Horseshoe crabs in Md. given more protection Harvesting them banned during spawning season

March 31, 1998|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

The horseshoe crab has outlasted the dinosaurs -- but it probably won't outlast the international fishing trade without government help.

So said Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening yesterday, announcing new protections for the homely, hard-hatted creature that has endured for nearly 360 million years. In the process of preserving the crab, Maryland officials also hope to protect the millions of shorebirds that flock to mid-Atlantic beaches in late spring to feast on the crabs' tiny eggs, along with the growing tourist trade in crab- and bird-watchers.

The emergency regulations ban the horseshoe crabs' harvest during spawning season, which begins in late May. The state had a partial ban in place, Glendening said, but it proved too weak after New Jersey and Delaware imposed emergency rules last year and those states' horseshoe crab harvesters moved into Maryland.

"These are ugly little critters," Glendening said in Stevensville, on Kent Island. "When I talk about protecting them, I get these little snickers. But to think that something that has been around for 360 million years would be wiped out by the greed of overharvesting is just not acceptable."

The horseshoe crab looks like one of the least vulnerable of living things. It has no enemies except humans, but conservationists say the crabs' plight is a perfect example of the law of unintended consequences:

American fishermen are catching more eels to satisfy Europe's and Japan's craving for them. Horseshoe crabs are the ideal bait for eels, so their harvest has soared. In Maryland, commercial landings went from 500,000 pounds in 1986 to 2.6 million in 1996. Meanwhile, oceanfront development has walled off many of the sandy beaches in Delaware Bay and adjacent waters where 90 percent of the East Coast population spawns.

It's too soon to track the impact on the horseshoe crabs' numbers, because the creatures don't mate until they're at least 9 years old. But biologists suspect the population has declined dramatically since 1990.

At the same time, the National Audubon Society has tracked declines of 75 percent or more in some of the migratory shorebirds, such as red knots and sandpipers, which time their annual northward trek to coincide with a vast beachfront buffet of horseshoe crab eggs.

"There's no doubt that there's a direct connection between the overharvesting of the horseshoe crab and the decline of these migratory shorebirds," said Audubon spokesman Perry Plumart.

The new regulations ban harvesting within a mile of the state's Atlantic and Chesapeake shorelines between April 1 and June 30. The commercial harvest also will be capped at 750,000 pounds, less than one-third what it was in 1996. Out-of-state fishermen won't be permitted to take horseshoe crabs in Maryland.

Environmentalists applauded the state's move.

Pub Date: 3/31/98

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