The science of conservation

Horseshoe crabs: Virginia snub of Atlantic harvest limits could harm bird population, provoke reprisals.

April 20, 2000

CONSERVATION may not be hard science but it is certainly common sense. If a resource is obviously threatened, conservation is prudent.

That is the thrust of the deliberate decision to cut back on catches of Atlantic horseshoe crabs, those dark olive, helmet-like creatures often seen along our ocean beaches and bays. Informal surveys have found their numbers declining; one count traced a drop of 50 percent over the past decade.

Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey imposed commercial harvest limits in recent years to reduce pressure on the crab, used primarily as bait to catch conch and eel.

Recognizing the danger, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission ordered all Eastern states to reduce their take of horseshoe crabs by 25 percent as of May 1.

Virginia is the lone holdout, claiming a lack of scientific basis for the quotas. A million horseshoe crabs were caught in that state last year, contributing to a $7 million annual conch industry. Horseshoe crabs are vital to the survival of migratory shorebirds headed for the Arctic. Hundreds of thousands of birds gorge on the eggs laid by the crabs on marshes and beaches each spring, nearly doubling their weight for the journey to breeding grounds. Without that food, bird reproduction is imperiled.

The federal fisheries commission could impose a catch limit on Virginia, but that would take a year. Applied retroactively, it could shut down the state's industry for several years. That would be a just penalty for a state that invokes the name of science to excuse its destructive greed.

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