Environmentalists complete land transfer from Mispillion harbor for shorebird protection
A public-private partnership to ensure migratory shorebirds have a permanently protected place to rest and feed along the coast of the First State is approaching the finish line.
A recently completed land transfer to Mispillion Harbor is the last major step in the process. And this week, contributor Jon Hurdle details that move and what it means.
Migratory shorebirds now have a permanently protected place in southern Delaware to rest and feed during their annual long-distance flights, thanks to a public-private partnership that preserves Mispillion Harbor.
The harbor, just north of the isolated coastal community of Slaughter Beach in Sussex County, attracts thousands of shorebirds each May, as well as the horseshoe crabs whose eggs feed them, and is one of the most important migratory stopovers in Delaware Bay.
The importance of the site has prompted naturalists and conservation groups to acquire plots of land around the port for the past 15 years, preventing real estate developers from destroying natural habitat and regularly transferring these lots to the Department of Resources. Natural Resources and the Delaware Environmental Control.
The transfer is now complete, ending a temporary period of ownership by conservationists, and allowing DNREC, which already manages significant parts of the site, long-term control. The agency said it donated $ 600,000 for Mispillion’s last two plots to The Conservation Fund, a national non-profit organization that has purchased some 19,000 acres of land for conservation in Delaware, including the First State National Park.
At Mispillion Harbor, the fund’s acquisitions total less than 100 acres, but they represent the vast majority of habitat on which shorebirds depend.
The most at risk of them is the rufa Red Knot subspecies, a 4.7-ounce bird that flies from South America to its breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic via Delaware Bay each spring. In 2014, the federal government listed the species as threatened after overexploitation of horseshoe crab on bay beaches deprived the birds of the crab eggs they depend on to complete their long-distance migration.
As breeding crabs vanished from beaches in the late 1990s, the knot population plunged, raising fears of imminent extinction and prompting naturalists on the Delaware and New Jersey sides of the bay to urge the two states to do whatever it takes. ‘they could to protect the birds. .
New Jersey responded by banning the harvest of horseshoe crab, beginning in 2008, and allowing the closure of the migration season of certain beaches where knots and other species rest and gain weight to allow them to complete their migration.
Delaware still allows crab fishing, although it is subject to a quota set by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. But naturalists hope the new permanent protection of Mispillion harbor will offset the lingering threat of crab fishing on the west side of the bay.
Conservation efforts like Mispillion’s have helped the bay’s red knot population drop from a low of around 13,000 in the early 2000s to around 30,000 today, scientists say. But the current number is far from close to the point where the species could be assured of its survival if it were struck by unfavorable factors such as bad weather in its breeding grounds or the development of other stopover sites on its migration route.
The bird is also facing headwinds from the biomedical industry which uses ALL, a substance extracted from horseshoe blood, to test for bacteria in new drugs, vaccines and medical equipment. Demand for LAL, which may have increased with the surge in production of Covid-19 vaccines, is being met by a handful of so-called bleeding companies that are harvesting an unknown number of crabs and taking part of the blood from each. crab before sending them back to the sea.
Environmentalists say the bleeding can kill a third of harvested crabs and prevent some survivors from reproducing. They are urging the biomedical industry to switch from ALL to a synthetic product which they believe is comparable in cost and effectiveness to the crab-based substance.
At Mispillion Harbor, Blaine Phillips, Director of the Mid-Atlantic Conservation Fund, pointed out an expanse of beach and seawall that protects the harbor from the bay and which was heavily harvested for horseshoe crab before the fund don’t buy it from a private landowner. in 2006. Since then, the approximately 75 acre parcel has been the port’s main refuge for crabs and birds, and is now owned and managed by the DNREC.
It wasn’t until 2018 that the fund bought its next installment of Mispillion property, an 11-acre parcel bordering the coastal marsh, where about 20 fishing huts were preventing the marsh from returning to bird habitat. Those properties were bought out and the state demolished the structures, Phillips said.
And in April of this year, the fund finalized its final purchase at Mispillion, the site of a former commercial wharf that Phillips hopes can be reused to offer boat tours to help visitors better understand a migration that attracts biologists and bird watchers from all over the world.
“What Mispillion Harbor needs is a nature center with a dock so people can get out and experience part of the migration, especially for children, to have the ‘wow’ moment of power. see the horseshoe crabs on the beach, ”he said.
For now, visitors can use the DuPont Nature Center, a DNREC facility that has overlooked the harbor since 2007, and explains the importance of the harbor, while providing stunning views of the water and marshes. The center recognized the iconic character of the red knot by building an oversized model of the bird at the foot of its steps.
Money for the fund’s land purchases was raised in part by Delaware Wildlands, a land trust that has protected some 31,000 acres since 1961, and by the Delaware Ornithological Society, which has raised funds through a bird- a-thon ”annual since 2007.
The money raised by the private sector allows the Conservation Fund to move quickly to purchase land that will eventually be transferred to the public sector but which may not be available for immediate purchase by the state, as the budgets of the state depends on slower credit, Phillips said.
“A state agency that might want this property cannot get the funds on time and cannot necessarily negotiate the real estate transaction,” he said. “We do the deal, we do the negotiation, we bring in our fund, if it’s a timing issue, to close, then all these sources of funding come in to replenish that.”
The fund also works on behalf of the federal government, which may want to buy a plot that adjoins a nature reserve but is threatened with development. If the government needs to buy the land right away, it can use the fund to make the purchase which will ultimately be repaid when federal funding becomes available.
In the case of Mispillion, it makes sense for the DNREC to do the restoration work because it can issue its own permits, Phillips said. “If it remained in private hands, I think some of these restoration efforts would happen, but that’s not the logical way to piece this puzzle together,” he said.
Karen Bennett of the DNREC Fisheries and Wildlife Division said the latest land transfers “fill a gap” between lands already held and managed by DNREC under the Mispillion Port Reserve, and make thus the agency “best suited” to protect shorebirds.
She said the agency now plans to have the area assessed by a littoral engineer to determine “the most effective shore restoration design” and the best type of habitat for migrating shorebirds.
With the beach off-limits to crab fishermen, the swamp near the Nature Center cleared of fishing huts, and the commercial wharf no longer functioning, Phillips hopes the permanently protected harbor will help the Red Knot population rebuild and d ‘other species to avoid potential. extinction.
He feels a “tremendous sense of accomplishment” after completing the transfer of land to DNREC. And he credited the late Bill Stewart, president of the Delmarva Ornithological Society, who dreamed of permanently protecting Mispillion harbor, and raised some of the money to do so by creating the bird-a-thon.
“He stirred it all up and created the bird-a-thon that helped fund it, and I know his dream was to see that done,” Phillips said. “He didn’t live to see it done, but a big part of it is for Bill.”
It’s unclear how DNREC will maintain or improve the port’s ability to protect birds and crabs while improving access for humans, but Phillips is hopeful that changes will be made over the next two years.
“We are now in the end zone, we are where the state can do what it needs to do,” he said.