In a controversial ruling, a Delaware Superior Court judge partially rolled back the two-year ban on the horseshoe crab harvest by limiting it to males only. The decision was a reaction against John Hughes, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, who was actually doing his job. However, according to the judge, Hughes had already decided to enact a complete moratorium on horseshoe crab harvests after only considering scientific data, but before hearing any input from fishermen. Hughes imposed the two-year moratorium after seeing a decline in populations of migratory shorebirds that feed on horseshoe crab eggs.
Populations of shorebirds that “refuel” each spring on the crab eggs in Delaware Bay were found to be declining. Hughes was especially concerned by the dramatic decline in the population of red knots. The red knot is a small, rust-colored shorebird that migrates more than 9,000 miles from the tip of South America to their Arctic breeding grounds. Delaware Bay is one of their most important refueling stops during their epic journey.
Hughes said he was disappointed but not surprised by the decision, which he described as “a debatable legal decision by the court and a lousy environmental decision for the state.” Hughes then imposed his “fall back position” — a maximum harvest of 100,000 male crabs — a limit that complies with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission ruling. Delaware and other Atlantic states are required to adopt regulations that comply with the commission rulings. But Hughes adopted a more strict restriction: a complete moratorium.
“We’re good to go,” gloated Charlie Auman, the commercial fisherman who challenged Delaware’s two-year moratorium on horseshoe crab harvests. Previously, fishermen decimated the horseshoe crab population by overharvesting them up until 1998, thus reducing their numbers by nearly 80 percent.
Horseshoe crabs are living fossils, predating even the dinosaurs, and they are more closely related to scorpions, ticks and land spiders than crabs. Only four out of five species of horseshoe crabs are still alive today. Their numbers are dropping because of pollution, habitat loss, and overharvesting. Commercial fishermen harvest the crabs and use them for bait in conch and eel fisheries — which in 2005 alone had a dockside value of more than $200,000 in Delaware alone.
Rick Robins, owner of Bernie’s Conchs LLC, a Virginia conch processing business, who with Auman challenged Delaware’s harvest ban, said the limited, male-only harvest is a winning policy both for the commercial fishermen and the migratory shorebirds that feed on the crab eggs each spring.
“There’s no egg impact,” Robins claimed.
Of course, Robins neglects to mention, or to even consider, that the population of horseshoe crabs has been reduced by 80 percent already, so that factor alone has serious long-term impacts on the fishing industry, on horseshoe crab egg quantities and, in turn, upon migrating shorebird populations.
However, Hughes was not put off by the court ruling.
“We’re going to be watching” to make sure only male crabs are taken and there is no harvest overrun, he warned fishermen.
The ruling allows commercial fishermen to begin spring harvests on Monday.
Delaware Online (quotes).
Delaware Audubon; Horseshoe crab workshop: Will the red knot soon be ‘endangered’?