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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Helping the Redknot and Horseshoe Crab

If you want to help the Redknot and Hoseshoe Crab, the single best thing you can do is to vote with your wallet. Legislation can certainly help, and so can donating to conservation organizations. But really, the most effective thing you can do is to think carefully about what you buy and eat. If you want to help the Redknot and Crab, send a clear message by:

Stop consuming all sea eel and conch products:
  • Sushi that contains eel or conch
  • Eel food products (check ingredients in sauces, fish pastes, prepared foods)
  • Eel and conch on the menus at any restaurant
  • Eel-skin products
  • Conch shells

Don't "collect" Horseshoe Crabs, of any size, ever, and don't purchase collected Horseshoe Crab specimens from someone else. They take almost a decade from birth until they are old enough to breed. Right now the eastern US shoreline needs all of the Horseshoe Crabs we can get...so do you if you want to continue to have uncontaminated vaccines, IV drug therapies, and other medications and treatments.

Provide donations or volunteer support to organizations that:
  • Protect horseshoe crab habitat
  • Protect shorebird migration and nesting areas
  • Provide cleanup to marine habitat where the Horseshoe Crabs live
  • Research shorebirds, horseshoe crabs, or their habitat
  • Research alternative baits for eels
  • See "Resources" below for more information
Don't disturb migrating shorebirds - keep your distance.

Obey all beach closings during spring and fall migrations. During their migrations, shorebirds are often starved and exhausted. Once they land, they need to eat and don't have energy to spare keeping away from humans who get too close. If the birds start to fidget as you approach, you are too close. Back off.

Educate yourself, your family, and friends. Watch the Nova special called "Crash", available on DVD through PBS or DVD retailers.

Further Reading:
  • Science Daily on Redknots: ( http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/08/070816162204.htm )
  • Science Daily on Horseshoe Crabs: ( http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/02/060221235120.htm )
  • NOAA: ( http://www.research.noaa.gov/spotlite/archive/spot_delaware.html )
  • Local citizens organize to protect habitat:  ( http://www.capegazette.com/storiescurrent/200910/primehook02.html )
  • Human-caused changes to habitat:  ( http://www.ceoe.udel.edu/horseshoecrab/Fisheries/habitatchange.html )
  • MA asks for public help with Crab habitat:  ( http://www.mass.gov/?pageID=eoeeapressrelease&L=1&L0=Home&sid=Eoeea&b=pressrelease&f=090521_pr_horseshoe&csid=Eoeea )
  • DE Fisheries Management:  ( http://www.ceoe.udel.edu/horseshoecrab/Fisheries/regulations.html )
  • NJ Helps Redknot: ( http://www.3rbc.org/news/2008/RedKnotRecovery.pdf )
Resouces:
  • http://www.horseshoecrab.org/misc/erdg.html
  • Fledgling Birders:  ( http://www.fledgingbirders.org/RedKnot2.html )
  • Bird-a-Thon: ( http://www.birdfellow.com/journal/2009/04/28/delmarva_ornithological_society_bird_a_thon )
  • The Nature Conservancy
  • The Audubon Society
  • Local land trusts along the east coast of the US
  • Local conservation organizations

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Miner's Canary

Why should we care about one little wading bird going extinct?

Why shouldn't we care? I'm of the viewpoint that every species on this planet has just as much a right to live as humans do. Why does a species have to be somehow "special" or "useful" before we deem it important enough to have a right to be here? No, the Redknot isn't large and majestic like the eagle, nor is it "useful" to human hunters as are gamebirds. It's not flashy nor does it have the melodious song of a warbler. It's just a wading bird - a wading bird that happens to migrate up to 20,000 miles in a single year, from South America to the Arctic and back again.

The Redknots' journey is the clue to the answer to my first question - why should we care?

On its northward migration during the northern hemisphere's spring, the Redknot undertakes some incredible, non-stop, sea-crossing flights. There is no snack service, no stopovers, no beverage cart, no RADAR to avoid bad weather. They fly, completely of their own power, for as long as it takes to reach their destination. Some don't complete the crossing - they didn't get enough to eat before the journey so they perished along the way. Each Redknot has to build up a sizeable fat reserve in order to power those wings for the flight - no fat, no safe landfall.

The two major non-stop legs for the Redknot over the ocean are from South America to the Atlantic shores of the USA, and from there up to the Canadian Arctic. Once the Redknots reach the shores of the USA, they must turn into eating machines in order to make the second leg of the trip up to the Arctic. Their fat reserves depleted, the Redknots set about gobbling up their main food source - the eggs of Horseshoe Crabs. You see, the Redknots' landing in the USA is incredibly timed to coincide with the spawning of the Horseshoe Crabs along the Atlantic Coast. The little travelering birds, along with many other species of shorebirds, are almost totally dependent on the eggs of the crab in order to make their journey to the Arctic, alive.

And therein lies the rub.

Humans have been, and continue, to decimate the Horseshoe Crab population. We seem to be of the mindset that since they've been around hundreds of millions of years, that they will survive no matter what we do to them.

Unfortunately that's not the case. The Horseshoe Crab was ancient well before the dinosaurs began to evolve. It's survived many mass extinctions, but it's now being decimated by humans.

Why?

Because we humans seem to have a lust for eating eels and conchs. You see, the Horseshoe Crab is being slaughtered by the millions to become bait for eel and conch fishing. From the late 1980s to 2004, the annual Horseshoe Crab harvest increased from 500,000 pounds per year to 5 to 7 million pounds per year. Scientific surveying has shown a 90% decline in Horseshoe Crab populations from 1990 to 2004.

Not surprisingly during this same time period, Redknot numbers plummeted from over 100,000 individuals to about 13,000. Latest estimates put that number well below 10,000 - perhaps too small for the species to survive.

It was the plummeting of the Redknot populations that keyed scientists in to the plight of the Horseshoe Crab. The crab population plummeted, so there weren't as many crabs to lay eggs and therefore, far fewer eggs for the Redknots to eat on their migration. Fewer eggs to eat meant that more Redknots perish before they reach their breeding grounds in the Arctic. What we have is a negative feedback loop.

Why should we care about one species of crab?

Horseshoe Crabs are vital to human health.

Currently, the medical industry uses a part of the blood of Horseshoe Crabs to test all injectible medications and devices for bacterial contamination. If you have received a vaccine (like the flu vaccine) or an injectible or IV drug (such as an IV antibiotic), you owe your health to the Horseshoe Crab. Other medical uses for Horseshoe Crab blood are in the works, including possible cancer treatments, anti-virals, anti-fungals, and antibiotics. In order to obtain this extract, Horsesheoe crabs are captured, bled, and released. Most survive to breed, some do not. Crab deaths from being bled are estimated to be from 2-15%. Still, much better than the 100% mortality rate of those caught to become bait.

Now are you concerned by the drop in Horseshoe Crab numbers? You should be. We have no other reliable way to test for bacterial contamination in our vaccines and injectible drugs than with the derivative of the Horseshoe Crab's blood.

So, the Redknot was, in a sense, the miner's canary. It's population crash alerted us to the crash in Horseshoe Crab numbers. It's also a wake-up call - we can't continue to decimate crab populations without putting ourselves in danger.

It's not too late to act - what we can do about this is the subject of my next post.

This post Copyright 2010, Nancy Rynes. No portion of this post may be reproduced in any form without express written consent of Nancy Rynes.


For more information, check out:

http://www.horseshoecrab.org/med/med.html


http://www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/ensp/redknot.htm

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Does anyone really care?

This past weekend I took my road bike out on a long, wandering route through the Midcoast region here in Maine. The day was gorgeous - cobalt blue skies, trees blazing with reds, oranges, and yellows, and a light breeze coming off the ocean. The breeze brought with it the scent of the sea. Some here find that scent - of kelp, sea life, and wet mud - somehow distasteful or even foul. Me? Well, I think it's the second-greatest scent on earth...a very close second to the aroma of a beautiful old garden rose.

The scent of the sea lured me to pedal out to one of mud flats on Maquoit Bay. By the human clock, the time was mid-afternoon, the tide was fully out, and the low angle of the sun made the islands in the bay a study in warm gray silhouettes. Here, mudflats extend for perhaps 500 meters from shore at low tide. A few gulls picked at clams or other bits of lunch on the mudflats, while another group of perhaps 25 gulls napped on the asphalt of the parking area where I stood. They didn't ruffle a feather while I stood not ten feet from them, enjoying the view.

Several minutes passed and I noticed a small flock of shorebirds looking for a place to land near the gulls. The little group darted back and forth in front of the entrance to the mud flat as if they were one organism - the communication among the individuals appeared to me, anyway, to happen instantaneously. How in the world could a flock change direction 90 degrees, or even 180 degrees, as a single unit? Just a little mystery that perhaps someone, someday, will figure out. After a few passes by the parking area, the little group of shorebirds settled on a place to land - out on an old slab of concrete about 25 feet from where I stood.

I noticed something a little different about this group of birds once they landed - they didn't do anything. They stood in place in exactly the spots they landed, just appearing to rest. It took me a moment to realize they were probably in the middle of their autumn migration. Who knows where they had been that morning - Nova Scotia? The Bay of Fundy? Further north? A wave of amazement and appreciation passed through me. These little birds, not much bigger than a good-sized robin, had recently left their breeding grounds far to the north of here and were on their way to warmer climates for the winter. And they were powered by their own wings. No cars, buses, or planes to take them to their destinations, just an unerring sense of direction, muscle power, and a little bit of stored fat.

The migrants definitely looked tired - they stood in place for ten or so minutes, barely moving a muscle. I stood as still as possible, not wanting to disturb them, but this also let me get a good view of them. To my surprise they appeared to be Redknots! This amazed me even more because the east coast poplation is in serious trouble at the moment. Numbers of Redknots are declining rapidly due to a loss of habitat and prey species (horseshoe crab eggs) at migration staging areas. But more on that later...

After studying these little guys for about 10 minutes, a car pulled into the parking area behind me and out popped 2 parents, one dog, and 3 teens, one a boy of about 14 and two girls, about 16 and perhaps 10. The boy immediately wanted to go chase the birds, gulls and redknots both, while his father told him in a half-hearted voice to leave the birds alone. The boy called back to his father "They're just birds" and ran pell-mell right into the middle of the flock of gulls. The father and mother just turned their heads and looked the other way while, I admit, anger grew inside of me. The girls sat on rocks and looked disinterested in this whole "nature" thing. After about 30 seconds, the oldest asked if they were done and could they please go to McDonald's now?

The Redknots took off immediately and flew back and forth along the shore, seemingly confused. It appeared they really wanted to rest at this particular spot but were disturbed (rightly so) by the presence of a family of humans who didn't care. For my part, I should have marched right up to the father and told him about the redknots and their migration, how these poor birds were tired and just wanted a place to rest and eat before continuing their long journey south. I didn't. I didn't because, quite frankly, I thought I'd be wasting my breath on these 5 people. I immediately wondered if there was anyone in the US who really cared.

The Redknots flew off and I turned my bike and started the long pedal home.


The questions that I'll be exploring next are...does anyone really care? And, more importantly, why should we care? Why should we care about one bird species going extinct along the Atlantic coast? Why should we care about changes in ocean chemistry, methane levels in the air, or changing ocean currents? 


This post copyight 2010, Nancy Rynes. No portion of this post may be copied, transmitted, or otherwise distributed, in any form, without express written consent of Nancy Rynes.