Imagine you are standing on the shore of Cape May, New Jersey — it is late spring in the year 1857. As you look right and left, the entire strand of beach, reaching for miles in either direction, "is covered with [horseshoe crabs], sometimes two or three deep." This vision was actually an observation recorded by G. H. Cook in Geology of the County of Cape May, State of New Jersey. At this time, the crabs were being harvested in great numbers for the fertilizer industry. During its heyday, over four million crabs were taken each year from Delaware Bay for fertilizer. But eventually, the numbers of spawning crabs began to decline.
Between 1960 and 1980, scientists estimated the number of horseshoe crabs in the Delaware Bay to be relatively constant (2.3 to 4.1 million horseshoe crabs). But since then, a general decline in horseshoe crab abundance has again been observed, and attributed in part to the increase in demand for horseshoe crabs as bait for the eel and whelk fisheries. Trawl surveys of adult horseshoe crab abundance show a decrease in average catch per tow. The density of eggs spawned on New Jersey beaches is lower. In 1990, 900,000 adults were counted in the annual horseshoe crab census coordinated by the University of Delaware Sea Grant Marine Advisory Service. Only 400,000 were counted in the 1999 census. During the past few years, from 1999 through 2002, the spawning population appears to have stabilized, remaining around 400,000 adults on the peak-night census.
Prior to 1998, the harvesting of horseshoe crabs was regulated by individual states. Responding to concerns from scientists, environmentalists, and the biomedical industry over the status of the horseshoe crab population, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) adopted an Interstate Fisheries Management Plan (FMP) in 1998. As reported in the 1999 Review of the Fishery Management Plan for Horseshoe Crab, the plan's goal is to "conserve and protect the horseshoe crab resource to maintain sustainable levels of spawning stock biomass to ensure its continued role in the ecology of coastal ecosystems, while providing for continued use over time."
Components of the plan, as stated in the 1999 review, include "a monitoring program that includes mandatory monthly reporting, continuing existing benthic sampling programs, establishing pilot programs to survey spawning horseshoe crabs and egg density, evaluating post-release mortality of horseshoe crabs used by the biomedical industry, and identifying potential horseshoe crab habitat in each state." Click on Fisheries Research to find a summary and progress reports of research and monitoring components.
Another component of the plan maintains harvest controls already put into place in New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland for horseshoe crabs. The ASMFC plan also directs the management board to implement a cap on horseshoe crab bait landings in 2000 and recommends that the Secretary of Commerce address and initiate controls over the harvest and use of horseshoe crabs in federal waters.
In the 1999 review, a summary of the status of the fishery included the following:
The Fisheries Management Plan had a sizeable loophole through which many horseshoe crabs had passed!
Addendum I* to the Fishery Management Plan for Horseshoe Crab set forth additional policies which strengthened the original document. It went into effect on May 1, 2000, and included the following actions:
1. Changes were made to the states' harvest level thresholds for horseshoe crab bait fisheries, reducing harvest quotas by 25%. It encouraged states with more restrictive harvest levels to maintain those regulations. A table of individual state harvest levels is found on page 7 of Addendum I.
2. Establishment of de minimis criteria for those states with a limited horseshoe crab bait fishery. De minimis is defined as "a situation in which, under existing condition of the stock and scope of the fishery, conservation, and enforcement actions taken by an individual state would be expected to contribute insignificantly to a coastwide conservation program required by a Fishery Management Plan or amendment." To apply for de minimis status, a state's combined average horseshoe crab bait landings need to constitute less than one percent of coastwide horseshoe crab bait landings for the same two-year period. De minimis states are required to cap their landings at the de minimis threshold instituted by Addendum I. This means the state must close its horseshoe crab bait fishery once the state cap is reached.
3. A recommendation that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) close the harvest of horseshoe crabs in Federal waters (3-200 miles offshore) within a specified area near the mouth of the Delaware Bay. Taking of horseshoe crabs for any purpose and the transfer of horseshoe crabs at sea would be prohibited in this area.
4. A requirement that all state programs include adequate law enforcement capabilities for successfully implementing the jurisdiction's horseshoe crab regulations.
As a result of Addendum I, several states expressed concerns that stricter harvest quotas might result in a shortage of horseshoe crab bait for their commercial fishermen. Addendum II,* adopted in May 2001, addressed this issue. It established a voluntary quota transfer policy so that states harvesting horseshoe crabs from the same population (i.e., Delaware Bay) could transfer their landing quotas after receiving approval from the Horseshoe Crab Technical Committee. Approval is based on the potential impact of harvest on migratory shorebirds, the biomedical industry, and other competing uses.
In April 2002, the Horseshoe Crab Plan Review Team again published another Review of the Fishery Management Plan for Horseshoe Crab.* The review reports that "Currently, there are no compliance issues for any ASMFC states in regards to their horseshoe crab programs. . . . All states have implemented the necessary monitoring components of the plan." Other progress includes:
1. Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, PRFC, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida had requested and were qualified for de minimis status.
2. The horseshoe crab harvest numbers had declined. "As a result of the FMP, horseshoe crab landings have decreased. A 40% reduction in RPL was realized in 2000 and preliminary data suggest a 66% reduction was realized in 2001." See Figure 1 in the 2002 Review of the FMP for Horseshoe Crab for a graph summarizing this information.
3. A horseshoe crab reserve was established
by the National Marine Fisheries
Service in the Mid-Atlantic area on March 7, 2001. The Carl
N. Shuster, Jr. Horseshoe Crab Reserve encompasses a 1,500-nautical-mile
area in the EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone, an area that extends
offshore from 3-20 miles and is governed by the federal government)
between Atlantic City, NJ, and Ocean City, MD. Managed jointly
by federal and state governments, this protected area is an
important offshore habitat for the largest concentration of
horseshoe crabs on the Atlantic Coast. Horseshoe crab harvest
is prohibited year-round within the reserve, and possession of horseshoe
crabs is limited
to whelk fishing vessels. As of 2001, the development of regulations
to prohibit transfer at sea of horseshoe crabs was still under review.
Addendum III is scheduled for implementation in the spring of 2004. Under consideration are the following fisheries management options:
1. Limit New Jersey and Delaware's quota to 150,000 crabs each per year and Maryland's quota to its 2001 landings (170,653 crabs) per year. All other states must maintain their quotas on bait landings established by Addendum I. A summary of horseshoe crab bait landings by state is found on page 12 of Addendum III.
2. Establish a closed season in New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland from May 1 through June 7 during which the harvest and landing of horseshoe crabs will be prohibited.
3. Encourage states, where appropriate, that have bait and biomedical fisheries to allow biomedical companies to use horseshoe crabs harvested under a bait permit for biomedical proposes and require the subsequent return of the horseshoe crabs to the bait market. Crabs used in this way count against the state's bait quota. This option would allow each state to choose to implement this system or remain status quo.
The regulations summarized above are only part of the total Fisheries Management Plan. Research and monitoring activities also are an important component of the FMP. The goals of these activities are to produce robust data which can be analyzed to see and predict population trends, and establish a base of scientific information to help policy makers make decisions. Click here to learn more about these and other fisheries research projects.
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