The entire Connecticut House of Representatives came out this week for the horseshoe crab – the silent, slow-moving “ancient mariner” that has lived on earth’s shores for 445 million years.
In a time when politicians keep to their camps, red vs. blue, and battle over the veracity of election results and other basics of democracy, state representatives voted 144-0 for An Act Concerning the Hand-Harvesting of Horseshoe Crabs.
The unanimous vote sent a signal that state lawmakers want to ensure that the dwindling population of horseshoe crabs does not disappear from Connecticut beaches.
“The whole chamber agreed that we should protect this prehistoric species from continuing on its rapid decline,” said state Rep. David Michel, a Democrat from Stamford and bill sponsor.
If passed by the state Senate before the legislative session ends May 4, the act will prohibit people from collecting horseshoe crabs from beaches. The crabs are killed and used for bait.
“The vote was absolutely astonishing,” said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, a Darien organization that helped write the bill. “I have lobbied in Hartford since 1978; I’ve seen a lot of things go up in smoke. But at a Norwalk Democratic Town Committee dinner event a few months ago, I said this bill might pass in its first year, and everybody broke into applause. People want to protect these ancient mariners.”
During a February public hearing in Hartford, dozens of Connecticut residents emailed their representatives, urging them to save the horseshoe.
People understand that the gentle crab, with a tail that doesn’t sting and claws that don’t pinch, helps many species, Feral said.
Migrating shorebirds feed on its eggs. Scientists use its blood, which is rich in copper, to test drugs and vaccines to ensure they will be safe for humans. Researchers study horseshoe crabs, which have been around longer than dinosaurs, to learn about adaptability and help other wildlife handle climate change.
“They have survived at all odds; other creatures survive because of them. And they are being thrown away for the bait industry, even when fishermen say they can use other types of bait,” Feral said. “We hear from so many people who remember going to the shoreline and seeing lots of horseshoe crabs, but they’ve all but disappeared.”
The state Department of Energy & Environmental Protection has reported that 15 fishermen have permits, and they harvest about 30,000 horseshoe crabs a year. But environmentalists say the practice is mostly unmonitored, and illegal harvesting brings the number closer to 50,000.
Michel said he’d hoped the bill would do more, but that would have made it “less bipartisan.” He wanted a ban on trawling, not just hand-harvesting, Michel said.
Trawlers “take a devastating amount of animals and species,” he said. “Trawlers use heavy metal gear to keep nets against the sea floor, and the metal rakes the sea floor, releasing huge amounts of sequestrated carbon.”
Michel said he requested that “a trawler bill be raised this year and it was not. I do think that if trawlers were included, (the horseshoe bill) would not have been unanimous.”
Certain bills are more likely to garner an all-yes among the 151 members of the House, he said.
They are ones that don’t overreach and avoid controversy. Tuesday, when the horseshoe bill sailed through the House, four others passed unanimously. None got the full 151 House tally because some representatives were absent for each vote.
One of the bills would allow owners of self-storage facilities to tow away cars and boats if the owner doesn’t pay the rent for at least 60 days. It also would allow online sales of unclaimed property.
Another bill would lower the threshold of lead in the blood that triggers mandatory action by health officials. A third bill would convene a working group to figure out how to digitize state building code records. A fourth would make it easier for campers to transport wastewater to disposal stations at campgrounds.
Michel said he expects the horseshoe crab protection bill to pass the Senate.
Feral said she has her fingers crossed. She’s getting ready for her annual horseshoe crab watch.
In mid-May and early June, three days before and three days after the new moon and the full moon, female horseshoe crabs come ashore, where the males are waiting. Time to lay the eggs.
“I look in three spots in Rowayton, where I live. Usually I’ll see maybe two; if I keep looking, I might see several more. There may be more in the water,” Feral said.
If the bill passes, fishermen thinking of perusing beaches for horseshoe crabs and chopping them up for bait may not go unobserved.
“People are on watch to make sure horseshoe crabs are not mistreated,” Feral said.