Will FWS get tied up in red knots? Horseshoe crab lovers hope so.
On an annual migration, the red knot flies from the Arctic to the southern tip of South America -- by way of Delaware. But the red knot may be growing weary of its long travels, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has already identified the species as a candidate to become listed pursuant to the Endangered Species Act. A group of environmental organizations, including the American Bird Conservancy, Audubon, and Defenders of Wildlife have petitioned FWS to expedite the listing process, and to list this bird on an emergency basis. As previously explained in a prior ESAblawg, citizens cannot compel an emergency listing. Nevertheless, the groups' efforts may eventually lead to litigation over yet another ESA-listing dispute.
Along Florida’s gulf coast, where the species has been monitored for decades, data indicates that one wintering population of red knots numbered 10,000 in the 1980s, 2,500 in 2005-2006, and only 550 in 2007-2008. The red knot's decline, science suggests, stems from the similarly precipitous decline of horseshoe crabs in Delaware, a critical stop-over point for the migratory bird. In particular, the declining availability of horseshoe crab eggs means less food to sustain the red knot for its long annual flights. Horseshoe crabs suffer not only from the indirect impacts of beach development and coastal erosion control, but also from the direct impacts of harvest -- or, perhaps overharvest. That, in turn, means suffering for the red knot. In fact, despite increased regulation of horseshoe crab harvesting by the Atlantic States Fisheries Commission – see FWS discussion in 72 Fed Reg. 69,034 (Dec. 6, 2007) – “a new analysis of the weights of Red Knots caught in Delaware Bay during the spring stopover indicates that all but the earliest arrivals (roughly seventy-five percent of the entire stopover population) have suffered significantly reduced rates of mass gain on account of reduced quantities of their main food, horseshoe crab eggs.” Petitionat page 3.
Red knots in the Delaware Bay surf, photo from New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife
There once was a time when horseshoe crabs nested on the Delaware shoes in piles two or three deep, covering miles of beach. But the crabs have been harvested over the years for fertilizer, and as bait for eel and whelk fisheries. See NOAA report on University of Delaware webpages. Most significantly,horsehoe crabs and their blue blood contribute significantly to important science, including eye research, development of surgical sutures and wound dressings, detection of bacterial contamination in drugs, and even the search for primitive life on Mars. See NOAA report and PBS.org feature on "The Benefits of Blue Blood." As a result, the political commitment of the regulatory agencies to stop the harvesting of a horseshoe crabs -- a $50 million local industry -- ebbs and flows. As evidence of the regulatory agencies' uncertain mindset, consider New Jersey's refusal to extend a moratorium on horseshoe crab harvest in February 2008, see UPI story, and its subsequent reversal and reinstatement of the moratorium in March 2008, due to intense environmentalist lobbying. See local news coverage in Delaware Online (discussing the NJ reversal) and Courier Post Online (discussing the lobbying campaigns).
While the discussions over the fate of horseshoe crabs, and thus, red knots, continues in the Mid-Atlantic states, including potential legislation to ban horseshoe crab harvest on the Jersey Shore, the pending ESA listing petition will soon bring the issue (once again) onto the national radar. Noteably, the petition relies upon a new report by 20 credible shoreline biologists, who state -- in atypically direct terms for the usually cautious scientific community -- that "all three of the main wintering populations have shown significant further decline. Therefore the priority for listing rufa has increased. Accordingly we recommend that the USFWS reconsider listing rufa." Thus, it seems that whatever decision FWS makes, the data cited by the petitioners should not simply be ignored. But if it is, then in February 2009, one year after the filing of the petition, (see ESA §4(b)(3)(B)) the litigation over the red knot will begin anew. Alternatively, if FWS does list the red knot, then perhaps litigation will come from a different group of plaintiffs.
But let's assume that once the litigation ends, the red knot becomes a listed species. That listing, in turn, will probably lead to new regulations for the horseshoe crab. And that, in the long run, will be good for all the species that rely on horseshoe crabs -- including homo sapien.
Photo of horseshoe crab and its blue blood from Galathea3 research gallery