Friday, June 01, 2007

Fishing for Horseshoe Crabs in West Haven

The horseshoe crab mating season and fishing season has begun, which raises all kinds of issues about the conservation of marine life, the conservation of birds (particularly red knots, which rely on horseshoe crab eggs for food) and the protection of commercial fisheries, as I wrote about here. Last night I got an e-mail about horseshoe crabs from someone I don't know. She told me that last Sunday evening she was on the beach in West Haven and "had a very upsetting experience." At 6 p.m., it turns out, the horseshoe crab season opened and people began arriving to start the harvest:

They filled up an entire pickup truck with horseshoe crabs. It was filled so high, anyone walking by could see the pile emerging from the back of the truck. I felt helpless and it makes me so sad because they have ALL been taken out of the water. If you go down there, you will not find ONE horseshoe crab. I am in the process of trying to understand why were they allowed to do this.

I called the DEP on Sunday, and I also left a message today with a woman there with hopes that she can explain to me why was it ok to do that.

When I go down the beach, and the tide is in, I like to look out for any horseshoe crab that has been turned over on its back, and then flip it back over. As I got out of my car, I saw a little girl looking at one that was flipped. I walked over to it, turned it back over and started talking to the girl about horseshoe crabs. A few minutes later, these 2 kids came onto the beach and started grabbing ALL of the attached pairs out of the water and just throwing them onto the sand (so you can see their poor legs kicking). I asked one of them what was he going to do with them and he said that they use them as bait. The little girl had her whole family come over as we watched helpless and confused [about] what to do. They were then throwing them in coolers and then dumping them into the back of a pickup truck. I was so upset, and didn't know what I had the right to do.

I went up to a cop and told him of the situation and referred me to the DEP. I called the DEP's emergency line and explained the situation to a gentlemen. I waited almost an hour and no one showed up. My sister's friend called the DEP again for me, and this time was told that as of 6 p.m. it was fishing season. On Monday night, they were down there again. The older man, who later showed up with the 2 boys on Sunday, actually had one of those flashlights that attached around his forehead as he searched into the tide. I couldn't stay.

After I wrote about horseshoe crabs 11 days ago I received a rather ungracious, mean-spirited and irrational e-mail from a fellow who apparently thinks he's a good advocate for horseshoe crab protection. On his website, which I'm not going to link to, he reprints a letter that Eric Smith, the head of the DEP's marine fisheries division, wrote to him, explaining how Connecticut and other states on the Atlantic are trying to balance horseshoe crab protection with horseshoe crab fishing. Here's what Eric said:

Marine fisheries management is part resource protection and part resource use. No one should be surprised at this observation. It has always been so. On the east coast, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is responsible for the preparation of interstate fishery management plans to rebuild or sustain resources and fisheries.

The Delaware Bay issue before the Commission last spring appeared to be intractable. The red knot is in low abundance and the birds depend on horseshoe crab eggs as a preferred food source. Conch and eel fishermen depend on horseshoe crabs for bait. It appeared that a moratorium on the taking of horseshoe crabs was the only answer, in effect, having to eliminate the fishery in the hopes that the decline of the red knot would be reversed, even though there was no guarantee that this action would result in the desired outcome.

Then, a fisherman (or dealer) came up with an alternative. He proposed that the Commission delay the opening of the season until after red knots had left the beaches to continue on their northward migration. He also proposed preventing the taking of female horseshoe crabs at any time.

This plan, to me, did two things: it maximized the opportunity for “eggs on the beach” at the time the red knot was on Delaware Bay beaches, and it protected female crabs even after the birds had departed, to enhance their availability the following season. The Commission's Horseshoe Crab Technical Committee concluded that the complete moratorium did not have any greater probability of rebuilding horseshoe crabs or red knots relative to the delayed opening/male-only fishery. In the committee's view, either option produced a slight benefit to horseshoe crabs; there was no apparent difference between the two. The committee also noted that there had been a significant increase in immature female crabs since 2003 (after establishment of a large protected area off the mouth of Delaware Bay) and that augured well for both the horseshoe crab and the red knot. Finally, Dr. Carl Shuster, a noted horseshoe crab researcher in the Mid-Atlantic (and for whom the Dr. Carl N. Shuster, Jr. Horseshoe Crab Sanctuary was named), spoke favorably about the male-only alternative.

To me, that was a reasoned solution to a seemingly intractable problem. It protected an important resource during a time and in a way that maximized the opportunity for the red knot to benefit, and it preserved some measure of a regulated horseshoe crab fishery, for the benefits it provides.

It’s a challenge to try to satisfy the interests of people with disparate views. The fact that a member of the fishing public came up with the Delaware Bay strategyI eventually advocated for and the Commission overwhelmingly approved is a great example of how cooperative fisheries management can work. On reflection, I hope you will agree.

Regarding your statement about the horseshoe crab fishery in Connecticut, please allow me to correct what I believe to be a technical inaccuracy in your statement. You state that "Over 80% have been harvested out of CT waters." The most recent horseshoe crab stock assessment found that "...four of five indices in western Long Island Sound showed significant or marginally significant positive trends. No trend was detected in eastern Long Island Sound." The ASMFC Fishery Management Plan Review states that "For the second consecutive year, coastwide bait landings were less than one million crabs in 2005. Preliminary reported bait landings were over 75% below reference period landings." This was a coastwide number and perhaps that is the source of the confusion. However, this does not indicate a decline in resource abundance of this magnitude. For example, the plan review indicates that "The redesigned Delaware Bay spawning survey showed that spawning activity has been stable or slightly declining from 1999 to 2005." It may be, therefore, that the declining landings are a consequence of reduced quotas and other restrictions on the fishery required by the plan. In any case, the statement regarding Connecticut waters does not appear to be supported by the plan review document.

As for how, where and when people can fish for horseshoe crabs, here's what the state rules say. To me they appear to be fairly restrictive, but I have no idea whether they are working well or not:

Eligibility:

In order to engage in the horseshoe crab hand-harvest fishery, a person must possess both:

1. a valid commercial license that allows the hand-harvest of horseshoe crabs (either a Commercial Finfish License or a Commercial Horseshoe Crab Hand Harvest License), and

2. a Horseshoe Crab Hand-Harvest Endorsement Letter bearing the license holder’s name.

Both of these items must be immediately available for inspection by law enforcement officers when engaged in the hand-harvest of horseshoe crabs.

Endorsement Letters:

Horseshoe Crab Hand-Harvest Endorsement Letters will be issued annually only to fishermen who possessed a commercial license that allowed the hand harvest of horseshoe crabs during the horseshoe crab open season in at least one year from 1999 through 2006, and who reported in their Commercial Fisheries Catch Logbooks the hand-harvest and landings of horseshoe crabs during at least one of those open seasons....

Commercial Fishery Season:

No person shall harvest horseshoe crabs from the waters of this state or, regardless of where such animals are taken, possess live horseshoe crabs on the waters of this state or on any parcel of land, structure, or portion of a roadway abutting tidal waters of this state from July 8 of any year through May 21 of the next year, inclusive. During the open period from May 22 through July 7, inclusive, no person shall take horseshoe crabs on the waters or shores of this state or on any parcel of land, structure, or portion of a roadway abutting tidal waters of this state from 06:00 pm on any Friday through 06:00 pm on the following Sunday, inclusive (weekend closure).

Closed Areas:

No person shall engage in the hand-harvest of horseshoe crabs from the following areas:

(1) Menunketesuck Island in Westbrook; and

(2) the region known as Sandy Point in West Haven from the West Haven boat ramp on Beach Street south to, and clockwise around said point, including the breakwater, tidal flats and embayment and southeastern facing barrier beach to the groin adjacent to the intersection of Beach Street and Morse Avenue; and

(3) the region known as Milford Point in Milford, Connecticut, including all beaches and adjacent sand bars and tidal flats to the west of, and including, the spit that lies south-southeast of the southern terminus of Francis Street.

Possession Limit:

In the hand-harvest fishery, the limit is 500 crabs per license holder per 24-hour period that begins at 12:00 noon.

Restrictions on Tools:

The use of any tool, including, but not limited to, nets, rakes, tongs, hooks, poles, gaffs or spears to take horseshoe crabs is prohibited. However, the license holder may wear gloves.

Assistants:

Any person that does not hold both a commercial license to take horseshoe crabs by hand and a Horseshoe Crab Hand-Harvest Endorsement Letter is prohibited from entering the water to assist a person so licensed and endorsed. Such unlicensed or unendorsed persons are not prohibited from carrying crabs that have been placed on the beach by the license holder to a storage container or vehicle or taking crabs from a license holder for storage while remaining in a boat.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Sam said...

It sounds like we need some game wardens up there. In my neck of the woods, if somebody is disturbing sea turtles or their eggs I can call a hotline and the laws will be there in about 20 minutes. /sam

10:26 AM  
Anonymous Bryan said...

Tom,
I empathize with your correspondent from West Haven. I'd be pretty upset if I witnessed the same thing. For reasons unknown to me, I haven't had to witness such exploitation on the nearby beaches (north shore of LI in the western Sound). I hope they do better at enforcing the rules in CT and I hope it doesn't lead to the problem moving to LI.

12:38 PM  
Blogger Sam said...

OK, given the bio-medical permits have been restricted, it appears that horseshoe crabs are mainly used for bait to catch eel and conch (welk). It appears that eel and conch will go after the egg-bearing females the best (U-Del websites).

What is eel used for? Hardly anyone eats them anymore, perhaps except in Oriental cooking, so mmost are used for catching Striped Bass (rockfish). That ought to be against the law because artificial bait works just as good on stripers, and you don't have to kill (1) the horseshoe crab and (2) the eel. Seems wasteful.

Conch is mainly used for bait as well, although some folks love them served with salad or pasta. In the Caribbean conch is much more popular with better because of larger species and better tasting meat ... my question is if people really eat all that much conch up in the Northeast. Do they?

I mean come on, I've been to a lot of seafood and Italian joints up North and worked as cook at several of them and NEVER saw a freaking conch in the walk-in.

/sammie

2:31 PM  

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