October 6, 2022

What Can a Shorebird Teach Us About the Biodiversity Crisis?

Each year, the red knot shorebird completes one of the most epic migrations in the animal kingdom.

Red knots often fly from the southern tip of South America, from Tierra del Fuego to their breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle. For thousands of red knots, this more than 9,000-mile journey includes a crucial stop in Delaware Bay, where the birds fill them with horseshoe crab eggs before completing their migration.

Unfortunately, there have not been enough eggs in recent years, largely due to the overharvesting of horseshoe crabs by the fishing industry. As horseshoe crab numbers dwindle, so did the shorebird threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Still, a regional fisheries commission is considering a proposal that could leave the red knot with less food. Earthjustice and other environmental groups urge him to comply with the law and reject this plan.

Horseshoe crab in Delaware Bay near Fortescue, New Jersey, on May 23, 2022.

Horseshoe crab in Delaware Bay near Fortescue, New Jersey, on May 23, 2022.

Aristide Economopoulos for world justice

Increasing evidence shows that many red knots have now bypassed Delaware Bay entirely, and the area is providing once much-needed nutrition as egg sources in the bay are no longer reliable for birds. This year, researchers from the Delaware Bay Shorebird Project counted just 12,000 birds at the peak—less than half of the 2019 peak of 30,000, and a fraction of the peak population of over 94,000 in 1989.

This story is not unique to the red knot. Across the animal kingdom, increasing pressures from industry are putting endangered species at risk. Habitat destruction is the biggest driver of biodiversity loss globally. About one million of the estimated 8 million species on Earth are threatened with extinction in the coming decades. Protecting the diversity of various species and the habitat they rely on is more important than ever.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) is developing a proposal that would lead to the lifting of the ban on killing female horseshoe crabs for use as fish bait, rather than working to increase protection for red knots. New Jersey Audubon, Defenders of Wildlife, and Earthjustice have raised the alarm on this suggestion, because killing female crabs would, of course, only add to the problem of egg shortages depleting migratory breaks.

Researchers from Wildlife Restoration Partnerships study semi-palm snipe and other shorebirds as they pass through Delaware Bay in May 2022.

Researchers from Wildlife Restoration Partnerships study semi-palm snipe and other shorebirds as they pass through Delaware Bay in May 2022.

Aristide Economopoulos for world justice

The Commission will likely make a final decision on the proposal in the coming months and has so far been opaque. Earthjustice recently sent a letter on behalf of Audubon and Wildlife Defenders of New Jersey, requesting that the public have ample opportunity to review the model on which the proposal is based, before continuing the ASMFC’s public comment period. Unfortunately, the US Geological Survey, which controls the model, rejected our request to acquire the model under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

It is often easy for government agencies to make decisions that support the industry at the expense of a vulnerable species and do so without properly informing the public. As these losses continue to increase globally, we now face a biodiversity crisis as epic as the migration of the red knot.

Species in our natural world are critically dependent on each other for survival. ASMFC cannot move forward with a proposal that will significantly affect horseshoe crabs in the Delaware Bay without harming the already threatened shorebird, which also roams half the world to feast on its shores. The two are inextricably linked. It is one of the most incredible sights in the natural world – the spawning of hundreds of thousands of horseshoe crabs, which perfectly coincides with the arrival of the red knots, provides the population with the full nourishment they need to continue their journey to the Arctic. It is both shortsighted and incomprehensible for a fisheries commission to risk destroying it for the benefit of the industry.

The Endangered Species Act authorizes the endangered red node protections that the ASMFC now endanger. It is up to all of us to continue the fight against this proposal, which further threatens the decline of this magnificent bird.

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