Earlier this month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service settled a number of lawsuits brought by environmental groups by promising to clear the backlog over the next six years.

In a letter to environmental groups, Eric Davis, the agency's point man on the six Northeast candidate species, said the "short-term goals of the Service include preventing further declines in populations and stabilizing or increasing numbers by reducing the magnitude and imminence of habitat-based and human-disturbance threats to red knot at wintering and migration areas."

The assessment on the bird's status, complete with public review and comment periods, will begin in fiscal year 2012, which begins in October, but the determination probably won't be published until the following fiscal year.

Not far enough

The red knot can't wait, argue bird experts, who want Maryland, Virginia and Delaware to join New Jersey in banning commercial horseshoe crab harvests.

"The shorebirds have shown the ability to recover, but we need to act right now," said Mike Parr of the American Bird Conservancy. "The knots are long-lived and 25,000 should be enough, but things have got to stop to let the knots recover. Otherwise, we're going to lose the bird."

But Delaware's environment secretary imposed a two-year ban on the harvest of horseshoe crabs in 2006 only to have the moratorium successfully challenged in court by the commercial industry. Instead, the state now has a male-only 100,000 crab annual quota.

Maryland bans horseshoe crab harvesting from Jan. 1 to June 7 and sets the catch ratio of 2 to 1, males to females, said Luisi. Ten commercial entities have permits to catch a total of 170,653 horseshoe crabs annually for bait and one company has a scientific permit to collect up to 150,000 horseshoe crabs for biomedical applications.

"With the reductions we're making we're seeing the continual growth of horseshoe crabs and the juvenile and adult level," said Luisi. "All signs look good for the horseshoe crab and our management of the species."

Back on the Delaware Beach, surrounded by boxes of shorebirds and busy team members, Larry Niles, leader of the 14-year-old Shorebird Project and lead biologist with the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, disagreed.

The former chief of New Jersey's endangered species program noted that while horseshoe crab harvests are down from the frenzy of the late 1990s, the harvests are still considerably higher than the early 1980s. In fact, Maryland's current commercial and biomedical quota of 320,653 crabs exceeds the entire East Coast harvest in any year from 1980-88.

"The overharvest of crabs caused the Delaware Bay collapse," said Niles as he held a skinny red knot that just arrived on the beach. "If anything else happens to these birds — red tide, tropical storms, loss of habitat — the population doesn't have the elasticity to come back. Close the harvest of the crabs and give these birds a chance."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com