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Female horseshoe crabs protected from bait harvest in Delaware Bay

A large female horseshoe crab moves in the sandy intertidal zone near the shoreline. Photo by Maria T Hoffman/Shutterstock

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted last week to temporarily halt the harvest of female horseshoe crabs in Delaware Bay, a crucial nesting area and stopover habitat for endangered Red Knots and other migratory shorebirds that feed on the crabs’ eggs.

But the commission also approved a deeply flawed model that will allow increased horseshoe crab harvests — including female horseshoe crabs — in future years.

The Center for Biological Diversity helped organize efforts to stop the female horseshoe crab harvest. The commission was flooded by more than 34,000 public comments opposing any expansion of harvests, especially of female horseshoe crabs.

“Allowing female horseshoe crabs to be harvested would have been a catastrophe,” said Will Harlan, a scientist at the Center. “I’m grateful that the commission responded to public and scientific input and pumped the brakes on female horseshoe crab harvests. Unfortunately, the fight is far from over because the commission left the door open to female horseshoe crab harvests after next year.”

Horseshoe crabs — brown, body-armored beasts with long, spiked tails — are living fossils that have survived for a half-billion years. Each spring, horseshoe crabs crawl ashore and lay millions of eggs along Atlantic Coast beaches.

A Red Knot stands on the beach behind a flipped-over horseshoe crab in the early morning sunlight. Photo by Ray Hennessy/Shutterstock

Red Knots, whose 19,000-mile annual migration is one of the longest on the planet, travel from the southern tip of South America to the Canadian Arctic each year to breed. Red Knots time their journey north to coincide with horseshoe crab nesting along the Atlantic Coast. The knots gorge on protein-rich horseshoe crab eggs, providing an essential refueling for the beleaguered birds. Birds that miss this egg feast usually die or fail to breed.

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Red Knot populations plummeted following the overharvest of horseshoe crabs in the 1990s. The Center for Biological Diversity helped secure Endangered Species Act protections for the shorebird in 2014.

Horseshoe crab populations also remain historically low. Neither horseshoe crabs nor Red Knots are close to recovery goals. But the model approved by the commission has not been released publicly or received independent scientific review.

“The commission must bring this flawed model out of the shadows before any future harvest increases are considered,” said Harlan. “Red Knots continue to decline, and horseshoe crab populations have not recovered from overharvesting. Increasing horseshoe crab harvests threatens their survival and pushes Red Knots even closer to extinction.”

Thanks to the Center for Biological Diversity for providing this news.

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