WASHINGTON, DC, August 27, 2008 (ENS) - The red knot, a migratory shorebird beloved by birdwatchers in Delaware, New Jersey, and Virginia, has again failed to win blanket protection of its major food source - horseshoe crabs.
A sharp increase in the take of horseshoe crabs in the mid-1990s for use as bait in conch pots has diminished their numbers in Delaware Bay, leaving the birds short of food.
The red knot relies almost entirely on horseshoe crab eggs during an annual spring stopover in Delaware Bay on its 10,000 mile migration from the tip of South America to the Arctic.
Without the fat-rich diet of horseshoe crab eggs, the bird's ability to successfully complete its long-distance migration to its breeding grounds in the Arctic is compromised.
Scientists have predicted that the red knot could go extinct as soon as 2010.
But at a meeting on Friday, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's Horseshoe Crab Management Board again failed to approve a moratorium on horseshoe crab fishing in the key states.
They chose to support the short-term interests of crab fishermen while ignoring the immediate and long-term needs of the imperiled shorebird.
Instead of imposing a moratorium on horseshoe crab take, the board opted to maintain current fishing quotas, still permitting each state to take 100,000 male crabs per year.
"By maintaining harvest levels rather than adopting a temporary moratorium on all horseshoe crab take, the Commission has dangerously underestimated the needs of both the crab and the Red Knot," said Darin Schroeder, vice president for conservation advocacy at American Bird Conservancy.
"The ASMFC Management Board has failed to live up to its responsibility as an environmental steward, and ignored the Red Knot's economic benefits," he said.
In April a report to the ASMFC Management Board by federal and Delaware state fish and wildlife agencies expressed concern over with horeshoe crab harvest increases in regions outside of Delaware Bay - in areas of Massachusetts and New York, at the same time as harvest reductions within Delaware Bay.
"An overarching conclusion of recent coastwide assessments has been that management should be regional or embayment specific. It is now apparent that current harvest of the Delaware Bay population is consistent with population growth. However, it is unclear whether populations in the outlying regions can sustain increased harvest," the agencies reported.
In early 2008, the board's Technical Committee looked at horsehoe crab survey data through 2007. "Data from multiple lines of evidence indicate that the Delaware Bay horseshoe crab population is experiencing positive population growth," they said.
An external peer review of the next stock assessment is scheduled for 2009.
The committe's assessment is not convincing to conservationists. "There is a fundamental change required at the ASMFC Management Board. Their inadequate and blinkered mandate needs to be widened to include all marine resources affected by their actions, not just limited commercial interests," said Schroeder.
Each year birdwatchers flock to beaches in Delaware, New Jersey, and Virginia to see the staging birds. Soon, there could be no more knots to watch, and it will be too late to act, he said.
On July 28, 2005, Delaware Audubon joined eight other environmental organizations in petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the rufa subspecies of the red knot, Calidris canutus rufa, as endangered and to designate critical habitat for the birds under the Endangered Species Act. Their petition was denied.
In March, New Jersey extended the state moratorium on horseshoe crab harvesting. "This moratorium will be held in place until the populations of both horseshoe crabs and red knots have returned to a level where they will be self sustaining as determined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service," pledged Governor Jon Corzine as he signed the measure into law.
The state moratorium is backed with stiff financial penalties to deter potential offenders. Fines for the continued harvesting of horseshoe crabs are $10,000 for the first offense and $25,000 for each subsequent offense.
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