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Groups Ask Governors of New Jersey & Delaware for
an Emergency Closure of Horseshoe Crab Fishery

Image:  Red Knot shorebird, photo © by Frederick W. Fallon
Red Knot
Photo by Frederick W. Fallon

Leading conservation groups have joined forces to request an emergency closure of the Horseshoe Crab fishery along the mid-Atlantic shore.

In a letter to the governors of Delaware and New Jersey, the groups contended that— if the fishery were allowed to open as scheduled on June 8th—up to 300,000 crabs could be harvested. Such a large harvest would significantly deplete the main food source for thousands of imperiled Red Knots and jeoparde their chances for survival.

"It's without question that closing the Horseshoe Crab fishery will help stabilize the Red Knot population," said Eric Stiles, vice president of conservation for the New Jersey Audubon Society. "So far, we have failed the bird, and this step is the most important action we can take to halt its brisk descent toward extinction."

Each year thousands of shorebirds called Red Knots make an heroic 10,000-mile journey from their winter home at the tip of South America to the Arctic. The first stage of their migration includes a 3,000 to 4,000-mile nonstop flight to the Delaware Bay shores. Once here, the starving birds must feast on Horseshoe Crab eggs in order to restore the reserves necessary to complete their migration.

The Red Knot population visiting the Delaware Bay once numbed more than 150,000. Today, biologists estimate the Red Knot population has declined to about 18,000. According to recent studies, the Red Knot population has declined more than 90% in the last ten years. Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, said, "If we do not take action to protect the crabs and the birds, according to the experts they will be extinct by the year 2010. Our states have the right and obligation to take immediate necessary action to avoid this catastrophic and irreversible outcome."

"We know the Red Knot and five other species of shorebirds are dependent on Horseshoe Crab eggs to complete their spring migration to the arctic," said Caroline Kennedy, director of conservation initiatives for Defenders of Wildlife. "Because the birds must double their weight by feeding on this fat-rich food in order to arrive in the arctic and successfully nest and raise young, it is imperative that we protect their food source. We know the problem, and we have a way to fix it."

Image: drawing of a Horseshoe CrabMigrating shorebirds require a super abundant supply of horseshoe crabs in order to obtain the quantity of eggs needed to fuel their journey. Scientific research has documented a steady decline in the Horseshoe Crab population of Delaware Bay over the past 15 years. The crabs are caught by fishermen who use their eggs as bait for catching conch and eel.

The Delaware Bay is one of four major shorebird migration stopovers in the world. Just a decade ago, more than 1.5 million birds congregated on the Bay shores. It's a natural phenomenon known worldwide—and one which attracts thousands of bird watchers annually.

Nick DiPasquale, conservation chair for Delaware Audubon, said: "At this point, to address the collapse of the Delaware Bay ecosystem, all conservation measures must be implemented. The immediate closure of the Horseshoe Crab fishery is the most pressing action needed, but our groups will be seeking additional remedies as well."

"The Red Knot is sliding toward permanent extinction," said Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society. "We owe it to future generations to provide a safety net for the Red Knot, which in turn will help keep intact the full web of life on the Delaware Bay."

Our letter outlines four actions the organizations are urging governors to take to halt the downward trend:

  • Immediately institute a moratorium on the Horseshoe Crab harvest.
  • Support regional efforts with surrounding states to enact a harvest moratorium and other measures to conserve this shared resource.
  • Support efforts to federally list the Red Knot Rufa subspecies under the Endangered Species Act.
  • Continue baywide efforts to reduce human harassment of foraging shorebirds.

In an effort to offset any economic hardship this closure would cause the fishing community, the groups are supportive of state and federal appropriations that would lead to the promotion and development of alternative bait sources for their respective catches.

The letter concludes, "Quite simply, it is ecologically and economically reckless to allow the continued harvest of Delaware Bay population Horseshoe Crabs while the Red Knot population heads for extinction."

The groups involved in this initiative to protect the Red Knot are: Delaware Audubon Society, National Audubon Society, New Jersey Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife, American Littoral Society, American Bird Conservancy, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, Citizens Campaign for the Environment, New Jersey Environmental Federation, New Jersey Public Interest Research Group, and New Jersey Sierra Club.

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This page was last updated on June 14, 2005.