Use as Bait
harvesting of horseshoe crabs has been an industry since the
1800s, when the crabs were used for fertilizer and animal feed.
More than four million crabs were harvested in 1870, but the
numbers steadily decreased until the fishery collapsed and
chemical fertilizers replaced the demand for horseshoe crabs
in the mid-1950s. Significant harvesting of crabs did not
begin again until 1976. Then the American eel fishery began
to expand as Asian sea farmers started to import American eels
for their aquaculture farms. Horseshoe crabs were the preferred
bait for catching eels. See Eel
Then, in the 1990s, the market for whelk meat in America and abroad expanded. Again, horseshoe crabs were collected to use as bait. See Whelk Fishery for more information about harvesting whelks.
As the preferred bait for these fisheries, demand for horseshoe
crabs has increased dramatically since 1980. Prior to the development
of a Fisheries Management Plan in 1999, annual landings statistics
for the Mid-Atlantic region showed an almost ten-fold increase
in harvest, from 460,000 pounds in 1960 to 3,400,000 pounds
Long-Term Effects of Over-Harvesting
Horseshoe crabs, particularly the egg-laden females, are targeted for bait in the eel and whelk fisheries. Removing mature adult horseshoe crabs from the population year after year increases the likelihood of a population crash. It takes 9 to 12 years for horseshoe crabs to reach sexual maturity and begin reproducing. If the loss of adults is not balanced by the birth of new offspring, over time, the population may not recover.
Since 1998, a Fisheries Management Plan has been in effect to
help protect horseshoe crab stocks from over-harvesting. Addendum
III of the Plan, currently in draft form and under review, calls
for more research into alternative trap designs with the goal
of reducing the numbers of horseshoe crabs needed to harvest
eel and whelk. Other research is focusing on alternative baits
designed to reduce the amount of or replace horseshoe crabs in
these fisheries. Click on Fisheries
Research to learn more.