Survey Says: The Osprey’s Macro Economic Forecast

the-survey
The Survey

At the end of another great summer down the Shore, I once again must say the highlight of it all was accompanying my friend and mentor Ben Wurst to survey the Osprey nests around Barnegat Bay.

Of course it is always a thrill. C’mon. Osprey are the best, and baby Osprey are even better.

But as each year passes and I grow from being a casual enthusiast to a dedicated supporter of the Osprey Project, it becomes more impossible to ignore just how important these animals are to us and just how much is at stake around here.

As go the Osprey, so goes the Bay. Osprey are an “indicator” species, as serious environmental problems for our Island, from contaminants, to water quality, ┬áto the health of our fish populations, will show up in the Osprey nest first. And to quote the great Kathy Clark, “You won’t see it if you’re not looking.”

So how does it look? By my eye, it looks “OK.”

Ben has released an overview of the state surveys and overall, New Jersey’s Osprey are looking pretty healthy. But in our backyard, things were a little… disappointing. Not terrible. Just a little off.

Here are my observations as an independent eye with a stake in the future of LBI.

Plastics

Plastic debris not only remains a serious issue, it continues to get worse. It’s sad, and kind of scary! If the Osprey are “indicating” anything about our collective future here, it appears to be that LBI will be choking in plastic in the not too distant future.

I’ve always supported the LBT plastic bag ban, if only because I’ve lived other places where not bringing your own bags when shopping is about as socially acceptable as drunk driving a school bus. But this summer I was really struck by how important it is that local governments in places like LBI try new solutions because LBI has so much to lose. Plastic waste goes into the marine environment, and then it comes right back and gets stuck in the Bay. It is currently killing our Osprey. It will eventually kill us all; but long before it does that it will crush the local economy.

A common refrain against banning single use plastic bags is that it “kills jobs”.

It does, but most people have their priorities backwards.

While arguing for some worker in some far off plastic bag making factory, those arguments are actually putting our own jobs at risk. Because the economy of LBI depends 100% on a healthy marine environment, and single use plastics are piling up significantly enough that our local wildlife is being harmed by them.

The Bay is getting trashier each year and it is only a matter of time before it is bad for business. Survey says. For a lot of the planet this is a theoretical problem. But not for us. The damage in the Bay, and the threat to the local economy, are real, and becoming more obvious with each year’s survey.

Another thing driving me crazy on this issue is when folks use it as a way to get self righteous about littering while ignoring the bigger issue that we are outgrowing our ability to process plastic waste as a species. Sure, blatant litterbugs stink, but this is a much, much larger problem. It is societal. It is structural. It is global. We are in this together, and the problem goes way beyond litterbugs.

The factual end game for single use plastics, on a long enough time scale, is that the planet will be covered in them. The game definitely has an end. We can only make us much as we can find space to store them once we’ve used them. Survey says we are closer to that point than we’d like to assume and we should start looking for ways to get smart about it. All of us. But especially those with a stake in the future of the coast.

We humans had to start scaling back on other things that were once deemed limitless when too many people started doing them too frequently… commercial fishing and antibiotics both come to mind. Single use plastics are reaching a similar inflection point.

We’re just outgrowing them, that’s all.

Survey says, this is something we should start paying more attention to and getting more creative about. Places like LBI should be leading the way, globally, on this issue.

Garbage Animals: Human Subsidized Predators

While many of the nests we visited had three or four relatively healthy young babies, more than usual were occupied by adults but had failed to produce young. It is hard enough to get to each nest once in a season, let alone the four or five visits over a season it might take to get a good handle on these failures.

But what we did see was lots of evidence of ground based, mammalian predators. Red Fox & Raccoon were running around the marshes in broad daylight, not a care in the world. Tracks were everywhere. And most worrisome was that several nests had Raccoon claw marks above the nest’s predator guards. Predator guards are kind of like squirrel baffles. They baffle for a while. Then they figure it out.

Before it was anything else, Barnegat Bay was a habitat: a well-synchronized ecosystem which maintained its own balance and generally took care of itself. Humans, with their technological power, tip those balances easily, especially in fragile places like Barnegat Bay.

Our trash has caused an explosion in animals who don’t belong here, and who could not survive here without eating our garbage. They are human-subsidized predators. While the easiest option is to do nothing, we might have a duty, a responsibility, and some self interest in trying to restore the balance. Most cities don’t allow themselves to become overrun by rats. Coastal communities should probably not allow their fragile, billion dollar habitats to be overrun by Raccoon, Red Fox, Crows, and the like.

I don’t see an easy answer here, but I can tell you the problem is getting worse. I know that people who don’t work with endangered species really struggle with this issue. It “seems,” on the surface, perhaps more kind to just do nothing. But that’s only if you ignore all the dead Osprey babies.

To keep the Bay healthy in the future, we may need to develop programs to remove unnatural predators, at least periodically, to give local animals like the Osprey a chance.

We should probably work on inventing better predator guards. I don’t understand how those raccoons are managing to claw their way up the aluminum guards, but they are.

Survey says, the problem is getting worse.

Poor Fishing

This one is hard to quantify, but I don’t think the fishing was very good around here for the Osprey this season. While there was not much evidence of gross starvation, overall, our local babies looked… ┬ákind of skinny. Lots of underweight, young Osprey, and plenty of boneified “runts” suggests that there was fierce competition for food at the nest. And uber-anecdotally, I also noticed the highest number of Osprey flying back to their nests over the boulevard after fishing the ocean, empty handed, than I ever remember seeing.

I’m not sure what can be about this, or even if anything needs to be done.

But Survey Says, it is worth noting.

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Those were the big issues I saw, but beyond that, I saw lots of beautiful Osprey living rich lives down the shore, just like us.

Barnegat Bay is an astounding place… an extremely fragile habitat with a morbidly obese tourist economy sitting on top of it. Maintaining the right balance is tricky, but absolutely critical to our future here. We often talk about conservation as if we are throwing a bone to some animals, or reluctantly leaving a little open space somewhere. But that’s totally backwards.

Conservation around Barnegat Bay is a critical economic issue… probably the #1 most important issue. If we aren’t careful, and we crush the Bay under our massive weight, the economy, the high rents, and the bloated real estate values will come crashing back to earth. But by the same stroke, if we care for it expertly, we should be golden for years to come. It’s a win/win.

In this sense, the Osprey are like our trusted macro-economic forecasters and advisors, and also our Golden Geese.

Thanks to Ben Wurst and the NJ Osprey Project for getting out there and listening to what they’re saying about our possible futures!