A new law soon will protect an ancient species.
Beginning Oct. 1, it will be illegal to take horseshoe crabs — which have occupied the earth for 445 million years — from Connecticut beaches.
And advocacy groups and elected officials in the state, including Gov. Ned Lamont, are looking to extend safeguards to other shores.
Now a key member of the New York State Assembly is reaching back.
“I very much appreciate Connecticut for taking this step,” Deborah Glick, who chairs the New York State Assembly’s Committee on Environmental Conservation, said Friday. “I heard (Lamont’s) announcement about the Connecticut ban on the radio this week, and I am absolutely looking forward to getting this going in New York.”
Horseshoe crabs once were plentiful on the beaches of communities that ring Long Island Sound, but the population has been decimated by fisherman who collect them and cut them up for bait, and by habitat loss, pollution, nets adrift in the water, abandoned lobster pots, and other hazards.
Horseshoe crabs are ecological keystones – shorebirds depend on their eggs for food. Because they predate dinosaurs, researchers study their adaptability to figure out how to help other sea life handle climate change. And scientists use their blood to test drugs and vaccines for human safety.
During his announcement, Lamont said he strongly urges “our neighboring states to join this growing coalition and enact similar laws to protect” horseshoe crabs, which are headed for extinction in Long Island Sound.
‘On to New York’
Engaging other states – especially New York – is key, said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, the Darien advocacy organization that helped draft the Connecticut ban.
Under state limits, and with few horseshoe crabs left, fishermen have been harvesting about 15,000 per season for the last few years, Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection fisheries biologist Matt Gates has said.
The number doesn’t account for poaching, but it’s still well below the summer harvest of up to 150,000 crabs that New York allows.
“We are over the moon about the Connecticut ban,” Feral said Friday. “But we are marching right on to New York. [Glick] gave us her commitment that some type of ban will be introduced in the New York Assembly by her committee next year.”
Glick said the assembly reconvenes in January, but between now and then her committee staff will do some research.
“I’m interested in the way the Connecticut ban was written, but we’ll look at other states, too,” Glick said. “New Jersey has a partial ban, and I think Maryland and Delaware are looking at it or have taken some steps. We’ll talk to marine biologists, see what makes sense … and introduce a bill once we have a complete view of what we want to do.”
She can introduce a bill later this year, before the legislative session begins, said Glick, a Democrat who represents lower Manhattan.
Hoping dominoes fall
Connecticut State Rep. Joe Gresko, a Stratford Democrat, led the charge for a town horseshoe crab harvesting ban implemented about four years ago. Since then he has seen a slight uptick in the horseshoe crab population on Stratford beaches, Gresko said. Recovery will take a long time, he said.
“I was glad to hear that one of my counterparts in New York is most likely going to introduce a similar bill in their legislature,” Gresko said Friday. “We want to get this ban going along the entire Atlantic Coast. We hope it will be a domino effect.”
Under Connecticut’s law, which passed the House of Representatives and the Senate unanimously, “no person shall engage in the hand-harvesting of horseshoe crabs or the eggs of horseshoe crabs from the waters of this state.”
Violators will be fined $25 per horseshoe crab.
The law allows the DEEP commissioner to authorize limited harvesting for educational or scientific purposes. The commissioner is in charge of enforcement.
Enforcement has been an issue. DEEP’s fisheries division has 15 environmental conservation police officers to cover the Connecticut coast, and the department relies on people following the rules, Gates has said.
Gresko said he’s concerned, but he thinks the law will change things once it’s enacted in October.
“In the past, if someone was seen harvesting horseshoe crabs and someone else called them on it, they could say, ‘I have a permit; I’m allowed to pull 150 a day,’” Gresko said. “Now they can’t pull any. At all. Ever. If someone is seen doing it, they are violating the law.”
People should report incidents to the environmental conservation tip line at 860-424-3333, he said.
Feral said she has hope the ban will work because the same 15 or so people apply for horseshoe crab harvesting permits each year.
“They’re not getting the permits anymore. It’s over,” Feral said. “Are you going to have officers to patrol the beaches? Maybe somewhat. But at least the legal sanction has ended.”
The market for selling horseshoe crabs for bait has fallen off, since other types of bait are available, she said. DEEP is not aware of any pharmaceutical effort in Connecticut to capture horseshoe crabs for their blood, Gates has said.
An enchanting army
Feral said she is heartened not only by the state legislature’s unanimous support for protecting horseshoe crabs, but by significant support from citizens who have spoken at public hearings in Hartford.
Feral, who lives in the coastal village of Rowayton that is part of Norwalk, said horseshoe crabs are quite beautiful.
“When you see these perfect little replicas hatched from an egg, they look like they’re in the Army. I think they’re enchanting,” she said.
It’s even more true when you understand how the gentle horseshoe crabs, which don’t bite or pinch or sting, mate only under the moonlight, she said.
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 meet them.
“This year I saw some males in Rowayton around May 23. They were waiting on shore for the females to come in, which took another week,” Feral said. “It was the usual small number, maybe a little less. Then, on Bell Island Beach, we saw the females digging in the sand and laying eggs, maybe five at a time. That was exciting. But everyone that’s been watching them realizes we’ve been seeing fewer and fewer.”
It’s partly because harvesters wait for the nighttime mating ritual to gather multiple horseshoe crabs at once.
But most people are not harvesters, Feral said.
“Sometimes the horseshoe crabs get turned over, and people will pick them up by their sides and turn them back, then watch them go racing into the water. People love that,” Feral said. “They see the horseshoe crabs’ vulnerability and want to make something right.”
Glick said she has seen horseshoe crabs on New York’s Fire Island, and watched them dig in the sand to lay eggs along Great South Bay.
“They are amazing creatures,” Glick said. “So ancient.”
Gresko said he has great respect for horseshoe crabs as survivors on the planet for nearly 450 million years.
“I think if we leave them alone, they can figure it out and repopulate without issue,” he said.