Most populations of migrant shorebirds around the world are in serious decline, suggesting that vital condition–dependent rates such as fecundity and annual survival are being affected globally. A striking example is the red knot (Calidris canutus rufa) population wintering in Tierra del Fuego, which undertakes marathon 30 000 km hemispheric migrations annually. In spring, migrant birds forage voraciously on horseshoe crab eggs in Delaware Bay in the eastern USA before departing to breed in Arctic polar deserts. From 1997 to 2002 an increasing proportion of knots failed to reach threshold departure masses of 180–200 g, possibly because of later arrival in the Bay and food shortage from concurrent over–harvesting of crabs. Reduced nutrient storage, especially in late–arriving birds, possibly combined with reduced sizes of intestine and liver during refuelling, had severe fitness consequences for adult survival and recruitment of young in 2000–2002. From 1997 to 2002 known survivors in Delaware Bay were heavier at initial capture than birds never seen again, annual survival of adults decreased by 37% between May 2000 and May 2001, and the number of second–year birds in wintering flocks declined by 47%. Population size in Tierra del Fuego declined alarmingly from 51 000 to 27 000 in 2000–2002, seriously threatening the viability of this subspecies. Demographic modelling predicts imminent endangerment and an increased risk of extinction of the subspecies without urgent risk–averse management.