STAMFORD – The horseshoe crab is nothing but helpful.
Its eggs feed migrating shorebirds on their long treks to nesting grounds.
Its copper-rich blood is used to test vaccines and drugs to ensure they aren’t contaminated by bacteria and will be safe to inject in humans.
It has existed for 445 million years – longer than the dinosaur – so scientists study its amazing adaptability to learn how to help ocean life cope with climate change.
Its tail is not a stinger and its claws are not muscular, so the horseshoe crab will not hurt curious humans who approach it on the beach.
But the ancient animal has not received assistance in return, at least not in Connecticut, where populations have been shrinking for more than 20 years.
Horseshoe crabs, once plentiful all along the Connecticut shore, now are rare. But they remain helpful, said Jennifer Mattei, a biology professor at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.
“They have become a flagship species for saving our beaches,” said Mattei, a member of the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “Our coastal areas are mostly developed because people want to live near the water. But people are beginning to realize that these habitats are important. If we save the habitats by saving one species at a time then, I hope, we start with the horseshoe crab.”
Mattei, who monitors crab populations on the Connecticut shore, is among a group of scientists, environmentalists, animal activists, elected officials and citizens backing a bill that would ban harvesting of horseshoe crabs from the beaches.
The crabs are chopped up and used for bait, mostly to catch eel or whelk, according to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Nearly all are picked up on beaches by hand, and most of the bait is for personal use, according to DEEP.
Fifteen people have permits, according to DEEP, and they collect about 30,000 horseshoe crabs a year.
It’s likely more, Mattei said, because it’s rarely monitored.
“I think illegal harvesting goes on,” she said. “Nobody knows how many are taken.”
Horseshoe crabs usually are caught as they come ashore to lay eggs in late spring and early summer, mostly during a full or new moon when the tide is high. Females lay thousands of blue-green eggs, males fertilize them and both return to Long Island Sound.
Harvesting breaks the life cycle, Mattei said. Females now come up on the beaches without males, she said.
“Often they’re not in pairs,” she said. “They may be having a hard time finding each other because there are fewer of them.”
Horseshoe crabs have other problems, Mattei said.
“The biggest is loss of habitat,” she said. “Our marshes are going away because sea levels are rising. The water isn’t clean and it’s becoming acidic. A multitude of things related to human development and pollution are causing their decline. Harvesting is the last insult.”
Horseshoe crabs inhabit the waters along the Atlantic Coast from Maine to Mexico. They eat whatever they find and can withstand significant changes in water temperature.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has determined that the status of the horseshoe crab population in the New York region, which includes Connecticut, is poor, said Caitlin Starks, senior fishery management plan coordinator.
They may not be as beautiful as snow leopards, whooping cranes and other struggling species, but horseshoe crabs garnered citizen support last month during a public hearing before the state Legislature.
“As a child 40 years ago, I can recall seeing dozens of them gathered at the water’s edge to lay their eggs,” Darien resident Liz Van Loan emailed lawmakers. “A dozen years ago, when my daughter was young, I felt lucky if we saw two or three. For the past few years, I haven’t seen any, and I’m at the beach at least four days a week. Please support this bill and save these amazing creatures.”
Irene Skrybailo of New Milford wrote about something she witnessed last summer.
“I saw horseshoe crabs being cut up to be used as bait in Branford. The fishermen had hundreds of these animals in blue 55-gallon buckets on the back of two pickups, all for one boat,” Skrybailo wrote. “It was not a large boat, maybe 35 feet, and was headed out for a day trip. This is not only heartbreaking, but infuriating – a true waste of a valuable resource.”
Ben Conlon of Guilford reported a similar incident from last summer.
“I went to my local beach and saw three (horseshoe crabs) in the shallow water. It was the first time I’d seen them in many years,” Conlon wrote. “A few minutes later, a man came and took all three and threw them in his truck. I confronted him, but he said he had a permit. It was awful. Horseshoe crabs are majestic creatures and need our protection.”
John Ogren of Old Saybrook told lawmakers that his son fished commercially for whelk one year and had success substituting other bait.
“He found that there was no significant advantage in using horseshoe crabs – the whelk went for just about any protein source available,” Ogren wrote.
DEEP officials told lawmakers they don’t support House Bill 5140. Instead, they prefer a new set of regulations they hope to roll out by April.
The regulations would prohibit horseshoe crab harvesting for two five-day periods around new and full moons in May and June, and would reduce the catch limit to 150 a day, down from 500. That would reduce horseshoe crab harvesting by 62 percent, DEEP officials said.
Who knows what enforcement will look like, Mattei said.
“Once there were so many horseshoe crabs, no one paid attention to them,” she said. “And no one appreciated their role.”
Correction: This story incorrectly stated that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission rated Connecticut “poor” for management of its horseshoe crab population — instead, the commission rated the New York region “poor” and Connecticut is part of that region. The story also incorrectly stated that the horseshoe crab population was, at last count, 66 percent lower than it was in 1998.