Friday, February 15, 2008

Knot Again

We intend for View from the Cape to primarily be a fun source of Cape May area bird and nature reports, but there's something everyone who cares about Cape May needs to know.

We remain embroiled in the fight to protect horseshoe crabs and Red Knots. Red Knots have declined from over 100,000 to about 13,000, based on numbers wintering in Tierra del Fuego. Yet on February 11, 2008 the NJ Marine Fisheries Council rejected the NJ Department of Environmental Protection's proposed moratorium on the harvest of horseshoe crabs, a decision that flew in the face of strong science and stronger public sentiment. Staff from CMBO and from New Jersey Audubon Society's Conservation Department testified at this hearing, as did many of our members, to no avail. Naturally, we at NJAS/CMBO plan to continue to do whatever it takes to protect Delaware Bay shorebirds, which includes at this point calling on NJ's Governor to impose a horseshoe crab harvest moratorium. We urge concerned citizens to do likewise.

We have been here before, and I don't mean just with the Red Knots.

When one May a few years ago I brought my three children to Reed's Beach and found scarcely any Red Knots at all, I told them the present generation was stealing from the future. Again. When as an example, I told my son Tim (age 18) about oaks and chestnuts turned to shrapnel under the weight of Passenger Pigeons, his eyes widened skeptically. "Did that really happen?"

It did, but not enough people know it. Perhaps a brief history lesson is in order. Remember these examples, and share them with your children, share them with your friends:

Labrador Duck: Disappeared so quickly we don't know enough to say why for sure. It was subject to some market gunning, but it's been suggested that changes made by humans in the marine environment along the Atlantic Coast eliminated its food (kind of like eliminating horseshoe crabs for the Red Knot). The last specimen was shot in 1875.

Passenger Pigeon: Once the most abundant bird in North America. In 1810, Alexander Wilson observed a flock he estimated to contain 2.2 billion (with a b) birds. Martha, the last of the species, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. Millions were killed for food and fun, including at colonies where nesting trees were cut down to get at the birds. The large-scale clearing of forest for agriculture also eliminated pigeon nesting areas.

Carolina Parakeet: Large numbers lived in the southeast's heavily timbered bottomlands. Shooting and capture, especially at orchards where the species was quite destructive, together with the encroaching lumber industry destructive of their nests, eliminated most wild parakeets by the 1870's. The last one died in the same year and place as the last Passenger Pigeon.

Heath Hen: Once lived in woodland clearings from New England to Virginia. Even as early as 1791 New York had legislation protecting the birds, which was largely ignored because of their market and sporting value. Conversion of native vegetation for agriculture played a role. 2,000 were still found on Martha's Vineyard in 1916, but that wasn't enough - the last one was observed in 1932.

Bison: Once 40-60 million roamed the prairies. Over a million a year were killed in the mid-1800's. Incensed by the slaughter, there was public outrage, and in 1874 congress enacted protective legislation which was vetoed by President Grant (sound familiar?) Grant had his own agenda, the subduing of the plains Indians. By 1889, only 150 bison remained in the wild, and now the species, confined to scattered parks and reserves, hovers at a few 100,000 individuals, a very near miss.

Shorebirds in general: Virtually all shorebird species were market hunted through the early 1900's. Even tiny Semi-palmated Sandpipers were gunned; Bent's Life Histories notes that ". . .the fact that they were so fat and palatable broiled or cooked in a pie, made them much sought after. . ." Audubon mentioned 48,000 Golden Plovers killed in a single day near New Orleans. Wagonloads of Eskimo Curlews were taken, and that species is now almost certainly gone. Red Knots were fire-lighted (hunted at night with the aid of a lantern) on Cape Cod. Many shorebird populations can still only be considered remnants (but some species rebounded, a cause for hope).

The history lesson is this: wildlife, right here where we live, not off in some rainforest, and even wildly abundant species of wildlife at that, can be eliminated by human greed. We've done it before, and with the red knot, we could do it again. We are doing it again, and we can no longer plead ignorance. We can only choose to be smart or stupid.

A February 14, 2008 editorial in the Atlantic City Press, a major southern Jersey newspaper, called for New Jersey's Governor Corzine to declare a ban on horseshoe crab harvest, noting that ". . .it's bait and 39 jobs vs. the red knots. . .this isn't even a close call. . .while the state of the horseshoe-crab population may be unclear, the state of the red knots is perfectly clear: They are in serious trouble, according to biologists. Prudence, one would think, would require an extension of the ban on harvesting horseshoe crabs."

Perhaps we're not stupid enough to do it again after all. But if we are, it is my fervent hope that fate brings each person responsible for the decline of the red knot a grandchild with lots of questions. Questions like, "Grandma and Grandpa, did passenger pigeons really make the sky dark? Was there really a parakeet in the United States? Did Red Knots really cover the beaches?"

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