Even though agreed upon conservation targets have not been reached, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) is proposing changes to horseshoe crab harvest controls that could have a devastating effect on a threatened shorebird, the Delaware Bay ecosystem, and the economies related to both.
The Littoral Society and partners are working to convince the ASMFC not to take a step back on protections for horseshoe crabs. You can help by sending your objections directly to ASMFC (find details below).
Horseshoe crabs play a vital role to the Delaware Bay ecosystem, as their eggs provide nourishment for imperiled shorebirds such as the federally threatened Red Knot. Each year, thousands of Red Knots fly over 9,000 miles from Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America to breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle. The Delaware Bay is a major stopover point during this long journey, where the Red Knots feast on horseshoe crab eggs to gain the necessary weight to fly the remainder of the way to the Arctic Circle.
The birds and the crabs draw ecotourists from around the world, bringing an estimated $35-50 million in annual revenue to New Jersey. Horseshoe crab eggs and larvae are also a seasonal food item of invertebrates and finfish, while the crabs themselves are an important food source for loggerhead turtles.
The pale blue blood of horseshoe crabs used by the biomedical industry to create tests that ensure the sterility of all manufactured medical equipment, surgical implants, and vaccines. Finally, the crabs are also used as bait for commercial American eel and conch fisheries.
These competing interests are managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). But the net result has been overharvesting of horseshoe crabs by the bait and biomedical industries, which puts a severe strain on the connection between horseshoe crabs and Red Knots. Fewer spawning crabs means fewer eggs and therefore fewer Red Knots.
In 1998, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) adopted a management plan for the horseshoe crab harvest. Since the 2013 fishing season, the ASMFC has set harvest controls using a framework that links the allowable harvest to the Red Knot stopover population.
Each year, the ASMFC has selected the same allowable harvest totals based on this framework, which is 500,000 males and zero females. It was agreed that the prohibition on harvesting female horseshoe crabs would not be lifted until the Delaware Bay region hosts at least 81,900 Red Knots or 11.2 million female horseshoe crabs.
Neither of these scenarios has occurred, yet the ASMFC has proposed changes that would result in lifting the prohibition on harvesting female horseshoe crabs, further imperiling the food supply for the remaining Red Knots.
This is coming at a time when Red Knot population is far from stable. The average Red Knot count at Tierra del Fuego for 2018-2020 declined more than 75 percent from average counts in the 1980s and 2000. In 2021, only 6,800 Red Knots were counted, which is by far the lowest count since surveys began.
“Now is not the time to step back from protecting horseshoe crabs and Red Knots,” said Tim Dillingham, Executive Director. "Even the Commission's outside Peer Review Committee raised concerns about this shift in policy, as well as how well public and stakeholder concerns have been taken into account."
In the Peer Review report, the experts advised: “Because the changes would lead to harvest of female horseshoe crabs, which has been restricted since the implementation of the original Adaptive Resource Model (ARM) Framework, the Panel cautions the [Working Group] to fully consider if the new reward function truly represents the values articulated by stakeholders in the 2009 ARM Framework.”
What can be done about it?
The American Littoral Society and many other environmental organizations are urging the ASMFC to reject this harmful proposal, both in writing and at the Horseshoe Crab Management Board’s meeting on Wednesday, August 3. We’re asking that ASMFC:
Littoral Society members and supporters can also submit comments via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.