A Semi-Annual Publication of Manomet

Expanding the Conservation Movement at the Delaware Bay
By: Haley Jordan

Photo: Haley Jordan

Thirty men and women crouch on the road next to New Jersey's Fortesque Beach. They wait silently, eyes glued to the flock of shorebirds feeding on the beach 100 yards away.

A cannon net has been buried beneath the sand and baited with horseshoe crab eggs. When the birds move to just the right spot the net will be fired.

3…2…1…Bang!

Shorebirds

Photo: Haley Jordan

The net is fired into the air and everyone sprints down to the beach with boxes that will hold the Red Knots, Sanderlings and Ruddy Turnstones until they are banded. Some of the most accomplished shorebird scientists in the world are present, and for many of them, this is a familiar scene. They have returned to southern New Jersey and northern Delaware – the Delaware Bay region – each spring for nearly two decades, traveling from as far as Australia, New Zealand, South America and Canada.

These scientists migrate to the Delaware Bay each year in May as tens of thousands of rufa Red Knots descend on its shores. The birds fly to the Bay from their wintering grounds in South America and they arrive emaciated. The flocks spend several weeks feeding on protein-rich horseshoe crab eggs to gain enough fat and rebuild enough muscle to fuel the next leg of their migration to breeding grounds in the Arctic and sub-Arctic. The Bay serves such a vital role in the migration of Red Knots and other shorebird species that it was designated as the first site in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network in 1986.

"Seventy to 80 percent of the entire rufa Red Knot subspecies stops at the Bay each spring on their journey from Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, to their breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic," said former Manomet Shorebird Recovery Project Director Charles Duncan. "That's a one-way trip of 9,300 miles."

Over the last 20 years, though, the number of Red Knots and other shorebirds at Delaware Bay has sharply declined. Before the 1990s, there were more than 90,000 observed Red Knots stopping at the Bay during their northward migration – a number that at one point plummeted to just 12,375 and has not recovered.

World-renowned ornithologist Clive Minton explains the netting and banding process to volunteers.
Photo: Haley Jordan

On the beach, teams of five or six people form circles. Each person is assigned a task and the birds are carefully passed between them. The bill length, wing length and weight are recorded, each bird is banded, and in some cases, feather and blood samples are taken. These data will reveal important information about the birds' survival rates and migratory routes.

But the teams are not made entirely of scientists. Sitting among the world-renowned researchers and participating in the banding are residents of nearby towns. This is the first time that most of them have held a bird, let alone a Red Knot.

"Holding a shorebird for the first time is transformative," Duncan said. "Giving people outside the conservation sphere the opportunity to take part in the research can generate deeper understanding and unite people with diverse interests and values to achieve our common goals."

Shorebirds

Volunteers help band Red Knots at Cooks Beach, New Jersey, during the first annual Shorebird and Horseshoe Crab Festival this spring. Photo: Haley Jordan

Inviting community members to join the shorebird banding team is one component of the new "Celebrate Delaware Bay" campaign that Manomet has launched with a group of conservation organizations. The project is aimed at reaching outside traditional environmental circles and creating a better understanding of the value of Delaware Bay within the communities along its shores.

Research has shown that one of the main threats to the rufa Red Knot is the overfishing of horseshoe crabs in Delaware Bay and the resulting scarcity of their eggs. A depleted supply of horseshoe crab eggs makes it difficult for the birds to put on enough weight to finish their migration to the Arctic and breed successfully. Red Knots (and many shorebird species) stop at a limited number of locations during migration, making them particularly vulnerable to decreases in food resources at those sites.

The Delaware Bay's horseshoe crab population has decreased drastically since the 1990s when people began to harvest the crabs for eel and whelk bait. While New Jersey has a moratorium in place on harvesting the crabs for bait, many of the surrounding states do not, and their numbers remain low.

"Delaware Bay hosts the largest spawning concentration of horseshoe crabs on the East Coast," said Larry Niles, the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey wildlife biologist who leads the Delaware Bay banding work with his wife Amanda Dey (a senior biologist with the Endangered and Non-game Species Division of N.J. Fish and Wildlife). "It would take 60 years to recover the Bay's horseshoe crab population to what it once was with continued harvest."

Shorebirds

Rufa Red Knot
Photo: Bradford Winn

In late September, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service released a proposal to list the rufa Red Knot as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. In order for a species to be listed as threatened, it must be likely to become in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.

While shorebird conservation and the horseshoe crab challenge have been a focus of the conservation community for decades, a disconnect exists between the conservation work being carried out at the Delaware Bay and the perceptions of the people living in the communities that surround it.

In 2012, Manomet conducted a survey of 400 people who live near the Delaware Bay coastline and found that 79 percent of residents believe that migratory shorebirds are important to the environmental quality of the region. Almost half of residents, however, said they were not at all knowledgeable about the migration of Red Knots from South America, and another quarter was "not too knowledgeable."

The "Celebrate Delaware Bay" campaign is using traditional marketing tactics to educate people in local communities about the importance of the Bay to Red Knots and other shorebirds. The same marketing principles traditionally used to sell products are being used to promote ideas, alter attitudes and behaviors and build a base of Red Knot "fans" along the Bay's shores.

News media and digital marketing tools are used to share successes, announce opportunities for action and connect people who care about Red Knot and horseshoe crab conservation.

"We are forming partnerships with groups outside of the traditional conservation sphere," Niles said. "We are working to protect shorebirds while also strengthening local communities and improving the overall quality of life in the region. We're not so much building a union of conservation initiatives, but a union of communities."

Laura Chamberlin is Manomet's Delaware Bay program coordinator and she oversees the "Celebrate Delaware Bay" campaign. Chamberlin said that bringing nontraditional groups into the effort was necessary to increase the overall power of conservation efforts.

"Many of the communities along the shores of Delaware Bay lack the resources to support habitat restoration and conservation efforts on their own," Chamberlin said. "Pulling local communities together gives them a more united political voice and a stronger say in the management and protection of their resources."

Social marketing principles have been used in three "Pride" campaigns in Argentina aimed at boosting awareness and instilling pride among local residents in the ecological significance of their surroundings.

"We worked with the conservation organization Rare and local partners on three social marketing campaigns for Red Knots in Patagonia, Argentina," Duncan said. "The conservation outcomes far exceeded our expectations. Now we want to replicate those successes at Delaware Bay."

Shorebirds

Dancing on the beach with Fabien Rojizo, the Red Knot mascot and symbol of shorebird conservation at San Antonio Bay, Argentina. Photo: Mirta Carbajal of Fundación Inalfquen

One community in Argentina – San Antonio Oeste – even adopted the Red Knot as their symbol of conservation. A human-sized Red Knot visits schools, attends meetings with mayors of other cities and leads their annual shorebird festival.

"These successes have shown us that for conservation efforts at the Delaware Bay to be successful, they must also benefit the surrounding communities and have the support of local stakeholders," Duncan said. "We need to reconcile science with community values and connect with the wider community on an emotional level. Shorebirds are awe-inspiring creatures, and educating people about how important their region is to shorebirds can awaken in them a new feeling of pride and sense of place."

That desire to connect leads to projects that give individual residents actions that they can take to help their horseshoe crab and Red Knot neighbors. One initiative encourages community members to rescue horseshoe crabs that have been turned over by waves or have become trapped behind bulkheads or other manmade structures in order to reduce crab mortality.

And many community leaders – including small-business owners, town and state officials, faith-based groups and sportsmen's associations –join the shorebird research team during banding season.

The New Jersey Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs is one organization that has become active in habitat restoration and community outreach efforts along the Delaware Bay. Frank Virgilio, the Club's president, joined the banding team one day last spring.

"I personally believe that the Delaware Bay is a vast, rich resource that goes unnoticed in New Jersey," Virgilio said. "With the low population density and the lack of tourism, it's a place that not that many people visit. Building ecotourism around the Bay's wildlife would be a fantastic mission."

On its Web site, the Federation says that there are more than 150,000 hunters, trappers and fishermen in the state.

"A high tide floats all boats," Virgilio said. "Activities like habitat restoration benefit all species that live in an ecosystem. If sportsmen rally behind the restoration of habitat for a game species, anything else that lives in that environment – be it shorebirds or horseshoe crabs or other non-game species – will also benefit. And while restoring habitat for horseshoe crabs provides more eggs to feed Red Knots, other marine species like striped bass also benefit. Everybody wins in these situations."

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