MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Freddie Layton spent 46 years harvesting horseshoe crabs along the Delaware Bay, and he fully expects to do it again some day.

He just doesn’t know when.

The 67-year-old military veteran, who lost two toes to diabetes last winter, hoped it would be this year when state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape, Cumberland, Atlantic, introduced a bill that would lift a ban on crab harvesting; the ban was enacted by the New Jersey Legislature in 2008. Van Drew’s bill, however, has stalled in the Senate Environment and Energy Committee.

With the crabs due to crawl onto bay beaches any day now as they come ashore to spawn and the height of harvest season normally at May’s full-moon high tide, Layton accepts that 2013 is another lost year.

Layton knows he isn’t getting any younger, but he remains optimistic the 34 harvesters, all from Cape May, Cumberland and Atlantic counties, including 15 military veterans, who pursue horseshoe crabs will eventually get to target the species known locally as “king crabs” once again. Like most Delaware Bay fishermen, known as “watermen,” he pursues other catch — eels, blue crabs and various fish species. He even sells blue crabs at a stand on Route 47.

“I’ll be eeling, crabbing and fishing until I’m too old to do anything, and then I’ll still be selling crabs at my stand,” he said.

Layton may be optimistic about an uncertain future, but he is also bitter about how part of his livelihood was taken away. He recalled how former state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Lisa Jackson got the votes for the ban by promising compensation for the harvesters who lost their business. Layton says they never got a dime.

“She reneged on the deal. It was dirty politics,” Layton said.

Van Drew listed this as his primary reason to propose the bill. He’s up for re-election this year and said he is being swamped with calls from environmental groups who want to protect the crabs because the eggs they deposit on the beaches feed migratory shorebirds, including the threatened red knot. There are more environmentalists and birdwatchers than the 34 licensed horseshoe crab harvesters, and Van Drew said his stance will cost him votes in November. But Van Drew also said he doesn’t care, because he was at the meeting when compensation was offered.

“The number one issue is a promise made by government, a promise broken. It’s morally wrong. I was there, and they said it. Lisa mentioned it as did a DEP representative,” Van Drew said.

There was never anything in writing. Layton said the ban was a double-whammy. The harvest, according to his estimate, was worth about $400,000 a year divided up among the watermen. The second blow was many of them also catch eel and conch and used the crabs for bait. They now have to buy crabs from other states at more than $4 each.

“We lost both ways,” said Layton.

Opponents of lifting the ban do have sympathy for the harvesters.

“There should be a program in place to help them. We always said that. But it’s not a reason to lift the moratorium,” said Jeff Tittel of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

Tittel said numbers of red knots, which rely on horseshoe crab eggs during their migration from South America to Arctic nesting grounds, are rising, but very slowly. He noted Hurricane Sandy hurt beaches the crabs nest on. While there are efforts to get those beaches ready for the spawning season, the long-term impact remains unknown. Tittel said birdwatchers come from all over the world to see the shorebirds, and lifting the ban could hurt the tourism economy more than it helps the harvesters.

Van Drew said his bill would allow only the harvest already approved by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the compact of East Coast states that regulates horseshoe crabs. The harvest would be done by hand off the beaches in tidal flats where the crabs often die anyway, and would not be done until after spawning season.

The ASMFC sets a harvest limit every year for the East Coast states. New Jersey’s has been 100,000 male crabs in recent years but this year the ASMFC increased it to 162,136 male crabs. The state’s ban means those crabs won’t be harvested.

Marin Hawk, who oversees the horseshoe crab management plan for the commission, said the latest stock assessments show the Delaware Bay horseshoe crab population is increasing along with genetically different stocks in the southeast. Stocks from New York north are decreasing and some blame this on the harvest ban in New Jersey leading to larger harvests in those states. Hawk said the price rose to the north and that may have led to more poaching.

“That just comes from discussions. There is no scientific study to back that up,” Hawk said.

The genetically distinct Delaware Bay horeshoe crab is harvested by four states and the ASMFC set the 2013 harvest at 500,000 male crabs including 162,136 for both New Jersey and Delaware; 141,112 for Maryland; and 34,615 for Virginia. Van Drew said another reason he wants to lift the ban is Delaware is still harvesting on the other side of the bay. Delaware enacted a ban, but it was overturned in the courts in a ruling that supported the ASMFC’s limited harvest. Besides the compensation offer, Van Drew said in 2008 the ban was enacted partly based on Delaware also banning its harvest, and that “did not happen.”

Van Drew said he also supports lifting the ban because it was originally based on research, not done by the ASMFC, which at the time had not been peer-reviewed. Layton said the ASMFC has since reviewed the research and rejected it.

“The ban was based on one study that was not scientifically balanced. It’s an issue we’ve been reacting to politically and emotionally rather than scientifically and objectively,” Van Drew said.

Van Drew and Layton both said they trust the research from the ASMFC. The commission has been regulating horseshoe crabs since 1998 but in 2007 began developing a new management approach that takes into account the need for shorebirds to have eggs to feed on. The birds that use the bay include the red knot, ruddy turnstone, sanderling, semipalmated sandpiper, least sandpiper, dunlin, and short-billed dowitcher.

The main concern is red knots, but Hawk said the Delaware Bay population is rising, from an estimated 15,200 in 2005 to 25,458 today. This is still way short of the 240,000 red knots the New Jersey Legislative called for back in 2008 to get the ban lifted. Layton questions whether there were ever that many red knots. Hawk said in 2000 there were an estimated 43,145.

The new management approach, called Adaptive Resource Management, or ARM, was developed by the commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey. The ARM approach was peer reviewed in 2009 but Hawk said this is the first year it has been implemented.

ARM uses computer modeling to link crab levels with impacts on migratory shorebirds that eat their eggs. The model comes up with a sustainable crab harvest for each state that would presumably not hurt the birds.

“The model indicates 162,136 for New Jersey. That would be a sustainable number of crabs to harvest,” said Hawk.

The ASMFC and the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council have written letters in support of lifting the ban.

The harvesters could get help on another front. Proposed state legislation sponsored by Assemblyman Nelson Albano, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, would prevent the state from imposing stricter quotas than the ASMFC. Tittel opposes the bill.

“It puts commercial fishing interests over the ecosystem,” said Tittel.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711

Five years as Ocean County bureau chief, 12 years as regional news editor (not continuous), 10 years as copy editor (also not continuous), all at The Press of Atlantic City.