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What a Shorebird Can Teach Us About the Biodiversity Crisis

Throughout the animal kingdom, increasing pressures from industry are putting endangered or threatened species like the red knot at risk.

Red knots, ruddy turnstones, dunlin and semipalmated sandpipers coming through the Delaware Bay near Fortescue, New Jersey, on May 23, 2022.

Red knots, ruddy turnstones, dunlin and semipalmated sandpipers coming through the Delaware Bay near Fortescue, New Jersey, on May 23, 2022.

Aristide Economopoulos for Earthjustice

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

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

Unfortunately, due largely to the overharvesting of horseshoe crabs by the fishing industry, there have not been enough eggs in recent years. As horseshoe crab numbers languish, the shorebird — which is threatened under the Endangered Species Act — has suffered as well. Yet a regional fisheries commission is now weighing a proposal that could leave the red knot with even less to eat. Earthjustice and other environmental groups are urging it to comply with the law and reject this plan.

Horseshoe crab in the Delaware Bay near Fortescue, New Jersey, on May 23, 2022.
Horseshoe crab in the Delaware Bay near Fortescue, New Jersey, on May 23, 2022.
Aristide Economopoulos for Earthjustice

A growing body of evidence indicates that many red knots are now bypassing Delaware Bay altogether, and the much-needed nourishment the region once provided, as the egg resources on the bay are no longer reliable for the birds. This year, researchers from the Delaware Bay Shorebird Project counted just 12,000 birds at their peak — less than half 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. Throughout the animal kingdom, increasing pressures from industry are putting endangered species at risk. Habitat destruction is the largest driver of biodiversity loss globally. Roughly a million of the Earth’s estimated 8 million species are threatened with extinction in the coming decades. Protecting the diverse range of species and the habitat on which they rely is more important than ever.

Rather than working to increase protections for red knots, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) is advancing a proposal that would likely lead to lifting the prohibition on killing female horseshoe crabs for use as fishing bait. New Jersey Audubon, Defenders of Wildlife, and Earthjustice have raised the alarm on this proposal, since killing female crabs would, of course, only add to the problem of egg scarcity that is depleting the migratory stopover.

Researchers from Wildlife Restoration Partnerships study semipalmated sandpipers and other shorebirds as they come through the Delaware Bay in May 2022.
Researchers from Wildlife Restoration Partnerships study semipalmated sandpipers and other shorebirds as they come through the Delaware Bay in May 2022.
Aristide Economopoulos for Earthjustice

The commission will likely make a final decision on the proposal in November, and so far, it has acted without transparency. Earthjustice recently sent a letter on behalf of New Jersey Audubon and Defenders of Wildlife, requesting that the public have ample opportunity to review the model upon which the proposal is based before ASMFC moved forward with opening its public comment period. Unfortunately, ASMFC has now opened the comment period, and the U.S. Geological Survey, which controls the model, has denied our request to obtain the model under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) — a decision that we have appealed.

It is often easy for government agencies to make decisions that favor industry at the expense of a vulnerable species — and to do so without properly informing the public. As these losses continue to mount globally, we are now faced with a biodiversity crisis as epic in scale as the red knot’s migration.

Species in our natural world are critically dependent on one another for survival. ASMFC cannot move forward with a proposal that will significantly impact horseshoe crabs in Delaware Bay without also harming the already threatened shorebird that has traveled halfway around the world to feast on its shores. The two are inextricably linked. It is one of the most incredible spectacles in the natural world — the spawning of hundreds of thousands of horseshoe crabs coinciding perfectly with the arrival of the red knots, providing the population the exact nourishment needed to continue their journey to the Arctic. That a fisheries commission would risk destroying this for the benefit of industry is both short-sighted and incomprehensible.

The Endangered Species Act entitles the threatened red knot to protections, which ASMFC is now jeopardizing. It is up to all of us to continue to fight this proposal that threatens further decline of this magnificent bird.