Saving Red Knots One Crab at a Time

Learn what you can do to help shorebirds and the food they rely on.

Each May, Red Knots arrive by the thousands on the Atlantic Coast to rest and refuel during their 9,000-mile migration. This small, robin-sized shorebird has long inspired people who marvel at its incredible migration, from its winter home in Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America to its breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic. But the Atlantic Coast Red Knot (known as the rufa Red Knot) has seen dramatic population declines over the last few decades, so much that it was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2015.

Fortunately, a fiercely determined and growing network of people are working together to protect and recover the Red Knot population. Just last month, Chile announced that Bahía Lomas, a 200-square-mile area on Chile’s coast that hosts almost 50 percent of rufa Red Knots, will be protected as a national nature sanctuary. But there’s more than we can—and must—do to keep the Red Knot from disappearing.

To fuel their herculean migration, Red Knots rely on the eggs of an ancient species—the horseshoe crab. This month, while thousands of Red Knots that have flown without stopping from South America, thousands of horseshoe crabs are coming ashore to lay their eggs en masse in places like Delaware Bay and the South Carolina coast. With such an abundance of horseshoe crab eggs on key Atlantic Coast’s beaches, Red Knots and other shorebirds show up just in time to feast on the energy-rich eggs before continuing their journey north to nest in Arctic Canada. However, horseshoe crabs are not doing well. Their population crashed in the late 1990s due to overharvest for bait in the commercial whelk and eel fisheries, and for their highly prized, bright-blue blood, which is used in biomedical testing. Fortunately, there are alternatives to using horseshoe crabs in both cases.

Audubon is working with partners across the Atlantic Coast to save horseshoe crabs. For example, New Jersey Audubon  has pushed the biomedical and pharmaceutical industries to transition to a synthetic alternative to horseshoe crab blood, and was instrumental in passing a model bill to ban the use of horseshoe crabs for bait in the state. Audubon’s New York and Connecticut state offices are working on bills to more sustainably harvest crabs, and New York City Audubon works with state agencies to engage 200 trained volunteers to monitor crabs at key spawning beaches, and flip over any upside-down spawning crabs to save their lives.

Recovering the horseshoe crab population will not only benefit Red Knots and many other species of shorebirds, it will benefit forage fish, sports fish, sea turtles, seabirds, other wildlife, and the coastal communities whose economic well-being depends on a healthy, thriving coast.

So, what can you do to help save Red Knots and the horseshoe crabs they depend on? If you go to the beach and see a horseshoe crab flipped upside down, simply flip it over. This simple act can save its life. Avoid disturbing feeding and resting shorebirds, and encourage your friends and family to do the same. The time they spend feeding and resting during their short stopover during migration is essential to their survival and successful nesting during the short Arctic breeding season. Please remember to only bring your pets to beaches were they are permitted, and when you do, always keep them on a leash and away from birds.

Once we give horseshoe crabs a break, they will again thrive. After all, it has been around 450 million years, through many climate upheavals, but it can’t endure relentless killing. With a secure food source, species like Red Knots can recover and the marvel of shorebird migration will thrill beachgoers and birders for generations to come.

To learn more about why horseshoe crabs are so important for shorebirds, watch our webinar.

To learn how Audubon is working with our partners to protect horseshoe crabs and shorebirds, visit the Horseshoe Crab Recovery Coalition's website.