A 5-year-old ban on harvesting horseshoe crabs in New Jersey could be lifted just as more than half of the crabs’ breeding grounds along the Delaware Bay have been destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.

State Sen. Jeff Van Drew has introduced a bill that would lift the existing moratorium, returning the decision on how many crabs can be harvested to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

The bill, which has yet to be assigned to a committee, comes as surveyors report that Hurricane Sandy’s flooding and erosion has destroyed at least 50 percent of the egg-laying habitat along both shores of the Delaware Bay. The habitat is a critical spot for not just the horseshoe crab, but also the migratory shorebirds, such as the red knot, which feed on the eggs every spring.

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Van Drew’s bill has quickly drawn the ire of environmental advocates, who say that the crab population has not rebounded at all since the moratorium was enacted and the last thing the stressed breeding population of the crab needs now is further fishing. The two sides rely on separate models and studies, which each have a different result.

“I guess one of the reasons that the senator would like to repeal the (original moratorium) bill is that the bill requires that before the moratorium is lifted, there be a demonstrable increase (in the population),” said Larry Niles, a consulting biologist for the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey. “There isn’t any of that. Rather than deal with the outcome that there’s no improvement, he wants to repeal the bill.”

Niles said the Atlantic States Council has relied on a Virginia Tech study that counts the crabs every year, which has shown the population in the Delaware Bay and elsewhere to be flat. However, another study looking at the clam populations along the New Jersey coast also measures horseshoe crabs and that study has shown a slight increase in the crab population, but with no real data for the Delaware Bay crabs, Niles said.

Greg DiDomenicio, executive director of the Garden State Seafood Association, said a new model that predicts a species’ ecological requirements has determined that as many as 100,000 male horseshoe crabs could be taken per year from the Delaware Bay without any negative effect on the red knot. DiDomenicio said he is confident that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission would use that model to set any new harvesting quotas.

New Jersey’s Legislature passed the moratorium in 2008 after the state’s marine fisheries council rejected calls for a moratorium.

Horseshoe crabs have value as bait to certain types of fishermen and also to the biomedical industry, which collects the crabs for the blood. However, the crabs lay vast amounts of eggs every year, which play a critical role as food for birds. In the 1990s, the migratory shorebird population, particularly the Red Knot, began to collapse. Scientists linked the collapse with the overfishing of the horseshoe crabs.

The 2008 a moratorium prevents the taking or harvesting the crabs in state waters.

The crab is particularly important to commercial conch fishermen, DiDomenicio said, and the lack of local access to the bait for New Jersey conch fishermen means they have to spend more to buy crabs from other states and sometimes stop fishing for the conchs altogether if bait is not available.

Van Drew, who developed the bill prior to Hurricane Sandy’s landfall in October, said the reason behind lifting the moratorium was to establish a level of fairness for the 30 or so horseshoe crab fishermen who have been shut out of harvesting crabs, which are still being harvested on the other side of the bay in Delaware.

The moratorium was enacted after years of intense discussion over how to help increase the population of the red knot, a shorebird which flies from South America to the Arctic every spring. Every spring, the birds stop to feed on the crab eggs for several weeks before the final leg of the trip to their Arctic breeding grounds.

“There’s upwards of a $35 million industry for people to come down every year to watch these shore birds,” said Tim Dillingham, director of the American Littoral Society. “And the fact that Sen. Van Drew wants to dismantle that program on behalf of what’s at best 35 part-time horseshoe crab fishermen is just outrageous.”

When the moratorium was developed in 2006, Van Drew said the idea would be that Delaware also would enact a similar ban.

“Of course that didn’t happen,” Van Drew said, noting that Delaware fishermen are harvesting the crabs according to Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Council guidelines. “There is a potential that they may even get our quota as well.”

Niles, who is one of the staunchest advocates for the crabs, said that when New Jersey’s moratorium was enacted, several nearby states had their quotas increased slightly.

Delaware had a moratorium in place for two years, but a court overturned the ban in 2007. The state currently limits the harvest of 100,000 males per year, identical to what DiDomenicio said should occur in New Jersey if Van Drew’s bill passes. Prior to New Jersey’s moratorium, between 150,000 and 200,000 crabs were harvested annually, most used as conch bait, DiDomenicio said.

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