If you haven’t met them before, let me introduce you to the red knots. They’re a medium-sized shorebird that winters down in southern Argentina and Chile, near Tierra del Fuego. In the spring, they stop off along the beaches of New Jersey hungry to feast on some horseshoe crab eggs before continuing on their way to their nesting grounds in the Arctic.
But this year, Hurricane Sandy has put them on an unwanted diet.
The Associated Press recently reported that Sandy did away with much of the sand the crabs need to spawn on, making restoration a top priority for wildlife groups. The AP noted that the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation predicted that the storm “is almost certain to have lasting effects on the recovery of the red knot.”
Considering the enormous toll the hurricane took on the region, the damage to the crabs’ spawning grounds is no surprise. “I think we were aware of the damage pretty quickly,” Pete Bacinski, who is the All Things Birds Program Director for New Jersey Audubon, told TakePart. “We understood that it devastated a lot of places, putting salt water where fresh water should be, dumping debris and garbage into many places, and washing away many beaches.”
This is particularly bad news for the red knots, whose population has declined significantly over the last 20 years along with the number of crabs and the eggs they lay. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Fish and Wildlife, says the cause has been an explosion in the crab harvest “driven by people’s growing demand for conch and eels, which are trapped using horseshoe crabs as bait.”
Bacinski concurred, noting that, “The number of red knots is down to probably 58 percent of their original population and the number of horseshoe crabs has plummeted over the years due to over harvesting.”
He added, “These birds make that long, tremendous migration, probably 12,000 miles up to the Arctic Circle. They stop off along the central Atlantic Coast to feed on the horseshoe crab eggs so they’ll gain weight and be fat when the land on their breeding grounds. They have such a narrow window to go to work on their nesting process and they need to live off of their fat reserves. The decline in horseshoe crab eggs has led many of the birds to be starving when they arrive on the breeding grounds and so they never get the job done.”
And the red knots aren’t the only birds affected. “Several other species feed on the horseshoe crab eggs,” said Bacinski. “Ruddy turnstones, although they have other sources of food and some winter here in New Jersey. There are also sandpipers and gulls along with the sanderling, which is another species whose numbers have also diminished over the last 20 years or so.”
Like all the rest of the damage caused by Sandy, only time and a whole lot of money are going to repair the beaches of the Delaware Bay. Let’s hope the work happens quickly enough to protect the ever-dwindling population of horseshoe crabs and red knots.
Even before the storm, the New Jersey DEP stated that, “one survival model projects the red knot could become extinct in less than 10 years.”
Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence | TakePart.com