It’s been almost a year since the state initially proposed the uplisting from threatened to endangered. And in that time, population numbers for the shorebird have continued their downward spiral. It’s hard to believe that less than two decades ago, more than 100,000 red knots filled the skies of Delaware Bay. Today, only 13,000 remain.
Wildlife officials said that the new status does not add protections for the birds. However, it is formal recognition that despite years of efforts to help the bird–including a 2008 New Jersey state-instituted moratorium on horseshoe crab fishing–its numbers continue to decline.
Unlike the state listing, a listing under the federal Endangered Species Act would offer some real protections for the birds. It would initiate the development of a recovery plan and require federal agencies whose actions affect red knots to consult with the FWS. With the shorebird continuing its slide toward extinction, such actions may be the last hope for red knots.
Watch Defenders join efforts on the ground to protect the imperiled red knot:
If red knots go the way of the dodo, there’s a lot more at stake than just losing yet another one of nature’s treasures. With the imperiled shorebird species in serious trouble, local communities up and down the East Coast also stand to lose millions of dollars in revenue from avid birders and casual wildlife tourists alike.
Each spring, thousands of visitors flock to New Jersey’s Delaware Bay to catch a glimpse of numerous shorebirds, including red knots, which swarm onto beach heads in search of eggs deposited by horseshoe crabs. In total, nearly half a million birders pass through the bay area each year, spending between $6 and $10 million on their trips, with an economic multiplier of $12 to $20 million once the money filters through local communities. (Read this full report on bay area ecotourism, prepared for the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife in 2000).
But all those dollars could quickly disappear along with the dwindling populations of shorebirds. Fellow Defenders blogger Caitlin Leutwiler recently reported that populations of migrating red knots recorded in southern Chile declined by 5,000, putting the overall population below 25,000. Losing one-fifth of the entire population in a single year is a huge concern, especially since climate change continues to wreak havoc on the red knots’ food supply and extreme migration.
Many shorebirds rely on the eggs of horseshoe crabs as an essential source of protein in order to complete their long migratory journeys. But overfishing for bait and the biomedical industry have sent the population of horseshoe crabs into a tailspin from which they’ve yet to recover. With such a reduced population, ocean acidification and the increased frequency and intensity of hurricanes and tropical storms brought on by climate change could deal the species a final blow. The entire ecosystem of horseshoe crabs, shorebirds and other coastal and marine species is at risk unless action is taken to protect them.
Red knots are quickly becoming another proverbial “canary in the coal mine” for the snowballing effects of climate change. With one of the longest migrations in the entire world, from the Canadian Arctic to as far as the tip of South America, the loss of red knots will literally be felt throughout ecosystems halfway around the world. That includes the hundreds of business owners and wildlife enthusiasts that benefit from a booming ecotourism industry around the Delaware Bay.
Red knots feeding in Mispillion Harbor, DE. Photo (c) Andrew Harper
Scientists today released a report announcing that a decrease of at least 5,000 red knots was observed at key wintering grounds in Tierra del Fuego, Chile from the previous year. Scientists reported population counts of wintering knots in other locations declined as well. The estimated current total population for the migratory shorebird is now unlikely to be more than 25,000.
The decline in red knot numbers elevates the importance of implementing stronger protections at Delaware Bay, a key U.S. stopover where migrating knots depend on an abundant supply of horseshoe crab eggs to fuel the final leg of their migration to breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic.
The scientists’ report concludes that despite horseshoe crab harvest restrictions put in place by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission over the past decade “there is still no evidence of recovery of the horseshoe crab population, either in numbers of spawning females or in all sub-adult age groups including juveniles.” Restrictions to date have only been enough to stop the population from declining further, are insufficient to recover the population and will continue to be insufficient unless the harvest is greatly reduced.
“Unless action is taken now, red knots may be on an irreversible slide to extinction.”
Conservation groups are calling on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to take immediate steps to list the red knot under the Endangered Species Act. A listing would initiate the development of a recovery plan and require federal agencies whose actions affect red knots to consult with the FWS. A listing would also require the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, housed under the National Marine Fisheries Service, to consult with the FWS on the regulations it establishes for the horseshoe crab fishery.
Shorebirds in flight. Photo (c) Andrew Harper
Bob Irvin, senior vice president for conservation programs at Defenders of Wildlife said,“This year’s huge decline in wintering red knots provides clear evidence that the status quo is not working. Unless action is taken now, red knots may be on an irreversible slide to extinction. The U.S. has a responsibility to the global community to protect this migratory shorebird, which stops along our coast to rest and feed while making one of the longest migrations in nature, from the tip of South America to the Arctic.”