News From Delaware Bay

June 26, 2013

Quiz time!

1) Name a bird that weighs the same as a stick of butter, can fly the distance from the Earth to the Moon and save the economy, social framework and environment of an entire region.

2) What is older than the dinosaurs, has 10 eyes, and is critical for human health?

*Extra credit: explain what the two have to do with one another and Delaware Bay.

B95, the 20-year old Red Knot called “Moonbird,” at Fortescue, N.J. May 2013.
Photo by C. Buidin

The first is a Red Knot, a four-ounce shorebird that breeds in the Canadian Arctic and winters in Tierra del Fuego, South America, 9,500 miles away.  One individual Red Knot, called B95 because of the numbered tag on his leg, is now at least 20 years old and has flown 370,000 miles, equivalent to a trip to the Moon and more than halfway back.  “The Moonbird,” as he has come to be called, is the subject of his own biography written by National Book Award-winner Phillip Hoose to tell the story of extinction: that it is terrible and that it is avoidable.  Like most Red Knots, B95 stops annually at Delaware Bay on his migration.  In fact, he was seen there several times just last month, generating excitement and publicity in three languages around the globe.

The second is the remarkable horseshoe crab, some 450-million years-old.  Its blue-colored blood is the source of a compound called Limulus Amoebocyte Lysate (LAL) which coagulates in the presence of bacteria.  LAL is used universally to check the safety of drugs, products and medical devices that come in contact with human blood.

And the connection?  Horseshoe crabs reproduce in May, laying eggs in the sands of Delaware Bay’s beaches.  At the same time, Red Knots arrive exhausted and out of fuel from unimaginably distant places.  They rely on the eggs as a rich food source to regain lost weight and prepare for the last leg of their migration to Arctic breeding grounds.  But over the past 15 years, a new demand for horseshoe crabs—as bait for whelk and eel—has decimated the crabs’ population and with it the food source so critical for the shorebirds’ survival.  The population of knots has fallen from over 150,000 to under 35,000 during B95’s lifetime, and Red Knots are now a candidate for Federal listing as endangered.  A sophisticated fisheries management model has been created to regulate take of the crabs, but even with those regulations, crabs are not predicted to recover until 2073.  That is much too late for the shorebirds.

Red Knots and other shorebirds feed on the eggs of Horseshoe Crabs at Delaware Bay each May.
Photo: J. van de Kam

If you don’t look closely, this seems like the classic (and usually fictional) “environment vs. economy” conundrum.  We see it differently.  In our eyes, natural resource conservation becomes lasting only when it improves the quality of life of those affected. This is the “triple bottom line” of economic, social and environmental well-being.

With generous support from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the N.J. Recovery Fund, the William Penn Foundation and Manomet’s own generous donors, our project, “Celebrate Delaware Bay,” connects people to the Bay and its natural resources as if to a favorite sports team or iconic landmark.  Using the techniques of social marketing—marketing that benefits society and not the marketer—we seek effective conservation of horseshoe crabs and migratory shorebirds at Delaware Bay.  With positive messages, we are inspiring voluntary action by a broad suite of residents, visitors and community leaders.

We commissioned a phone survey in 2012 that showed that residents of the Delaware Bay already believe the Bay’s historic and environmental features are important to their quality of life.  But the survey also found that not all these respondents are knowledgeable about horseshoe crabs and fewer yet about shorebirds.  Stories like that of B95’s survival inspire the entire public—and not just birdwatchers–to learn more and to understand the Bay’s role and the opportunities it provides.  Our task then is to provide opportunities not only to further the public’s understanding, but also to make their beliefs tangible through fun, easy action.

One of our new programs is called “Re-turn the Favor,” launched last month by The Wetlands Institute, Conserve Wildlife Foundation of N.J. and the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences in cooperation with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. The program invites volunteers to reduce horseshoe crab mortality by rescuing crabs that have been turned over by waves or become trapped behind bulkheads or other human-built structures.  The name “Re-turn the Favor” reflects the key role that horseshoe crabs play in protecting human health, as well as their irreplaceable role in the Delaware Bay ecosystem. Through the program’s data reporting, we learn how many crabs of each sex are lost, where, and whether by entrapment or by being tossed by waves and wind.  But perhaps most importantly, our participants are becoming engaged at deeper levels. They feel empowered and part of something bigger.  They become knowledgeable and they become advocates for the Bay and, in doing so, they return the favor to horseshoe crabs and shorebirds.

Wallet-sized cards to spread the word have been popular with local merchants and restaurants who distribute them to customers.

We invite you to come to the Bay next May to enjoy the spectacle of shorebirds and breeding horseshoe crabs and join the effort.  In the meantime, stay up with all the advances by following us on Facebook at Celebrate Delaware Bay.

Charles D. Duncan is the Director of the Shorebird Recovery Project at the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences.  In that role, he also directs the Executive Office of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, with 88 sites in 13 countries.  An avid birdwatcher, Duncan’s professional training is in organic chemistry.  He describes his extensive conservation career simply as a hobby that got wildly out of control.