Horseshoe Crab Protections Died in the Legislature, Now the Dwindling Population Arrives to Mate


TwitterFacebookCopy LinkPrintEmail

The bill, which would have banned fishermen from collecting the venerable, vulnerable horseshoe crab from Connecticut beaches, passed the state House of Representatives in a vote of all yeses, and seemed to have similar support in the state Senate.

But in the final hours of the legislative session, the bill failed to come up for a vote, and died.

So the disappearing horseshoe crab, which breeds in sandy inlets for a few days during full and new moons this time of year, will take another hit, said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, the Darien advocacy organization that helped draft the bill. 

It’s senseless to allow harvesting of the “ancient mariners,” the “living fossils” that have populated Earth for 445 million years, before the dinosaurs, Feral said. 

Once plentiful along the Connecticut shore, horseshoe crabs have been disappearing for two decades. Fishermen kill them and cut them up for bait.

“It’s time to leave them the heck alone,” Feral said.

Folks living along the shore weighed in during a virtual state hearing in March. That was followed by the 144-0 House vote supporting the harvesting ban in April.

But the bill stalled in the Senate, and was among five that didn’t survive May 4, the last day of the legislative session in Hartford.

“It seems like these bills were removed to make room for other things,” Feral said. “Our bill wasn’t held back from a vote because of objections. I knew we had the votes. It was excruciating to get to the last few days only to see it held up.”

Sherman Butler, publisher of Southern New England Fishery News, said he wonders whether lobbyists blocked the ban. The market for bait is one thing, Butler said, but the market for blue, copper-rich horseshoe crab blood – used in vaccine research – is something else.

“For fishermen, collecting horseshoe crabs for bait is not their main line of business. They sell them to processors as a side line,” Butler said. “People who sell them to the pharmaceutical community charge major bucks.”

Matt Gates, supervising fisheries biologist for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said he doesn’t know that’s the case.

“We have no pharmaceutical harvest that we are aware of,” Gates said. “Anything is possible, but that industry is pretty well regulated.”

State Sen. Christine Cohen of Guilford, who helped shepherd the crab bill through the legislature, said pharmaceutical lobbyists did not interfere.

“That is not true, as far as I know,” Cohen said. “My understanding is that those who use crab’s blood for vaccine typically extract the blood without harm to the animal and they are released.”

It’s estimated, in fact, that 15 percent to 30 percent of crabs die after they are bled.

Gates said DEEP is working on remedies.

This week, the department implemented changes that have been considered since a 2019 report by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission showed the horseshoe crab population in Long Island Sound is declining. 

Under the old rules, fishermen could take up to 500 crabs per day. The limit under the new rules is 150, Gates said.

The new rules restrict harvesting so it does not interfere with breeding. Horseshoe crabs come ashore to spawn on days coinciding with new and full moons in May and June.

DEEP officials have said the stricter regulations will decrease the crab harvest by more than 60 percent. 

Gates said DEEP contacted the 17 licensed horseshoe crab fishermen in the state. Together, they have been harvesting about 15,000 crabs per season for the last couple of years, Gates said.

Feral said it’s likely a lot more.

The numbers don’t address poaching, “which is clearly happening if you heard the eyewitness testimony” submitted during the public hearing two months ago, Feral said.

“The only way to cure this is to yank the licenses,” she said. “DEEP uses an honor system. There’s little to no enforcement.”

Butler agreed.

“It’s a problem,” he said. “Horseshoe crabs are easy to catch, and environmental police in Connecticut are few in number, with no enforcement budget to speak of.”

Gates said DEEP’s fisheries division has 15 conservation law enforcement officers to cover the coast.

“We do rely on people following the rules,” Gates said. “There are unethical people who may not do that.”

Cohen said the new state budget includes funding for more environmental conservation officers.

“Our hope is that DEEP will become more stringent with enforcement of these regulations,” Cohen said.

Citizens who suspect illegal harvesting of horseshoe crabs may report it to the environmental conservation tip line, 860-424-3333, Gates said.

Many of the citizens who backed the effort to ban horseshoe crab harvesting were from Fairfield County. Towns on Connecticut’s southwest shore have seen the biggest population declines, Gates said.

Last weekend Feral began her annual crab watch on beaches in Rowayton, the coastal Norwalk neighborhood where she lives.

Under the power of prehistoric memory, horseshoe crabs crawl onto the beach at high tide, three days before and three days after the full moon and the new moon in mid-May, then again in June. Females lay thousands of tiny eggs, a favorite food of shorebirds.

“The males arrive first and wait for the females, which are much bigger,” Feral said. “Then they start to spawn. Sometimes a few males will hook onto the shell of a female. That’s when fishermen like to grab them. They exploit the fact that they are breeding.”

Her organization is deciding how to bring a harvesting ban before the legislature again next year, Feral said.

“We want to get a bill moving sooner so it doesn’t get stalled at the last minute,” she said. “We intend to get it to the Senate early, and out of there fast.”

Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 722 6811.