Commentary: Oil spill highlights importance of Delaware Bay

By Steve Cottrell

The Delaware Audubon Society wants answers in the recent contamination of the Delaware Bay. A still-unknown violator was responsible for the oil spill, first discovered at Broadkill Beach and, since, spreading as far as Assateague Island, Maryland.

Steve Cottrell

It is inexcusable that the incident was not reported immediately when it occurred, to activate prompt containment and cleanup procedures. Delaware Audubon’s offer of a $2,000 reward for information will remain in place until those responsible for the oil spill are identified and brought to account.

The spill also was also a stark reminder of the Delaware Bay’s importance for birds and people. Only the luck of timing prevented this spill, while relatively small in volume, from being a full-scale economic and ecological disaster.

Had it occurred at a different time of year, the impacts likely would have been devastating. The towns of Lewes, Dewey Beach and Bethany Beach all were forced to close their beaches in response to the spill. If the oil had washed up on shore during the summer months, it would have dealt a massive blow to the state’s tourist economy. And had it occurred during spring, the impact to nature would have been a monumental ecological catastrophe.

Each spring, Delaware Bay and its coast play host to an event of global ecological importance — hundreds of thousands of shorebirds stop to refuel in Delaware and New Jersey before continuing to more northern destinations. For one bird, the red knot, the Delaware Bay is the single-most important stopover, supporting between 50% and 80% of this species as it migrates thousands of miles each year from the southern tip of South America to the Canadian Arctic.

The fuel for its journey is the nutrient-rich eggs of the horseshoe crab, laid on beaches by spawning crabs and corresponding with the birds’ arrival. The eggs provide the fuel that enables red knots and other shorebirds to continue their migration to their Canadian Arctic breeding grounds. Horseshoe crab eggs and larvae also play a crucial role in supporting fish, reptiles and other wildlife. Because of this, the horseshoe crab is considered a “keystone species.”

The economic benefit to the state of Delaware as a major ecotourism destination cannot be minimized. Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge is a very popular destination for birding enthusiasts. The surge in tourism traffic in the spring to witness the shorebird stopover, centered near the mouth of the Mispillion River, is also a boon to the state’s economy.

But over the years, the Delaware Bay has witnessed a series of human impacts on horseshoe crab populations, including use as fertilizer and, more recently, as bait for catching other fish. With little or no regulation, the horseshoe crab population has plummeted, simultaneously decimating populations of migrating shorebirds dependent on the crabs as a food source.

As a result of horseshoe crab overharvesting, the red knot population declined 75% and was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2015. It is also listed as a priority species for the National Audubon Society’s Delaware River Watershed Program, in which the Delaware Audubon Society is a participant.

While we may never know the cause of last month’s oil spill, we do know how to save our shorebirds and our state’s ecotourism economy. Looking across the Delaware Bay to New Jersey is the first step. In 2008, New Jersey placed a full moratorium on the bait harvest of horseshoe crabs. Delaware, on the other hand, still permits a quota-based harvest. But horseshoe crabs and shorebirds have not rebounded in response to these partial limits, and the Delaware Audubon Society believes more action is needed. The Delaware Audubon Society also is a proud participant in the Horseshoe Crab Recovery Coalition, which is leading the effort to promote the recovery of this critical species.

Moreover, the economic benefit from horseshoe crab harvest is far outweighed by the environmental and economic upside of an intact ecosystem in the Delaware Bay and its associated ecotourism economy. Delaware should implement a full bait-harvest moratorium.

We know how to save shorebirds and their food source. While oil spills may be out of our control, supporting shorebird conservation is within our reach. If you care about birds and the places they need, please tell Delaware’s leaders that you support a full moratorium on harvesting horseshoe crabs for bait in our state.

Steve Cottrell is a Delaware native, graduate of the University of Delaware and board member of the Delaware Audubon Society. He is active in natural area-restoration projects in New Castle County, providing and protecting habitats for birds.

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