Right now, thousands of Red Knots are journeying from a remote beach in Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America, to their breeding grounds in the Canadian Artic 9,000 miles away. They just spent the winter on a 30-mile stretch of windswept beach known as Bahía Lomas, which is now home to a new nature sanctuary.
Yesterday, Carolina Schmidt, Chile’s Minister of the Environment, announced that Bahía Lomas will be protected as an official nature sanctuary. This declaration establishes the protection of more than 200 square-miles as part of Chile’s National Wetland Protection Plan. Bahía Lomas hosts almost 50 percent of the Rufa subspecies of Red Knots, making it the most critical wintering ground for this species in South America. A globally Important Bird Area, Bahía Lomas is also the winter home for the Hudsonian Godwit, among other long distance migrants.
Red Knot migration is a fascinating example of how many species in the coastal ecosystem rely on each other. On their way to northern Canada each spring, they stop to rest and refuel at a few important locations along the U.S. Atlantic Flyway, where at the same time thousands of horseshoe crabs arrive on the beaches to mate and lay eggs. Like clockwork, the Red Knots arrive just in time to feed on the superabundant eggs of horseshoe crabs before they continue north. Some 150,000 Red Knots once stopped over in Delaware Bay each spring, but today, less than a third remain, and the species is listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.
Overharvesting of horseshoe crabs along the central and southern Atlantic Coast, for fishing bait as well as for their blood, has led to a sharp reduction in this food source for migratory shorebirds, and Red Knots have been hit hard by this. At the same time, habitat loss and chronic human disturbance are additional threats.
Horseshoe crab blood—known for its bright blue color due to a lack of hemoglobin—is used for endotoxin testing by the biomedical and pharmaceutical industries. Audubon is working with leaders in the pharmaceutical industry like Eli Lilly, as well as many other partners along the Atlantic Coast, to promote the synthetic alternative to horseshoe crab blood, reduce the number or horseshoe crabs killed for bait, and protect habitat for both horseshoe crabs and shorebirds along the Atlantic Coast.
With so much land to cover each year, Red Knots face a challenges from climate change to overfishing on both ends of the hemisphere. But thanks to this new sanctuary, when they return to Bahía Lomas in later this year, they’ll have one less challenge to face.