Bait fisheries drive decline of bird species

(Photo/Andrew Easton, 2004)

(Photo/Andrew Easton, 2004)

Every year the horseshoe crabs gather to spawn, releasing thousands of eggs along the Delaware Bay coast. And with timing perfected by evolution, red knots, a bird enduring one of the most impressive yearly migrations from the Arctic to the Tierra del Fuego, arrive just in time to gorge on the eggs of the horseshoe crab. It is a vital stop on the “peeps'” spring migration. But the crabs and their eggs are disappearing, a loss with dire consequences for the little birds.

Red knot populations have fallen more than 75 percent in recent years, and new research published in this month’s issue of Bioscience reveals that Red knots can thank the bait fisheries for their hungry stomachs. Within half a decade the fisheries harvesting horseshoe crabs grew 20-fold, gobbling up more than 2 million crabs a year and effectively eliminating 90 percent of the eggs that red knots rely upon to survive their almost 19,000 mile migration.

But this research is not just a blame game for the fisheries. A coalition of scientists worked together on this study to help draft recommendations for the adaptive management of the bait fisheries that could help all three groups survive.

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