By: Laura Chamberlin, Community Engagement Coordinator, WHSRN Executive Office
reTURN the Favor provides many children with a unique and formative hands-on experience in nature, creating the next generation of shorebird enthusiasts. Photo credit: Laura Chamberlin
Dressed with knee boots, gloves, and a headlamp, volunteers stroll down the beach, bending every few feet to make a quick turn of a squirming horseshoe crab. Relieved to have received a helping hand, the horseshoe crab quickly crawls to the water’s edge and returns to the water. The volunteers move along the beach, maybe to a stretch of rubble, where they must climb among broken concrete, rebar, and even old kitchen sinks to find crabs stuck in crevices. The conditions are often challenging, but the results are always rewarding, as they are saving lives.
These volunteers are part of a program called reTURN the Favor, a program of ten partner organizations, working to rescue overturned or imperiled horseshoe crabs stranded on New Jersey’s Delaware Bay beaches. Manomet and the Executive Office of WHSRN’s Celebrate Delaware Bay sits on reTURN the Favor’s steering committee. At last tally, volunteers conducted 754 walks from mid-April to early July, rescuing nearly 120,000 crabs on 18 beaches!
Horseshoe crabs are very vulnerable when their soft undersides are exposed to the sun and are easy targets for predators. It is estimated that approximately 10% of the spawning population can be stranded during typical spawning activity. During atypical spawning event, when high numbers of spawning crabs, stormy weather, and king tides converge—the situation can be even more dire, without the support of volunteers, of course.
The Delaware Bay is home to the largest concentration of spawning horseshoe crabs but due to overharvesting and degraded habitat from extreme storms and sea level rise, this population has declined by 90% over the last 15 years. This trend is not only an issue for the horseshoe crab population itself, but also for migrating shorebird species that depend on the horseshoe crab for survival. Hundreds of thousands of shorebirds, including the Red Knot which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, refuel on the high-calorie horseshoe crab eggs before they continue to the Arctic to nest.
‘As infrastructure crumbles to the rising tides, horseshoe crabs get stuck in the rubble that is left behind. Photo credit: Laura Chamberlin
As the horseshoe crab population struggles, the shorebirds struggle to fatten on crab eggs on their journey north, which has led to population declines in many of these shorebirds, including Red Knots, Ruddy Turnstones, Semipalmated Sandpipers, and Sanderlings. Conservation efforts like harvest restrictions, bait replacement, beach restoration, and management of human activity are slowly helping recovery, but more action is needed.
Four years ago, Manomet and the Executive Office of WHSRN, embarked on an initiative with local partners on the Delaware Bay to build a community of people who are taking action for the Delaware Bay, shorebirds, and horseshoe crabs. Through the Celebrate Delaware Bay initiative, the focus has been on expanding existing programs or creating new opportunities for people to take action and build deeper connections.
reTURN the Favor is one of those opportunities, with local communities and visitors taking action to reduce one source of mortality for horseshoe crabs—strandings. And just as important, as volunteers learn more, they become ambassadors for the horseshoe crabs and shorebirds. They share their passion and knowledge with their family and friends, engaging even more people. Each year, the number of crabs rescued, rescue walks, volunteers hours, and walk leaders has increased. This year is no exception and before final numbers are in, we are poised to have a 30% increase in the number of rescue walks that were conducted, evidence that we have an ever-growing team of people who are ready to help.
In addition to reTURN the Favor, Celebrate Delaware Bay also conducted classroom and field trip activities for over 900 students; led citizen science activities to conduct spawning surveys and tagging of horseshoe crabs, installed 51 youth signs on beaches, supported nature-based tourism initiatives in New Jersey, and conducted beach stewardship and education in Delaware.
For more information on reTURN the Favor, participating partners, and volunteers, visit returnthefavornj.org.