Horseshoe crabs are always a welcome sight at the water’s edge of the Connecticut shoreline. Toddlers are thrilled by their primordial look and pace; bird watchers appreciate the fact that the bountiful eggs laid by these coupling creatures nourish migratory shorebirds as well as many other maritime species.
But what happens when this ancient species – far older than even the dinosaurs – no longer shows up at the beach?
That’s the growing fear among those who study and manage the area’s horseshoe crab population, and which is why Friends of Animals is calling for an emergency ban on the commercial harvest of horseshoe crabs from Connecticut waters.
“It’s clear to any Connecticut resident walking the beach that horseshoe crabs, once so common, are now in crisis, which is why we’re calling for an immediate halt to the seasonal slaughter of this keystone species,” says Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, an advocacy group based in Darien, CT.
Friends of Animals has asked the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to rescind commercial horseshoe crab fishing licenses effective immediately through the end of the commercial harvest season, July 7. (Click here to read the FoA letter.) What’s more, FoA, which fights to protect animals and their habitats around the world, is helping draft legislation calling for a permanent ban beginning in 2022.
Each year, CT DEEP issues 12 commercial licenses for the taking of horseshoe crabs from May 22 through July 7, excluding weekends and several closed localized areas along the shoreline. The licenses allow the hand harvest of up to 500 horseshoe crabs per day, as well as a limit of 25 crabs per day by commercial trawling.
The bulk of Connecticut’s horseshoe crab cull is sold as bait, used to catch whelk and American eel, itself a depleted species. The whelk, or conch, are sold to restaurants; eels captured in pots using horseshoe crabs as bait have traditionally been sold as food for European markets and as bait to catch striped bass and other game fish in area waters. In some Atlantic states, horseshoe crabs are captured to withdraw their blood, which is used by medical labs to test the safety of vaccines and other drugs.
“It makes no sense to continue killing horseshoe crabs and removing them from the crucial ecological niche they fill simply to use them as bait so that a few people can have their smoked eel and conch fritters,” Feral adds. “Horseshoe crabs deserve to be left alone and to be allowed to play their time-honored role as a keystone species.”
Horseshoe crabs (Limulus polyphemus) are among the oldest species on Earth, 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. A female horseshoe crab can deposit around 20,000 eggs a night and up to some 100,000 eggs in each mating season.
A number of migratory shorebird species rely on horseshoe crab eggs to fuel their flights north. That is, they once did. 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,” writes Jon Hurdle for the Times.
“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.”
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 unsustainable catch is still permitted.
Horseshoe crabs are a major component in the diet of loggerhead turtles. Their eggs, larvae and juvenile crabs are also consumed by a wide range of birds, crustaceans and fish, from rays and skates to sharks and sturgeon. Horseshoe crabs are themselves environments; their carapaces are used as mobile homes for anemones, barnacles, oysters, seaweed and other marine organisms.
Jennifer H. Mattei, a biology professor at Sacred Heart University who heads up Project Limulus to count and track horseshoe crabs in Long Island Sound, says her research shows that the adult spawning populations are declining to precariously low levels – and worse, the breeding population is aging, with not enough younger horseshoe crabs to replace older ones. The crabs, which live as many as 20 years, don’t begin to breed until they are about 10 years old.
Loss of habitat suitable for horseshoe crab spawning has also adversely impacted horseshoe crabs. Bulkheads may block access to intertidal spawning beaches, while groins and seawalls intensify local shoreline erosion and prevent natural beach migration.
“Based on our data, we support an expansion of no harvest zones to allow female horseshoe crabs to lay more eggs,” Mattei said in support of a 2020 bill co-sponsored by state representative Joe Gresko to ban the harvest along the beaches of his home district of Stratford. Other CT municipalities that have enacted bans include Milford Point in Milford, Sandy Point in West Haven and Menunketesuck Island in Westbrook.
“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,” says FoA’s 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.”
New Jersey declared a moratorium on horseshoe crab harvesting in 2008. Harvest in the Delaware Bay region has been limited to only male horseshoe crabs since the 2013 fishing season. 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 is 48,689.
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.
“International Horseshoe Crab Day is Sunday, June 20,” says Priscilla Feral of FoA. “For once, let them celebrate their day without the fear of being hunted.”