Crab conundrum: The unintended consequences of a moratorium

Photo by Tom Briglia/For the Daily News

The poor horseshoe crab has long been a political football.

Efforts to limit its harvest — in order to save a bird — have rippled through the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the state legislature and a multi-state fisheries commission.

Now, the ripples have extended to Asia.

Officials have discovered that Asian horseshoe crabs have been imported to substitute for the local species. They were horrified, partly because of the possibility that pathogens and invasive species would wind up coming in with the crabs, even if the crabs were dead.

Earlier today, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission passed a resolution to ban the import and use of Asian horseshoe crabs as bait.

How did we get to this?

Shaped like a helmet with spindly legs, the crab comes ashore on the beaches of Delaware Bay every spring to lay its green eggs in the sand.

That just happens to be the time when migratory shorebirds are arriving from half a world away, famished and in need of refueling before they continue to their Arctic breeding grounds.

When one bird in particular, the red knot, began to show declines, and scientists made the case that those declines were linked to increased harvest of the crabs, regulators stepped in.

The crabs weren’t being harvested because they were good food for humans. They were being harvested because they were good bait for whelks and eels, which are food delicacies in the Asian market. Most of the whelks and eels caught are sent to Asia, although Italians and Asians in this country also eat them.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission put limits on the horseshoe crab harvest, and New Jersey went the regulators one better, instituting a moratorium.

At the time, some warned this would create pressure on horseshoe crabs in neighboring states. Apparently, that happened.

But what also happened is that, as the price for horseshoe crabs rose, Asian suppliers took note and started trying to sell their crabs, which are a different species, in this country.

Glenn Gauvry, a Delaware resident who is president of the Ecological Research & Development Group, non-profit wildlife conservation organization whose primary focus is the conservation of the world’s four remaining horseshoe crab species, explained what happened next.

He and others who are part of a horseshoe crab committee within the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a global environmental organization, were notified that in 2011, horseshoe crabs from Thailand arrived in this country at JFK in New York.

The next year, they learned of another shipment from Vietnam.

That exporter was eager to get new customers, so he began sending emails to everyone he could related to horseshoe crabs.

Gauvry got in touch. He got names and phone numbers.

He realized some of the crabs were going to New Jersey.

What worries Gauvry and Mark Botton, a Fordham University biologist who also is an horseshoe crab expert and a member of the IUCN committee, is that the Asian crabs might bring parasites, pathogens or non-native species into American waters.

These could be on the crabs’ shells or in their gills, and they could harm aquatic creatures in American waters. Including, Gauvry worried, the American horseshoe crab.

Also, one particular Asian crab is known to carry a toxin — from ingesting food in the polluted waters where it lives — that can kill humans.

Most people wouldn’t think of eating a horseshoe crab, but some might. And what about if one of those crabs was used a bait for a conch, and then someone ate the conch? Gauvry said there’s very little science on whether that could be harmful.

Lastly, they were worried because all three Asian horseshoe crab species are in decline, and they didn’t want imports to further stress the population.

After what Gauvry referred to as “a rather lively discussion” at the ASMFC meeting where he presented his concerns Wednesday, the commission passed its resolution today.

Now, he said, each state has to figure out if its regulations already meet the requirements of the resolution, or if new ones have to be passed.

Meanwhile, New Jersey Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D., Cape May), has introduced legislation to lift the moratorium. He told my colleague at the Daily News, Jason Stark, that the moratorium “just doesn’t make sense.” He said it was possible for the state’s 36 people with horseshoe crab-harvesting licenses to take crabs without ill effect.

Birders have opposed the measure, saying the birds still need more crab eggs — and thus, more crabs. (The crabs themselves have never been considered to be in decline that would be dangerous to them.)

Stay tuned.