It's Too Late
An Abundance of Wildlife Early European voyagers landing on the East Coast of North America were astounded to see animals in numbers they had never before witnessed. Fish swarmed in the millions. Captain John Smith came upon vast schools of fish in tributaries of the Potomac River, near the Chesapeake Bay, in 1608: "…in diverse places that abundance of fish lying so thick with their heads above the water [that] as for want of nets (our barge driving among them) we attempted to catch them with a frying pan, but we found it a bad instrument to catch fish with. Neither better fish, more plenty, nor more variety for small fish had any of us ever seen in any place so swimming in the water…" (Hawke 1970). Lobsters were so prolific that one haul of a fisherman's net would bring in more than 100; settlers used them as fertilizer and fish bait. Huge sturgeon 10 feet long swam up major rivers to spawn along the East Coast. Offshore, whales and herds of dolphins migrated along the coasts. The northern right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) fed on plankton in shallow lagoons as it migrated to its breeding grounds off Florida. The now-extinct Atlantic gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) was a common marine resident, swimming and feeding offshore. At the present sites of Boston, New York and Philadelphia, vast saltwater marshes surrounded river deltas. Shorebirds and waterfowl darkened the sky with their millions.
Along the craggy rock‑strewn coasts of Maine and the Canadian maritime provinces lived a large mink, almost double the size of the American species found elsewhere in the country. Unlike any other type of mink in the world, the animal was a coastal species that soon became known to colonists and fur trappers as the sea mink (Mustela macrodon). One sea mink killed in 1867 measured 32.5 inches in length, enormous in comparison to the American mink, which does not exceed 23 inches (Mowat 1981). The sea mink's pelt had twice the value of the inland species in the fur trade (Allen 1942).
An early account by the English naturalist Joseph Banks, who traveled to Newfoundland in 1766 to study the local fauna, described the sea mink as "bigger than a Fox, tho not much, in make and shape nearest compared to an Italian Greyhound, legs long, tail long and tapering" (Mowat 1981). It is unlikely that the sea mink was as long‑legged as a greyhound, but available information indicates it was quite different from any closely related species. Bones from the sea mink have been found along the coast of Maine and New Brunswick (Allen 1942). The fur traders decimated these minks long before scientific or biological studies could be carried out. One early observer described the avid pursuit of sea minks in Maine:
Some seventy‑five years ago, and for many years thereafter, my
father, who was a fur‑buyer, used to have nearly all the furs
taken on the islands of Penobscot Bay . . . these sea mink used to
bring considerably more than others on account of their great
size . . . they were persistently hunted . . . with dogs
trained for the purpose. As the price of mink rose, they were
hunted more and grew scarcer, 'til in the sixties, when mink skins
brought eight or ten dollars apiece, parties who made a business
of hunting nearly or quite exterminated the race. Some of these
men went from island to island, hunting any small ledge where a
mink could live. They carried their dogs with them, and besides guns,
shovels, pick‑axes and crow‑bars, took a good supply of pepper and
brimstone. If they took refuge in holes or cracks of the ledges,
they were usually dislodged by working with shovels and crow‑bars,
and the dogs caught them when they came out. If they were in the
crevices of the rocks where they could not be got at and their eyes
could be seen to shine, they were shot and pulled out by means of an
iron rod with a screw at the end. If they could not be seen, they
were usually driven out by firing in charges of pepper. If this
failed, then they were smoked with brimstone, in which case they
either came out or were suffocated in their holes. Thus in a short
time they were nearly exterminated (Beard 1947).
The last known sea mink was killed in 1880, and its pelt was sold to a fur buyer in Jonesport, Maine (Mowat 1981). Only fragments of bones and teeth found in excavations of Indian cooking sites attest to its existence (Nowak 1999).
A beautiful North American waterfowl species also disappeared. The male Labrador duck (Camptorhynchus labradorius) had striking black‑and‑white plumage, while the female was mousy brown. During the 19th century, these birds were often seen in fall and winter off New York's Long Island and on the New Jersey coast. Named for the Canadian peninsula where naturalists of the day assumed that they bred, eggs reported to belong to this species had been seen by a naturalist, but the nests were never found (Greenway 1967). This duck had a soft bill, and inside its mouth, lamellae filtered its food. The Labrador duck was assumed to have a specialized diet, possibly of small surface invertebrates that it filtered while dabbling at the surface. The ducks also fed on mollusks, as hunters discovered when they caught them with fishing lines baited with mussels (Fuller 1987).
Labrador ducks were strong flyers who flew in tight, small flocks (Day 1981). Along with virtually all waterfowl of the day, they were shot for the feather and food markets. Gunners killed entire flocks of waterfowl, bringing them to market, where they were heaped in piles. The ducks were killed for no purpose, since they were not sought after as food and considered too "fishy" by most customers. Many of the birds shot by hunters were left to rot, unsold at markets (Day 1981, Greenway 1967). The Labrador duck, first described scientifically in 1789, was always considered rare, and the last known specimen was a bird shot off Long Island 86 years later, during the autumn of 1875. This male is kept in the US National Museum of Natural History (Fuller 1987). The Labrador duck was apparently hunted to extinction, a victim of the totally unrestricted waterfowl hunting that characterized the 19th century, based on its prevalence in game markets (Day 1981).
Further north, a flightless bird walked upright on its flippered feet. At a length of 3 feet, the great auk (Alca impennis) was the size of a large penguin, and could have been mistaken for one. Like many northern seabirds, it had a black back and white belly, but each side of its face was dramatically marked with a large, white oval. Its bill was long and hooked. Great auks were far larger than any of their cousins ‒ the murres, puffins and guillemots of the North Atlantic. At one time, these birds ranged along most of the coasts and islands of the North Atlantic, from northern France through Scandinavia, England, Scotland and Iceland, to North America's eastern coast as far south as Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts (Greenway 1967). Based on fossil evidence, great auks were once as numerous as most other sea birds of the region (Greenway 1967).
The very oldest bones, excavated on the island of Jersey in the English Channel, are between 70 and 90 thousand-years-old (Greenway 1967). As the only flightless bird in the North Atlantic, it was once widespread and numerous. When people approached the birds while they were on land nesting, great auks would immediately waddle to the water's edge and dive in. They were rapid and expert swimmers, using their wings to propel them. When cornered on land, however, they were helpless. Both parents raised the chicks, and they refused to desert their nests, even when attacked. For centuries, hunters took advantage of this trait, pursuing and killing them during their breeding season. Ship crews slaughtered thousands for provisions and took live birds on board for future meals.
Gradually over the centuries, great auks disappeared from most European coastlines and offshore islands as a result of hunting. The last record in the British Isles was on St. Kilda, an island west of northern Scotland, where some local residents captured a Great Auk in 1821; although kept captive with a string attached to its foot, it managed to escape (Fuller 1987). Twenty years later, as recounted by an older resident, another auk was found asleep on a rock on the same island and captured, kept for three days, and then killed because these superstitious people feared that it was a witch (Greenway 1967).
Great auk feathers were harvested in grisly "factories" on Funk Island off Newfoundland in the 18th century. Collectors built pens of piled boulders into which they would drive the hapless great auks from their nests. Once the auks were cornered in the pens, the men would swing spiked clubs at the birds, killing or wounding them (Day 1981). The birds were then thrown over the enclosure walls into piles near the fires; there the dead and wounded birds were dropped into boiling cauldrons or thrown directly on the fires (Day 1981). The boiling water caused the feathers to float to the surface, where they were scooped up and stuffed into bags; the corpses were next dragged down to the water where they were dumped (Day 1981). Some observers, including Captain George Cartwright, an early colonist on Labrador, watched boats coming ashore laden with hundreds of carcasses from Funk Island. He wrote in July 1785, "If a stop is not soon put to that practice, the whole breed will be diminished to almost nothing" (Birkhead 1994). By 1800, all the island's great auks had been killed. The ashes and pens still remain on Funk Island as the only reminder of this extraordinary bird.
Islands off Iceland and Newfoundland became the last refuges of the great auk. When word spread in the 19th century that the species was nearing extinction, hunters went in search of them for museums and egg collections. The eggs and skins of the Garefowl, as it was known to Europeans, were sold at auction in London and to European museums for very high prices. Hundreds of English pounds were offered for each egg, encouraging fishermen to comb islets for the last of the nesting birds. The only remaining birds known to survive were killed on Eldey Island off southwest Iceland on June 2, 1844; three Icelandic fishermen who discovered two birds, a breeding pair with a single egg, strangled the adults and threw them into a boat (Birkhead 1994). These last great auks were killed for their skins, which were sold to a dealer (Birkhead 1994).
Other marine creatures barely avoided extinction during the period of unregulated killing of wildlife that began in the 1600s. The Atlantic walrus (Odobenus rosmarus rosmarus) herd off the Canadian coast numbered at least a quarter of a million animals prior to European exploitation. Between 1633 and 1642, vessels from the Massachusetts Bay Colony made a number of expeditions to Sable Island off Nova Scotia to kill the walruses for their tusks and oil. Glover Allen (1942), in Extinct and Vanishing Mammals of the Western Hemisphere, chronicles one sealing voyage in 1641 in which 12 men who spent eight months on Sable Island returned with "400 pair of sea horse teeth, which were esteemed and worth 300 pounds." The walrus colonies in the Gulf of St. Lawrence numbered seven or eight thousand at that time; they were killed off by American sealers, who worked at night while the walruses slept on land (Allen 1942). Gradually, the Atlantic walrus became exterminated in all areas on the continent. From 1925 to 1931, the last large population in the Canadian Arctic on Baffin Island was devastated by the killing of 175 thousand animals (Nowak 1999). Although finally given protection, the species has not shown a substantial recovery because of the high kill by native peoples, which equals annual recruitment in the western Atlantic (Nowak 1999). Only 25 thousand walruses remain in this region. Russia classifies the species as vulnerable and the population in the Laptev Sea as rare (Nowak 1999). They may have increased somewhat along the coast of Norway, in the Svalbard region and Barents Sea (Nowak 1999).
Although the Pacific gray whale has now recovered from near‑extinction from whaling, few people are aware that this species once lived in the Atlantic as well (Allen 1942, Mowat 1981). Large numbers of Atlantic gray whales migrated along North America's eastern coast until as late as the end of the 18th century (Mowat 1981). Whalers of the 1740s saw whales whose descriptions matched those of the gray whale, but the existence of this species was not verified until fossil remains were uncovered (Allen 1942, Mowat 1981). Early Basque whalers had eliminated gray whales from European waters centuries before (Mowat 1981). Atlantic gray whales swam south along the shore of the coasts of Maine, Massachusetts and Long Island, down to the Florida Keys, where their calves were born (Mowat 1981). This whale, known as the "Scrag" in the Northeast, was a familiar species off the coasts of Nova Scotia and Maine in early colonial times. It gave rise to place names such as the Scrag Islands, Scrag Rocks and Scrag Harbor ‒ now known as Sag Harbor (Mowat 1981). These whales fed in shallow bays on abundant bottom‑dwelling crustaceans, making them easy prey for whalers. They were killed beginning in the early 1600s by harpooners off Nantucket Island, Cape Cod and Long Island Sound in the shallow shoals of their migration route (Mowat 1981). By the early 1700s, New England whalers had completely eliminated this whale (Mowat 1981).
Beginning in 1609, Samuel de Champlain sailed down the St. Lawrence River to the Great Lakes (Peck 1990). Other explorers and settlers established trading posts and villages. Furs were major items of trade, and soon beaver and other furbearers were traded in the millions by the French and English. Early travelers found wild turkeys (Melagris gallopavo) so abundant boys threw stones at them for recreation (Peck 1990). Two French explorers observed great numbers of fish in the Great Lakes and the upper Mississippi River, which soon became exploited. Vast numbers of cisco, members of the Salmonidae family, once lived in the Great Lakes. The Blackfin Cisco (Coregonus nigripinnus) and Deepwater Cisco (Coregonus johannae), native to Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, were considered "jumbo herring" by fishermen from early times (Day 1981). By the late 19th century, large fishing vessels with huge nets caught up to 15 million tons from one lake alone per year; one net haul might yield as much as 10 tons in a day (Day 1981). Fishing continued, even in winter, through ice holes, and prior to the availability of freezing facilities, dumping of unsold catches amounted to many tons (Day 1981). These fish became commercially extinct after World War I, and subsequently were declared extinct by the World Conservation Union, along with another Great Lakes species, the longjaw cisco (Coregonus alpenae) (Baillie and Groombridge 1996).
This overfishing was repeated in the Atlantic waters off New England and southern Canada. Cod, halibut and flounder abounded here, providing ample fish for centuries to local fishing communities. Huge cod weighing 180 pounds and halibut the size of barn doors were often caught in these times. Factory fishing ships began fishing here in the 1950s and soon depleted the stocks. National legislation banned these vessels from the Atlantic coast and smaller vessels took their place. With few restrictions on take — and far too many fishermen — the stocks crashed in the 1980s and early 1990s. With the encouragement of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), fishermen turned to small sharks known as dogfish. Within a few years, they also became depleted because of their extremely slow reproductive rate, a fact apparently not appreciated by the NMFS. Fishery conservation legislation has been enacted, but these stocks may never return to former abundance.
Some fisherman are being compensated for their boats by a federal program, in order to ease fishing pressure on remaining stocks, but others are turning to small fish, such as menhaden. These fish are fed on by humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), threatened species not yet recovered from past whaling, as well as by puffins and other seabirds. Many seabirds are undergoing population decline as a result of a dwindling food supply and the drowning risk posed by fishing nets. Shorebirds, too, are affected by overfishing. Horseshoe crabs (Limulus polyphemus) lay their eggs along the east coast each year, providing abundant food for shorebirds on their northward migration, and for many types of other wildlife as well. These crabs are captured by the millions for use as fish bait, which has reduced their numbers dangerously in some areas. The shorebirds have also declined precipitously in recent years, some species by 90 percent. Entire food chains are being disrupted as a result of over exploitation of the sea. Ocean pollution has contaminated Atlantic coastal waters, causing die-offs of dolphins, fish and manatees.
All along the East Coast, colonists built cities at river deltas, which were surrounded by vast salt marshes. These locations were considered prime seaport and manufacturing sites, and the marshes were filled in and polluted. Tens of thousands more acres of marshes along the Northeast coast have been ruined by construction of drainage ditches to control mosquitoes and halt malaria. In fact, these ditches created habitat for mosquito breeding and caused the water level in the marshes to drop. Waterbird populations declined sharply as a result, and they no longer filled their role as fish and shellfish nurseries, water filterers and flood controls. In a recent development, dikes in 10 thousand acres of marshes on Long Island are being blocked to open normal flow channels between marsh and bay, and exotic reeds are being removed (Lambert 1997). The marshes that have been returned to their natural state showed an immediate tripling in the number of waterfowl wintering there, and a doubling of wading birds such as ibis, egrets and herons; shorebird populations quintupled; these marshes have at least 130 species of breeding birds, and 300 species use them for wintering or migration (Lambert 1997). The marshes give a glimpse of the wealth of wildlife that once inhabited eastern coasts; with similar programs, they can be restored to help build up stock of fish and shellfish.
In most areas, however, housing and development now occupy the sand dunes and former marshes. Some barrier islands off the coasts, which buffer the beaches against the erosion effects of storms, have been preserved in portions of the East Coast, such as Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia. Elsewhere, roads, houses and businesses clutter these islands, and development has endangered many native birds. Georgia's beautiful coastal marshes were given official protection after they were nearly destroyed by phosphate mining, when it was shown that their value as shrimp and fish nurseries far outweighed their short-term value for phosphate.
At the southern tip of the United States, the Florida Everglades, one of the largest wetlands in the world, once provided nesting and feeding ground for millions of egrets, herons, pelicans and other waterbirds. This sawgrass wilderness sheltered vast numbers of American alligators (Alligator mississipiensis). Cougars, known as Florida panthers (Felis concolor coryi), were common, and preyed on the small Everglades white-tailed deer. Water diversion projects for agriculture and the new human population of Miami and coastal cities resulted in a drying out of the Everglades. Exotic plants have proliferated in the marshes, overwhelming the native grasses and choking waterways. Ninety percent of the populations of waterbirds disappeared. The Florida panther recently became extinct in Everglades National Park, one of its last refuges. The alligator has recovered from nearly disastrous hide hunting in Florida, but remains rare in many parts of its original range. A project to restore some of the waterflow to the Everglades was enacted into law in the 1990s (see Aquatic Ecosystems chapter).
The American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus), a saltwater species inhabiting coastal areas, was once numerous in Florida Bay and in the mangroves of the Keys. Today, this is one of the most endangered species in the country, numbering fewer than 400 animals. Early hide hunting reduced them and, in this century, pollution and loss of mangroves in their habitat have pushed this species close to extinction.
Many Everglades bird species are also endangered, and one has recently become extinct — the dusky seaside sparrow (Melospiza maritima nigriscens). This sparrow, with its unusually dark coloration, was a victim of the massive destruction of wetlands in Florida. By the time it received the protection of the US Endangered Species Act, this subspecies was nearly extinct. Its limited habitat of spartina grass on Florida's central Atlantic coast had been flooded for mosquito control and drained for the construction of nearby NASA facilities (Ehrlich et al. 1992). In an 11th-hour attempt to save these little sparrows, a captive breeding program was set up, mating them with a related subspecies to preserve some of their genes. The last purebred dusky seaside sparrow died at the age of 13 in 1987 (Ehrlich et al. 1992). The breeding program was not successful, and by 1997, the related subspecies had also become endangered.
Two spectacular waterbirds, the American flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber), and the scarlet ibis (Guara rubra), were once residents of south Florida. Both species were eliminated in the 19th century when, as William T. Hornaday (1913) observed, they "attracted the evil eyes of the 'milliner's taxidermists.'" The feather trade of the late 19th century nearly exterminated the majority of North America's wading birds and many of its seabirds through unregulated slaughter for plumes to adorn ladies' hats. Egrets, roseate spoonbills, herons, terns and other birds with long or colorful feathers were killed indiscriminately. In 1900, the Lacey Act and state laws extended protection to these birds by banning sale and interstate commerce, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, signed with Canada in 1918, protected native North American non‑game birds from capture, killing and sale.