Saving horseshoe crabs

Finding a substitute: Their use as bait seriously cuts into their numbers along the mid-Atlantic coast.

July 10, 1999

SCIENTISTS at the University of Delaware have made important progress in their search for a synthetic bait to replace the horseshoe crab -- threatened with extinction by commercial fishers who use it to catch eel and conch. And a Maine firm is marketing a substitute made as byproduct of fish processing.

Either alternative would be preferable to wiping out the armored arthropod, whose exceptional vision, remarkable internal clock and sensitivity to blood contamination from bacteria make it valuable for human medical research.

Along mid-Atlantic beaches, where this helmet-shaped, spiny-tailed creature spawns each spring, the number of horseshoe crabs has been shrinking for years.

Arctic-bound migratory shorebirds stop to gorge on its eggs for their long flight. But the main threat is the soaring harvest of the crab as bait to catch eel and conch.

The catch quadrupled along the Atlantic coast from 1993 to 1996; one survey shows a drop of 50 percent in the number of these crabs over the past decade.

Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey responded by drastically reducing commercial catches of the creature. But trawlers operating outside state waters still swoop up unlimited tons of the crabs, landing them in nearby states that haven't imposed strict limits.

Shamefully, politics has blocked regional limits proposed for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

The demand for eel and conch overseas is growing, so the horseshoe crab's future may depend greatly on development and use of the alternatives.

The Delaware researchers have isolated the substance in female crabs that attracts predators; they still must synthesize it at an affordable cost. The Maine product, new to the market, has yet to gain mass appeal.

Humans pose the greatest threat to the horseshoe crab. Let's hope human scientific efforts now might actually save it.

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