March 31, 2006

Groups Win Key Battle Over Red Knot Birds

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP, N.J. -- Environmentalists won a key battle Thursday in their efforts to protect the red knot, a small bird that migrates through the Delaware Bay.

After a sometimes contentious meeting that pitted the state and environmentalists against fishermen who have plied the bay for years, the state Marine Fisheries Council - by a 7-3 vote - chose not to veto proposed rules from the Department of Environmental Protection that would implement a two-year moratorium on horseshoe crab harvesting.

The vote removes the last major hurdle for the moratorium to go into effect. It is designed to protect the red knot, which feeds on horseshoe crab eggs and, according to some, may soon be on the verge of extinction.

"Tonight is a bright night. There's 1.9 million people who watch wildlife in this state," said Eric Stiles of the New Jersey Audubon Society. "We applaud the council and the governor for the leadership they showed."

During the late spring, the red knots fly from the southern reaches of South America to the Delaware Bay, where they feed. The DEP had been pushing for the moratorium because they say there has been a dramatic decline in the bird's population that they believe is connected with harvesting of horseshoe crabs.

According to DEP data, 94,000 red knots landed in the bay in 1989, compared to 15,000 in 2005. At the same time, the department has seen a decline in horseshoe crab eggs per square meter on the beaches; in 1991 there were 50,000 eggs per square meter and in 2005 there were between 2,000 and 3,000 per square meter.

Opponents of the ban say there is no evidence showing that the red knot's population is connected to the crabs. They also contend that other factors, such as conditions in South America or and the loss of beach habitat in the Delaware Bay, may be contributing the red knot's decline.

"Some of the numbers don't add up. I don't believe the science adds up," said council member Barney Hollinger, who voted to veto the new rules.

However, David Chanda, director of the DEP's Division of Fish and Wildlife, said it would be "irresponsible" not to take every action to protect the red knot.

"I don't control its winter grounds. I don't control where it breeds," Chanda said while noting that the state can control what happens to the bird on the New Jersey side of the bay.

A key factor in the debate, say environmentalists and the state, is the role that migratory birds play in New Jersey's economy. There are slightly more than 30 licenses given to New Jerseyans to catch horseshoe crabs, and it's an industry that brings in about $80,000 a year. But wildlife viewing, which includes watching migratory birds, is a much more vital factor in the Cape May economy.

Fishermen at the meeting, though, said that was not an accurate picture.

"A lot of the folks look at this as there's 34 people who have licenses. It's not just 34 people" who will be affected, said Joe Wagner, a horseshoe crab and conch fisherman. He said the moratorium would affect not just horseshoe crab fishermen but others, including conch fishermen who use the crabs for bait.

The moratorium, which still has to clear some administrative hurdles, would go into effect later this spring and remain in effect through 2007.

A federal body, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, is considering its own two-year moratorium that would be more widespread than just New Jersey. However, that proposal has not been approved and, if it was, would most likely not go into effect this year.