Science & Conservation in the Atlantic Flyway


A review of A Knot in Common: Science, Values, and Conservation in the Atlantic Flyway, by Kristoffer Jon Whitney.

A Knot in Common by Kristoffer Whitney presents controversy of the Red Knot, a fairly small and nondescript shorebird that breeds in Arctic Canada and spends the winter in Patagonia, at the southern end of South America. In full breeding plumage, Red Knots sport orangey-red plumage on the breast (hence the common term: “robin snipe”). When migrating between southern Argentina and northern Canada, Red Knots have numerous stopover points where they gorge themselves on the eggs of Horseshoe Crabs that happen to be laying eggs by the millions along the shore of Delaware Bay. Such revitalizing stopovers represent the difference between life and death to Knots in the midst of a twelve-thousand-mile journey along what ornithologists (or more specifically, wildlife managers) called the Atlantic Flyway. Over the past twenty years, the rufa subspecies of the Red Knot has crashed from a population estimate of more than 80,000 to fewer than 10,000 in recent years. Bird biologists predicted continued declines without dramatic reductions in the harvest of Horseshoe Crab eggs and the crabs themselves.

Not everyone agrees. People who harvest the crabs along Delaware Bay — “fishers” — argue that conservation strategies threaten their way of life just as the dramatic collapse of other fisheries have. Kristoffer Whitney frames such debates historically and ethnographically and thus demonstrates how science studies scholars can contribute to such discussions.

Whitney’s analysis of the historical value of the Red Knot defines its “value” on several grounds: edibility, aesthetics, and recreation (hunting). Scientists and naturalists appreciated the species for its long-distance migration. Yet, Whitney argues, naturalists and elite sport hunters reached agreement regarding the decline of shorebird populations and its cause: market hunters. The case for conservation rested upon the value of Red Knots and shorebirds to insect pest control in agriculture.

According to Whitney, by the middle of the twentieth century, shifts in scientific priorities and new technologies had obviated the need for economic defenses for shorebird protection. Amateur and professional naturalists both reflected on the remarkable nature of shorebird migration and distribution. Banding added to the knowledge base regarding the movements and locations of shorebirds while simultaneously bringing naturalists into close contact with the living birds (at least partially supplanting the longstanding practice of scientific collection).

Whitney next explores the implications for shorebirds of what he aptly calls, “The endangered species paradigm.” With the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 in the United States, shorebirds and other nongame species received previously unattainable levels of conservation attention at the federal (and by extension state and regional levels). Independent long-term monitoring programs developed in Arctic Canada, New Jersey, and Delaware. Several biologists affiliated with state programs worried about the implications of the extensive harvest of Horseshoe Crabs for Red Knot populations. Contemporaneously, scientists in Argentina and Canada began collaborative studies to determine feeding patterns and energetics of migrating Red Knots (thereby clarifying the significance of the stopover along the shores of Delaware Bay).

Having mapped out roughly a century of efforts to study and manage shorebird populations, Whitney next conducted an ethnographic study of the field practices of the naturalists contributing to the study of Red Knots along the Delaware shore. He reveals that strong affinity for birds in general and for knots specifically inspires wonder as well as ongoing efforts on the part of the volunteers who staff the tagging operation. Significantly, such passion for birds also motivates conservation impulses on the behalf of Knots and other shorebirds. Emotion, Whitney argues, not only motivates but modifies fieldwork in the search for the most policy relevant data such as shorebird population and distribution. In addition, technological enthusiasm and love of place both contribute to the project to monitor and protect knots.

In making conservation arguments, shorebird scientists and activists distilled their deep emotional attachment to the Red Knots into economic arguments for protection. In contrast, Delaware Bay fishers framed their arguments for continued harvest of Horseshoe Crabs in broader ecological and historic terms thereby comparing their plight with that of the birds (and the Horseshoe Crabs). In effect, restricting the Crab harvest threatens the fishers’ way of life, which is tightly bound up with the Delaware Bay. Whitney suggests that the shorebird conservationists should follow the example of the watermen and frame themselves as part of the ecology of the bay and their lifestyle as more than the sum of its economic productivity.

Adaptive Resource Management, Whitney argues, constitutes one productive approach to the Red Knot controversy in that the debates over the relationship between numbers of Red Knots and Horseshoe Crabs gradually became a de facto model of the political ecology of Delaware Bay. But he cautions that abstractions whether in the form of placing value on the knots as a part of the eco-tourism enterprise or statistics as applied to the Horseshoe Crab harvest, fail to capture the problem in its fullest dimensions.

In situating the Red Knot controversy in a century of science and policy, Whitney has demonstrated how science studies scholars can contribute to current discussion regarding the management of threatened species and ecosystems. His thoughtful analysis reveals the dimensions of the study of shorebirds and the Red Knot from collections to banding studies to management. Whitney characterizes the motivations and justifications of those who study shorebirds from economic benefit to emotional attachment. In contrast, watermen have equated their dependency on fishing in the Delaware Bay to the plight of the Red Knot. If the harvest of horseshoe crabs threatens the existence of Red Knots, its restriction threatens fisher’s way of life. Can shorebird conservationists broaden their claims to similarly tie themselves to the knots and the Delaware Bay ecosystem? To be effective, Whitney argues, they must. Adaptive Resource Management may well offer a mechanism to balance competing interests in Delaware Bay. A Knot in Common adeptly captures the scope of the controversy and gestures toward a resolution that integrates analysis and experience.

Frederick R. Davis PhD
Associate Professor
Department of History
Florida State University

Primary Sources

Allison Argo, “Crash: A Tale of Two Species.” Nature (Argo Films and Thirteen/WNET New York, Educational Broadcasting Corporation, premiered on PBS, February 2008), 50:44, available at:
Joanna Burger, Michael Gochfeld, and Larry J. Niles. “Ecotourism and Birds in Coastal New Jersey: Contrasting Responses of Birds, Tourists, and Managers.” Environmental Conservation 22, 1995, pp. 56-65.
W.L. McAtee, “Why We Should Protect our Shorebirds.” Country Life in America XXII, 1912, pp. 19-22.
Conor P. McGowan et al. Delaware Bay Adaptive Resource Management Working Group. Stock Assessment Report No. 09-02 (Supplement B) of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, A Framework for Adaptive Management of Horseshoe Crab Harvest in the Delaware Bay Constrained by Red Knot Conservation November 2009.
J.P. Myers et al. “Conservation Strategy for Migratory Species.” American Scientist 75, 1987, pp. 19-26.

Dissertation Information

University of Pennsylvania. 2012. 255 pp. Primary Advisor: M. Susan Lindee.


Image: “Red Knot feeding on eggs of Horseshoe crabs. Mispillion Harbor, Delaware”. Public domain image by Gregory Breese/USFWS. Wikimedia Commons.

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