Cottrell: 50th birthday of Endangered Species Act celebrated, keeping red knots in mind


Steve Cottrell is the president of Delaware Audubon.

Wildlife advocates from Delaware joined colleagues from Maine to Hawaii in the nation’s capital Sept. 12-13 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act. The gathering was organized by Defenders of Wildlife, in collaboration with other national organizations, to review the act’s 50 years of success and its future potential. In its first 50 years, the Endangered Species Act has been credited with saving 99% of listed species from extinction. Notable success stories include the bald eagle, the American alligator, the peregrine falcon, the whooping crane and the Kirtland’s warbler. Those species, which were at risk of extinction prior to receiving ESA protection, have recovered sufficiently so that such protections are no longer required.

On Sept. 13, our large group split up to meet with the congressional delegations of our respective states. Delaware’s contingent included conservation advocates representing Delaware Audubon, the Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club of Delaware and the World Wildlife Federation. Joined by senior staff of the American Bird Conservancy, the Delaware group met with staff members of Sens. Tom Carper and Chris Coons, and of Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, all D-Del. We thanked them all for their staunch support of the Endangered Species Act and other vital environmental issues, and encouraged them to defend the act from efforts intended to weaken it.

We used the opportunity to draw attention to the ESA-listed species that receives the greatest attention in Delaware, the red knot. Listed as “threatened” in 2014, the red knot has continued to drop in numbers each year during its spring stopover in Delaware, with 2023 setting a record low. The reason for its continuing decline is that the cause for its listing — the exploitation of horseshoe crabs — is not being addressed. Because of an ongoing bait harvest, the beaches on the Delaware side of the Delaware Bay are barren of visible horseshoe crab eggs when red knots arrive, forcing them to bypass Delaware in order to survive.

The remedy is a halt to the bait harvest of horseshoe crabs, which New Jersey — and, more recently, Connecticut — have implemented. Legislation in Delaware is blocked by the opposition of the fishermen who feel entitled to their annual bonus paycheck for removing spawning horseshoe crabs from the beach.

In the face of this stalemate in Delaware, an approach to consider is to simply buy the crabbers out. Congress can help by allocating federal Endangered Species Act funding for this red knot recovery effort. Our lawmakers, Sens. Carper and Coons, can help by supporting this spending request that is essential to recover the red knot, conserve the horseshoe crab and ensure fair compensation for the impacted fishermen.

As the author Deborah Cramer so aptly put it, we will not know the true value of the red knot until it is gone. Fans of the red knot must continue to work, so that grim outcome never comes to pass.

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