The number of red knots visiting the beaches of Delaware Bay while migrating north this spring unexpectedly dropped to its lowest level since counts began nearly 40 years ago, adding to worries about the shorebird's survival and a sharp one Setback for a quarter of a century meant saving him.
Conservationists found fewer than 7,000 of the bird's rufa subspecies in extensive land, air and water counts on the New Jersey and Delaware side in May. The number is about a third of that found in 2020; less than a quarter of the level for the past two years; and the lowest since the early 1980s when the population was around 90,000.
The numbers were already well below the level that would ensure the bird's survival. A previous decline had been halted by years of conservation efforts, including a New Jersey ban on harvesting horseshoe crabs, the eggs of which provide vital nourishment for birds on their long-distance migrations.
The recent decline makes the Rufa subspecies – which has been considered threatened at the federal level since 2014 – even more vulnerable to external shocks like bad weather in their Arctic breeding areas and brings them closer to extinction, say naturalists.
"I think we need to think about the red knot as a dying species, and we really need immediate action," said Joanna Burger, a biologist at Rutgers University. Since the early 1980s, she has studied the knot and other declining shorebirds like ruddy turnstone and semi-palmate sandpipers in Delaware Bay.
She called for an immediate ban on the fishing of horseshoe crabs as bait, an industry still active in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia that is subject to quotas from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Although regulators do not allow female crabs to be harvested, naturalists say the rule is not strictly enforced, resulting in the loss of some of the egg-laying animals and a consequent reduction in the availability of food for the birds.
The recent decline also fueled calls from naturalists to urge the pharmaceutical industry to stop using LAL, an extract from the crab's blood used to detect bacteria in vaccines, drugs and medical devices. A synthetic alternative, rFC, is available and used by at least one pharmaceutical company, but the industry as a whole has been slow to embrace the new technique, resulting in continued demand for horseshoe crabs in the bay.
Although the crabs are returned to the sea after bleeding, conservationists believe that up to a third will die or be unable to reproduce. Ironically, there were plenty of crab eggs to eat on the beaches of the bay this year, but a long-term decline in egg availability has dented the bird population severely and thinned any cushion that would allow the species to survive natural hazards.
Larry Niles, an independent wildlife biologist who has captured, monitored, and counted shorebirds on New Jersey's bay beaches for the past 25 years, said he was expecting red knots to decline this year due to signs of a bad breeding season this year, 2020 but shocked at the size of the drop.
He said it was likely due to low sea temperatures in the mid-Atlantic during the 2020 migration. The cold water delayed spawning of the horseshoe crabs until early June, when the birds had already left Delaware Bay to complete their migration.
Many of the birds, which weigh just 4.7 ounces when fully grown, are emaciated after flying from Tierra del Fuego in southern Argentina on one of the longest bird migrations. Some fly non-stop for seven days before reaching Delaware Bay, where they usually stay for about two weeks to rest and gain weight.
But last year many could not find food in the bay, so they drove further north to reach their breeding grounds. Dr. Niles estimated that about 40 percent of migrants died in the last year before reaching the Arctic simply because they ran out of energy.
In that year he also blamed the predation by peregrine falcons, whose growing coastal population was supported by the construction of nesting platforms from New Jersey. They often hunt over the beaches of the bay, making it more difficult for flocks of shorebirds to feed and gain weight.
The best hope for the species' survival lies in a complete ban on harvesting female horseshoe crabs until the crab population has recovered, said Dr. Niles.
"Rufa nodes, especially red long-haul nodes, could be lost," he said in a message to supporters. "We can't stop bad winds or cold water, but we can increase the horseshoe crab population so that birds that arrive in most of these conditions will find an abundance of horseshoe crab eggs."