On June 7, the Boston Globe ran an opinion piece by Lawrence Harmon about Boston-area beaches and the Piping Plovers who use them to nest and raise their young (“Move over, plover; the beach is for people”). In it, he argues that, in essence, it’s time for people to get their beaches back. He writes that protection measures in Massachusetts
“… have resulted in the largest population of piping plovers on the East Coast—about 650 pairs. Now beach-goers deserve some consideration. Boston Harbor beaches such as Revere and Winthrop need special attention. At great effort and expense, the harbor has been transformed from an open sewer during the 1980s to a well-managed resource today. People should be encouraged to enjoy these beaches with few intrusions.”
Kudos to Massachusetts for cleaning up after its citizens. And I do agree that beach access shouldn’t be restricted to a single species. We need, as Fish and Game commissioner Mary Griffin says, to restore a sense of balance to the beaches. However, we cannot allow one species to have a disproportionate negative impact on a landscape and all the other species within it. It’s irresponsible at best; at worst, it’s a catastrophe in the making. Yet this is exactly what human beings do: we move into an area, crowd out the animal inhabitants, and consume it. Where Earth’s environment is concerned, the bulk of human history is not pretty: we take what we want, go where we like, and use what we please, with little thought to consequence or cost. In the case of the plovers, that cost is extinction. It shouldn’t be asking too much of us to suffer a mild inconvenience for the greater good of an imperiled bird.
And yet it seems to be. Mr. Harmon’s opinion piece is symptomatic of our disease of entitlement, where human desire trumps the basic needs of any other species on the planet, where “I want” and “I deserve” are used to justify crimes that, were they perpetrated on other human beings, would amount to theft, assault, and murder. Both Mr. Harmon and Ms. Griffin suffer from a similar delusion—that balance with human beings is possible. When push comes to shove, the majority of people aren’t interested in sharing space with wildlife—wildlife that was established long before we came on the scene and which requires access to suitable habitat to thrive. Unlike people, Piping Plovers don’t use beaches for recreation: they rely on them for nesting sites and to raise their young. They depend on beaches for their survival. They have no choice; they have nowhere else to go. We do. Contrary to what Mr. Harmon suggests in the title to his ill-informed and misdirected rant, if anyone has a claim to the beaches, it’s the plovers. We’re intruding on their territory, not the other way around.
We would do well to remember that Piping Plovers—like so many other species—are in their current predicament because our actions put them there. They’ve lost many of their traditional nesting, feeding, and roosting beaches to commercial, residential, and recreational development. Those that remain are typically overrun with people, who often are completely unaware of the nests they crush underfoot or carelessly drive over. Our beachfront developments attract predators like raccoons, skunks, and foxes that may prey on the birds. Pets, too, create additional stress, frequently harassing or killing both adults and young birds. Even without this destruction, human presence alone can be enough to drive plovers from their nests, abandoning eggs and chicks to certain death. Piping Plovers didn’t become endangered on their own, they had a lot of help. And while their numbers are improving, the plover’s future is far from certain: globally, there are only about 8,000 breeding-age adults—not enough to guarantee stability or ensure their long-term survival. This is still, contrary to Mr. Harmon’s belief, a very vulnerable animal.
Sadly, the plovers are far from the only beach-loving birds in danger. I just returned from a trip to Cape May, New Jersey, where I stood witness to one of the great spectacles of avian migration. Each May, Red Knots flood the Delaware Bay and descend on Cape May’s beaches by the thousands, to rest and fuel up for their long flight north. Red Knots are a species of sandpiper (the largest of the “peep” sandpipers that includes Semipalmated, Western, White-rumped, and Baird’s Sandpipers) known for their beautiful russet-red color and marathon migration: twice a year, in the spring and the fall, they travel some 9,300 miles between the high Arctic and the south-most tip of South America. On their way north, they time their arrival in the Delaware Bay to coincide with another vernal exhibition: the spawning of the horseshoe crab. These holdovers from the dinosaur era come ashore on beaches all along the bay to mate and lay their eggs—millions of them—for about two weeks every spring, generously, albeit unintentionally, providing the birds with a critical resource. Red Knots gobble the protein-rich eggs in countless numbers, packing on weight for the last leg of their epic journey. To call the crabs’ gift important is a gross understatement: without the eggs, the birds either wouldn’t make it to their Arctic breeding grounds, or wouldn’t have the energy to breed when they got there. Put simply, they would die.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happening. Years of rampant and virtually unregulated over-fishing of horseshoe crabs (largely due to a small group of very vocal conch fishermen) have sent Red Knot numbers into a tailspin, from more than 100,000 in the 1980s to around 25,000 today. Without stronger safeguards in place—notably serious restrictions on the annual crab harvest (something only New Jersey’s enacted, placing a moratorium on horseshoe crab fishing in 2008)—the Red Knot population will almost certainly continue a slow, inexorable slide to extinction.
And yet there is still hope. The dedicated efforts of conservationists throughout the Delaware Bay are raising awareness of the plight of the Red Knot, volunteers work to keep people and pets out of feeding areas, and New Jersey’s ban on horseshoe crab fishing has helped to slow the decline. Stronger measures are still needed—and needed soon—but with New Jersey leading the way, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia may follow. Meanwhile, restrictions on beach access during breeding season have begun to stabilize, and even slowly increase, numbers of Piping Plovers along the East Coast. For both species, volunteers and conservationists monitor beaches, keep track of numbers, and educate people about the birds, the struggles they face, and how they can help. And then there are the efforts of people like Migration Productions’ Shawn Carey and Jim Grady, whose films, presentations, and workshops educate people about the challenges these birds face, what’s currently being done to help them, and how they can contribute to their conservation and survival.
It’s a start. But more of us have to care. If we value these birds, if we value their role in the natural order and their place as part of a larger system that encompasses all species—humans included—and if we respect their right to exist on their own merits, we must commit to securing their future and ensuring their survival. If not, if we choose to sacrifice them on the altar of human greed, we will we lose them forever. We will engender their destruction, and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that, far from the evolved and intelligent creatures we hold ourselves, we are bullies, wastrels, and fools.
The choice is ours.