EVEN AS THE Northern Hemisphere approaches its shortest day of the year (Dec. 21) and winter begins to grip the East Coast in earnest, one of spring's great exuberances is taking form in the coastal ocean between Maryland and New Jersey.
By the hundreds of thousands, perhaps the millions, horseshoe crabs are beginning to mass along the sea bottom for the long, slow crawl into Delaware and Chesapeake bays to spawn.
It is a spectacle to behold, especially in Delaware Bay, where up to a million of the ancient, helmeted creatures emerge on the beaches in May and June. But the crabs are only half of it.
Great flocks of migratory shorebirds -- sandpipers, plovers, knots, willets, ruddy turnstones and others, converge from as far as Argentina, dependent on the crab eggs for fuel to complete their northward flights.
Unfortunately, and despite strict conservation attempts by Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey, the massing crabs are being swept up for sale as bait by a handful of commercial fishermen -- more than 20,000 were landed last week alone.
The trawlers and dredgers, working outside the state-controlled three-mile limits, are legally exploiting loopholes left cynically by other coastal states in a federally sponsored crab conservation plan adopted this fall.
Last week, Maryland officials learned that fishermen are putting their catches ashore up the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, a state that has no laws regarding horseshoe crabs.
The sad scenario is a textbook case of what happens when migratory species are not regulated everywhere in the species' range.
It shows flaws in postponing conservation until more scientific evidence accumulates. This sounds reasonable, but it can end up putting the burden of proof on nature to demonstrate over-exploitation by turning belly up.
It raises questions about the whole business of catching bait to supply record levels of fishing for crabs, lobsters and a host of other coastal species: Has bait fishing reached a level where it is having impacts at an ecosystem level?
The horseshoe crab problem began to attract notice about 1990, when a booming market grew for the crabs as bait for eel, catfish and conch fishermen in the Chesapeake and along the 'f mid-Atlantic coast.
Prices have ranged as high as a dollar apiece for the once-valueless crabs, and reported landings of horseshoes shot from a few hundred thousand to millions of pounds a year.
Concurrently, surveys in Delaware Bay, the greatest spawning center on the planet for horseshoe crabs, began to measure what appeared to be startling declines.
Lobbied hard by Audubon societies, the American Bird Conservancy and other groups familiar with the critical link between crabs and shorebirds, Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey responded by reducing harvests 50 percent to 80 percent.
Commercial fishing interests, principally a few large vessels operating from New Jersey, responded by working farther offshore and landing their catches in Virginia.
During the past year, landings in that state shot from a historic average of 60,000 pounds to an estimated 1 million pounds.
Virginia said it was waiting for a comprehensive, coastwide horseshoe crab management plan to go into effect in October under the auspices of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the federal authority that oversees fishing for East Coast migratory species.
Without support from Virginia, New York and Massachusetts, the management plan fell apart. The commission let the states off with continuing to "monitor" the crabs' status.
And now, as the crabs have moved north, unsuspecting Pennsylvania has become the newest loophole for bypassing conservation attempts.
Jeff Bridi, a regional enforcement officer for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, said his officers did not know horseshoe crabs were being landed at Chester, Pa., until the Coast Guard notified them last week.
He said two fishing vessels from Cape May, N.J., unloaded about 23,000 crabs into trucks taking them to Virginia (where a booming conch fishery will continue for several weeks), and to New Jersey for cold storage.
No one knows for sure how many crabs have been taken, but the Jersey fishing boats have reportedly made six or more landings in recent weeks, said a Maryland Department of Natural Resources official.
Scientifically, a number of questions need to be resolved before we know how much to worry about the horseshoe crab. It has, after all, survived with little change for about 300 million years, and seems a fair bet to outlast humans.
On the other hand, observers around Delaware Bay have documented in recent years what appear to be alarming local declines -- these in the center of the species' spawning area.
Given the importance of the crabs to a significant number of the Northern Hemisphere's shorebirds, only a fool would not act conservatively.
Gerald W. Winegrad, former Maryland state senator and an nTC official of the American Bird Conservancy, said Pennsylvania does not support what is happening, but its legislature does not convene for several weeks, and it has no regulations on the books.
He said state and national birding organizations are pushing to have Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge take action by executive order, much as Maryland's Gov. Parris N. Glendening did earlier this year to restrict Maryland's harvests and landings of horseshoe crabs by 80 percent.
The problem is the fishermen can go back to landing in Virginia. Fishermen complain about regulation, but it is the nature of the beast that they will take any profitable species until someone says stop.
If Ridge is willing to say stop, at least it would focus all the heat on Virginia to begin acting conservatively.
Pub Date: 12/11/98