Bait and Switch

Virginia Tries to Duck Responsibility for Protecting Horseshoe Crabs

Horseshoe crabs—actually more related to spiders than crabs—have gotten along fine, without help from human beings, for 300 million years or so, paleontologists estimate, predating even the dinosaurs. But the twentieth century has been a rough one for the horseshoe crab. It began with their existence being threatened by farmers who used them as fertilizer. That practice subsided long ago, but now horseshoe crabs have a new predator: the commercial fishing industry. Or, more specifically, the commercial fishing industry in Virginia, where overharvesting of the crabs prompted the federal government to take action last year.

Horseshoe crabs are an important link in the food chain on the Mid-Atlantic shore, but populations have been declining. A new multi-state agreement to limit the commercial harvest has one important dissenter: the commonwealth of Virginia.

Not exactly a delectable dish, horseshoe crabs were never prized by the fishing community. But they were recently found to be a highly effective bait for eel and especially conch, a lucrative sea snail that’s a popular cuisine in the Far East. With that discovery came a zealous harvesting of the crabs that, by the late 1990s, was causing severe problems to the coastal and marine ecosystems of the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays.

Every May and June, hundreds of thousands of horseshoe crabs gather along the Mid-Atlantic shores for their annual spawning season, laying and fertilizing eggs in the wet sand. Those eggs are vital sources of food for a variety of species, from the endangered loggerhead turtle to as many as a million migrating shorebirds. Gulls, grackles, sandpipers, red knots and ruddy turnstones all stop for a two-week snack in the midst of their 10,000-mile trek from South America to northern Canada—"like marathon runners in search of bowls of pasta," says Perry Plumart, director of government relations for the National Audubon Society.

Since the early 1990s, there has been a sharp drop-off in horseshoe crabs and, by consequence, their eggs. The migrating birds that feed off the crabs have been affected as well. In the Delaware Bay area, the crab spawning population dropped from 1.2 million in 1990 to less than 500,000 in 1996. (There has been a slight improvement in recent years, thanks to conservation efforts.) So a plan was devised by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), a regional agency with federal powers, which mandated a modest 25 percent cut in horseshoe crab fishing. The plan was supposed to take effect May 1, 2000; indeed, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey had already put into place ambitious plans to limit horseshoe crab harvesting by then.

But one state has balked—the commonwealth of Virginia—which is home to a $10 million conch-export industry, the nation’s largest. Virginia has a comparatively small horseshoe crab population; fishermen capture the crabs elsewhere and land them in Virginia. Representatives from the fishing industry insist there is no conclusive evidence that their horseshoe crab harvesting has led to the area’s ecological problems. "In our opinion, it was not prudent to go as far as the commission did," says Rick Robins, export manager for Newport News-based Chesapeake Bay Packing. "Virginia is the state that will bear the brunt of these laws." Robins also maintains that the restrictions are based on bad science and are politically motivated. "Commercial fisheries have been a popular scapegoat for the bird groups," he grumbles. "Maryland and New Jersey overreacted; they made concessions for political purposes."

Claiming economic hardship, Virginia refused to go along with the plan, leading to a showdown last year with ASMFC. In the end, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce found the state out of compliance, and the Coast Guard was set to intervene. At the eleventh hour, however, Virginia relented, but not before persuading ASMFC to consider an addendum, approved last April, allowing "transfer quotas."

Somewhat akin to pollution credits, transfer quotas will let one state fall short of the reduction rate if another surpasses it. In other words, if Massachusetts reduces its harvesting by, say, 30 percent, Virginia could lower theirs by only 20 percent. The addendum has few admirers outside Virginia’s fishing community. "It’s a terrible idea," says Perry Plumart. "We were advocating a 60 to 80 percent cut in landings—25 percent was the very bare minimum." Moreover, Plumart says, "If you allow Virginia to do that, you are undercutting the other states" conservation measures. No good can come from it."

Perhaps most importantly, transfer quotas could jeopardize the diversity in the horseshoe crab population. Each estuary along the Atlantic coast has a unique group of horseshoe crabs. "You want to avoid transfer quotas because of the potential for overfishing," says Tom O"Connell of Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources. "Delaware Bay has a genetically distinct population from the Chesapeake Bay population, and transfer quotas won’t recognize that."

Because of the long stretches of unbroken sandy shoreline, Delaware Bay has been an ideal spawning ground for horseshoe crabs. It has also made possible a cost-effective method of harvesting for the fishing industry. In fact, "fishing" is hardly the accurate term to describe what some harvesters do; during mating season, they drive semitrailer trucks along the beach and heave the invertebrates in by the thousands. Pregnant females and young crabs are particularly targeted; they are considered better bait and bring in more money. And since horseshoe crabs require approximately 10 years to reach sexual maturity, there has been a slowdown in the crabs" birthrate—yet another factor contributing to the declining population.

Horseshoe crabs are an important commodity to the medical community as well. Their blue blood contains special cells that kill certain kinds of bacteria. Today, scientists take blood from the crabs and use it to detect bacteria in human blood and intravenous drugs. For horseshoe crabs, the process is painless and nearly all survive the ordeal. (The previous method of testing contaminants was by injecting rabbits.) Scientists estimate that thousands of lives are saved every year.

So the benefits of preserving these "living fossils" are far-reaching indeed. Conservation efforts over the past few years have had great success, but there’s still the "loophole state"—as environmentalists are now calling Virginia.

Despite the controversy over transfer quotas, many environmentalists are satisfied that enough safeguards are in place to protect the crabs. The use of transfer quotas will still need cooperation from other states, and "no one wants to do it," says Perry Plumart. But Rick Robins vows to fight on. "For us, there is no alternative," he says. "We are 100 percent dependent on horseshoe crabs for bait."