When Long Island beaches come alive at high tide with hundreds of thousands of horseshoe crabs, looking to spawn under the spring and summer moons, it's also time for many fishermen who track those cycles to harvest the arthropods at their most plentiful.
Most use their catch for bait, but some sell them to markets, where they are shipped either for other fishermen's purposes or medical uses.
But fisheries managers say a series of factors — including habitat loss to development and shoreline restoration — are taking a toll on these creatures that have been around for at least 450 million years, and they are considering new measures to protect them. Their preferred target: Limit the harvest of horseshoe crabs during the peak spawning times around the new and full moons of the warm months.
At a recent session of the state Department of Environmental Conservation to discuss the options, regulators were met with varying levels of consternation and frustration, as fishermen who use the crabs to trap whelk and eel pondered the implications to their livelihood.
The measures proposed by the DEC, on orders from the interstate Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, would effectively eliminate the days when those fishermen harvest between 30% and 40% of the horseshoe crabs they take each year.
Under the plan, horseshoe crabs would be off-limits during the full and new moons, as well as two days before and two days after the new moons, during the months of May and June, reducing the number of days they can harvest to just under 20 a month.
"It’s protecting the spawning animals, to at least let them get up to the beach and spawn once or twice during the spawning season," said Kim McKown, marine invertebrate and protected species unit leader for the DEC. The objective: "Get those eggs in the sand and hopefully create more horseshoe crabs."
A second option would reduce the statewide quota to a measure under the 150,000 horseshoe crabs the state currently allows for commercial harvest each year, to perhaps 100,000. None of the options presented at the December meeting won fishermen's support.
“I understand we have to do something … but I don’t like any of the options,” said Pete Wenczel, a Southold fisherman who uses the horseshoe crabs to trap whelk, or conch. “I think everybody gets that something has to happen, but God!"
Wenczel called the idea of losing 10 days of harvesting when the crabs are most available as “really extreme for the majority of harvesters” and suggested they reduce the off-limit days to just five a month. The options for now don’t include any further restrictions on harvests in specific breeding areas — all of Fire Island is already restricted from the harvest, for instance.
McKown said all options would be weighed before the agency issues a final rule ahead of the harvest season's start. But she and other DEC officials, and experts, made clear that something has to be done to protect the horseshoe crabs.
“There is a decline happening,” said John Maniscalco, bureau chief of marine fisheries for the DEC. “We’re managing at 150,000 crabs and, despite that, they’re still going down and we have to take some action.”
The commission’s quota for the New York harvest is actually quite higher than the 150,000 limit. New York could allow fishermen to take more than 366,000 horseshoe crabs, but has voluntarily kept the cap at that number to help preserve the local population. The commission rates the status of the stock in the New York region, which includes Connecticut, as “poor.”
The harvest of horseshoe crabs has followed the trend, falling from a recent high of 195,000 in 2017 to around 140,000 in 2018. It had increased to just over the limit of 150,000 in 2019, in line with the DEC’s management plan.
John Tanacredi, a Molloy College professor of earth and environmental science, sees the situation as considerably more dire than the state and federal regulators.
Tanacredi, who is also director of the Center for Environmental Research and Coastal Oceans Monitoring, said the crabs in New York are at a “critical tipping point,” noting that his annual survey of the species at 115 locations from Brooklyn to Montauk showed the lowest recorded numbers of crabs in the 21 years the center has been conducting the research. Worse, he reported, 85% of the beaches where annual breeding had been recorded showed no signs of the crabs.
Tanacredi said a ban on the use of horseshoe crabs as bait would help restore the population, which he and others noted is also being impacted by the loss of habitat as shoreline development and erosion-protection measures increase.
“We are right on the precipice,” he said. “This is the perfect juxtaposition of an extinction event taking place before us. They’ve got to stop the bait collection.”
However, baymen who have used horseshoe crabs for generations question the surveys and dire predictions, and say it's the best bait for whelk and eels.
Tom Gariepy, of Bluepoint, called the planned cutbacks “unnecessary,” adding he’s seen an increase in crabs on the beaches he harvests around Moriches Bay over the last three years. He harvests the crabs by hand around midnight, tossing his 200-crab limit into a skiff that he hauls along as he walks the beach.
“I don’t think any cutbacks are necessary,” he said. “The [population] numbers are definitely not plummeting. Almost every night that I go I have no problem catching my limit” — sometimes in 20 minutes.
Yet, Gariepy acknowledged that he has seen horseshoe crab populations decline in western Peconic Bay to the point that he no longer fishes for them there.
Will Caldwell, a bait fisher and clammer from Hampton Bays, said he’s scaled back his horseshoe-crabbing as the number of fishermen harvesting them increased with price hikes over the past decade. Around 400 people have horseshoe crab permits issued by the DEC, but only around 100 fishermen harvest commercially and report their catch, as is required, the agency said.
“It used to be an amazing amount of crabs — you couldn’t walk the beach. You couldn’t set a seine net because they were everywhere,” Caldwell said. “I’d say there’s less now than there was 20 years ago.”
He said the price of crabs spiked to around $4 a crab eight years ago as the demand, including for biomedical research, increased. These days the price is back down to just over $1 a crab. Caldwell speculated that high demand may have impacted the population of crabs that are sexually mature enough to spawn. It takes horseshoe crabs eight to nine years to reach sexual maturity.
“Now we’re starting to see a bounceback because the eight years are past,” he said.
Jamie Hummel, who fishes from Hampton Bays, said baymen like him take only their limit, and need only enough to keep their conch pots baited through the year. He said if anything, regulators should look to limit or end the market for selling horseshoe crabs.
“The sales market complicates the whole aspect of this business,” he said, while baymen who use the crabs for their own businesses take only what they need, keeping them in freezers for later use.
“I always just used them for bait,” Hummel said. “I got what I needed and moved on."