This again? And now, of all times?

State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, is sponsoring a bill to repeal the state's 2008 moratorium on the harvesting of horseshoe crabs. If Van Drew's bill were to be signed into law, the authority to set a horseshoe crab quota would then revert to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

Consider what's at stake here.

In one corner is the seemingly lowly, prehistoric horseshoe crab. But these crabs play a crucial role in two important areas.

First, they are a critical Delaware Bay food source for the red knot, a remarkable bird that makes a 10,000-mile annual migration from the southern tip of South America to nesting grounds in the Arctic. The red knots stop each year to gorge on horseshoe-crab eggs along Delaware Bay beaches, where they are a major tourist attraction.

But the numbers of red knots have been declining for years - at least in part, it is suspected, because of a shortage of horseshoe crab eggs. Hence, New Jersey's sensible moratorium on harvesting the crabs.

Horseshoe crabs also serve another important role - in the biomedical industry. Their remarkable blue blood, heavy with copper, is used to produce a substance - limulus amoebocyte lysate, or LAL - that is employed worldwide in the biomedical industry to detect the presence of harmful bacteria in drugs, medical devices and a host of other products. Blood is drawn from the crabs, and they are then returned to their habitat.

And in the other corner? The people Van Drew is trying to help? Approximately three dozen part-time conch fishermen who use horseshoe crabs for bait and who have been negatively affected by the moratorium. This clash is almost comic. Bait versus a key food source for a threatened bird species? Bait versus a crab species that plays a critical role in medicine? This isn't a close call.

Interestingly - as Larry Niles, a consulting biologist with the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey points out - the legislation instituting the moratorium says it cannot be lifted unless there is a demonstrable increase in the crab population. There is no such demonstrable increase - at best the crab population is flat or perhaps increasing slightly (but the data showing an increase was not for Delaware Bay crabs). Van Drew's bill gets around this requirement by simply repealing the previous legislation.

Furthermore, this all comes at a time when flooding and erosion from Sandy have destroyed at least 50 percent of the crabs' egg-laying habitat along both shores of the Delaware Bay.

Advocates for lifting the ban say 100,000 male horseshoe crabs could be safely harvested each year without harming the red knots. But - sorry - helping a handful of part-time conch fishermen get cheaper bait is no reason to take that risk.


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