The governor of Delaware called on the National Marine Fisheries Service yesterday to place an immediate moratorium on the harvesting of horseshoe crabs within 30 miles of the mouth of the Delaware Bay.
The request by Gov. Thomas R. Carper is the latest move in an East Coast battle over the strange and valuable creatures, which existed 100 million years before the dinosaurs and provide food for migrating shorebirds, bait for the growing conch and eel industry, and blood for pharmaceutical tests.
Carper made the request in a letter -- dated yesterday -- to William B. Daley, U.S. secretary of commerce. The request is identical to a position adopted by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in February.
Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening was drafting a letter of support yesterday, a spokeswoman said. And officials in Carper's and Glendening's offices said Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey was drafting a similar letter, but officials in her office could not be reached.
The harvest of horseshoe crabs has more than quadrupled from 1993 to 1996, and the stock dwindled, according to a 1998 report by the fisheries commission. Spawning surveys in Delaware and New Jersey have found sharp declines, as have egg counts in New Jersey. "In Delaware, the fate of the horseshoe crab is critical, and the Delaware Bay contains one of the greatest concentrations of this 350 million-year-old species," said Carper in a statement. "We need to act now."
Carper spokesman Anthony Farina said the governor moved after hearing reports that watermen from Virginia were harvesting horseshoe crabs within the 30-mile zone and taking them back to Virginia to sell.
Glendening lent his voice to the request because Maryland officials are "very concerned," said John Surrick, spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources.
"Spawning season is upon us, and that is reason enough to have that sanctuary," Surrick said "We all share a concern for the horseshoe crab population and want to manage it conservatively while we're gathering more scientific information."
Last month, a multistate agency that regulates East Coast commercial fishing ruled that Virginia was not in compliance with an order to cut its state's annual catch of the species, a ruling that could lead to federal orders to shut down Virginia's horseshoe crab industry.
Virginia's fisheries managers have defied a 25 percent cut ordered by a management board of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The state's refusal to lower its catch could wipe out conservation efforts in Maryland, New Jersey and other coastal states that have agreed to reduce their harvests.
"Additional steps need to be initiated to implement sound, scientific-based conservation measures for horseshoe crabs," Carper said.
Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey slashed their harvests by as much as 75 percent before the horseshoe crab advisory board of the multistate agency voted on the 25 percent cuts. The states have said they would maintain their cuts.
Sun staff writer Joel McCord contributed to this article.