Red Knot Headed for Endangered Species List

A patient red knot is banded on Delaware Bay. The horseshoe crab eggs it eats here will fuel the final leg of its journey from South America to the Arctic. Photo (c) Diego Luna Quevedo

Good news for knots! Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced it has decided to speed up the initiation of the process to formally add the highly imperiled rufa subspecies of red knot to the list of threatened and endangered species.

The decision follows the release of the 2011 count of the main wintering population in South America, which found a decline from the previous winter of at least 5,000 birds — approximately one third of that population.  The decision also coincides with the release of a new USGS study that confirms the importance of an abundant horseshoe crab population to the survival of the red knot. (Red knots put on weight by stopping on Delaware Bay to feed on horseshoe crab eggs. Birds with higher weights have a better chance of reaching the Arctic to breed and survive into the next year.) The study also confirmed the key role of Delaware Bay horseshoe crabs in the survival of red knots.

A number of recently released studies conducted by a variety of agencies have shown no significant increase in the number of horseshoe crabs. Despite this growing evidence of over-exploitation of the horseshoe crab population, Atlantic States Marine Fish Commission has not reduced harvest in the last six years. In fact, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates the horseshoe crab harvest, dismantled its own shorebird technical committee after it recommended a moratorium on harvests.

Caroline Kennedy, Defenders’ senior director of Field Conservation said, “We are pleased the Fish and Wildlife Service has recognized the urgency to begin listing the red knot. The knot has been languishing on the list of candidate species since 2006. This year’s huge decline in wintering red knots provides clear evidence that the status quo is not working. Unless action is taken now, red knots may be on an irreversible slide to extinction.”

Mispillion red knots in flight_(c) Andrew Harper

Red knots in flight (c) Andrew Harper

Since 2005, four formal requests to list the red knot under the Endangered Species Act have been submitted to the FWS. Citing a lack of resources and other priorities, the Service failed to list the bird but placed it on the candidate list in 2006. Since then, red knot numbers have continued to fall. This news gives the struggling birds cause for hope. A listing under the Endangered Species Act would initiate the development of a recovery plan and require federal agencies whose actions affect red knots to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Such actions may be the last chance to save these remarkable birds before they disappear forever.

Learn more:

See how a listing under the Endangered Species Act could save the red knot.

Get more background on red knots and see how Defenders is working to save them.