THE HORSESHOE crab is a natural wonder, dating back a half-billion years, with a marvelous biological clock that dramatically changes its vision between night and day.
The creature's appearance is a sign of spring along Delaware Bay, where the olive-brown arthropods mate and lay an abundance of eggs in the sand on large stretches of beaches.
Those eggs, in turn, attract a million migrating birds, who fatten up on the rich food before continuing to the Arctic.
It's a cycle of nature that is repeated each year.
But this spectacle is threatened by a voracious predator: human fishers, who catch millions of the sluggish armored animals for use as bait for eel, whelk and catfish.
The number of horseshoe crabs on the Atlantic beaches has dropped by 50 percent over the past decade, by some counts.
With the coastal catch of horseshoes rising tenfold in the same period, the cause seems obvious.
Sadly, the federal agency that regulates Atlantic fishing refuses to limit horseshoe crab catches.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission last month ignored its technical advisers, who urged coastal caps on taking the creatures. Instead, the body approved monitoring of the species, which does little to protect it.
Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware have restricted horseshoe crab catches in their waters. Those are significant efforts that should help.
But commercial fishing boats spread huge dragnets outside state waters to catch thousands of pounds of the bottom-dwelling crabs, landing them in states that have no fishing limits. Recent reports indict Virginia and Pennsylvania as abetting this legal circumvention.
Stringent coastal limits are urgently needed, not more delaying, study and monitoring of the situation. Meantime, Virginia and Pennsylvania should find the courage to protect this harmless, helpful (in human medical testing), ancient species.
Pub Date: 12/25/98