Clamping down on Va. horseshoe crab harvest

State officials refuse to comply with plan

June 09, 2000|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

The multistate agency that regulates East Coast commercial fishing moved yesterday to shut down Virginia's lucrative horseshoe crab fishery because state officials refuse to comply with a plan to cut the harvest of the creatures by 25 percent.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, made up of states from Maine to Florida, found Virginia to be out of compliance with the plan and recommended that William B. Daley, U.S. secretary of commerce, suspend operations in the fishery. Daley could act within 30 days.

The 14-1 vote - Virginia voted against the finding - at the commission's meeting in Portland, Maine, is the latest and most drastic maneuver in a battle over the helmet-shaped creatures that provide bait for the multimillion-dollar conch and eel fisheries, food for migrating shorebirds and blood for pharmaceutical tests.

Perry Plumart of the National Audubon Society called the vote "an important victory for horseshoe crab conservation."

Eric Schwaab, Maryland's director of fisheries, called the vote a "clear signal from the commission that we are serious about moving forward on this effort."

Wilford Kale, spokesman for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, said, "We'll present our case to the secretary, and then he takes action, but we're very disappointed in the action the commission took today."

Jack Travelstead, head of fisheries for the Virginia agency, has argued that the multistate commission based its plan on flimsy science and that because of that, he doesn't have the authority to order the reduction in the harvest without action by the Virginia General Assembly, which won't be in session until January.

Horseshoe crabs, which existed 100 million years before dinosaurs, are being fished in record numbers. The Atlantic Coast harvest quadrupled from 1993 to 1996, and the stock is dwindling, according to a 1998 fisheries commission report. Spawning surveys in Delaware and New Jersey show sharp declines, as have egg counts in New Jersey. Surveys of migrating shorebirds, which depend on the eggs to refuel before continuing their journeys to the arctic in the spring, leave the New Jersey and Delaware beaches underweight and unable to reach their destinations.

"We may not know what the stock of horseshoe crabs is, but we do know it's declining," said Plumart. "I think the science is compelling."

Virginia has been at odds with the rest of the Atlantic States Commission over horseshoe crabs for months.

As reports of a dwindling horseshoe crab population spread, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland slashed their harvests by 75 percent, but increasing numbers of crabs were harvested in Virginia.

The commission's horseshoe crab advisory board adopted the 25 percent cuts in February over Virginia's objections, and the commission's policy board ruled in April that Virginia was out of compliance with the plan.

Last month, the governors of Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey asked the National Marine Fisheries Service to place an immediate moratorium on the harvesting of horseshoe crabs within 30 miles of the mouth of Delaware Bay. The governors were angered after hearing reports that Virginia watermen were harvesting crabs within the 30-mile zone and taking them to Virginia to sell.

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