Breaking Bread author profile: Joe Smith

We are in the midst of a series that will profile the authors and artists featured in our latest volume, Breaking Bread. Learn more about the Breaking Bread volume here. Click this link to order Breaking Bread and previous volumes. See also our profiles of Trust contributors and profiles of Metamorphosis contributors.


by Natty Hussey
Whole Terrain staff

Redknots in Delaware Bay, ©M.J. Kilpatrick

In Joe Smith’s contribution to Whole Terrain’s Breaking Bread volume, “Delaware Bay: When shorebirds and shellfish farms compete for habitat, is there room for compromise?” he shared from his experience as an ecologist focused on conservation and restoration of the New Jersey coastal ecosystems. His passion for learning about and caring for the habitats of migratory birds spans not only his career and academic pursuits, but serves as a focus of his leisure time.

When I asked Smith about his desired use of freetime he told me that late winter and early spring is what he describes as the “rambling season.” As Smith defines it, rambling season is “the time between hunting season and when the ticks come out.” Field work, hikes, and marshland walks all occur within Smith’s rambling season. A lover of the outdoors, he sees duck hunting as “something I’ve done since I was young; it’s a great opportunity to sit for hours and see what happens by.”

Joe Smith is a member of Ducks Unlimited: a “famed organization,” as he describes it, because of the results it has achieved in the field of wetland conservation. “I wish there were more groups like Ducks Unlimited, where members have a direct stake in the conservation work of the organization,” he says. “While hunters kill ducks, they have an interest in healthy duck populations.” Those duck populations are reliant on healthy wetland habitats. Like duck hunters, anyone in intimate contact with land, in whatever capacity, cares about it and dedicates time and resources to investing in habitats they feel connected to.

In past generations, people’s connection to the land was more organic. “Perhaps people grew up to be engineers and stock brokers, but may have grown up on a farm and had memories and stayed connected to the land,” he says.Smith points out that if you don’t have an intimate experience with nature, then you don’t care about it. “Maintaining a world view informed by nature is a constant struggle.” Typically in current American culture, the longer one is in one’s career, the more time is spent in the office, but this can begin to chafe. We all struggle with this “wanderlust” to varying degrees, the itch to get outdoors and away from the daily grind; it is simply a question of whether we heed the call and engage ourselves with nature.

Joe Smith banding semipalmated sandpiper in Brazil, © Taran Catania

I recently spoke to Joe Smith after he returned from a research trip to Bahía Lomas, Tierra del Fuego, Chile. The goals of the research were to: 1) map critical habitats for shorebirds wintering there, and 2) determine the current and potential conservation threats to these areas. Smith mentioned, “The great thing about working with migratory birds is that they cross so many borders. It allows for the building of global partnerships and information exchange.” The research in Chile was a collaboration between the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, Rutgers University, University of Santo Tomás, and the Bahía Lomas Center, a non-profit devoted to the conservation of Bahía Lomas. As a hunter, an ecologist, and someone who cares about eating excellent fish and game in a way that sustains the ecosystem producing that food, Smith offers a unique and important perspective regarding ecosystem management. In the following conversation, Smith shares about his work as an ecologist, and about the inspiration for his piece that appeared in our Breaking Bread volume.

WT: What drew you to the theme of “breaking bread”?

JS: My essay is about a conflict over food. It’s about horseshoe crab eggs that are a singular and critical food resource for migrating shorebirds and about a nascent oyster aquaculture industry that has chosen to set up shop amidst these horseshoe crabs and shorebirds. As scientists and business people work together to keep the oyster industry in the Delaware Bay alive, they’ve taken oysters, which were once a fundamental component of the ecosystem, and put them at odds with it.

Wild oyster reefs sheltered shorelines and offered food and habitat to a wide array of wildlife. But now oysters are being grown on aquaculture gear on intertidal flats that, instead, may displace birds and fish from their habitat, and that potentially inhibit the movement of horseshoe crabs to and from their spawning beaches. Isn’t a world where we are all rowing in the same direction possible? Horseshoe crabs, shorebirds, and oysters—along with fishermen and seafood eaters—all would be better off if we had a restored estuary. But economic expediency seems to continually pit conservation and business against each other. In this case, it means potentially compromising one of the greatest wildlife spectacles in North America.

WT: What inspired the particular piece you submitted?

Spawning horseshoe crabs Delaware bay, ©Joe Smith

JS: I am tasked with doing some of the scientific investigation needed in order to determine the impact that oyster aquaculture has on horseshoe crabs and shorebirds. Writing this essay was an opportunity not only to share the details of the conflict and my own views of it, but it was also an opportunity for me try to more fully consider the perspective of the people on different sides of the issue.  

As we progress in the endeavor to understand the impact of aquaculture on the Delaware Bay ecosystem, I am learning that is difficult for science alone to settle a conflict. In fact, science, with its inherent uncertainties and the potential for conflicting results among studies, can serve to forestall a resolution. The precautionary principle is rarely put into practice (where protective action is taken in the absence of scientific certainty). In reality, much of the time there must be scientific certainty before an environmentally destructive activity is halted. By the time scientific certainty is reached to the satisfaction of all stakeholders, quite a bit of damage may have already been done.

In the case of oyster aquaculture in the Delaware Bay, thanks largely to Endangered Species Act protection of the red knot, we are occupying a middle ground. Aquaculture production is occurring, but expansion is proceeding relatively slowly while science is being done to study the impact of existing operations.

WT: When you think of the twin directions of our breaking bread theme—reconciliation or interdependence around a meal, and the broken food system—what are you drawn to work on?

Fisherman and shorebirds on a tidal flat in Maranhao, Brazil, ©Joe Smith

JS: I’d say the issue I write about is squarely on the topic of reconciliation: most broadly on reconciliation with what we’ve done to the environment in the process of feeding ourselves. On land, we outlawed the harvest and sale of wild game for profit long ago, but we still persist in the exploitation of wild animals in oceans and estuaries.

Some creatures can be relatively resilient to the onslaught, but I’ve arrived at the conclusion oysters are simply too fragile to endure an industrial-scale wild harvest.

My reading on the issue has revealed to me that we essentially decimated most oyster populations in the Eastern U.S. during the age of sail. We aren’t even able to properly characterize what precolonial oyster populations looked like because they were over-harvested before anyone began keeping records.

The current effort to convert the industry to aquaculture is more resignation than reconciliation.  And with fisheries scientists and commercial interests turning away from efforts to restore wild oyster populations, estuary ecosystems will remain depauperate, lacking the truly keystone component of oyster reefs.

This is where reconciliation is needed. Environmental conservationists can’t do it alone. They need industry, agencies, and people who like eating oysters on their side to achieve the restoration of oyster populations.  

Whole Terrain: Tell us a little bit about your work as it pertains to Whole Terrain’s tagline, “reflective environmental practice.”

Members of the team observing a shorebird flock, Bahía Lomas, Tierra del Fuego, Chile, ©Stephanie Feigan

Joe Smith: If we perceive something in the ecosystem as broken or impaired, it is essential to understand how it got that way in order to fix it. But the urgency of conservation mandates that you can’t simply study something indefinitely. You have to act in the meantime despite an incomplete understanding.  

Aldo Leopold struggled with this dilemma. He saw part of the solution in the capacity of people to reach deeper insights into the natural world via personal observation, experience and intuition. He called it “natural skill.” I feel that “natural skill” still holds great importance as we struggle with environmental issues large and small. This approach, at the very least, can generate hypotheses to guide research and adaptive management.  

The take home is that, to gain these insights, we have to get away from the desk. In my own experience, each visit to the field helps me adjust my view of the world, while the longer I stay away, the more static (and wrong) this view becomes.  

Honestly, I find Leopold’s term clunky. I hope he would agree that “reflective environmental practice” has a nicer ring!

WT: What writing project or environmental practice are you working on now?

JS: Some of my current work hints at a way forward. I’m part of a team that has been working to conserve shorebirds throughout the western hemisphere, with projects in the Arctic, Brazil, and Tierra del Fuego in Chile.

These projects not only highlight the global importance of the Delaware Bay, but also offer some perspective on different conservation approaches.

In Brazil, we’ve seen a conservation model that is nonexistent in the U.S. There are vast forested and coastal regions set aside as reserves for people to use for subsistence and household income, called “extractive reserves.”

The region of northern Brazil, where we work, is a coastal wilderness that is paradoxically full of people—but big industrial interests are off-limits. These areas also happen to be among the most important sites for shorebirds in the world.  

In Brazilian extractive reserves, the needs of people and the needs of shorebirds are not at odds with each other. Both people and wildlife need an intact ecosystem in order for them to attain their livelihood. Both would be displaced by, for example, conversion of mangroves into shrimp aquaculture farms.

This is a fortunate situation for the shorebirds and other wildlife because the people they share the habitat with have a voice. In Brazil, this voice is buttressed by law, and agencies tasked with enforcing it.

Can such a model be achieved in North America? I think so. In commercial fishing and farming, we constantly conflate the big industrial operations with the small-scale family businesses.

There is no way to extract wild resources at an industrial scale sustainably. The only hope is to return to small-scale, local extraction in conjunction with marine protected areas. Yes, it would require a sea-change in fisheries management and the fisheries business. But isn’t that what we need to conserve these wild resources over the long term?


Bio: Joe Smith is an ecologist living near Cape May, New Jersey working on research, restoration, and conservation projects with Niles & Smith Conservation Services. Much of his work and free time is spent learning about the coastal marshes and forests of the area.

Joe’s Ph.D. is in environmental science and policy from George Mason University. His graduate research focused on the non-breeding period of migratory birds in the tropics. His bachelor’s degree is in forestry and wildlife management from Mississippi State University. Conservation of coastal and forest ecosystems and the biology of migratory birds are the focus of his current projects, some of which are viewable on his website:

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