Researchers scouring beaches from Brooklyn to Montauk found nearly four times the number of horseshoe crabs than they did last year, but a lead scientist said it's little cause for celebration.
The annual survey, conducted during the crabs' prime breeding season of May to August by the Center for Environmental Research and Coast Oceans Monitoring at Molloy College, found 957 horseshoe crabs this year compared with last year's 16-year low of just 243. This year's number is also the highest in the past four years: 2,202 were found in 2016.
On Long Island, iconic horseshoe crabs are used not for food but chiefly as a bait, to catch whelks, also known locally as conch, and eels. Whelks have been important to Long Island fishermen after the large drop-off in the Long Island lobster population.
State regulators say the 2020 commercial harvest was down, but they are still analyzing population data. A 2019 assessment by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission found the New York horseshoe crab population to be in "poor condition."
John Tanacredi, a professor in earth and environmental studies at Molloy and director of the center, said the trend, while hopeful, far from suggests horseshoe crabs are out of the woods. Tanacredi and a team of researchers and volunteers monitor 115 beaches during the optimal breeding season to collect the data, walking a mile of beach for up to two hours.
While the increase is nearly four times higher than in 2019, "that uptick is four times an extremely small number," Tanacredi said of the 2020 figures. "Go back 10 years and the numbers were considerably higher."
After a disproportionately high of 7,908 crabs found in 2011, the numbers have all fallen below 2,200 since that period, and under 1,000 in the past four years, the center found. Tanacredi says he believes the best way to revive the horseshoe crab population is through a three- to five-year moratorium on harvesting for bait, but not medical uses, a suggestion local fisherman say would prove devastating and unnecessary.
The numbers have increased as the state Department of Environmental Conservation this year increased restrictions on the harvest of horseshoe crabs.
Tom Gariepy, a commercial fisherman from Blue Point, said his last notification from the state was that only 75,000 crabs have been caught so far this year, of a total 150,000 quota. The DEC implemented new limits this year that prohibited catching the crabs when they are most numerous on local beaches — during full moons in May and June.
"What I see is that 75,000 crabs were not caught," he said. "We only used half the quota."
A moratorium on horseshoe crabs, Gariepy said "would put everyone out of the conch business — it would be devastating."
The state DEC in a statement said it conducted a more limited horseshoe crab monitoring program in 2020 with the Cornell Cooperative Extension, reviewing only eight of 29 spawning sites because of COVID-19 guidelines.
The agency said while data is still being analyzed, "reported harvest data for 2020 is lower than previous years." The agency said it was still evaluating the reasons for the decline, "including whether or not this is in response to new regulations or impacts such as reduced fishing activity during the onset of the pandemic."
Since harvest was closed on the days when they're easiest to catch while spawning on the beach, Gariepy said he used nets set off the beach to harvest, and had success making his 200-a-day limit.
The fishery remains open for 250 crabs a day, but horseshoe crabs are more scarce as colder waters set in. "No one has horseshoe crabs right now," he said. "All these conch guys are starving for bait."
Gariepy and others said they don't sell the crabs for fish markets or medical uses, where they are used to test for endotoxins. He said he believes the DEC should open up the quota and, if needed, limit it only for bait by local fishermen. Some horseshoe crabs are sold to New Jersey fishermen whose fishery for the crabs is closed.