Conch fisher Ed Blaine’s horseshoe crab dealers travel to his Jersey Shore home from up and down the East Coast to sell him hundreds of the prehistoric sea creatures at a time.
Blaine, of Somers Point, has been using the “living fossils” as bait in the waters off Sea Isle City for decades. A moratorium on harvesting the species has been in place in New Jersey since 2008, but it’s still legal to buy horseshoe crabs that were bred in other states if documentation is obtained.
“We can get them here no problem,” said Blaine, 61.
Like some other fishers, Blaine does not believe the population is in danger, though conservationists say the situation on the Delaware Bay is more complicated and are pushing for states outside New Jersey to also suspend their harvests.
New Jersey’s moratorium was spurred by a drop in the red knot population, a threatened bird that refuels on horseshoe crab eggs during migration.
In the fall and spring, thousands of the hard-shelled animals emerge from the Delaware Bay and spawn along the shoreline. Red knots feed on them for strength during the last leg of their 9,000-mile trip from Latin America to the Arctic tundra each fall and spring.
Overfishing and loss of good beach habitat led to a decrease in horseshoe crabs in the 1990s, and the birds suffered, too. Both species’ populations hit a low in the early 2000s but have been slowly increasing in recent years.
“New Jersey’s actions to restrict the harvest of horseshoe crabs from the Delaware Bay is helping to change the trends in the red knot population,” said Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Hajna.
But birders remain concerned the number of crabs hasn’t returned to prior levels. Stock assessments show the abundance index of all female horseshoe crabs 30 years ago in the Delaware Bay and New Jersey was more than double what it is today, despite increases in relative abundance since 1999.
Horseshoe crab egg density in the bay has fallen from about 100,000 per square meter before overharvesting occurred to 5,000 to 8,000 per square meter in 2017, New Jersey Audubon President Eric Stiles said.
At the same time, David Mizrahi, vice president of research and monitoring of the nonprofit, said there were 80,000 to 100,000 of the tiny, gray and red birds in the 1990s. Now, it’s down to 30,000.
Without a sufficient food source, red knots die on their journey, Mizrahi said. They need to be at least 180 grams in weight to make the trip successfully. Further development along their migration route is also of concern.
“A bird in a compromised condition may not survive the migration,” Mizrahi said.
To protect the Delaware Bay’s biodiversity, New Jersey Audubon, the American Littoral Society and other groups are launching a campaign with environmental groups in surrounding states to fully restore the horseshoe crab population by 2030.
They plan to persuade Delaware, Virginia and Maryland, which have reduced quotas, to suspend the commercial harvest altogether, as South Carolina and New Jersey have done, Stiles said.
“If New Jersey is taking the step to protect horseshoe crabs and others aren’t ... that’s unfair to our water men and women,” Stiles said. “The population available to shore birds pales in comparison to what is needed.”
But Michael Globetti, spokesman for the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, said the state isn’t considering a moratorium and is unaware of data supporting the argument that the bay’s horseshoe crab population hasn’t recovered to pre-1990s levels.
The state implemented a ban in 2006 but was sued by seafood wholesalers and lost the case. It now has a moratorium from Jan. 1 to June 7 and prohibits harvesting female crabs. It follows the quota set by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which doesn’t have statistics prior to the 1990s.
“DNREC Fisheries Section staff are not aware of any imminent threats to the resources in question that would necessitate emergency action, or action independent of the interstate management process,” Globetti said. “The agency prefers to follow a path of cooperative interstate management.”
On a different front, conservationists are calling for biomedical companies to stop buying and using an extract from horseshoe crab blood, called lysate, to test for bacterial contamination in their products.
Instead, they say, a synthetic alternative should be used. Pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and Company began using it last year to test water in laboratories at two of its manufacturing sites.
“Horseshoe crabs are the principal factor in the red knot’s decline,” Mizrahi said. “This is critical.”