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Maryland has announced it will curb the catch of female horseshoe crabs in state waters this year - short of the moratorium that some wanted but one that biologists hope may provide an indirect boost for the troubled red knot.

The red knot is a globe-trotting shorebird that stops off on the shores of Delaware Bay in May and June as it flies from its winter home in South America to the Arctic, where it breeds.  While in the region, the birds gorge themselves on the eggs that are scattered about the beach by horseshoe crabs as the prehistoric-looking creatures trundle up onto the beaches to reproduce.

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The number of red knots showing up in Delaware Bay every spring has plummeted since the 1980s, and as reported here before, federal biologists have suggested that a decline in horseshoe crabs - and their eggs - may be a major cause.  Conservation groups have appealed for federal endangered-species protection for the birds, so far to no avail.

The slow-moving, helmet-shaped crabs are not restaurant fare, but they are caught by fishermen along the mid-Atlantic coast to use as bait for catching conchs and eels.   (Horseshoes also are commercially valuable to the medical industry because a protein in their blood can be used to test for the presence of endotoxins, which can sicken or kill humans.  But the crabs are only "bled," not killed, to harvest this resource, and then they are returned to the sea.)

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Maryland's role in  the red knot's fate is key, even though the birds prefer Delaware for their spring stopover.  Crabs caught by Maryland fishermen off Ocean City are part of the same stock that goes into Delaware Bay to spawn, biologists say.

The state took steps a decade ago to reduce its harvest, and now operates under a quota set by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.  But while there is some evidence horseshoe crabs are recovering, the red knots are not - thus, the pressure to do more to boost the horseshoes faster, and possibly help the birds.

Some conservation groups wanted Maryland to impose a total moratorium on the horseshoe catch.  The 170,000 crabs that can be caught off Ocean City and in the Chesapeake Bay is the second largest catch quota of all the mid-Atlantic states.

Instead of shutting down the fishery, though, Maryland officials opted to require fishermen to take two males for every female they catch.  State officials saw that as a "prudent action" that should boost the number of females left in the sea while not putting fishermen out of work.  There are only 10 fishermen in Maryland permitted to catch horseshoe crabs, says Tom O'Connell, fisheries director for the Department of Natural Resources, but their catch provides bait for about 20 conch fishermen and about 60 eel fishermen.  Restricting the catch of females will cost the fishermen time and money, advocates say, since the males tend to be smaller and worth less.

Groups like the American Bird Conservancy praised the state's action as progress, and said they expected it should lead to more eggs on the beach for the red knots' migratory refueling.  But Darin Schroeder, the group's vice president, said that if the birds don't show greater recovery in their population soon, conservationists may call for still more reductions in the horseshoe harvest. Nor have they given up on federal protections, though they acknowledge the shorebird lacks the size or charisma of more popular endangered species.

"If the .. red knot were American bald eagles, you would see greater management actions being taken," contends Schroeder.

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