Guest commentary: Effort to protect female horseshoe crabs continues


Steve Cottrell is the president of Delaware Audubon.

The state of Delaware is in the national news but not in a favorable light. In a recent New York Times guest essay, author Deborah Cramer spells out the trouble that awaits everyone when horseshoe crabs are gone.

The plight of the horseshoe crab is so dire that the International Union for Conservation of Nature considers horseshoe crabs in the United States vulnerable to extinction along much of the East Coast. In addition, Delaware's iconic red knot, which depends on an abundance of horseshoe crab eggs during its Delaware Bay stopover on its multicontinent migration, is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, in large measure due to the inadequacy of the horseshoe crab egg supply. As Deborah Cramer points out, Delaware Bay beaches are no longer suffused with horseshoe crab eggs, as they were in years prior to the red knot’s dramatic decline.

Delaware, for its part, is contributing to the problem.

In 2021, 23% of the over 740,000 horseshoe crabs taken for bait along the Atlantic Coast were harvested in Delaware waters, as a result of Delaware’s resistance to implementing a bait harvest moratorium, which New Jersey and South Carolina have implemented, and which has been introduced in the Connecticut legislature. It should be noted that there is a variety of other detritus that can serve the same bait function as horseshoe crabs. Because there are options, a Delaware moratorium will have negligible negative impact on the eel and whelk fisheries that currently use horseshoe crab as bait.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s own data reveal that the current status of the horseshoe crab is alarming. The graph, presented at the commission’s November 2022 meeting, displays a recent precipitous drop in newly mature females. It is suspected that there is a considerable unauthorized harvest of female horseshoe crabs in Delaware, due to lack enforcement of DNREC regulations. This is likely to be a contributing cause for the decline of the female horseshoe crab population.

This portends a dangerously low number of spawning females in the future. To address this, a proposal, signed by the Delaware Nature Society and Delaware Audubon, was sent to Senator Stephanie Hansen, chair of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, for consideration as new legislation. The proposal calls for the implementation of a moratorium on the harvest of — at least — female horseshoe crabs, applying to both the bait and biomedical fisheries. Since Delaware fishermen are currently prohibited from taking females, a female moratorium will have no immediate impact on that industry. Likewise, since there currently is no biomedical take of horseshoe crabs in Delaware, there will be no negative impact in that regard. What the proposed legislation does is prohibit any future female take by either industry.

An important component of the proposed legislation addresses enforcement. Although current Delaware policy prohibits the take of female horseshoe crabs, lax enforcement possibly results in female horseshoe crabs taken as bycatch. Language for effective enforcement must be included in the legislation.

There now is urgency for measures to be taken to protect the horseshoe crab and the Delaware Bay wildlife dependent on that keystone species. We will be encouraging Delaware legislators to recognize that urgency and take up the proposed legislation during the 2023 legislative session.

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