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Conservationists complete transfer of Mispillion Harbor lands for shorebird protection

Katie Peikes
Delaware Public Media

A public-private partnership to help ensure migrating shorebirds have a permanently protected place to rest and feed along the First State coast is nearing the finish line.

A recently completed transfer of land at Mispillion Harbor is the final major piece of the process.  And this week, contributor Jon Hurdle details that move and what it means.

Migrating 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 shore 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 migration stopovers in the Delaware Bay.

The site’s importance has prompted naturalists and conservation groups to acquire parcels of land around the harbor over the last 15 years, preventing real estate developers from destroying natural habitat, and steadily transferring those lots to Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.

The transfer is now complete, ending a temporary period of ownership by the conservationists, and allowing DNREC, which already manages significant parts of the site, long-term control. The agency said it paid $600,000 for the last two Mispillion parcels to The Conservation Fund, a national nonprofit 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 the habitat there on which the shorebirds depend.

The red knot is considered a threatened species. It stops in Delaware to feed during its migration from South America to its breeding grounds in Arctic Canada every spring.

The most imperiled of them is the rufa subspecies of the red knot, a 4.7-ounce bird that flies from South America to its breeding grounds in Arctic Canada via the Delaware Bay every spring. In 2014, the federal government listed the species as threatened after an over-harvest of horseshoe crabs on the bay beaches deprived the birds of the crab eggs they depend on to complete their long-distance migration.

As spawning crabs disappeared from the beaches in the late 1990s, the knot population plunged, raising fears of imminent extinction, and prompting naturalists on both the Delaware and New Jersey sides of the bay to urge both states to do everything they could to protect the birds.

New Jersey responded by banning the harvest of horseshoe crabs, starting in 2008, and allowing the migration-season closure of some beaches where the knots and other species rest and regain weight to enable them to complete their migration.

Delaware still allows the crab harvest, although it is subject to a quota set by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. But naturalists hope that the new permanent protection of Mispillion Harbor will offset the continuing threat from the crab harvest on the west side of the bay.

Conservation efforts like that at Mispillion have helped the bay’s red knot population recover from a low of around 13,000 in the early 2000s to about 30,000 now, scientists say. But the current number is nowhere near the point where the species could be assured of survival if it was hit by adverse factors like bad weather in its breeding grounds or the development of other stopover sites on its migration route.

The bird also faces headwinds from the biomedical industry which uses LAL, a substance extracted from horseshoe crab blood, to test for bacteria in new drugs, vaccines, and medical equipment. Demand for LAL, which may have increased with the surge in Covid-19 vaccine production, is met by a handful of so-called bleeding companies which harvest an unknown number of crabs and take a proportion of each crab’s blood before returning them to the sea.

Conservationists say the bleeding may kill a third of harvested crabs, and stop some survivors from breeding. They are urging the biomedical industry to switch from LAL to a synthetic product that they say is comparable in cost and effectiveness to the crab-based substance.

Credit Jon Hurdle / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
Blaine Phillips, Mid-Atlantic Director for The Conservation Fund, at Mispillion Harbor.

At Mispillion Harbor, Blaine Phillips, mid-Atlantic director of The Conservation Fund, pointed to a stretch of beach and seawall that guards the harbor from the bay, and which was being heavily harvested for horseshoe crabs before the fund bought it from a private landowner in 2006. Since then, the approximately 75-acre parcel has been the harbor’s main refuge for crabs and birds, and is now owned and managed by DNREC.

It took until 2018 for the fund to purchase its next slice of Mispillion property, an 11-acre parcel on the edge of the coastal marsh, where about 20 fishing shacks were preventing a return of the marsh to bird habitat. Those properties were bought out, and the state demolished the structures, Phillips said.

Delaware Public Media contributor Jon Hurdle interviews The Conservation Fund’s Blaine Phillips.

And in April this year, the fund completed its final purchase at Mispillion, the site of a former commercial dock that Phillips hopes can be reused to offer boat trips to help visitors better understand a migration that draws biologists and birdwatchers from all over the world.

“What Mispillion Harbor needs is a nature center with a dock so that people can get out and experience some of the migration, especially for kids, to have the ‘wow’ moment of being able to see the horseshoe crabs up 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, as well as offering expansive views over the water and the marshes. The center has recognized the iconic nature of the red knot by building an oversize model of the bird at the foot of its steps.

Credit Jon Hurdle / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
The DuPont Nature Center overlooks Mispillion Harbor.

Money for the fund’s land purchases has been 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 an annual “bird-a-thon” since 2007.

The privately raised money allows the Conservation Fund to move quickly to buy land that will eventually be transferred to the public sector but which may not be available for immediate state purchase because state budgets are dependent on slower-moving appropriations, Phillips said.

“A state agency that might want this property can’t get the funds in time, and can’t necessarily negotiate the real estate transaction,” he said. “We do the transaction, we do the negotiation, we bring our fund, if it’s a timing issue, to close, and then all these funding sources come in to replenish that.”

The fund also works on behalf of the federal government which may want to buy a parcel that adjoins a nature preserve but which is threatened with development. If the government needs to buy the land right away, it can use the fund to make the purchase which is eventually repaid when the federal funding becomes available.

In the case of Mispillion, it makes sense for 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 it’s not the logical way to put this puzzle back together,” he said.

Karen Bennett of DNREC’s Division of Fish & Wildlife said the latest land transfers “close a gap” between lands already owned and managed by DNREC as part of the Mispillion Harbor Reserve, and so make the agency “best suited” to protect shorebirds.

She said the agency now plans to have the area assessed by a shoreline engineer to determine the “most effective shoreline restoration design” and the best type of habitat for migrating shorebirds.

Credit Jon Hurdle / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
A former commercial dock that was purchased by The Conservation Fund and has now been transferred to DNREC.

With the beach off-limits to crab harvesters, the marsh near the nature center cleared of fishing shacks, and the commercial dock no longer operating, Phillips hopes the permanently protected harbor will help the red knot population to rebuild and for other species to avoid potential extinction.

He feels a “huge sense of accomplishment” from completing the transfer of the lands to DNREC. And he credited the late Bill Stewart, president of the Delmarva Ornithological Society, who had a lifelong dream to permanently protect Mispillion Harbor, and raised some of the money to do it by creating the bird-a-thon.

“He stirred this all up and created the bird-a-thon that helped fund it, and I know his dream was to see this done,” Phillips said. “He didn’t live to see this done but a lot of this is for Bill.”

It’s unclear how DNREC will sustain or improve the harbor’s ability to protect birds and crabs while improving access for humans, but Phillips hopes changes will be made in the next couple of years.

“We’re in the end zone now, we’re in the place where the state can do what it needs to do,” he said.

Jon has been reporting on environmental and other topics for Delaware Public Media since 2011. Stories range from sea-level rise and commercial composting to the rebuilding program at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and the University of Delaware’s aborted data center plan.
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