of Joshua Keenainak, our bear watcher and guide. She runs the equivalent of the welfare system for the community, and her client base runs to over 180 households in a town of about 800 people. The signs of poverty are ubiquitous. We tried our best to be a beneficial economic influence by hiring Joshua, paying fully for our stays in town and buying as much as possible from the local store. But it’s unrealistic to think the small infusion of cash from our short-lived project will do much to help this impoverished Inuit community. The economic winds are as harsh as the winter wind on the frozen tundra.

Suzy McKitrick and her partner, our bear watcher and guide Joshua Keenainak, in their home in Coral Harbour. Suzy leads the village’s welfare assistance program.

Suzy McKitrick and her partner, our bear watcher and guide Joshua Keenainak, in their home in Coral Harbour. Suzy leads the village’s welfare assistance program.

One can look at all the obvious signs of poverty—widespread smoking, poor dental care, and alcoholism, to name a few—and leave feeling sanctimonious. Poverty forces us to consider our own wealth, and comparisons are inevitable. Judging the Inuit of Southampton Island poorly would be unfair, however, and for many reasons. The most personal for me comes from considering the inevitable choice all communities must make when defending wildlife and their habitat. Who prevails: the greedy exploiters or the wise stewards? Those who seek short-term profit at the expense of a robust fish and wildlife populations, or those who seek to balance growth while remembering the needs of life that has no voice?

Coral Harbour, on Southampton Island, Nunavut, faces the Hudson Strait and Arctic Ocean on one side and vast unbroken tundra on the other. No other communities occur on Southampton, which is hundreds of miles from any other inhabited coast or island and hours by jet from a city.

Coral Harbour, on Southampton Island, Nunavut, faces the Hudson Strait and Arctic Ocean on one side and vast unbroken tundra on the other. No other communities occur on Southampton, which is hundreds of miles from any other inhabited coast or island and hours by jet from a city.

For people in Coral Harbour, the choice is personal. Most people supplement their earned income or welfare support with the harvest of fish and game taken while out on the land. People spend a large part of their lives hunting for caribou and other game and fishing for Arctic Char and other fish in all seasons, including the deadly winter months. Wildlife provides one of few sources of outside cash through guided hunting and fishing expeditions, paid for by people from all over the globe. With that economic pressure, most people would find it hard to resist overharvest for personal or financial gain.

A barren-ground caribou runs from us on Southampton Island. The caribou population fell dramatically for a number of reasons, but the Coral Harbour Hunters and Trappers Association cut the harvest drastically despite the reliance of the citizens of this impoverished community on the meat and the income from guiding hunts.

A barren-ground caribou runs from us on Southampton Island. The caribou population fell dramatically for a number of reasons, but the Coral Harbour Hunters and Trappers Association cut the harvest drastically despite the reliance of the citizens of this impoverished community on the meat and the income from guiding hunts.

Yet this year, in response to falling caribou numbers, the Coral Harbour Hunter and Trappers Association drastically cut the allowable harvest because they were concerned for the future of both the animals and their own way of life. These people of modest means were not forced to reduce the harvest (a major source of meat for their families) by an environmental agency, but voluntarily imposed it upon themselves to stop the decline and speed the recovery of the declining herd. It was an impressive and decisive move by a community that literally teeters on the brink of both economic and climatic catastrophe.

Two Countries One Problem (cont.) – A Problem in Common

Historically in the United States, an alliance of sportsmen and animal lovers formed coalitions that aided politicians to get the job done. Now sportsmen are more concerned by gun rights and conservative politics than their own wildlife (bobwhite quail for example), and the people who love wild animals pretend they have no useful role in their conservation and sit by idly paying nothing for the privilege of their recreation. Both groups buy into industry-led efforts to draw conservationists into fratricidal bickering over issues that divide, as they do in most issues of importance in our nation.

From my perspective Brazil fares no better, probably worse. A coalition of conservation interests doesn’t exist, and might never exist. Industrial interests control more political power, and let’s face it: the allure of short-term economic gain will attract more people living in poverty and a greater number of powerful politicians, especially those whose greatest concern is their own wealth. Isn’t that the sad condition of our own congress, where nearly every member of our house of representatives is a millionaire? The oligarchy has even more influence in Brazil.

Two fishing boats from the port of Riposa fishing in the waters of Curupu Island. Fishing anchors the economy of this area, and nearly all of the harvest comes from small boat fishermen. Exploitation at the industrial scale, as is done in the United States along the mid-Atlantic Coast, would not only ruin the fish populations but the main source of income for local people. A similar impact has occurred on Delaware Bay, where most fish are overexploited, barely functional, or classified as endangered. Equally endangered are local economies that are dependent on fishing, such Fortescue.

Two fishing boats from the port of Riposa fishing in the waters of Curupu Island. Fishing anchors the economy of this area, and nearly all of the harvest comes from small boat fishermen. Exploitation at the industrial scale, as is done in the United States along the mid-Atlantic Coast, would not only ruin the fish populations but the main source of income for local people. A similar impact has occurred on Delaware Bay, where most fish are overexploited, barely functional, or classified as endangered. Equally endangered are local economies that are dependent on fishing, such Fortescue.

At least in Brazil, the choices created by industrial self-interest are clearer. Every day of our stay in Brazil, we watched beautiful indigenous sailing and power vessels venture out onto the wind-tossed seas of the Atlantic to gill net or seine the productive and diverse fishery of the area. The pilot and crew of these elegant but simple craft can support themselves and their families because the area has yet to be the target of the modern commercial fishery. But they are not far away, and will inevitably play the political game to take the fishery away from these poor hardworking people. Our own conservation coalition in New Jersey couldn’t stop the east coast industrial fishery from demolishing many of the Delaware Bay fish populations, on which local fishermen depended to eke out a modest living. The list of lost or nearly lost includes weakfish, flounder, Atlantic sturgeon, American eels, and horseshoe crabs, and the list still grows. In both the United States and Brazil, the cards are stacked against wildlife and local people.

What can be done? Perhaps a more focused question might be “where can something be done,” because the area in which we work lies on the eastern edge of one of the greatest mangrove ecosystems in the world. The Brazilian government has officially designated the area from Belem to São Luís as a national treasure because of the importance of this vast productive wetland to world environmental health. Not coincidentally, it is also home to the main wintering population of many arctic nesting shorebirds, including the red knot, ruddy turnstone, black-bellied plover, willet, greater yellowlegs, and many other species. If one was to search for an area of equal importance for shorebirds as the Delaware Bay, it is this 350-mile long wilderness of mangrove swamp and adjacent intertidal mudflats and sandy beaches.

A Google Earth image of the swamps now devoted to shrimp farming. This estuary is about 300 miles east of the Maranhão mangrove swamp.

A Google Earth image of the swamps now devoted to shrimp farming. This estuary is about 300 miles east of the Maranhão mangrove swamp.

But industrial-level shrimp farms are inching their way up the Brazilian coast. Most biologists believe the protections created by the Brazilian government, though well meaning, are squishy and could allow development on massive scale. The mangrove system is the beating heart of this productive system. Shrimp farming would still that heart by ripping out mangroves, diking the wetlands, and flooding them to raise shrimp. After a few years, the wasted land is discarded and a new section of mangrove falls to diking. Look at the destruction on Google Earth in almost real time. The animals that depend on the mangrove fall first, but soon after the local fishing community collapses as well. Without its heart, this productive system no longer produces and local people can no longer make a living fishing. Destitute, they will move on to squalor in the cities. The wealthy corporations that caused this cleansing of natural wealth move on, all the richer for their unconscionable destruction.

A flock of red knots, semipalmated plovers, sanderlings, and semipalmated sandpipers flies from one inlet to another. In addition to being an important wintering area for large proportions of many shorebird species, the Maranhão region of Brazil is also a critical stopover site on the both the northbound and southbound migrations for other populations that spend the winter further south – for example, red knots that winter in Tierra del Fuego.

A flock of red knots, semipalmated plovers, sanderlings, and semipalmated sandpipers flies from one inlet to another. In addition to being an important wintering area for large proportions of many shorebird species, the Maranhão region of Brazil is also a critical stopover site on the both the northbound and southbound migrations for other populations that spend the winter further south – for example, red knots that winter in Tierra del Fuego.

In both New Jersey and Maranhão, the problem is the same: industry disguised as community builders, leaving both natural and human communities impoverished. Conservationists should not be drawn in by the argument that any threat to industry is a threat to the economy. Natural wealth can flow to rural communities just as well as investors. The former can result in sustainable economies, while the latter nearly always ends badly for both people of the area and wildlife. We conservationists should amend our focus: we are not just about saving animals, we are also about saving rural communities and animals with smart new efforts that benefit both.

After this expedition’s trapping efforts, about 650 geolocators are currently deployed on red knots and around 150 more on ruddy turnstones. We will next attempt to recover some of these geolocators at Delaware Bay in a few months.

After this expedition’s trapping efforts, about 650 geolocators are currently deployed on red knots and around 150 more on ruddy turnstones. We will next attempt to recover some of these geolocators at Delaware Bay in a few months.

Our team intends to return to this rough, magical, diverse and productive ecosystem to ply our craft, cannon netting shorebirds and studying them. But over the next year we hope to join others who also seek to initiate smart new efforts to help people and wildlife. Who knows, in the process we might be able to solve our own problem in the same way.