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Red Knots and horseshoe crabs

Red knot
U.S. Fish and Wildlife 
Red knot

As I write this, Red Knots feel very far away. To be more precise, 7,000 miles and three months away. These Arctic nesting shorebirds are marathon migrators, traveling from well above the Arctic circle to wintering areas at the other end of the planet each year. Though the knots are far away, an opportunity to help them here in Massachusetts is close at hand. Stay tuned, because explaining just how you can help involves peering into the murky waters of state fishery regulations.

We see Red Knots mostly in their southbound summer transit, mostly in Chatham, just before they continue to Southern Chile and Argentina for the winter. In spring they head north again, and a hunger for horseshoe crab eggs brings them to crab spawning grounds from Georgia to Massachusetts. The spectacle of thousands of shorebirds feeding among clamoring hordes of horseshoe crabs in Delaware Bay supports a big shoulder season ecotourism industry, and management of the horseshoe crab fisheries in the surrounding states is about making sure there are enough crabs to feed shorebirds.

We’ve asked a lot of horseshoe crabs over the years. They are harvested to be used as bait for the whelk fishery, though that fishery itself is classified as depleted and overfished by the state. They are also captured, bled and released by the biomedical industry, with up to 30% not surviving the ordeal. Their blood is the source of the only FDA approved test in biomedical manufacturing for something called endotoxin, a fever-inducing agent produced by certain bacteria. Synthetic alternatives to this test have been around for a while and are finally gaining traction, hopefully spelling the eventual end of the blood harvest. Before these cash harvests, ironically, they were considered pests for eating juvenile shellfish, and the state spent several decades trying to exterminate them.

People don’t think of Massachusetts as a place where shorebirds feed on horseshoe crab eggs, but indeed they do – out of sight and mind, in remote, protected areas of Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, there are enough horseshoe crabs laying enough eggs to feed shorebirds. This is because the crabs are protected there from all forms of harvest, and their spawning and nursery habitat is also protected. Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings, dowitchers, and Red Knots dig through the sand bars and hoover up the little green eggs, as tens of thousands of shorebirds once did here on the Cape according to accounts from the 19th century.

After a failed attempt to pass new protections for spawning horseshoe crabs last year, the Mass Division of Marine Fisheries has once again proposed to protect crabs from all forms of harvest during spawning season, something other states on the Atlantic seaboard already do. They have to get the proposal by the Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission, a board of fishing industry representatives that voted down last year’s proposal despite over 1300 public comments in favor of horseshoe crab conservation.

This proposal by the state is an important first step to recovering the horseshoe crab population in Massachusetts and reconnecting the crabs with the several species of declining shorebirds that depend on them. Eventually the bait harvest should be phased out – this practice, which primarily targets female crabs as they try to spawn, is a relic of the bad old days when horseshoe crabs were considered pests to be exterminated.

To show up and support these overdue protections for horseshoe crabs, you can attend the in-person hearing next week at Mass Maritime in Buzzard’s Bay - it’s on February 28th and the horseshoe crab discussion will start right at 5 p.m. You can also write to marine.fish@mass.gov to express your opinion about the proposal to protect horseshoe crabs, or write through the Mass Audubon action alert. Ever so faintly, from 7,000 miles away, you may hear the Red Knots thanking you.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.