A fisheries regulator unexpectedly extended a ban on harvesting female horseshoe crabs in Delaware Bay on Thursday to help protect a vital food source for the endangered red knot, a shorebird that migrates via bay beaches.
An Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission board voted to maintain a decade-old zero quota on female crabs in a closely watched meeting that set the year’s crab catch next by the fishing industry in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.
The decision rejected a plan that would have allowed the industry to catch around 150,000 female crabs in 2023, the first harvest of females proposed in 10 years.
The plan had been attacked by conservationists who argued that resuming the harvest of females would further reduce food for red knots and other migrating shorebirds that depend on bay crab eggs for flight. long distance each spring from South America to breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic.
The bird population is also under pressure from the biomedical industry, which uses an extract of crab blood to detect bacteria in medical products and draws blood from an undisclosed number of Delaware Bay crabs each year. . Although the crabs are returned to the water after being bled, some die or are unable to reproduce, contributing to a reduction in the food supply for shorebirds, conservationists say.
The knot population dropped sharply from the early 2000s in response to overexploitation of horseshoe crabs as bait on bay beaches. Bird numbers have fallen to a record low of 6,880 in 2021, from around 90,000 in the 1990s, according to a tally by conservationists.
The commission, using a model-based method for population counts, disputed the conservationists’ count and estimated the knot population to be stable at around 45,000.
Yet the council abandoned its plan to restart female harvesting, saying it wanted to balance the needs of the fishery and the bay’s ecosystem and in recognition of public demand for the node’s protection.
“Recognizing public concern about the population status of Red Knots in Delaware Bay, the council has chosen to implement a zero female horseshoe crab harvest for the 2023 season as a conservative measure” , the commission said in a statement.
In 2021, the commission proposed restarting the 2023 harvest, saying the population of female bay crabs had more than doubled to around 11 million. The projected catch of female crabs would represent less than 2% of the population and therefore would not harm the crabs or the birds, the commission argued in its proposal.
On Thursday it acknowledged the birds’ reliance on crab eggs and the council set a harvest limit of 475,000 male horseshoe crabs just for the 2023 season.
Conservationists hailed the decision, saying it would improve the survival prospects of the knot and other shorebirds, including the semipalmated sandpiper and the Ruddy turnstone, whose numbers have also suffered from the harvest of crabs over the past 20 years.
“We are grateful that the commission listened to the public and did not authorize a harvest that would further endanger the Red Knot and further deplete the Delaware Bay ecosystem,” said Ben Levitan, attorney for Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm representing conservation groups that had criticized the commission’s plan.
Mr Levitan urged the commission to release details of its computer modeling if it backtracked on the harvesting of females.
“Going forward, the commission should allow full public involvement and respond to scientific criticism before any harvest expansion is considered again,” he said.
Allowing female crabs to be harvested again would have sped nodes’ path to extinction, said Christian Hunt of advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife. “Knots depend on horseshoe crab eggs during their long migration. With fewer eggs, there will be fewer birds,” he said.
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