By Scott Smith
The Connecticut legislature’s bipartisan Environment Committee is currently considering a House bill that would ban the hand harvest of horseshoe crabs from the state’s beaches and shorelines.
The proposed legislation, which Friends of Animals helped draft and is co-sponsored by Representatives Joe Gresko, John Hampton and David Michel, is of pressing concern, given the species’ importance to the health of the Long Island Sound ecosystem as well as to a number of species of migratory shorebirds who depend on the horseshoe crab’s eggs to fuel their yearly journeys from the Southern Hemisphere to breeding grounds in the Arctic.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which oversees management of the species on the East Coast, 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.
You would think that protecting horseshoe crabs, and in turn helping save shorebirds like the red knot, whose numbers are plummeting, would be a priority for an organization like the National Audubon Society.
Think again. In testimony to the Committee on Feb. 25, Robert LaFrance, director of policy for the Audubon Connecticut affiliate, declined to support the proposed ban. Speaking on behalf the Society’s five Connecticut chapters and 32,000 members, LaFrance instead backed a regulatory change promoted by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection that would merely limit the unsustainable cull from 500 crabs a day per license holder to 150 and slightly reduce the days the killing is allowed.
“We believe that a complete prohibition on all hand-harvesting of horseshoe crabs is not necessary at this time,” LaFrance claimed in written testimony. “At this time, [DEEP] does not feel that there is sufficient rationale to impose a complete ban on harvest, which would cause substantial economic hardship on fishers participating in the horseshoe crab and whelk fisheries.”
Let that sink in. LaFrance is not fighting for horseshoe crabs and migratory shorebirds; he wants to protect the part-time paychecks of 15 commercial license holders that DEEP allows to hand harvest crabs during the spawning season, which runs from late May to early July. Horseshoe crabs – particularly females laden with eggs – are in LaFrance’s words the “preferred bait” for a few whelk fishers, seeking to supply the market for conch fritters. In fact, nowhere in LaFrance’s extensive oral testimony did he even utter the word “bird.”
Members of the Environment Committee tried to give LaFrance a chance to clean up his testimony. State senator Christine Cohen, committee co-chair, representing shoreline communities including Guilford, Branford and Madison, said she lives in a district with whelk fishers and hadn’t heard any concerns from them on the matter. LaFrance doubled down, replying that “You’re going to have restrictions on bait that could then impact price…”
Co-chair Gresko, who several years ago helped enact a harvest ban for his Stratford community, helpfully reminded LaFrance that the Committee hearing featured testimony from a number of experts, such as Dr. Jennifer H. Mattei, a biology professor at Sacred Heart University and head of Project Limulus, which has conducted counts and studies of local horseshoe crab populations for the past 20 years.
“Due to very low population numbers the horseshoe crab is functionally extinct in Long Island Sound,” Professor Mattei reported in her written testimony. “The density of spawning horseshoe crabs is so low that the females cannot find mates and therefore this population is not reproducing at its maximum potential.”
LaFrance promptly tripled down, replying that he trusted DEEP to be able to monitor horseshoe crab populations and enforce proposed harvest limits, while admitting in virtually his next breath that the agency was woefully understaffed and underfunded. LaFrance went on to suggest that perhaps DEEP could in time prohibit the harvest of horseshoe crabs along beaches “that are highly productive.”
In addition to Stratford’s ban, three other Connecticut communities have already enacted laws prohibiting the local catch of horseshoe crabs, among them Milford Point, Sandy Point in West Haven, and Menunketesuck Island in Westbrook. Those local actions clearly have not been enough to halt the crashing population.
“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 horseshoe crabs,” Priscilla Feral, president of Darien-CT-based Friends of Animals has said. “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.”
The state of Connecticut lags behind its neighbors in efforts to protect this imperiled “living fossil.” New Jersey declared a moratorium on horseshoe crab harvesting in 2008. New York has a quota of 366,272 horseshoe crabs per year but caps the limit at 150,000, and over the past two years has closed the fishery during peak spawning times at the end of May and beginning of June. The quota for Connecticut’s annual haul remains 48,689.
As a policy expert who boasts of National Audubon’s extensive network of “partners along the Atlantic Flyway,” LaFrance must also surely be aware of the dire assessment of last season’s migratory bird counts:
A New York Times article published on June 5, 2021, reported the lowest tallies of red knots along the mid-Atlantic coast since counts began 40 years ago. Conservationists found fewer than 7,000 of the bird’s rufa subspecies during extensive counts on land, air and water of the Delaware bay during May. “The number is about a third of that found in 2020; less than a quarter of the levels in the previous two years; and the lowest since the early 1980s when the population was about 90,000.”
“Numbers were already well below the level that would ensure the bird’s survival. An earlier decline had been halted by years of conservation efforts, including a ban by New Jersey on the harvesting of horseshoe crabs, whose eggs provide essential food for the birds on their long-distance migrations,” wrote the Times’ Jon Hurdle.
Joanna Burger, a biologist at Rutgers University, has studied the knot and other declining shorebirds in the region since the early 1980s. Burger calls for an immediate ban on the harvesting of horseshoe crabs for bait in the areas where the catch is still permitted.
National Audubon’s betrayal of horseshoe crabs is also at odds with the position taken by the Connecticut Audubon Society, which is separate from and actually predates LaFrance’s group: “We strongly support any efforts to restore populations of this critically important natural resource and restricting the hand harvesting of horseshoe crabs will be an important step in our efforts to recover populations of this species and the ecosystem that depends on their presence,” stated Patrick Comins, executive director.
Friends of Animals urges its members in Connecticut and other defenders of horseshoe crabs and the birds, turtles and other wildlife that rely on them to ask their state representatives to support HB 5140, An Act Concerning the Hand-Harvesting of Horseshoe Crabs in the State. Click here to find your CT legislators.
FoA also calls on members of the National Audubon Society to ask why its Connecticut chapter is more concerned with helping a handful of seasonal fishers continue slaughtering horseshoe crabs just so people can have their cheap conch fritters, rather than stand up for this struggling species that so much other wildlife, like the red knot, depend on to survive. Email email@example.com.
“What will it take for us to realize that their ancient wonder defies the logic that 15 license holders in Connecticut should kill thousands of them each summer to be used for bait? It’s reprehensible,” says FoA’s Priscilla Feral.