ANNAPOLIS – The Mid-Atlantic’s horseshoe crab population, depended upon by the medical testing industry and migrant birds in search of food, may be overfished, leading to a species- threatening decline, says a former Maryland state senator.
The demand is driven by a growing market for eel in Japan and Europe, said Gerald Winegrad, a former legislator from Anne Arundel County who is now a wildlife activist. Horseshoe crabs are the main bait for eel fisherman.
State statistics show last year’s harvest of 350,000 horseshoe crabs is seven times the average annual harvest from 1975 to 1984 and triple that from 1985 to 1993.
To limit any further decline and allow scientists to better study the horseshoe crab’s population, Winegrad and his organization, the American Bird Conservancy, are calling for the state to ban most fishing of the animal.
Any economic impact of the ban pales in comparison with the importance of the horseshoe crab to the medical industry and wildlife, Winegrad said.
Michael Dawson, an executive with the medical manufacturing firm Associates of Cape Cod, said the horseshoe crab’s unique blood type is the basis of a test determining the safety of all drugs and medical equipment that will come into contact with human blood. Alternative tests, he said, are slower, more complicated, and more expensive.
State biologist Tom O’Connell said large numbers of migratory birds feast on the horseshoe crab’s eggs to replenish themselves during their long journey northward.
But while scientist are certain the catch is increasing, there is much mystery as to the horseshoe crab’s total population, O’Connell said. And there lies the danger.
Winegrad said, “You cannot manage a fishery without knowing the population.” He cautioned: “Act conservatively because you may manage the species into oblivion.”
Reaching their present form almost 360 million years ago, horseshoe crabs aren’t crabs at all, but closely related to insects like spiders. With a range of most of the East Coast, 90 percent of horseshoe crabs spawn during late spring and early summer on beaches in the Chesapeake and Delaware bays.
“This thing out lived the dinosaurs … And it would be sad to see it go on our watch,” Winegrad said.
Horseshoe crabs don’t reproduce until midlife, when they are nine years old. That makes the effects of overfishing not apparent until a decade or more later, Winegrad said.
“We could be having a collapse right now and not even know it,” he said.
Current harvest limitations, issued by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, prohibit fishing boats from harvesting in the Chesapeake and within one mile of the state’s Atlantic coast.
Those who collect horseshoe crabs by hand — Winegrad said they represent less than 5 percent of Maryland’s industry — are limited to two days a week during the late spring spawning time.
Neighboring states New Jersey and Delaware currently ban most horseshoe crab fishing. New Jersey’s ban, however, is under court challenge by its fishermen.
“The economic impact for those involved [in the harvest] is probably a few hundred thousand dollars,” Winegrad said.
But this lost income is dwarfed by money spent by bird watchers who come to see the migratory birds during their stop in the Mid-Atlantic. Few fisherman — there are only six trawlers in Maryland — are involved with the harvest, Winegrad said.
Dawson said the medical testing industry’s size is massively larger than the horseshoe crab fishing industry.
But to the men on the water, those numbers get personal.
“This year, I’ve seen really good fishing,” said Jeff Eutsler, captain of the Ocean City-based fishing trawler Tony and Jan. He said he depends on horseshoe crabs for over 50 percent of his annual catch. His experience, Eutsler said, makes him skeptical of whether there is an overfishing problem. But whatever plan the state adopts, Eutsler cautions officials to keep in mind: “When it comes down to humans or the birds: which one do you choose?” -30-