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Contact: Dana Loschiavo (609) 984-1423
Amy Cradic (609) 984-1795

DEP Commissioner Orders Horseshoe Crab Harvest Cut in Half

Shorebirds that rely on horseshoe crab eggs could soon be extinct, research shows

(03/63) TRENTON - Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Bradley M. Campbell today signed an emergency order halving New Jersey's annual horseshoe crab harvest and prohibiting all harvesting during the horseshoe crabs' prime spawning season from May 1 through June 7.

New Jersey is acting jointly with Delaware, which adopted similar restrictions Friday, in an effort to protect a rapidly declining population of migrating shorebirds that stop over each spring on Delaware Bay beaches to feed on the fat-rich eggs of the horseshoe crab.

"Sudden and dramatic declines in horseshoe crab and shorebird populations make clear that prompt action is needed to protect these resources," Campbell said. "I am grateful to Delaware Secretary John Hughes for joining us in a common sense, bi-state approach."

Studies show the concentration of horseshoe crab egg on the bay shore has declined significantly over the past decade, leaving many shorebirds without enough eggs to eat. Unable to gain sufficient weight during their Delaware Bay stop over, many shorebirds lack the energy to complete their Arctic migration and reproduce. Most in peril is the Western Hemisphere's Red Knot population, a state-threatened species that scientists predict could be extinct within 7 years.

"We need to bear in mind that our shorebird and horseshoe crab populations are indicators of the health of the bay as a whole," Campbell said. "By acting today, we aim not only to prevent the dire future predicted for the Red Knot, but also to preserve the ecological balance throughout Delaware Bay."

Delaware Bay's beaches are the principal egg-laying grounds for the world's largest concentration of horseshoe crabs, and they attract the Western Hemisphere's second largest spring concentration of migrating shorebirds. The spring shorebird migration is one of the prime attractions of the $34 million ecotourism industry in Cape May and Cumberland counties.

The order signed today:

  • Cuts the 2003 commercial harvest to 150,000 horseshoe crabs, a 50 percent reduction.
  • Bans horseshoe crab harvesting from May 1 through June 7 in order to safeguard horseshoe crab eggs for shorebird feeding.
  • Requires the use of bait-saving devices in conch pots. Horseshoe crabs are harvested primarily as bait for the conch fishery, and these devices reduce demand for horseshoe crabs by extending the effective fishing time of bait in the water.
  • Requires harvesters to report their catch to the DEP by telephone every week in order to prevent over harvesting.

The commissioner also announced plans today to limit access to certain portions of Delaware Bay beaches where horseshoe crabs are known to spawn and where shorebirds traditionally feed.

The affected sections of beach in Lower, Middle and Downe townships will be closed only for 11 days in order to minimize human disturbance of the shorebirds while they feed. The beach restrictions coincide with the new and full moons, when horseshoe crab spawning and shorebird feeding are at their peak.

"By minimizing disturbances to feeding shorebirds, we can help them complete their long Arctic flight," Campbell said. "If successful, these actions could help prevent the Red Knot from being listed as a federally endangered species, a status that would come with a host of additional restrictions on beach access and horseshoe crab harvests."

On May 17 and 18 and May 24 to June 1, DEP staff will limit access at portions of specific beaches in the Villas, as well as portions of Reeds Beach, Cook's Beach, Kimbles Beach, Norbury's Landing, Pierces Point, Sunray Beach and Raybins Beach.

The closed areas will be marked with printed signs and rope fencing from the street end to the water's edge. DEP staff will be present to educate the public about the interaction between the shorebirds and horseshoe crabs and the need to let the birds feed undisturbed.

The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) also plans to limit access to certain bay beaches during peak shorebird migration. Delaware also has enacted a harvest moratorium from May 1 to June 7 and a 50 percent reduction in the number of horseshoe crabs to be harvested this year.

In addition to cooperating on this bay-wide effort, the two states are asking the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's (ASMFC) Horseshoe Crab Management Board to consider capping other Atlantic coast states' 2003 horseshoe crab bait harvest quotas at 2001 levels and to investigate measures to reduce horseshoe crab mortality in the biomedical industry.

Finally, the DEP is urging the public to report their observations of horseshoe crab spawning activity by calling (866) NJ-CATCH toll free, or by visiting and accessing the form entitled "Identification of Horseshoe Crab Spawning Habitat in the Inlets and Bays of New Jersey."



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Last Updated: July 14, 2010