Faced with a Red Knot population crisis, a group of conservation organizations is attempting a new approach to protecting the iconic bird – social marketing. 


Using the same marketing principles traditionally used to sell products, these organizations aim to promote ideas to change attitudes and behaviors. Still in its early stages, the group is laying the groundwork for a social marketing and outreach campaign to connect the human population of Delaware Bay region to their Red Knot neighbors.


Red Knots and other migratory shorebirds travel remarkable distances each spring from South America to their breeding grounds in the Arctic. On the way north, the birds must stop to replenish their depleted fat reserves. For thousands of years, Red Knots have made that stop at the Delaware Bay in New Jersey and Delaware, to fatten-up on once abundant horseshoe crab eggs.


The Bay is so important for migration of Red Knots and several other shorebird species that in 1986 it became the first designated site in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. Red Knot populations, however, have been in sharp decline for fifteen years. Research has shown that the primary threat to the Red Knot is the overfishing of horseshoe crabs and the resulting scarcity of horseshoe crab eggs.


“Because the supply of horseshoe crab eggs is depleted, many of the birds don’t have the fuel to reach the Canadian Arctic to lay their own,” said Charles Duncan, director of Manomet’s Shorebird Recovery Project, which is leading the early stages of this effort.


To date, limits on horseshoe crab fishing have been ineffective, with little if any detectable recovery of their populations. Duncan said that a successful and enduring conservation effort in the Delaware Bay must also benefit the surrounding community and have the support of local stakeholders. Manomet staff are teaming with a leading firm in the use of social marketing for the environment.


“We need to change the way we think about the Delaware Bay,” said Larry Niles, of the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey.


In order to understand the cultural barriers to conservation, the team is researching residents’ perceptions of the Delaware Bay and its shorebirds. The initial research was funded by Manomet, and Duncan is fundraising to support the social marketing campaign itself.


The good news is that scientists feel confident they know the steps that will result in species recovery.


“The science is strong,” Duncan said. “The greatest challenge is finding a way to reconcile that science with community values.  We worked with RARE and our local partners on three social marketing campaigns in Patagonia, Argentina for Red Knots.  The conservation outcomes were more than impressive.  Now we want to replicate those successes at Delaware Bay.”