Guest Commentary: Female horseshoe crab harvest will diminish the bay

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Steve Cottrell is president of the Delaware Audubon Society.

Delaware Audubon is standing up to defend the charismatic red knot from being driven to extinction by a shortsighted fisheries commission, which is now proposing to further endanger the shorebird by recommending the depletion of the red knot’s critical food source.

During the recent series of public hearings conducted by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, conveniently held prior to relevant information being made available to the public, we learned that Delaware currently has no eel fishery, and that there are a total of four businesses that fish for whelk.

For the benefit of four businesses, the State of Delaware continues to allow a horseshoe crab bait harvest, imperiling diverse Delaware Bay wildlife species that depend on horseshoe crabs for their survival. The continuing harvest threatens to impinge on the state’s ecotourism industry that is bolstered by a vibrant Delaware Bay. It is also a factor preventing the recovery of a once-thriving sportfishing industry.

Delaware will benefit economically by instituting a ban on the horseshoe crab bait harvest, and can compensate the four whelk businesses for the inconvenience of having to switch to an alternative bait source.

Only a full-halt harvest moratorium on both sides of the Delaware Bay will give the region a chance to recover from the severe trauma inflicted on it during the prior period of reckless horseshoe crab harvesting.

Prior to the 2023 Delaware legislative session, we will be contacting the members of the House and Senate to assess their positions regarding bait harvest moratorium legislation. The legislation enacted by New Jersey in 2008 can serve as a model for Delaware’s legislation. If there is opposition by any to a moratorium, we will keep a record of the reasons for the opposition.

The letter below addressing this topic was recently sent by Delaware Audubon to its 740 members and supporters:

“The Red Knot is a long-distance migrating shorebird that uses the Delaware Bay as a refueling stop on its annual spring migration from the tip of South America to the High Arctic. Although it was listed in 2014 as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, it is showing no signs of recovery from the unregulated horseshoe crab overharvest of the 1990s. It is now facing a new threat from the same fishing interests. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is now proposing a further expansion of the horseshoe crab harvest to include female horseshoe crabs, which will further deplete the already scarce supply of eggs on the beach when they are the critical food source of the Red Knot.

“Because the continuing harvest is driving the Red Knot ever closer to the edge of extinction, Delaware Audubon is advocating for a full Delaware ban on the harvest of horseshoe crabs until the Red Knot is removed as a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We are working to encourage Delaware legislators to introduce moratorium legislation during the 2023 Delaware legislative session. We urge supporters of Delaware Audubon to contact their representatives in the Delaware House and Senate, to encourage them to support the moratorium legislation. You can find your legislators at this link.

“Protect Delaware’s birds, and you protect Delaware.”

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