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Horseshoe Crabs Given Sanctuary
by National Marine Fisheries Service

Image:  Horseshoe Crab

The National Marine Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has banned fishing for horseshoe crabs in federal waters off the mouth of the Delaware Bay. The agency published a final rule that will implement the closed area effective March 7, 2001.

This ban provides additional protection for local stocks and helps to ensure that declining populations of migratory shorebirds will have an abundant source of horseshoe crab eggs to feed on when they stop to rest in the Delaware Bay before flying north to their Canadian nesting areas.

All of the affected Atlantic Coast states, including Delaware, have reduced their horseshoe crab bait catch by 25% under guidelines established by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in its horseshoe crab fishery management plan. The ASMFC also recommended a prohibition on fishing for horseshoe crabs in federal waters within a 30-nautical-mile radius of the mouth of the Delaware Bay.

Under the new rule, the area closed to fishing for horseshoe crabs is roughly rectangular in shape and encompasses about 1,500 square miles of federal waters. It adjoins state waters south of Pecks Beach, NJ, to just north of Ocean City, MD. It is designated as the "Carl N. Schuster Jr. Horseshoe Crab Reserve," in honor of the retired William and Mary College professor, who is considered a leading horseshoe crab biologist and researcher.

"The closure will offer protection for horseshoe crabs in federal waters, particularly for the Delaware Bay stock," said Bill Hogarth, acting director of NOAA Fisheries. "Improving protection for horseshoe crabs will promote long-term sustainability for fisheries that depend on horseshoe crabs for bait, research and medical purposes, and ensure an ample supply of horseshoe crab eggs for food for migratory shorebirds."

John Bianchi, Senior Policy Advisor at the National Audubon Society, commented that "This final action comes in the nick of time, ensuring the horseshoe crab sanctuary will be closed before the spring harvest and migration gets underway. The sanctuary is a vital component for horseshoe crab and migratory shorebird conservation."

Image:  Horseshoe Crabs

"Horseshoe crabs have been heavily overfished, indeed strip-mined, in recent years," Bianchi said. "This overfishing has jeopardized both horseshoe crabs and migratory shorebirds."

Bianchi credited Delaware Sen. Tom Carper for "playing a key role in making the horseshoe crab sanctuary a reality." He also said Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening ("a strong and effective horseshoe crab advocate") and former NJ Governor, now EPA Director Christie Whitman were to be commended for their efforts.

"Whether the horseshoe crab sanctuary and the horseshoe crab landing cutbacks by states are enough to protect the crabs and migratory shorebirds remains to be seen," said Bianchi, "but they are critical first steps in ensuring the long-term survival of horseshoe crabs and migratory shorebirds."

The regulations have been established under the authority of the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act, which gives the Department of Commerce authority to implement federal measures compatible with the interstate commissions fishery management plans.

NOAA Fisheries is responsible for the management of the Atlantic Ocean horseshoe crab populations in federal waters. According the Wilmington News Journal, the U.S. Coast Guard will enforce the ban in the sanctuary.

Horseshoe crabs are an ancient group of marine animals related to spiders. They are bottom-dwelling and are found in near-shore and continental shelf habitats from Mexico to Maine. They are most abundant in the Delaware, Maryland and Virginia area, around the Delaware Bay.

They move inshore in the spring, especially onto beach areas, to spawn. They prefer to lay their eggs on sandy beaches within bays and coves that are protected from the surf. Eggs take about a month to hatch and, upon hatching, larvae spend about a week swimming in the water column before molting and assuming their bottom-dwelling lifestyle. Migratory shorebirds rely on horseshoe crab eggs for food during their spring migration north to Canada.

NOAA Fisheries estimates that in 1999, about 3 million horseshoe crabs, worth about $3 million in landings were collected along the U.S. Atlantic coast for use as bait in eel, whelk and catfish fisheries.

The map below shows the Horseshoe Crab Reserve:

Image:  Map of horseshoe crab reserve.

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Last modified on November 20, 2003.