Fish board holds fate of little-known bird

May 07, 2006|By CANDUS THOMSON

Alittle bird needs our help.

It doesn't sing a pretty song. You won't find it on a stamp or a license plate or as the subject of a movie. It isn't any state's official anything.

But it's in trouble, and if we don't step in, it will disappear - maybe in the next four or five years - and become another entry on the list of things mankind has ruined.

In many ways, the red knot is like the menhaden: easy to miss until it's gone.

And just like the menhaden, its fate will be decided, in large part, by the same quasi-federal regulatory body that prefers to do its work out of the public eye.

On Tuesday, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will vote whether to help save the red knot. (Yes, a fish commission can help save a bird.) Maryland has a vote.

By anyone's standard, the red knot is an amazing critter.

About the size of a robin, it flies each spring from the tip of South America to its breeding grounds in the Arctic. It touches down briefly in Brazil and the Caribbean before reaching the Delaware Bay in May and early June, when it fattens up for the final 2,000-mile nonstop flight.

What brings the red knot to our region is a food it cannot live without: horseshoe crab eggs. Gorging itself on the fatty eggs, the shorebird increases its body weight 10 percent a day, until it doubles its bulk to sustain its final flight and give it sustenance for the first days in the Arctic.

By a scheduling miracle no travel agency could rival, the starving northbound birds arrive just as the crabs crawl from the bay to the sand for spawning. The birds gobble up the eggs on or near the surface of the bay's waters, eggs not destined to become crabs.

But lately that's becoming harder and harder to do.

In 1998, almost 34,000 red knots reached the magic survival weight of 6.5 ounces during their Delaware Bay stay. Two years ago, just 813 did.

"The birdfeeder of the Delaware Bay is empty," says Perry Plumart of the American Bird Conservancy.

Where once 100,000 birds feasted each springtime on the shoreline, just 17,000 returned last year.

Conservation groups such as the American Bird Conservancy, the Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society want the ASMFC to approve a two-year moratorium on the harvest of horseshoe crabs to create a more plentiful stock.

Commercial fishermen harvest large numbers of horseshoe crabs for eel and conch bait and a smaller number for the biomedical industry. Last year, Maryland took nearly 170,000 crabs, Delaware harvested 154,000 and New Jersey scooped up 87,250 before state regulators halted the season for two weeks.

"Birds are crossing the bay more and more to look for food," says Caroline Kennedy of Defenders of Wildlife. "They're using more weight to find food. It's a losing proposition."

Other Eastern Seaboard states take horseshoe crabs, but they don't have the red knots stopping by. While the Delaware Bay isn't as big or as famous as its neighbor, the Chesapeake, it acts as a sanctuary for the red knots the way the Chesapeake does for menhaden and striped bass.

Commercial fishermen, who get $1 apiece for horseshoe crabs, oppose the moratorium, insisting the crab population is stable. Not that they had anything to do with that.

When ASMFC decided in the mid-1990s to set harvest quotas on the unregulated horseshoe crab fishery, it gave the commercial interests plenty of notice. Watermen jacked up their catches from slightly more than 2 million pounds in 1995 to nearly 7 million pounds in 1998, when the catch was capped at 25 percent of peak harvest.

A Virginia Tech study estimates that during the frenzy watermen took between 60 percent and 80 percent of the total bay population. (And watermen wonder why the public doesn't trust them.)

These days, watermen break out their hymn books and sing in unison that something else must be responsible for the red knot's plight: ravenous sea gulls, the Loch Ness monster, Osama bin Laden, whatever.

But biologists have studied the bird's wintering and breeding grounds and the space in between and can find nothing that would cause such a prolonged and steep population decline.

You don't have to be a scientist to see that the birds began to lose their battle to make weight after the watermen laid waste to the horseshoe crabs in 1997 and 1998.

ASMFC quotas for each state keep the total annual harvest at about 2.5 million pounds. But merely sustaining the status quo will not save the red knot, says an international panel of shorebird biologists.

"A stable horseshoe crab population is a death notice for the birds," Plumart says. "There needs to be a super-abundance of eggs on the beach for the shorebirds to survive."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can protect birds, but does not have the authority to set state fishing quotas. The ASMFC sets fishing quotas but doesn't do birds.

Meanwhile, the red knot just keeps dying.

"Studies show when species get to 15,000, it is difficult for them to bounce back," Kennedy says.

The situation so alarmed New Jersey wildlife managers that they are implementing a two-year moratorium on their portion of the bay. Delaware, which saw its restrictions successfully challenged in court by watermen, wants another entity - ASMFC - to carry the ball this time around.

I'd like to believe the ASMFC will do the right thing this week. But just look how long it took for the commission to lift a pinky to help the menhaden and you realize how bleak a picture it is.

One of the votes will be cast by Howard King, fisheries chief of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Advocates for the red knot have met with King's bosses to plead their case, and it appears the state is leaning in their direction.

But, unfortunately, with ASMFC, one never knows what happens in back rooms, where deals get made and favors get swapped.

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