Committee backs ban on horseshoe crab harvesting

February 28, 2008 7:05:03 PM PST
A ban on horseshoe crab harvesting designed to protect migratory birds called red knots that feed on the crabs' eggs was approved by an Assembly committee Thursday. The 5-0 vote struck a blow to watermen who have harvested the prehistoric-looking crabs for years and marked the first step toward overriding a decision earlier this month by the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council allowing harvesting to go forward.

"I feel that we're doing the best job we can to protect the species," said Assemblyman Douglas H. Fisher, D-Cumberland, chairman of the Assembly Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee that approved the legislation. "We have to make sure that if there is a demise, it's not our fault."

Many environmental groups and state officials say that without protection the red knots could go extinct by 2010.

According to Amanda Dey, a biologist with the Department of Environmental Protection's Endangered and Non-Game Species Program, between 2000 and 2007 the number of red knots seen during aerial surveys of the Delaware Bay during migration season plummeted by 75 percent.

State environmental officials point to overharvesting of the horseshoe crabs and a resulting drop in the number of horseshoe crab eggs on the beach for the birds to feed on as the key reason for the birds' decline.

"The cause is simply that there are not enough eggs on the Delaware Bay," said Dey.

Environmental groups, including the American Bird Conservancy, Delaware Nature Society and New Jersey Audubon Society, are pushing for the bird to be listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

But fishermen who harvest the crabs, which are then used as bait for conch and eel, questioned the state's findings.

"Red knot science is a fraud. It's been fabricated," said Michael Litchko, a fisherman.

Fishermen have been pushing for a limited, male-only harvest, saying that wouldn't affect the red knots. They contend there could be other reasons for the lack of red knots in the Delaware Bay, and that the horseshoe crab population is on the rise.

"We do believe the population is rebounding, that horseshoe crabs are really a healthy population," said Scot Mackey, from the Garden State Seafood Association.

The medium-sized shore birds, about the size of a dove, flock to the Delaware Bay each spring after flying nonstop from South America. They feast on horseshoe crab eggs to nearly double their body weight before flying to their Arctic breeding grounds.

Under the legislation, the ban would be lifted only when the number of birds increases to certain targets and the DEP is satisfied that there are enough eggs on the beach to sustain the birds' numbers.

Legislators amended a part of the bill that would have barred New Jersey fishermen from even possessing horseshoe crabs, meaning they couldn't purchase them from other states where harvesting is allowed.

The revised legislation would allow fishermen to use horseshoe crabs as long as they have documentation detailing where they purchased them.

Delaware officials tried to implement a two-year moratorium for the 2007 and 2008 seasons, but it was struck down by a court, which said the crustaceans' population was healthy enough to allow a limited harvest. This year, Delaware plans a male-only harvest of 100,000 horseshoe crabs.

The bill still must be considered by the full Assembly.