Tuesday, March 27, 2012

From Out of the Past - Part XV

            The issues, however, have not all been resolved.  In the early part of the 21st century a substantial decline in populations of migrating shorebirds was reported.  Some studies indicated that these birds were not gaining sufficient weight (they are heavily dependent on horseshoe crabs eggs for their sustenance) during their migration stopover along the Delaware Bay and could not successfully complete their journey and eventually breed.  Other studies conducted in both the Arctic and South American ranges of shorebirds showed a significant decline in viable populations.             
            Surveys in the Delaware Bay indicated a stable population of horseshoe crabs, but a population that is also subject to the pressures of several environmental factors over which humans have no regulatory or legislative control.  Crab populations were good, but shorebird populations were not.  Questions arose - not easily answered questions - about the connections between the two populations.  How does one influence the other?  And to what extent?  How are they interrelated, interconnected, intertwined?
            As you will discover in Chapter 8, the birds are dependent on the crabs for a significant portion of their ability to survive.  The crabs are partially dependent on the actions and practices of humans for their overall survival.  It would be safe to say that the connections and interrelationships are tenuous, fragile, and evolutionary.  The results of any mandates or legislation, on the other hand, may be permanent and irrevocable.  Simply stated, there are many stakeholders up and down the line.  It is conceivable that Mother Nature will be the final arbiter – irrespective of what we want.
            Suffice it to say, horseshoe crabs have been around for a very long time and they have proven themselves to be a most useful species – for humans as well as other organisms.  It remains to be seen whether the crabs will be able to continue their multi-faceted role in the decades and centuries to come.      

Monday, March 19, 2012

From Out of the Past - Part XIV

            If it is true that “Necessity is the mother of invention,” then the proverbial “magic bullet” arrived by a most circuitous route.  But to understand that “invention” we need to take yet another side trip.  We need to take a look at how horseshoe crabs were traditionally used as bait.
            When watermen fish for eel or conch, they would typically take a whole male or half-female horseshoe crab and place it on a spike inside a fishing pot.  There, the smell of the crab attracted the targeted catch.  Once trapped, however, the conch (along with many other creatures) is free to eat the bait, reducing the bait’s effectiveness (Once the bait was consumed by the trapped animals, so was its effectiveness at catching more animals.).  One fisherman, Frank Eicherly, began experimenting with a plastic mesh bag that held part of the horseshoe crab to the bottom of a conch pot with bungee cords.  What Eicherly discovered (another endorsement for the saying “The best ideas are often the simplest ideas.”) is that the bag didn’t diminish the lure of the bait, but it did significantly prevent its consumption.  Eicherly discovered additional benefits of this procedure including the fact that he used less bait, changed it less often, and was able to reduce his need for horseshoe crabs by as much as 76% (Imagine reporting to your boss that you were able to increase the company’s profits by 76%.  He (or she) might be doing an Irish jig on your desk [admittedly, not a pretty sight!]).
            This “invention” was nothing short of phenomenal.  It was quickly picked up by several groups including the Environmental Research and Development Group (ERDG – the primary horseshoe crab preservation group in the world), the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences Sea Grant program, and Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.  Tests were run, experiments were conducted, and studies were commissioned to determine the feasibility of using bait bags to reduce the harvesting of horseshoe crabs.  Viola!  In quick order mandates were passed and policies were enacted for the use of bait bags by the conch industry.  The bags were subsequently manufactured in large quantities and distributed free of charge to watermen.  The payoff - substantial declines in horseshoe crab bait use.

Monday, March 12, 2012

From Out of the Past - Part XIII

            The public pressures increased and fisheries managers were asked to develop a management plan for a species that had previously received low recognition from the general population and had not been subjected to any form of regulation.  Whatever legislation resulted would have profound impacts on the livelihood of commercial fishermen, several species of migratory shorebirds and, potentially, the horseshoe crabs themselves.  For many with ties to horseshoe crabs this was new territory; potentially a legislative land mine.  Demands for regulations escalated along with an escalation in the demand for crabs.  As the months and years passed populations of spawning horseshoe crabs throughout the Bay region began to decline.  There was a call to develop a coast-wide Horseshoe Crab Fishery Management Plan (FMP) – the goal being to balance the needs of the divergent user groups with the health and sustainability of the crab population.
            Eventually the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) adopted an FMP that included a state-by-state quota system to manage the coast-wide horseshoe crab harvest.  They also established an extensive reserve off the coasts of Delaware and New Jersey that would provide vital habitat protection for the development of sub-adult horseshoe crabs in an area that had been heavily harvested by trawlers.
            Despite a plethora of regulations, the debate continued and intensified.  Birders and environmental groups cited growing concerns over declines in shorebird populations and pressured for a moratorium on harvesting; fishermen felt scientific data on horseshoe crab populations was uncertain, that their harvests had already been cut back, and they lobbied for no further restrictions.  Obviously, the issues were many and were all inexorably intertwined.  There seemed to be no quick and easy solution.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

From Out of the Past - Part XII

          Horseshoe crabs are also used as bait in the Delaware Bay whelk pot fishery industry.  Domestically, whelk meat is used principally in ethnic markets in the Northeast United States, whereas international use is concentrated in Asia.  Whelk fishing has grown substantially over the years due primarily to the rules and restrictions placed on other fisheries.  Several Canadian provinces are stepping up efforts to produce raw whelk meat products for markets in Korea, Japan and China.  Just as in the eel industry, whelk pot fishermen typically used whole crabs (one female [preferred] or two males) to bait each pot.
          For many years the eel and whelk markets were relatively small and largely unregulated. However, they were closely tied to horseshoe crabs; simply because the crabs were the bait of choice for capturing these seafood delicacies.  Then, in the latter part of the 20th century the markets – particularly in the Orient – expanded exponentially.  More people wanted more eel and more people wanted more conch.  This could only mean one thing - a rapidly expanding need for horseshoe crabs as eel and whelk bait.
          Not surprisingly, the demand for horseshoe crabs exploded as well.  Large boats trawled and dredged the bottom of Delaware Bay during spawning season gathering thousands of crabs at one time.  Large refrigerated tractor-trailers lined the roadways flanking Delaware Bay beaches to collect these masses of crabs and haul them away to New York, Massachusetts, and Virginia.  It was a time for making lots of money and anyone with access to a flatbed truck or large transport vehicle could make a considerable sum of cash in a short amount of time.
          Just as the horseshoe crab population was beginning to rebound due to the demise of the fertilizer industry, the “crabs-for-bait” pressure was added to the mix.  Since horseshoe crabs take approximately 9-11 years to reach sexual maturity, the mass harvesting of egg-laden females had the potential to have a significant and potentially negative effect on populations…perhaps for many years.  Added into this formula was an epidemic of studies indicating that migrating shorebirds, which are dependent upon horseshoe crabs eggs for their ultimate survival, might also be negatively impacted.
          Pressures increased.  There was an environmental pressure on horseshoe crabs from the watermen who need the crabs for bait, a market pressure from the eel and conch industry for adequate supplies of this food source – a food source that was caught primarily with the use of crabs as bait, and a conservation pressure from environmentalists and birders who were afraid that substantial declines in crab populations would translate into substantial declines in shorebird populations.  An additional pressure from the biomedical industry on their need for horseshoe crabs for LAL bleeding made for an interesting and most problematic environmental and economic conundrum.  The horseshoe crab “industry” needed to be managed to ensure the survival of the species as well as the survival of all the constituents dependent upon this prehistoric creature.  By the mid 1990s there was a siren call for legislation.