By Scott Smith, Communications Director
The imperiled horseshoe crab got a much-needed reprieve on Nov. 9 when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) listened to public concern and reversed course on plans to resume the killing of female horseshoe crabs in the Delaware Bay region.
An ASMFC advisory board voted to maintain a decade-old zero-quota on female horseshoe crabs that set next year’s catch in waters off New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. The decision rejected a plan that would have allowed the industry to kill about 150,000 female crabs in 2023, the first proposed female harvest in 10 years, reports The New York Times.
It’s not all good news: The ASMFC voted to allow the killing of up to 475,000 male-only horseshoe crabs of Delaware Bay origin for the 2023 season.
“FoA is relieved that science prevailed among the ASMFC members who voted to stop the reckless killing of female horseshoe crabs for bait so people could eat smoked eel and conch fritters,” said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals. “That said, their vote to continue killing male crabs defies logic and common sense, and that’s why we won’t stop fighting to end the killing of all horseshoe crabs up and down the Atlantic Seaboard.”
The 43-member ASMF Commission, comprised of legislators, administrators and appointees from Maine to Florida, said that it wanted to balance the needs of fisheries and the bay’s ecosystem and acknowledge public demand for protecting not only horseshoe crabs but the many species who rely on them for survival, including the highly endangered red knot shorebird, which feast on horseshoe crab eggs each spring to fuel their journeys north to breeding grounds in the Arctic.
The ASMFC had signaled that it would rely on analysis from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which had illogically concluded that although the wanton killing of crabs in the Delaware Bay region through the late 1990s and early 2000s was the key reason for the migratory shorebirds’ decline, the horseshoe crab population had grown large enough to survive a resumed harvest of females.
Friends of Animals wrote to the Commission members to urge them to vote down the proposal, arguing: “New independent scientific assessments reported by local advocates have determined that the Delaware Bay horseshoe crab population remains precarious.
“Among other red flags, the scientists found that despite a decade without female bait harvest, recruitment of young females into the population has not rebounded, the female proportion of the total population has not increased, and the mean size of mature females has declined, reaching its lowest level in the last three years of survey data. These outcomes are strong warnings that it would be risky to reopen a female bait harvest and add further mortality to the population,” stated the advocates on delawareonline.com.
This ‘living fossil’ plays a vital role
Horseshoe crabs (Limulus polyphemus) are older than even the dinosaurs, dating back more than 300 million years. Their name is actually a misnomer, as this living fossil is more closely related to spider, ticks and mites on the evolutionary tree. The species has long played what biologists call a “dominant role” in ensuring the health of the Atlantic States’ coastal ecosystem.
A female horseshoe crab can deposit around 20,000 eggs a night and up to some 100,000 eggs in each mating season, roughly April through June. Horseshoe crabs can live up to 20 years but don’t reach sexual maturity until about the age of 10. In addition to feeding migratory shorebirds, horseshoe crab eggs, larvae and juvenile crabs are also consumed by a wide range of crustaceans and fish, from rays and skates to sharks and sturgeon. Horseshoe crabs are also a major component in the diet of loggerhead turtles, and their carapaces are used as mobile homes for anemones, barnacles, oysters, seaweed and other marine organisms.
Residing in local populations up and down the East Coast and facing relentless pressure from both bait fishers and the pharmaceutical industry, which uses the crabs’ unique blue blood to make vaccine-testing drugs, Atlantic horseshoe crab populations are currently listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Union’s Red List of Endangered Species.
In addition to noting the slow recovery of horseshoe crabs in the mid-Atlantic region, the ASMFC has downgraded the stocks of horseshoe crabs in the New York Region, which includes Long Island Sound, in each of the past three assessments, from Good in 2009 to Neutral in 2013 to Poor in 2019.
The latest news confirms this trend: The number of horseshoe crabs spotted during the high spawning season at beaches from Brooklyn to Montauk this summer reached the lowest level in the 20 years the survey has been taken, according to a recent study conducted by Molloy University’s Center for Environmental Research and Coastal Oceans Monitoring.
‘Functionally extinct’ in Long Island Sound
That’s why Friends of Animals is fighting for the protection of horseshoe crabs along the Connecticut coast. In early 2022, the Darien, CT-based animal advocacy organization helped draft legislation to prohibit the hand capture and killing of horseshoe crabs from the waters and shoreline of the state. Despite passing by a unanimous vote in the CT House of Representatives, the legislation did not make it across the finish line. Friends of Animals will resume its efforts to protect CT’s horseshoe crabs during the upcoming legislative session.
Four Connecticut communities have already enacted laws prohibiting the local catch of horseshoe crabs, among them Milford Point, Stratford, Sandy Point in West Haven, and Menunketesuck Island in Westbrook. Those local actions clearly have not been enough to halt the crashing population.
Dwindling numbers of horseshoe crabs along Connecticut and New York shorelines have led to their functional extinction in Long Island Sound, said Jennifer H. Mattei, a member of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Horseshoe Crab Specialist Group and a biology professor at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT.
Connecticut issues about 15 permits a year to fishers to kill horseshoe crabs so they can be used as bait, despite other options. Local fishers acknowledge they can effectively bait their traps for whelk and eel using forage fish; there’s nothing special about horseshoe crabs as bait other than the fact that they are easy to harvest by hand. (As for the need to harvest horseshoe crabs for medical use, many European nations now use a proven effective synthetic alternative.) New York has a quota of 366,272 horseshoe crabs per year but caps the limit at 150,000. Connecticut’s quota for its annual haul is an appalling 48,689.
Advocates for a total ban on the killing of horseshoe crabs also argue that a quota system, seasonal limits during high-tide periods or the taking of only males opens the door to widespread poaching and the illegal killing of females, given a lack of oversight and enforcement by inadequately staffed state wildlife agencies, including CT’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
“A piecemeal ban on a few beaches and a partial ban around the high tides of full and new moons isn’t going to save Connecticut’s horseshoe crabs,” said Feral. “We know they migrate east and west along the Connecticut coast each spring to spawn, with some traveling across the Sound to breed in New York waters. Connecticut has to stop their slaughter statewide permanently so that horseshoe crabs can recover and continue to fulfill their crucial role in the local ecosystem.”