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Three recent wins for Red Knots

Red Knots
A Red Knot stands on the beach behind a flipped over horseshoe crab. Photo by Ray Hennessy/Shutterstock

The Red Knot, one of the Western Hemisphere’s migratory distance champions, has been the subject of three pieces of good news over the last month.

1, Horseshoe crab harvest stopped

On April 6, the U.S. District Court in Charleston, South Carolina, prevented the harvesting of horseshoe crabs on 30 South Carolina beaches this spring. Red Knots and other shorebirds feed on horseshoe crab eggs along the Atlantic coast to fuel their journeys to Arctic breeding grounds.

The court’s order lasts through the spawning season, which ends June 15. The beaches listed have been identified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state’s Department of Natural Resources as critical habitat areas for the knots. “It is the most significant kind of protection for Red Knots and horseshoe crabs that’s ever been put in place on the Eastern Seaboard,” said Catherine Wannamaker, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The order also prevents harvesters from putting female horseshoe crabs into containment ponds before they are bled by pharmaceutical companies for their blood, which is used to detect bacterial toxins.

2, Wildlife refuge halts crab harvest

The court victory follows a March announcement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that found horseshoe crab harvesting was not in line with the intended purposes of Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, which lies along the South Carolina coast. The draft currently pauses harvesting on the entire 66,000-acre refuge.

3, Feds finalize recovery plan, critical habitat

On April 12, FWS said it has revised the designation of critical habitat for the threatened rufa subspecies of the Red Knot. The revised rule proposes to designate 683,405 acres of critical habitat across 13 states. The revision includes an overall increase of 32,615 acres from the proposal published on July 15, 2021, due to added areas, changes to previously proposed units, and acreage corrections. A public comment period on the critical habitat is open until May 30. 

Then on April 20, FWS said it has finalized a recovery plan for the rufa subspecies. The recovery plan, which was made available for public comment in May 2021, provides a road map for helping the bird flourish to the point that it no longer needs federal protection.  

The recovery plan is a non-regulatory guidance document that identifies, organizes, and prioritizes site-specific recovery actions, sets measurable recovery objectives, and includes time and cost estimates for removing the rufa red knot from the federal list of endangered and threatened species. The Service is also finishing an accompanying Recovery Implementation Strategy that steps down actions from the recovery plan into detailed activities.  

Background on the Red Knot

The rufa Red Knot was listed as threatened in 2015 due to population declines linked to multiple threats and stressors that have impacted habitat and food supply across its vast range. One of the longest-distance migrants in the animal kingdom, rufa Red Knots travel as far as 18,000 miles each year between their breeding grounds on the central Canadian arctic tundra and four wintering regions, ranging from North Carolina to Chile.  

The subspecies’ unique and impressive life history depends on suitable habitat, food, and weather conditions across a network of far-flung sites that are vulnerable to development, disturbances, and complex challenges related to climate change. Beaches and marshes continue to be lost to sea-level rise, shoreline stabilization and development. Climate change also affects the availability of food, the timing of annual migrations, and breeding habitat in the Arctic.  

Recovery of the rufa Red Knot can be achieved only through coordinated conservation efforts involving public and private partners who share a commitment to this common goal. The recovery plan reflects input from natural resources agencies and conservation organizations across the species’ range.

Many of these partners are already working to advance rufa Red Knot recovery in wintering, breeding, and migration stopover areas by restoring habitat, reducing disturbances to birds from human activities, and implementing new technology to track migration. Other key actions highlighted in the recovery plan include safeguarding the rufa Red Knot’s food supplies, filling data gaps, coordinating communication and outreach, and addressing new threats as they emerge. 

Actions to benefit the rufa Red Knot support other species that share their habitats, including Piping Plovers, loggerhead sea turtles, northeastern beach tiger beetles, seabeach amaranth, and aboriginal prickly apples. Intact, coastal habitats are also more resilient to climate change, and they can help buffer nearby communities from associated impacts. 

New ‘critical sites’ for Red Knots in South Carolina

New hope for Red Knots

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