The storm clouds started gathering about three weeks ago (February 13), when the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council voted 5-4 to reopen the local harvest of horseshoe crabs.
Red Knots, as I'm sure you know, stop in Delaware Bay each spring as they migrate north to breeding grounds in the Arctic. Their arrival coincides perfectly with the reproductive urges of the crabs, which scuttle up from beneath the waves to deposit a superabundance of eggs on shore, more than enough to provide for another generation of crabs and to feed the ravenous knots. Indeed, under normal circumstances, the bounty of horseshoe crab eggs enables the shorebirds to nearly double their body weight during their short stopover.
Please note that I wrote, "under normal circumstances," because as any fisherman will tell you, there isn't anything normal about a perfect storm.
In recent years, horseshoe crab numbers in Delaware Bay have been severely depleted by commercial fishermen who sell the crabs for use as bait in conch pots. Fewer horseshoe crabs means fewer females, and fewer females means fewer eggs left onshore for the migrating knots. Deprived of a primary food source, the birds fail to gain the strength and body mass they need to nest and reproduce successfully in the Arctic, or even to finish their migration at all. And inevitably, the number of rufa Red Knots grows smaller.
Indeed, scientists in both North and South America say the decrease in horseshoe crab numbers has caused the knot population to decline by 80 percent over the past 10 years. The decline has been so fast, so alarming, that ornithologists fear the subspecies will be extinct in as little as five years unless action is taken.
Fortunately, action has been proposed. But it needs help -- help from you, and right now -- to become real.
Arguing that New Jersey is part of an intercontinental community that shares the responsibility to sustain migratory shorebirds, state assemblyman John McKeon and other legislators on February 21 introduced legislation that would protect the knots' critical food supply -- horseshoe crab eggs -- by banning the harvest of horseshoe crabs in New Jersey.
The Assembly measure (A2260) was initially referred to the chamber's Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, which on Friday voted 5-0 in favor and forwarded it to the full Assembly for a vote. A step in the right direction. The Senate measure (S1331) was referred to Senate Environment Committee, where it sits today.
It is essential that legislators move the legislation out of committee on March 10. They should also commit to co-sponsoring the legislation and voting for the bill when it comes before the full Senate.
Please let them know the Red Knot is important not just to New Jersey, but to birdwatchers all across in North America. Please call or e-mail the Senate committee members listed below and ask them to move the legislation out of committee on March 10.
Sen. Jeff Van Drew: (609) 465-0700, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sen. John Adler: (856) 489-3442, email@example.com
Sen. Christopher Bateman: (908) 526-3600, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sen. Bob Gordon: (201) 703-9779, email@example.com
Sen. Bob Smith: (732) 752-0770, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sen. Andrew Ciesla: (732) 840-9028, email@example.com
Need more information?
Shorebird/Horseshoe Crab Conservation Campaign
New Jersey Audubon Society
Red Knot - An Imperiled Migratory Shorebird in New Jersey
New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife
Horseshoe Crabs and Shorebirds
American Bird Conservancy
Finally, a personal note:
I will never forget the first time I saw the Red Knots of Delaware Bay. It started with disappointment: I gazed at a stony beach that a friend had predicted would be filled with knots, and I saw nothing. Not a single bird. Just a beach littered with stones.
I remember wondering if I was at the right place, or if my timing was wrong, or if my eyes or binoculars were failing, when all at once every stone on the beach in front of me sprouted wings and lifted up into the air.
The beach was indeed filled with shorebirds, thousands of them, Red Knots mostly but Ruddy Turnstones too. There were so many, and their hunger for the horseshoe crab eggs buried on the beach was so intense, that they packed the shoreline.
It was one of the most powerful, most marvelous experiences of nature I've ever had in this country, and every one of you, regardless of where you live, have a right to experience it too. The birds, remember, are the natural heritage, and the responsibility, of each one of us. --C.H.