Efforts to accommodate the oyster farmers and protected shorebirds using the beach and near-shore waters of Delaware Bay have really only just begun.
New Jersey declared a moratorium on harvesting horseshoe crabs, whose eggs are critical for red knot survival, just a decade ago — a blink of the eye to a species largely unchanged in 445 million years.
Ten years is how long it took conservation groups to get the federal government to list the red knot as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. That only happened in 2015, so more intense oversight and protection have only had a few years to work.
Considering that, it’s rather amazing that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was able to produce a biological basis for Delaware Bay oyster farming rules in April 2016.
And just last year, local legislators got laws enacted streamlining the aquaculture permitting process in New Jersey.
The good news is everything is pretty much in place for both oysters and birds to thrive. Now if only nature would move as quickly as the oyster farmers would prefer.
One said the industry could double in size each year if it had room to grow. Revenue of 14 oyster farmers surveyed in 2016 increased to $1.37 million from $1.1 million the year before.
The red knots are fairly accommodating already. They’re only on the bayshore, concentrated in a section north of Pierce’s Point in Middle Township, for two or three weeks a year.
They arrive very hungry after a long flight over water on their path from the southern tip of South America to their arctic nesting grounds. The whole population must gorge on enough horseshoe crab eggs to fatten up to breeding weight in that short window. Oyster farming activity is only restricted May 1 to June 8, but admittedly that’s a crucial period for the farmers.
But it will take time for this management plan to work or determine whether further adjustment is needed.
Last year, colder than usual bay water delayed the crab spawning, dropping sufficiently fed birds from 80 percent to 25 percent of the population. That led their southern overwintering numbers to plunge to 9,500 from 13,000 the year before.
Besides being patient, the oyster farmers should be using their superior adaptability as humans to develop methods allowing them to expand their operations outside the area preferred by crabs and birds.
Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from the many other oyster farming operations around the world. Maybe larger operations that are less dependent on access from the immediately adjacent beach is part of the answer.
We’re rather confident that eventually the bayshore situation will serve well both the ancient birds and the new farmers.
And the red knots could contribute more to promoting the area’s dominant tourism industry. Their 19,000-mile annual migration is already a global phenomenon that draws ecotourists.
They’re also much like mainstream visitors — vacationing a couple of weeks at the Jersey Shore, enjoying the beach and salt water, eating well enough to put on some weight and returning home to lead a more productive life.
Restaurants could encourage tourists to eat like a bird … as long as it’s a red knot.