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Fish and Wildlife protects red knot as threatened species

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Dec. 9 announced the red knot is now protected as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

“The eastern Red Knot is a magnificent bird in steep decline,” said Audubon vice president Mike Daulton. “It needs our help, and Audubon supports today’s listing. Human activities have pushed this shorebird to the brink, but we know that we can make a difference if we act now.”

The robin-sized shorebird, which twice a year makes an epic 9,000-mile migration between southern South America and the Canadian Arctic, has declined by 75 percent since the 1980s. Threatened by loss of an essential food, horseshoe crabs, as well as habitat destruction, the bird is also at risk from climate change, which threatens to destroy many of its shoreline stopover areas as well as its breeding habitat in the far north.

The government's decision was made in accordance with a settlement requirement with the Center for Biological Diversity that requires the agency to make decisions on protection for 757 species.

“With today's decision to protect the red knot, our children and grandchildren just may have the chance to marvel at one of nature’s greatest spectacles — the marathon migration of the red knot,” said Mollie Matteson, a senior scientist with the center. “Saving the red knot will certainly require stricter restrictions on harvest of horseshoe crabs for both bait and the medical industry, highlighting how connected the world we live in is.”

Red knots fly 9,300 miles from the southern tip of South America to the Arctic, making a major stop along the North American mid-Atlantic coast to regain their strength by feeding on calorie-rich horseshoe crab eggs. However, since the 1990s, the eel and conch-fishing industries, which use the crab for bait, and the biomedical industry, which uses the crab’s unique, copper-rich blood to test drugs and medical devices for bacterial contamination, have caused severe declines in horseshoe crabs — themselves unique animals that have been on the planet for hundreds of millions of years. 

Fisheries managers in mid-Atlantic states have begun to address the over-harvest of horseshoe crabs with new regulations, but it is unclear if those rules go far enough, and it may be years before crab populations recover. The biomedical industry releases most horseshoe crabs after extracting some of their blood, but many crabs die after handling and losing as much as a third of their blood.

The extensive mudflats and beaches of Delaware Bay are the most significant stopover for migrating red knots. Scientists have estimated that nearly 90 percent of the entire red knot population can be present on the Delaware Bay in a single day.

Delaware Riverkeeper Network and other groups sent a petition to the Fish and Wildlife Service for emergency listing of the red knot in 2005. A year later the Service determined the birds warranted protection, but did not provide that protection due to lack of resources. Under the center's settlement, the agency proposed the knot for protection in 2013 and is now finalizing that protection. To date 141 species have been protected under the agreement, including the red knot.

The American Bird Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council welcomed the announcement from the FWS but urged FWS to quickly designate critical habitat to better protect the bird.

Darin Schroeder of ABC said, “While the decision to list the rufa Red Knot was certainly a protracted process, we do now have hope that future generations of Americans will be able to witness this migratory marvel."

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