Protections for the red knot — and subsequently the horseshoe crab — have received one of the strongest boosts yet as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to list the shorebird as a threatened species.

The listing under the federal Endangered Species Act would provide extensive protections to the bird and its habitat. The red knot is already listed under New Jersey’s endangered species act.

The service, in its announcement Friday, said the red knot’s decline is tightly linked to commercial harvest of horseshoe crabs, which has significantly reduced the number of eggs available for the shorebird during its spring migration stopover along the Delaware Bay.

Red knots migrate tens of thousands of miles annually between their wintering grounds in far South America and their breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic. Vast flocks of knots, which have dwindled over the years, stop along the beaches of the Delaware Bay as part their journey north, feeding on the billions of horseshoe crab eggs that line the shores.

The migration, along with the horseshoe crab population, has been closely studied for more than two decades by state and international biologists. As the knot population began to crash in the early 1990s, scientists linked the decline with the uptick in the commercial horseshoe crab harvest.

“I think this is a great thing,” said Larry Niles, a red knot expert and former head of the state’s division of Endangered and Non-Game Species. “There are all these other species that have the same problem as the red knot that are going to benefit from this.”

Several environmental groups, including The American Littoral Society, New Jersey Audubon and the Center for Biological Diversity, have pushed for the federal government to list the red knot as threatened or endangered. The groups first sued about 2005, and the bird was listed as a candidate, a category the species has remained in since, said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the littoral society.

“I think this is important and welcome news for the red knot and for the rest of the Delaware Bay,” Dillingham said of the listing. “We have been working on a variety of conservation approaches, including restoring habitat and advocating for further restrictions on the horseshoe crab harvest. This is an important addition to those approaches.”

New Jersey has had a moratorium on harvesting the crab in place since 2007, though bills introduced late last year by state Sen. Jeff Van Drew and Assemblyman Nelson Albano, both D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, sought to overturn that ban. Delaware overturned its moratorium and currently allows a limited harvest.

“I think (the listing) undercuts the argument of those who try to lift the moratorium that the horseshoe crab population has been restored to the point where they can support the birds,” Dillingham said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service used data from New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection as the federal agency made the decision to propose listing the species, DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said.

“New Jersey has been at the forefront of protecting the red knot and other shorebirds for decades,” Hajna said in a statement. “With the benefit of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service State Wildlife Grants, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife has been able to study the red knot's decline and take actions to try to stop it, such as work earlier this year to restore critical beaches along Delaware Bay that were damaged by Superstorm Sandy.”

The beach repair, which cost about $1.2 million to fix more than one mile of bayfront in Middle Township, was deemed a success in the spring by Niles and others who worked on the project.

The announcement Friday launches a 60-day comment period.

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Press copy editor since 2006, copy desk chief since 2014. Masters in journalism from Temple University, 2006. My weekly comics blog, Wednesday Morning Quarterback, appears Wednesday mornings at PressofAC.com.