Fisheries Commission Takes Cautious Approach on Proposal That Threatens Red Knots in Delaware Bay

Commission foregoes authorizing bait harvest of female horseshoe crabs


Perry Wheeler, Earthjustice, (202) 792-6211, 

Conservation groups commended today’s decision by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) to forego, for now, authorizing a bait harvest of female horseshoe crabs in Delaware Bay, where the crabs’ eggs fuel a globally significant stopover habitat for migratory shorebirds. Today’s decision avoids worsening conditions for shorebirds including the threatened red knot, which depends on crab eggs to complete its annual migration from as far south as Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic Circle. Red knot numbers in Delaware Bay, which plummeted following the overharvest of horseshoe crabs in the 1990s, remained at historically low levels in 2022, and the horseshoe crab population continues to be precarious. 

“We are grateful that the commission listened to the public and did not authorize a harvest that would put the red knot at even greater risk and further deplete the Delaware Bay ecosystem,” said Ben Levitan, senior attorney for Earthjustice’s Biodiversity Defense Program. “Going forward, the commission should allow full public involvement and respond to scientific critiques before any harvest expansion is again considered.”

“We are pleased that the ASMFC took the precautionary approach to managing horseshoe crabs given their critical connection with the federally threatened red knot and the services they provide to the Delaware Bay ecosystem,” said David Mizrahi, vice president of research and monitoring at New Jersey Audubon. “In the future, the commission should engage all stakeholders in the process of determining management of horseshoe crabs to ensure their long-term persistence.”

“At a time when Delaware Bay is seeing a continued decline in red knots, a decision to harvest female horseshoe crabs would have permanently undermined recovery efforts and accelerated their path to extinction,” said Christian Hunt, Defenders of Wildlife senior federal lands policy analyst who has tracked this issue for years. “Red knots depend on horseshoe crab eggs during their long migration. With fewer eggs, there will be fewer birds.”

The harvest proposal that was considered by the commission at today’s meeting advanced without public transparency, as it was based upon a computer model that has not been released to the public. While the commissioners approved the computer model, they nonetheless decided not to adopt the model’s recommendation to authorize a female harvest. Earthjustice, New Jersey Audubon, Defenders of Wildlife, and other conservation groups repeatedly sounded the alarm over a potential Endangered Species Act violation if the proposal moved forward. Two independent scientists — Dr. Kevin Shoemaker and Dr. Romuald Lipcius — provided expert reviews of the limited information available, identifying many flaws and red flags in the proposal.

Additional Resources

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people's health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.