NJ lawmakers seek to save bird from extinction

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters Life!) – New Jersey lawmakers have introduced a bill which they hope will prevent the extinction of one of America’s rarest shore birds by banning the harvest of the crabs that provide its food.

The measure would prevent fishermen from taking horseshoe crabs, whose eggs feed the endangered red knot, from the New Jersey shores of the Delaware Bay.

The move follows a decision by the state’s Marine Fisheries Council on February 11 to end a two-year moratorium on harvesting the crabs following pressure from conservationists, who warned that the red knot is in imminent danger of extinction because of over-harvesting of the crabs, which are used for bait.

The bird’s worldwide numbers have plummeted to less than 25,000, down 30 percent in the last two years, and around a quarter of the level that biologists estimate is sustainable, said Larry Niles, former head of New Jersey’s endangered species program, who has studied the red knot since 1985.

The red knot, a robin-sized bird that migrates from South America to Arctic Canada via New Jersey’s beaches each spring, could easily be wiped out by natural factors such as harsh weather in its breeding grounds, Niles said.

“We think it has already crossed the line where any normal mortality event could drive the bird to extinction,” he said.

He said the new legislation offers the bird’s best chance of survival because Delaware, the other state that borders the bay, has rejected efforts to protect horseshoe crabs.

“New Jersey is part of an intercontinental community that shares the responsibility to sustain migratory shorebirds like the red knot by preserving their vital food source,” said Assemblyman John McKeon, a co-sponsor of the bill, in a statement.

Gilbert Ewing, chairman of the Marine Fisheries Council, a group that represents commercial and recreational fishermen, said he expects there will be “plenty of support” for the bill, and that when it becomes law, crab fishermen will have to find another source of income.

“When it goes into legislation, the council will not have the ability to protect the fishermen,” he said. “They will never see a harvest of horseshoe crabs again.”

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