State wildlife biologists in 1974 launched a program to help the osprey recover in New Jersey. The efforts began paying off quickly and it was followed by another famously successful assist for an iconic bird of prey, the bald eagle.
Today there are more ospreys — also known as fish hawks — in New Jersey than before they were decimated by pesticides and loss of habitat. Wildlife officials should review their state status as a threatened species. It looks like that no longer applies and, if so, graduating from that list could celebrate this conservation victory and help assure the public that species are protected for compelling reasons.
Before 1950, there were about 500 osprey nests along New Jersey’s Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay coastlines. Then the widespread use of pesticides that persist in the environment and disrupt the reproduction of birds of prey, DDT in particular, and loss of habitat reduced osprey nests to 50 by 1974.
The year before, the N.J. Division of Fish & Wildlife listed the black-and-white raptor with a 5-foot-plus wingspan as endangered. Its biologists started building nest structures in coastal marsh areas and transferring healthy chicks and eggs from Maryland to New Jersey nests that were producing no offspring.
During the next 45 years, wildlife organizations and numerous volunteers joined the state effort. Hundreds of osprey nesting platforms were built and placed, each generation grew larger, and cameras on nests put the spectacle online. The state removed the osprey from the endangered list in 1985, after it reached 105 nests and sustainable reproduction the year before.
Last year, a record-breaking 932 ospreys were counted, along with 589 active nests, the division and the Conserve Wildlife Foundation reported last month. The coastlines of Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties host at least 423 of those nests, so an osprey flying a fish back to feed fledglings is a familiar sight throughout South Jersey.
There are not only more ospreys now than before their collapse, they’ve also returned to areas they left many decades ago such as the upper Delaware River and Meadowlands, thanks to recovery efforts.
A threatened species in New Jersey is one that may become endangered if conditions surrounding it begin to or continue to deteriorate. The osprey’s recovery is very solid, and its numbers now are a long way from endangered status. A review may well find a powerful case that it is no longer a threatened species.
Perhaps an argument will be made that the fish hawk needs the manmade nesting platforms encouraged by its threatened status, since three-quarters now nest there instead of atop the tall trees provided by nature. But it may be good to encourage the species to transition back to mostly natural nesting sites, rather than develop a risky dependence on people.
Raising the osprey’s status would affirm other environmental improvements as well, such as the state’s more effective wetlands protections and national efforts to sustain fisheries — which feed ospreys and people alike.
And removing the osprey from the list when it no longer needs its protections will make it easier for the public to support the inevitable future addition of some other species that needs help.