New Jersey bans horsehoe crabbing

March 25, 2008 6:17:36 PM PDT
Horseshoe crabbing has been banned indefinitely in the Garden State thanks to a new law signed by Gov. Jon S. Corzine on Tuesday. The new law is meant to help a threatened shorebird that feeds on the crabs' eggs as it passes through the Delaware Bay while migrating between South America and the Arctic.

"We all have to recognize that one action begets another action, and in the last few years I think we all come to realize how fragile our Earth is and it needs to be protected," Corzine said before signing the ban into law.

The ban is backed by environmentalists but opposed by fishermen who harvest the prehistoric-looking crabs for bait.

The measure imposing the ban was recently approved by the state Legislature after being rejected by state regulators.

But a total ban isn't backed by Delaware, which is moving forward with a planned harvest of 100,000 male horseshoe crabs this year.

The red knot population has plummeted as the crabs' eggs have become more scarce. Environmental groups and state officials contend the bird could go extinct by 2010.

"We are giving the food chain a chance to recover from our interference and giving the red knot and other shorebirds a chance to rebound from annihilation," said Sen. Bob Gordon, D-Bergen.

According to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, red knots seen during aerial surveys of the Delaware Bay during migration season fell by 75 percent from 2000 to last year.

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. They nonetheless cheered Corzine's action.

"It is a strong step to ensure the red knot and other shorebirds are here for future generations," said Tim Dillingham, the American Littoral Society executive director. "Extinct is forever."

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

"Red knot science is a fraud," Dennisville fisherman Michael Litchkos said at a recent legislative hearing. "It's been fabricated."

Fishermen contend there could be other reasons - such as habitat destruction or global warming - for the lack of red knots in the Delaware Bay and that the horseshoe crab population is strong.

The red knots, medium-sized shore birds about the size of a dove, flock to the Delaware Bay each spring after flying nonstop from the tip of South America. They feast on horseshoe crab eggs to nearly double their body weight before completing their 10,000-mile journey to Arctic breeding grounds.

Under the law, the ban will be lifted only when the DEP is satisfied that there are enough eggs on the beach to sustain the birds' numbers.

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.

But Corzine said he planned to talk to Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner about what that state can do to follow suit.