And Yet, Hope

Red Knots, Reed's Beach, Cape May © Eric C. Reuters

Red Knots, Reed’s Beach, Cape May © Eric Curtis Cummings

In the fall of 2012, Superstorm Sandy tore up the East Coast like a runaway train, devastating seaside communities and destroying miles of beachfront habitat, including prime breeding grounds for horseshoe crabs, whose eggs provide vital nourishment for a variety of shorebirds—most notably the critically threatened Red Knot. Every spring, flocks of these birds descend upon the Delaware Bay, breaking their epic 10,000-mile journey from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic to rest and feed. They make it to the beaches running on fumes, having all but exhausted their South American reserves. During their brief stay in the mid-Atlantic, horseshoe crab eggs are virtually all they eat: they rely on them to fuel the last leg of their marathon migration. Without the eggs, the knots would starve—and without the beaches, there’d be no place for the crabs to lay them. In such a delicately balanced ecosystem, any disruption could spell disaster.

As far as disruptions go, you can’t do much better than a major storm ripping up the shoreline. The spring after Sandy, there were no beaches left—nor were there any the following spring. Red knots barely stood a chance. Already in severe decline, Sandy was the nail in the coffin: the Red Knot population crashed, and the birds slipped over the edge, tumbling towards inevitable extinction.

At least that’s how it could have happened. All the pieces were in place for an ecological catastrophe: Sandy hit the mid-Atlantic like a sledgehammer, taking large swaths of beach with it as it passed, and the storm’s timing couldn’t have been much worse, making landfall just seven months ahead of the birds. The coast wouldn’t be able to recover in time. Not without help.

Which is exactly what it got. Working in crisis mode, New Jersey Audubon, the American Littoral Society, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, local, state, and federal governments, and volunteers from as far away as Australia joined forces and mounted a massive response. Just months after the storm, earthmovers and bulldozers were dumping and spreading literally tons of sand on ravaged beaches, restoring what Sandy had so recently taken. The team was hopeful, but no one knew if it would actually work. They’d just have to wait and see.

Horseshoe crabs, Reed's Beach, Cape May

Horseshoe crabs, Reed’s Beach, Cape May

It’s been almost three years since Sandy, and three full spring cycles. The beaches are holding, the crabs are coming ashore to lay eggs, and the Red Knots are flying up from South America to eat them, the population holding stable and perhaps even increasing. For the third spring after the storm, the birds have returned. Against the odds, the team’s extraordinary work pulled the knots, at least for now, from the brink.

In the short term, Red Knots are safe. To ensure their continued survival, and better, to nurture and encourage their increase to the legions of past times, there’s much more we need to do. We’re still building on their beaches, and still overfishing their prey—practices that are not, in the long term, sustainable. We need to change. The knot’s future lies in our hands; directly or indirectly, we will determine its fate. A decade ago, that fate seemed sealed, the birds destined for extinction’s cold abyss. Now, they may yet have a chance. We have shown ourselves to be shortsighted and destructive, an uncaring lot concerned merely for material comforts and our own immediate happiness. But we have also shown great kindness, compassion, and resolve, and the ability to overcome adversity and persevere under the gravest of circumstances. When the need is great, we can set our selfishness aside and act in defense of others—even when they’re not human.

We have the strength, the intelligence, and the capacity to create a better world—for them and for us. Now, can we summon the collective will to see it done? The shadow of our history leaves me cast in doubt, yet the reprieve in the Red Knot’s precarious slip into the void—however temporary it may be—gives me reason to hope. The future is not set in stone, it is written in the actions we choose to take. As they did for my ancestors, and as they’ve done for me, Red Knots may yet appear to my descendants, roaming beaches cared for by human hands, and digging for eggs in the sand.

Red Knots, Reed's Beach, Cape May © Eric C. Reuters

Red Knots, Reed’s Beach, Cape May © Eric Curtis Cummings