Horseshoe crabs down for the count

Environmentalists say the numbers are down

fishermen say otherwise

'A lot of counting going on'

July 08, 1999|By Emilie Lounsberry | Emilie Lounsberry,Knight Ridder/Tribune

DENNIS TOWNSHIP, N.J. -- The tide was high, the late afternoon sun was shining brightly, and Fred Layton Jr. was getting down to work.

He steered his 19-foot boat into the Dennis Creek marsh near the Delaware Bay in Cape May County, jumped knee-deep into the water, and started grabbing for crabs -- not the edible variety but those olive green, helmet-shaped horseshoe crabs with the pointy tails.

"It's not as easy at it looks," said Layton, tossing crab after crab by the tail into the front of the boat, which before long was filled with the wriggling creatures -- claw-legs flailing and hard shells clicking against each other like fingernails tapping a table.

Layton, 53, is a third-generation commercial crab harvester, and his work is at the center of a continuing controversy along the Delaware Bay about the horseshoe crab, which has existed for millions of years.

Environmentalists say overharvesting has caused a substantial decline in the number of horseshoe crabs, but New Jersey commercial fishermen -- including Layton -- say the bottom of the bay is filled with the creatures.

This season, state and federal officials decided to gather more definitive scientific data.

"There's a lot of counting going on," said Eric Schrading, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who last year prepared the horseshoe crab management plan. The plan recommended the more rigorous studies now taking place on both sides of the Delaware Bay, as well as other places along the East Coast.

Layton helps out, too. When he brings in a boatload of crabs these days, the state Department of Environmental Protection's Fish, Game and Wildlife Division often checks his haul, counting the number of female and male crabs.

Why the fuss?

Why such a fuss about the strange-looking but harmless horseshoe crab?

The horseshoe crab, which is not really a crab but is more closely related to the spider family, has many important uses.

Once ground up for fertilizer, the horseshoe crab is critical to the biomedical industry, which uses a clotting agent in a horseshoe crab's blood to test for bacterial toxins in medical equipment and drugs.

Fishermen such as Layton use the crab as bait for eel, conch and minnows. And the crab also is important to the shorebirds, which feast on crab eggs during a stopover in the Delaware Bay on the way from South America to the Arctic for spawning.

And the stopover of the shorebirds is important to humans -- especially those bird-watchers who come in droves to Cape May and Cumberland counties each spring to see the visiting birds feast on the eggs.

Vince Elia, research assistant at the Cape May Bird Observatory, said he remembered the days before the state's strict regulations when, day after day, huge refrigerated trucks would take truckloads of horseshoe crabs from beaches.

"No population of animals can withstand that kind of pressure," said Elia, who said efforts should be made to "find out for sure" whether years of huge harvests had endangered the crabs.

The ongoing studies might provide some of those answers. Under the supervision of state and federal officials, volunteers count the crabs that come ashore for spawning. Scientists count crab eggs deposited into sandy nests at the water's edge. And volunteers tag crabs that are pulled from the water for the much-needed blood and then released.

Limited trawls along the bay and ocean floor count the horseshoe crabs that come up in nets, though New Jersey DEP officials and fishermen such as Layton favor a more rigorous trawl survey, which would use equipment designed to catch horseshoe crabs.

Still questions

"We've moved a bit further, but there's still some very fundamental questions that need to be answered, and we're not even collecting the data to answer them," said Larry Niles, chief of the DEP's Endangered and Non-game Species Program who said such a trawl survey would be critical in the effort to determine the population of the horseshoe crab.

The big problem, he said, is that there is no money for the survey.

While Niles said he "absolutely" thought the crab population was declining, Layton said he had seen no evidence of a drop. Layton said he thought the crabs just came ashore in less traditional places for spawning.

"They're not coming up on the beaches. They're all coming up on the marshes," said Layton, who was wearing a camouflage hat, jeans and a T-shirt with -- what else -- crabs on the front.

Under current New Jersey regulations, hand harvesting -- as Layton was doing -- is permitted on Tuesdays and Thursdays between April and August but not within 1,000 feet of a beach, the traditionally favored spot for spawning and harvesting.

Strict regulations

Layton said the state's strict regulations had made it harder for commercial fishermen to earn a living.

"We already are on the endangered-species list," Layton said.

Leaving his dock on Route 47 in northern Cape May County recently, Layton headed out at high tide in hopes of catching crabs coming in on the current to lay eggs in the marshes and creeks where harvesting the crabs is legal.

Past commercial crab and eel pots bobbing in the water and past seagulls, egrets and swans basking on the marshs, Layton stopped at the edge of a marsh in Dennis Creek, where there were dozens of green helmets.

For the next hour, Layton and his fellow harvester, Dick "Captain Bucktail" Wycis, threw crabs into the front of the boat, sometimes tossing in crabs that were hooked together for mating.

Layton said that he used the horseshoe crabs he caught for bait throughout the year and that he would like to have 6,000 to 8,000 crabs on hand for the coming year.

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