The decades-long effort to protect Delaware Bay horseshoe crabs and the concentrations of shorebirds that rely on their tiny eggs avoided a serious setback last month.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission had proposed resuming the harvest of female crabs for industry use as bait for fishing pots and traps. For 10 years no harvest of females has been allowed, in part to help the threatened red knots that gorge on the eggs on their flight from the bottom to the top of the Americas.
The commission had proposed allowing the fishing industry in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia to catch about 150,000 female crabs in 2023. This was based on estimates of bird and crab numbers from a secret computer model that the Center for Biological Diversity and other wildlife biologists called deeply flawed.
Criticism of the Marine Fisheries Commission was widespread, in the flood of more than 34,000 public comments opposing an expansion of harvests, and in opposition from conservation groups that also included Earthjustice, New Jersey Audubon and Defenders of Wildlife. The groups said the crab harvest would potentially violate the Endangered Species Act.
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The commission reversed itself and, for 2023 anyway, ruled out any harvesting of female horseshoe crabs in the four states, including in Delaware Bay where their population is the largest. Conservation groups were grateful.
“Allowing female horseshoe crabs to be harvested would have been a catastrophe,” said Will Harlan, a scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity.
“I’m grateful that the commission responded to public and scientific input.”
“At a time when Delaware Bay is seeing a continued decline in red knots, a decision to harvest female horseshoe crabs would have permanently undermined recovery efforts and accelerated their path to extinction,” said Christian Hunt, Defenders of Wildlife senior federal lands policy analyst.
We’re grateful too. We were shocked at the proposal, coming after a decade of wholesale destruction of crabs helped reduce red knots on Delaware Bay from 90,000 a year each spring to 6,880 in 2021. Larry Niles, the South Jersey wildlife biologist who has monitored the shorebirds for 26 years, had found the crabs’ tiny green eggs on bay beaches had plummeted from 50,000 per square meter during spring spawning to a mere 7,000 this year. We despaired for the crabs and the world-famous shorebird migration that depended on them.
Now we’re encouraged by the response by conservation groups and the public, and the widespread coverage of the issue including in The New York Times and on National Public Radio.
Unfortunately, stopping this absurd misuse of female horseshoe crabs was only a partial victory and left much to be done.
The fisheries commission still proceeded with allowing up to 475,000 male crabs to be caught and crushed for pot bait, with quotas increased in Maryland and Virginia to counter New Jersey’s ban on crab harvesting.
And the commission went ahead with implementing its new management process based on its dubious computer modeling. It didn’t follow the recommendation of that process to harvest females only because of the firestorm of opposition by outside scientists and the public.
Harlan, the Center for Biological Diversity scientist, said “the fight is far from over because the commission left the door open to female horseshoe crab harvests after next year.”
David Mizrahi, vice president of research and monitoring at New Jersey Audubon, urged the commission to engage all stakeholders in the process of determining management of horseshoe crabs in the future.
Harlan and Ben Levitan, an attorney for Earthjustice, said the commission must disclose the details of its computer modeling if it revisits the female harvest. “The commission should allow full public involvement and respond to scientific critiques before any harvest expansion is again considered,” Levitan said.
Delaware Bay and its wildlife are a resource that belongs to the public. People who care about that resource and the organizations helping them monitor and protect it will have to remain vigilant. The fishing industry and its allies in government seem bent on pillaging some of those resources for convenience and small financial gain before recovery efforts have time to work.