Preserving Our Natural State Since 1977

Petition Seeks 'Endangered' Status for Red Knot

Shorebird Population Declining Dramatically

(c) 2005 by Don Chernoff,, used with permission.On July 28, 2005, Delaware Audubon joined eight other environmental organizations in petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to list the rufa subspecies of the Red Knot (Calidris canutus rufa) as "endangered"--and to designate "critical habitat" under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) within a reasonable period of time following the listing. The petitioners seek an immediate determination under the emergency listing provisions of the ESA, which give interested persons the right to petition for an an endangered listing.

The petition is in response to an 80% decline in the Red Knot population during the past ten years. The birds visiting the Delaware Bay, once numbering more than 100,000, now number around 17,000. If nothing is done to ensure the bird's survival, recent scientific models predict extinction as early as 2010. "Our petition plainly demonstrates that the Red Knot is on the path toward extinction," said Defenders of Wildlife Executive Vice President Jamie Rappaport Clark.

Nick DiPasquale, conservation chair for the Delaware Audubon Society, said "The scientific models indicate the extinction of the Red Knot by 2010. This is only 5 years away, a blink of the eye. Emergency listing is the only hope we have of saving this important species."

Petitioners also gave notice of their immediate intent to sue if the FWS does not act expeditiously to list the Red Knot under the emergency provisions of the ESA.

The FWS is currently conducting a status review of the rufa subspecies of Red Knot, and had received a letter from a member of the Northeast Pennsylvania Audubon Society that calls on the FWS to consider adding the shorebird to the list of endangered species. Since these processes began, substantial new information has come to light regarding the conservation status and needs of the Red Knot. This startling new information--detailed extensively in the new petition--should compel the FWS to use its emergency listing authority to protect the Red Knot from further decline.

A copy of the petition can be downloaded in PDF format at the bottom of this article.

The petition targets the rufa subspecies of the Red Knot, a migratory shorebird that makes an 18,000 mile roundtrip journey each year from its winter home at the tip of South America to the Arctic and back again. The birds stop just a few times on the way to refuel. Their final critical stop is at the Delaware Bay. which is their last major refueling spot before completing the journey to their Arctic breeding grounds. At the Bay, the starving birds must feast on fat-rich horseshoe crab eggs in order to restore the reserves necessary to complete their migration and to provide energy for the first several days or weeks in the Arctic — because food there can initially be scarce. But, in recent years, Delaware Bay's horseshoe crab population has rapidly diminished and the number of birds able to successfully reach their breeding grounds and successfully reproduce has dramatically declined.

"The Red Knot's decline is a direct result of the overfishing of horseshoe crabs whose eggs are a critical food source for the Red Knot's migration," said Perry Plumart, American Bird Conservancy's director of conservation advocacy. "We urge Interior Secretary Norton to act now to keep the Red Knot returning to Delaware Bay in the decades to come."

The alliance of environmental groups on the petition includes:

  • Defenders of Wildlife
  • Delaware Audubon Society
  • New Jersey Audubon Society
  • National Audubon Society
  • Audubon New York
  • Audubon Maryland-DC
  • The American Bird Conservancy
  • the Virginia Audubon Council, and
  • Citizens Campaign for the Environment

The petition details reasons why the Endangered Species Act's emergency listing provisions are needed to save the bird, including:
1) Its primary food source in the United States -- horseshoe crab eggs -- is threatened due to over-utilization of crabs for commercial purposes.
2) The birds' inability to properly refuel at Delaware Bay reduces rates of survival and recruitment and increases their susceptibility to disease and predation.
3) Existing regulatory mechanisms are inadequate as the Red Knot receives only minimal protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and no protection for its habitat or food source.

Image:  Horseshoe Crab
Horseshoe Crab © 2005 by Don Chernoff,, used with permission.

The Endangered Species Act emergency listing petition comes after the groups had worked for many years with the states and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the agency that regulates the horseshoe crab fishery, to reduce the take of horseshoe crab eggs in Delaware Bay and neighboring areas. In June, the groups asked the Commission and the states of New Jersey and Delaware for an emergency closure of the horseshoe crab fishery to stop the further decline of available horseshoe crab eggs. New Jersey closed the harvest for an additional two weeks due to the presence of a late arriving flock.

Although some states have taken additional actions such as closing key feeding areas to the public during spring migration and reducing competition for eggs between knots and gulls, these efforts are not able to reverse the bird's severe decline. New data showing that the Red Knot population continues to decline at a rapid rate suggests that a complete closure of the horseshoe crab fishery is the most important action that can be taken to stop further decline of this species. A listing under the ESA would require the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to consult with the Service on the impacts of the horseshoe crab fishery on the red knot and lead to the development of a coordinated recovery plan, a potential closure of the crab fishery and funding for implementation of various conservation measures.

The petition concludes: "In the absence of an Endangered Species Act listing for the Red Knot, protection efforts to date have failed to address site-specific threats to the Red Knot (i.e. habitat loss and availability of food at Delaware Bay) and also have not led to the development and implementation of conservation and management strategies on the multistate, regional scale that are necessary for the preservation of the species."

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