FAIRFAX, Va. -- The multistate agency that regulates East Coast commercial fishing voted yesterday to cut horseshoe crab harvesting by 25 percent after an unusually contentious meeting in which Maryland lobbied for a 50 percent cut and Virginia for no cut.
Representatives of the 16 states belonging to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission caucused repeatedly before voting on a series of parliamentary maneuvers to ease the effects of the cuts, the first limits for horseshoe crabs set by the commission.
Eric Schwaab of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources argued that a 50 percent reduction would be a "conservative, risk-averse" method of preserving the helmet-shaped creatures.
Jack Travelstead, Virginia's top fisheries manager, warned that cuts would destroy his state's conch fishers, who use horseshoe crabs for bait, and proposed limiting the harvest to 1999 levels.
Jaimie Geiger, of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, offered an impassioned plea for the agency to "take the high road" and put the crabs, which are in danger of being overharvested, ahead of commercial interests.
Fishermen from New York and Delaware pleaded with the commission not to put them out of business.
Delaware has sharply limited fishing for horseshoe crabs, which provide food for migrating shorebirds, bait for conch and eel fishermen and blood for pharmaceutical tests. Any greater reductions would "annihilate the fishery in Delaware," said Charles Aumon, a waterman from Slaughter Beach.
Horseshoe crabs, which existed 100 million years before dinosaurs and are more closely related to spiders than to Atlantic blue crabs, come ashore in the spring to mate and bury fertilized eggs. The eggs -- one female can lay as many as 90,000 -- provide food for migrating shore birds.
The crabs are being fished in record numbers -- the Atlantic Coast harvest quadrupled from 1993 to 1996 -- for bait for a burgeoning conch and eel fishery, raising concerns among conservation groups.
The commission, a coalition of East Coast states, issued a horseshoe crab management plan in October 1998 and yesterday set the new harvest limits.
But the limits are "a farce" because they are based on inflated harvest figures, complained Gerald Weingrad of the American Bird Conservancy.
Virginia, which reported landing an average of 20,000 to 25,000 horseshoe crabs a year from 1995 to 1997, claimed a harvest of a half-million crabs last year.
Officials in that state say the increase is due to better reporting methods. The commission gave Virginia credit for a harvest of about 203,000 crabs. So, under the new regulations, Virginia would be be allowed to take about 152,000 crabs annually.
Rick Robins of Chesapeake Bay Packing in Newport News, Va., said the limits could cause a $2.6 million loss to his business, one of the largest conch exporters in the United States.
Schwaab, of Maryland, said the 25 percent cuts will "yield some benefits," but they are "not as risk-averse as we might've liked."