Agency rules against Va. on horseshoe crabs

Fisheries have refused to reduce their catches

April 08, 2000|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

A multistate agency that regulates East Coast commercial fishing has found Virginia is out of compliance with an order to cut its state's harvest of horseshoe crabs, a ruling that could lead to federal orders to shut down Virginia's horseshoe crab industry.

Virginia's fisheries managers have defied a 25 percent cut ordered by a management board of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

The state's refusal to lower its catch could wipe out conservation efforts in Maryland, New Jersey and other coastal states that have agreed to reduce their harvests, fisheries officials said yesterday.

"Everybody on the Atlantic Coast is outraged," said Peter Himchack, a New Jersey marine resources supervisor.

"Virginia would basically wipe out any of the savings," said Eric Schwaab, director of fisheries for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

The U.S. Commerce Department could punish Virginia by shutting down its horseshoe crab fishery, although such a decision could be months away.

Jack Travelstead, who argued against cuts during a contentious February meeting, said his agency, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, does not have the authority to impose the cuts without more reliable scientific data.

Horseshoe crabs, which existed 100 million years before the dinosaurs, are used as bait in mushrooming conch and eel fisheries, and their blood is used for pharmaceutical tests. The harvest more than quadrupled from 1993 to 1996, and the stock dwindled, according to a 1998 report by the fisheries commission. Spawning surveys in Delaware and New Jersey have found sharp declines, as have egg counts in New Jersey.

Though the information is not complete, conservationists argue that the creatures are being overfished and that the loss of crabs is hurting migratory shorebirds that rely on the crabs' eggs for food. The crabs spawn on beaches along the Chesapeake and Delaware bays and the New Jersey shore just as migrating birds arrive.

Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey slashed their harvests by as much as 75 percent before the horseshoe crab advisory board of the multistate agency voted on the 25 percent cuts. The states have said they would maintain their cuts.

Travelstead said Virginia would maintain its limit of 710,000 horseshoe crabs rather than reduce the take. The board said Virginia's action jeopardizes the expected overall reduction.

Virginia's refusal to cut its harvest of the helmet-shaped creatures is a symptom of the state's long-running feud with the fisheries commission and escalates tension between Virginia and Maryland over Chesapeake Bay issues.

The states have clashed over land use in the Chesapeake Bay agreement and water rights in the Potomac River, and over horseshoe crabs in the past eight months.

"It's hard to tell where Virginia's going with this," said Schwaab. "Maybe they plan to wait and have this decided in court."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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