Virginia rejects chance to shield horseshoe crab Survivor: Though the limulus has endured for millenniums, its numbers are declining while its appeal as bait is rising.

On The Bay

August 21, 1998|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

PREDATING dinosaurs by more than 100 million years, crawling out on moonlit beaches to spawn before the continents formed, limulus, the horseshoe crab, is nothing if not a survivor.

So probably it will survive Virginia's expedient retreat last month from joining efforts by Maryland and other mid-Atlantic states to control burgeoning fishing for the ancient species.

Lessons for managing all our wildlife are available in the politics and science that have been swirling around the old crab (actually more akin to spiders than true crabs).

While the horseshoe crab ranges the East and Gulf coasts, including the Chesapeake Bay, Delaware Bay is the species' epicenter.

There, every spring and summer, up to a million of the helmeted, sword-tailed creatures emerge -- most abundantly during full moons in May and June -- to bury eggs in the sand. Sometimes the crabs are so thick the beach looks cobbled with olive and brown stones.

This spectacle converges with clouds of migrating shorebirds, sandpipers, dunlins, knots, turnstones and others that have timed their northward flights from as far as Argentina to banquet on crab eggs.

Arriving on Delaware Bay with fuel stores perilously depleted, these birds, by the hundreds of thousands, spend weeks fattening on the eggs, so tiny a dozen could fit atop a pencil eraser.

It is a scene often described as gluttonous, but it turns out the birds can scarcely consume too many.

Studies indicate the eggs are not an ideal energy source. To store enough fat, shorebirds have to eat one every five seconds for 14 hours a day, scientists calculate.

But what they lack in nutrition, the eggs make up by their abundance, sometimes lying windrowed and inches deep on beaches and marshes.

Between 1990 and 1995, concerns grew about a decline in this cornucopia, vital to entire hemispherical populations of some shorebirds. Surveys of spawning beaches and bay bottom indicated sharply declining numbers of horseshoe crabs.

Concurrently, a booming commercial fishery had developed for horseshoe crabs as bait to catch eels, catfish and conchs.

Prices sometimes got as high as $1 apiece for the crabs, and fishermen's reported landings of them shot from half a million to more than 2 million crabs a year.

Lobbied by such groups as the American Bird Conservancy and state and national Audubon societies, the major fishing states -- Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland -- responded with more conservative regulations.

Maryland took the most stringent measures in April, cutting crab harvests in coastal ocean waters by about 70 percent.

That left Virginia, whose Marine Regulatory Commission (VMRC) this year prepared and distributed a strong set of proposed catch limits.

Then, at the VMRC's meeting last month, the proposals -- hotly opposed by its commercial fishing community -- were withdrawn.

Three reasons were given:

First, Virginia historically has accounted for a tiny fraction of crab catches.

Second, the most recent surveys in Delaware Bay show spawning there has rebounded.

Third, federal action is expected late this fall to set horseshoe crabbing regulations for the whole coast.

On the first count, even as the VMRC met, it acknowledged Virginia's landings of crabs had rocketed from the historic average of about 60,000 pounds to more than 300,000 pounds, and would probably top 1 million pounds by October.

Also, fishermen there have taken advantage of Virginia's giant -- loophole in the states' protection: Crabs caught in other states' waters are being landed through Virginia ports.

On the second count, horseshoe crabs indeed appear to be doing better this year and last in Delaware Bay, scientists say -- but with a major caveat.

None of the surveys measuring crab abundance has been done for enough years, or with enough accuracy, to sort out what is a trend and what is natural variability.

On the third count, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the federal authority that oversees coastal fishing, might propose late this year a reduction of every state's horseshoe crab catch by 25 percent from its recent average annual harvest.

This is less than Maryland has done, with no guarantees it will happen, given the gaps in scientific understanding of the crab.

And so it goes.

Fishermen will always bridle at more regulation -- and in the absence of it they will usually prove, as they are right now with horseshoe crabs, why they must be regulated.

States will often thump for less federal intervention (Virginia comes to mind). But on environmental issues, especially those that transcend their boundaries, they will often need, and maybe want, the feds to take the heat.

Finally, while you will often hear that we have "studied things to death," yawning gaps exist in the science needed to understand the life cycles and population dynamics of many vital links in the ecosystem such as horseshoe crabs.

The 25 percent harvest cut toward which the fisheries commission is leaning, for example, is little more than a best guess.

But one thing is not in doubt. The horseshoe crabs, which have survived since before trees evolved, can be devastated by overharvesting.

Hugely exploited as a fertilizer source starting more than a century ago, spawning crabs in Delaware Bay sank from the millions to a few tens of thousands by the 1950s. It took decades before they recovered significantly.

With fishing pressure again rising, it would behoove us to act conservatively. Virginia, which prizes conservatism more than most states, seems to have forgotten the true meaning of the word.

Pub Date: 8/21/98

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