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After years of animosity, the line between horseshoe crab fishermen and shorebird defenders, drawn in the sand along the Delaware Bay, could be erased by an artificial bait.
Scientists say horseshoe crabs have been around for at least 300 million years – longer than the dinosaurs – and are among the oldest extant animals.
Each spring, thousands of the creatures, which are more like spiders than crabs, gather along the Delaware Bay beaches to lay eggs. Many shorebirds depend on those eggs for food, including the red knot during its long migration.
However, commercial fishermen also depend on horseshoe crabs, which they use as bait. Since New Jersey enacted a moratorium on harvesting horseshoe crabs, the fishermen have been buying them from out of state.
Eco-Bait, a biodegradable product of horseshoe crab, clam bellies and kelp manufactured by LaMonica Fine Foods in Millville, holds the possibility of resolving the emotional battle between commercial fishermen and environmentalists, who say the crabs need protecting.
“This is a potentially positive development,” New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Hajna said days after the announcement that a similar artificial bait had been created at the University of Delaware.
“We need to keep our eyes on the ball – meaning the numbers of horseshoe crabs spawning on the Delaware Bay and the birds on the beaches. It’s a positive response to a degree, but biologists first need to deem those populations are sustainable,” he said.
“Will it help?” Hajna asked. “Time will tell.”
The struggle between the fishing and birding factions, which had intensified in 2008 when New Jersey indefinitely extended a 2-year-old ban on horseshoe crab harvesting, heated up again in January when state Sen. Jeff Van Drew introduced legislation to lift the moratorium.
“I never said it should be an unlimited harvest,” Van Drew said Monday, June 3. “My legislation says follow the regulations of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and only take males from the marshes by hand for a short season. It is not about creating a free-for-all.”
Although New Jersey will take no horseshoe crabs for the seventh year in a row this year, the ASMFC, which assists in managing and conserving the fishery resources of 15 AtlanticCoast states, has set a limit of 162,136 males for the state in 2013. This is a substantial increase over the 100,000 to which the state has been limited for years, a reflection of the ASMFC’s finding that horseshoe crab populations in the Delaware Bay Region are increasing.
Birds vs. crabs, crabs vs. birds
Van Drew’s proposal to lift the ban, which has stalled in the state Senate’s Environment and Energy Committee, has elicited passionate responses from fishermen and birders. As always, the issue has been presented as crabs vs. birds, or birds vs. crabs.
“They’re missing the point,” Mike Crewe, program director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, said about Van Drew and the fishermen. “Red knots, ruddy turnstones, semipalmated sandpipers – these birds can’t survive. They can’t live. They can’t go down the road if they can’t get their food here like we can go to Acme or ShopRite. It’s about the existence or not of the species. It’s a life-or-death struggle.”
Not so, said Walter Chew, a retired fisherman from the Green Creek section of Cape May Court House.
“I don’t believe it is a life-or-death situation for the birds,” said Chew, who started harvesting horseshoe crabs in 1977 but got off the water after suffering a heart attack and stroke three years ago.
“It is a case where the birds are adapting to changing environmental conditions such as global warming and increased human presence on coastlines. This life-or-death extinction thing is a PR ploy to alarm the public.”
The argument also has been framed in terms of value, with the birders saying the millions of dollars their industry attracts to the state far outweighs the needs of three dozen fishermen.
Chew countered that by saying that fishermen are responsible for “billions and skillions” of dollars spent in the seafood industry, and that the value of what he harvested was multiplied three to nine times by the time it reached the end user.
Tina Burger, public affairs specialist for the Virginia-based ASMFC, said the price per pound of horseshoe crab at the dock was $1.65 in 2010.
The struggle also has been expressed in terms of politics and money, with prevailing policy dictated by those with the deepest pockets, Chew and others allege.
But Van Drew said it is not necessary to choose sides, and that his proposal is meant to right a wrong that was done to the fishermen when their licenses were rendered worthless by the ban.
“It’s not an either/or,” he said. “It’s not about decimating the horseshoe crabs. I really, truly care about both the birds and the horseshoe crabs.”
Divided as they are, one thing upon which both sides agree is the uniqueness of this three-mile stretch of Delaware Bay where 90 percent of the red knot population is estimated to stop over and millions of horseshoe crabs spawn. Although activity occurs weeks ahead and after, the spring high tide on the full moon at the end of May signals peak season for both species.
Biologists vs. fishermen
Ecologists and environmentalists, citing a threat to the continued existence of both horseshoe crabs and shorebirds, had embraced the moratorium, which prohibited the taking of horseshoe crabs for use as bait. The crabs are still permitted to be caught for the biomedical industry, according to information supplied by Burger. The crabs are bled and returned alive near their point of capture. Limuli Labs in Cape May Court House holds New Jersey’s only scientific permit to harvest horseshoe crab blood.
With the ban in place, biologists argued, horseshoe crab populations could recover from decades of overfishing, and shorebirds, specifically the red knot, could feast on the crabs’ eggs, fueling up for the last leg of their journey from Argentina to their breeding grounds in the Arctic. Some biologists say that without the eggs, the American subspecies of the bird could become extinct.
The 36 fishermen licensed to harvest horseshoe crabs in Cape May, Atlantic and Cumberland counties protested, objecting to the loss of the only bait proven effective at trapping eel and conch. The ban, they said, was both unfair and a failure as the harvesting of horseshoe crabs continues in neighboring states, from which they purchase the crabs for $3 to $5 apiece.
Burger said New York, at the February 2013 Horseshoe Crab Board meeting, reported whole crabs were being sold for $5 apiece.
Van Drew and the fishermen argue that the moratorium benefits Delaware’s fishermen at the expense of New Jersey’s.
“If they can ban it in New Jersey, they can ban it anywhere else,” Van Drew said. “There is a regional quota, and if we don’t use ours, our share will be given to Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. Nobody will address this, but at the end of the day, we will not save one bird or one crab with the ban in New Jersey.”
Artificial bait an alternative
For the first time in the longstanding debate, the possibility of a solution exists. Eco-Bait, which is available through LaMonica for wholesale and retail sale, is ready to be tested in the commercial market.
A four- to six-month trial period conducted by Delaware Bay fishermen starting in fall 2012 showed no difference in catches using the artificial bait or genuine horseshoe crab bait, said Jim Roussos, vice president of boat operations for LaMonica. Encouraged by the results, LaMonica last month began producing Eco-Bait in 50-pound bait equivalent slabs, said Michael LaVecchia, vice president of operations for his family’s 90-year-old business.
The advantages of artificial bait are many, the men said. With the average price of a horseshoe crab at $4, Eco-Bait saves the fishermen money and work, Roussos said. The bait comes in sheets that can be cut to size, has a three-week shelf life, and doesn’t need to be frozen. In the water, Eco-Bait retains its effectiveness for two days, unlike horseshoe crab bait, which loses its attractiveness to whelk and eel within hours.
Compare those advantages to the chore of using horseshoe crabs, which must be picked up or transported from Delaware and then kept frozen, both of which represent additional costs, before being cut or ground for bait.
“Fishermen have been using mixtures like that of the artificial bait for nearly a decade,” said Chew, the retired fisherman. “Even with 1/16 horseshoe crab parts in their mix of clam, fish parts, all sorts of other crab species parts and other things, if artificial bait works well, all the artificial bait product has over the current practice is the convenience of having it prepackaged at a cost. Will it be worth it? Time will tell.”
“The reaction has been mixed,” LaVecchia acknowledged. “People don’t like change. Until people see that it is easy to use, it’s affordable and it works, there will be a slow, gradual acceptance.”
Roussos said the savings to the horseshoe crab harvest is enormous.
“Fifteen crabs are saved for every crab used,” he said, adding that there is no waste at the plant, which only processes male crabs.
The University of Delaware uses Asian shore crabs in its recipe. LaMonica does not, but did not rule out the possibility that, after experimentation, it might in the future. The Asian shore crab is an invasive species, and using it in bait is an effective way of eliminating such a nuisance, Roussos said.
He added that in producing Eco-Bait, LaMonica had to adjust the UD recipe because the ingredients were difficult to replicate outside the lab.
LaVecchia and Roussos said they approached the university at exactly the right time, because its scientists were looking for a facility to produce the bait on a commercial basis and bring it to market. Roussos said the “brilliance” of the UD recipe was that it used kelp, or brown algae, which jells and allows for the horseshoe crab bits and clam bellies to dissipate from the bait more slowly in the water.
“I consider this just the start,” Roussos said of Eco-Bait. “I think the sky’s the limit, and that it’s possible that one day we’ll make artificial bait without any horseshoe crab.”
In the meantime, Van Drew still favors lifting the moratorium in New Jersey, and Chew said it is as necessary as ever that position be supported.
“If even in the artificial bait, the active ingredient is horseshoe crab, why would you think that the need for horseshoe crab would disappear and the moratorium become moot?” he asked. “The opposite is true.”
“With the artificial bait, they’re still going to need some crabs,” Van Drew said. “So why not allow, in a very limited way and doing it on a very scientific basis, a harvest here?”