The multistate agency that regulates East Coast commercial fishing is about to limit the harvest of horseshoe crabs, the creatures that provide food for migrating shorebirds, bait for conch and eel fishermen, and blood for pharmaceutical tests.
At issue is the extent of the limits.
Environmental groups and Maryland's Department of Natural Resources are lobbying to cut harvests in half. Fishermen and seafood processors favor a reduction of 25 percent.
Horseshoe crabs, which existed 100 million years before the dinosaurs, are in trouble. Because of an exploding market for conch and eel in Asia and Europe, the crabs are being fished in record numbers for bait.
The harvest along the Atlantic Coast more than quadrupled from 1993 to 1996, and the stock dwindled, says a 1998 report by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Spawning surveys in Delaware and New Jersey show sharp declines, as have egg counts in New Jersey.
Both sides agree scientific data on the helmet-shaped animals are unreliable, and both said they are taking a "conservative" approach. But they have differing definitions of "conservative."
The commission, a coalition of East Coast states, issued a management plan for the crabs in 1998 that included a proposal for harvest limits, then began determining what those limits would be.
The agency came up with more than a dozen options -- including regional or state-by-state harvest reductions ranging from 25 percent to 50 percent. It is to vote on them next week in Alexandria, Va.
"It's sort of a one from column A, two from column B kind of thing," said Tina Berger, spokeswoman for the commission.
Not even the 50 percent reduction would affect Maryland, because the state imposed stricter controls two years ago, said Eric Schwaab of the state Department of Natural Resources.
Virginia watermen and seafood packers could suffer, said Rick Robins of Chesapeake Bay Packing in Newport News. People could "tighten their belts" and survive a 25 percent cut in harvests regionwide, but any more than that would hurt them, he said.
Perry Plumart of the National Audubon Society said the recent harvest numbers are the highest ever, and the commission should err on the side of caution.
"If you think the horseshoe crab is in trouble, then you have to substantially reduce the number of crabs caught," he said. "It's in the long-term interest of the resource, of the migratory shorebirds and of the watermen, too."
John Surrick, a DNR spokesman, said the harvest should be kept low because horseshoe crabs take up to 10 years to reach sexual maturity. "They should make sure the harvest levels are kept low enough so there are enough crabs left to reproduce as well as to support their other ecological purpose, providing food for migratory shorebirds," Surrick said.
The crabs, more closely related to spiders and scorpions than to the crustaceans of Chesapeake Bay, live most of their lives in the waters of the Continental Shelf from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico. They come ashore in the spring to mate and bury fertilized eggs.
One female can lay about 90,000 eggs, a University of Delaware study shows. The eggs provide food for migrating shorebirds that reach Delaware Bay, the greatest spawning ground. Plumart said that as the number of horseshoe crabs has shrunk, so has the number of migrating shorebirds.
Faced with declining populations, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland have reduced their horseshoe crab harvests by 60 percent to 80 percent over two years. Virginia set a limit six times its previous annual average of 20,000 to 25,000. Robins, whose company is the largest U.S. conch exporter, said the average is misleading because Virginia watermen were not required to report horseshoe crab landings before 1997.
"A lot of this so-called increase is not so much fishing effort, but better data collection," he said.
Schwaab said it is unlikely stricter reporting would make much difference. Based on pre-1997 reports of 20,000 crabs a year and the commission's limit of 150,000 crabs under one plan, "that would indicate to me they weren't taking that many more."