CORRECTION: The below article should’ve noted there were 95,000 Red Knots, not horseshoe crabs, in 1989, 32,000 in 2002, and less than 10,000 today.
This is the second in a three-part series on endangered species. Part 1, which appeared in the June 12 Herald, examined the importance of the Delaware Bay Flyway and the effects pesticides had on eagles, ospreys, peregrine falcons and red knots.
In New Jersey, three actions have resulted in stopping the decline of the horseshoe crab, although their numbers are not increasing as desired, said Eric Stiles, president and CEO of the New Jersey Audubon Society.
"Horseshoe crabs can no longer be killed for bait," he noted. "Second, we have restored their habitats since Hurricane Sandy destroyed so many of our beaches. Third, we now have synthetic (horseshoe crab) blood that can be used in the medical field. The crab is worth much more alive than dead."
While not currently listed as a threatened species by New Jersey, there is a moratorium on the harvest of horseshoe crabs within the state. With this law, it is illegal to remove a horseshoe crab, dead or alive, from its habitat in the wild.
In 2005, New Jersey and Delaware imposed restrictions on horseshoe crab harvest during the spawning season and on public access to Delaware Bay and Atlantic Coast beaches to allow shorebirds to feed undisturbed.
Crab harvest continues in Delaware, Maryland, New York and Virginia with over 600,000 crabs being taken annually.
Delaware attempted to institute a moratorium in 2007 and 2008, but that effort failed and harvest in Delaware continues.
"We've helped delay their likely extinction," Stiles said, "but we need all the states along the Delaware Bay to cooperate."
Shared Commitment to Protect
On May 16, the governors of Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania made a shared commitment to protect the Delaware River watershed and agreed to work as equal partners, to grow the region’s economy and protect America’s “founding waterway.”
The governors signed a proclamation agreeing to work together to make the Delaware River Basin the national model for sustainable economic development, drinkable clean water, healthy fish and wildlife populations, outdoor recreation and nature-based climate resilience.
"The Delaware River Basin is not only the cradle of American democracy, it’s an economic engine for our region and provides drinking water for nearly 15 million people," said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. "In the face of escalating climate impacts and the Trump Administration’s rollback of basic clean water protections, collaborative, cross-state solutions are needed more now than ever to grow our economy, ensure clean drinking water, recover fish and wildlife populations, expand outdoor recreation opportunities and improve our resilience to climate impacts.
“We commend Governors Carney, Murphy and Wolf for committing to work together on making the restoration of the magnificent Delaware River Watershed a national model,” O'Mara continued.
Horseshoe Crabs not Declining, but...
Horseshoe crabs are evolutionary survivors that have remained relatively unchanged in appearance for 350 million years. The largest population of horseshoe crabs in the world is found in Delaware Bay.
During the spawning season, many eggs are exposed to the beach surface by wave action and the digging action of mating crabs. Once an egg is exposed to air, it can dry out quickly, preventing it from hatching; however, it still plays a vital role in the ecosystem.
These exposed eggs are the primary food source for migrating shorebirds making the journey from South America to the Arctic along the Atlantic Flyway. Delaware Bay hosts the second largest population of migrating shorebirds in North America.
In 1998, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), representing 15 states from Maine to Florida, developed a horseshoe crab management plan.
The ASMFC plan and its subsequent addenda (an item of additional material, typically omissions, added at the end of a book or other publication) established mandatory state-by-state harvest quotas and created the 1,500-square-mile Carl N. Shuster, Jr. Horseshoe Crab Sanctuary off the mouth of Delaware Bay.
Active management, as well as innovative bait conservation techniques, has successfully reduced commercial horseshoe crab landings in recent years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Conch and eel fishermen have been using mesh bait bags in their traps, so they use only a portion of one crab per trap, compared to using a whole crab in each trap. The bait bags have reduced the demand for bait by 50 to 75% in recent years.
Research is also being done to identify alternative baits for the conch and eel fisheries to further reduce the need for horseshoe crabs as bait.
Despite restrictive measures taken in recent years, populations are not showing immediate increases. Because horseshoe crabs do not breed until they reach nine or more years of age, it may take some time before the population measurably increases.
Tagging and Tracking Horseshoe Crabs
Brian Braudis, manager of the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, noted that in 1989, there were an estimated 95,000 horseshoe crabs in the Delaware Bay region. That number dropped to less than 32,000 in 2002. Today, there are less than 10,000.
His agency uses staff and volunteers to tag the crabs along the bay beaches, which allows them to count and track them while the tag is attached.
Volunteers 16 years or older interested in tagging should call the Refuge Center at 609-463-0994.
Recovery of the horseshoe crab also helps the game-fishing industry since they attract wheat fish and drum fish, for example. In fact, an important factor in the war to stop their decline, according to Stiles, were business owners in Cape May County who understand and profit from the eco- or nature-based tourist industry, which includes birders, game-fishing and others who contribute to the economy.
Putting the Cape on the Map
Sectors within the tourism industry such as eco- or nature-based tourism are putting the Jersey Cape on the map, according to Cape May County's Department of Tourism.
"Eco-tourism was the trend of the 1990s and Pete Dunne led the birding industry, introducing us all to the wonders of birding," according to a recent report, "Recognizing the Value of Tourism: An Inside Look at Cape May County's Tourism Industry," by Diane Wieland, tourism director.
"Cape May County is an integral part of the Atlantic Flyway and what the migrating birds had known for centuries was brought to our attention as the eco-tourism trend grew among travelers," the report continues. "The World Series of Birding started to draw interest of international birders and the Jersey Cape became known as one of the top birding destinations in North America.
"The economic impact of birding continues to astound tourism leaders, estimated at generating 11% of the total expenditures: eco-tourism generates approximately $600 million in Cape May County."
"If we don't have the birds, our area will be less of a hotspot to attract tourists," noted Braudis. "That would be a big loss because we have scientists and tourists coming from all over the world.
"Birds are easy to love because we can see them, they're pretty, we can hear them singing. But we have other keystone species here that birds and fish rely on. If we lose the Red Knots, for example, it says something about us," he continued.
Part three of this three-part series will appear in next week’s Herald, June 26.
To contact Karen Knight, email firstname.lastname@example.org.