Efforts to Protect Shorebird Continue

Federal biologists are reviewing a Pennsylvania woman's petition to have a migratory shorebird that makes annual stops in Delaware listed as a threatened or endangered species.

WILMINGTON, Del. — Federal biologists are reviewing a Pennsylvania woman's petition to have a migratory shorebird that makes annual stops in Delaware listed as a threatened or endangered species.

The petition by Barbara Leo of Honesdale, Pa., could have important consequences in Delaware and New Jersey, where state and federal officials already are trying to protect red knots and their primary food supply -- horseshoe crabs.

Each spring, tens of thousands of the birds descend on the shores of the Delaware Bay to gorge on horseshoe crab eggs, fattening up for the second leg of a 6,500-mile migration from South America to the Arctic.

Leo, a retired health care administrator and a member of the Northeast Pennsylvania Audubon Society, said she has seen a red knot only once, and that was from a distance.

"The petition was really sent to find out what's going on," she said. "We're trying to save a species that's very, very endangered."


Diana Weaver, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, said the agency hopes to report back to Leo next month, but any decision to list a species would require formal notices and months of hearings.

If the red knot becomes a protected species, officials would gain more authority to restrict beach access, which already has been done in some New Jersey shore communities, and further cap harvests of horseshoe crabs for fishing bait or for medical and pharmaceutical uses.

In Delaware, efforts to protect the crabs and birds are focused on the loss of beach habitat.

Scientists worry that birds are concentrating at just a few beaches, which makes them vulnerable to an environmental disaster such as an oil or chemical spill, or to predators such as foxes, gulls and falcons.

"I just literally do not like having the birds putting all of their eggs in one basket," said David Carter, an environmental program manager with the Delaware Coastal Management Program. "We need to create at least four or five habitat spots around the bay."

Meanwhile, the state is working with federal agencies to protect Delaware's best shorebird habitat, a man-made sand spit at Mispillion Harbor, which is privately owned.

Scientists who study the birds agree that something is wrong.

A recent survey of red knots in South America set the population at 17,653, down from already low counts of 51,255 in 2000 and 27,242 in 2002. Ten years earlier, scientists estimated the red knot population at 100,000.

Eric Stiles, vice president for conservation and stewardship with the New Jersey Audubon Society, said a recent study suggests that if nothing is done, the red knot population will be at or near extinction by 2011.

"I don't want to be right," Stiles said. "I want to be wrong."

Stiles said factors contributing to the decline of red knots include the climate change in Arctic nesting habitats and changes in the wintering grounds in South America, but that a primary reason for the decline is the shrinking supply of horseshoe crab eggs. Inadequate feeding during the migration stopover leaves the birds more vulnerable to other threats, he said. Some scientists think a crab egg shortage has led some of the birds to change their migration routes.

In 1990, the peak number of crabs spawning on Delaware Bay beaches was estimated at 900,000. By 1999, the number fell to less than half that. Horseshoe crabs take more than a decade to reach sexual maturity, so when the population declines, it can take years to recover.

Scientists trace the decline, in part, to a heavy commercial harvest along the Atlantic Coast. Crabs not only are used as bait for the conch and eel fisheries, but their blue blood in the medical industry to test the purity of medicines.

Officials in Delaware and New Jersey last year banned harvests of horseshoe crabs from May 1 through June 7, the peak of the crab spawning season and shorebird migration. That action came on top of significant reductions in harvests by Delaware and other states on orders from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

Delaware Bay communities such as Slaughter Beach, Pickering Beach and Broadkill Beach are now listed as horseshoe crab sanctuaries, and harvesting is off limits on most state and federal land.

Dave Smith, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said he thinks Delaware Bay's crab population has stabilized, but Stiles and others say stable may not be good enough.

"The real calamity is that it's not increasing," he said.

Source: Associated Press