NOAA 2000-141
Contact: Gordon Helm


Secretary of Commerce Norman Y. Mineta today joined Delaware Governor Thomas R. Carper in announcing a proposed federal preserve to protect horseshoe crabs in state and federal waters off the mouth of Delaware Bay. The proposed federal preserve, part of a state/federal program, would provide additional protection for local horseshoe crabs by prohibiting their harvest in a prime spawning area.

This preserve would help ensure plentiful numbers of horseshoe crabs for fishermen outside the area for years to come. Overfishing of horseshoe crabs has caused a regional decline of the 350-million-year-old crab that provides medical benefits, food for migratory birds, and bait for fishermen.

"One of my major priorities as Secretary of Commerce is protecting our oceans and environment. Horseshoe crabs are an important part of the Atlantic coast ecosystem, providing food for migrating seabirds, and are essential for both fishing and medical purposes. Creating this preserve would help protect a valuable natural resource," Secretary Mineta said. "It is imperative that we do everything we can to protect the horseshoe crab, especially here in the Delaware Bay, which is home to the largest population of American horseshoe crabs."

"Establishing a moratorium as soon as possible is essential for the preservation of the horseshoe crab," Governor Carper said. "The fate of the horseshoe crab is in jeopardy, and Delaware Bay contains one of the world's greatest concentrations of this species. We must take necessary steps to employ sound, scientific-based conservation measures for horseshoe crabs."

The proposed horseshoe crab preserve would be located in federal waters off the mouth of Delaware Bay closing an area approximately 60 nautical miles long and 30 nautical miles wide. The area proposed for closure adjoins state waters south of Atlantic City, New Jersey, to just north of Ocean City, Maryland. This area was proposed because horseshoe crabs are most abundant from Virginia to New Jersey, with their center of abundance being around the Delaware Bay area. The proposed closure would prohibit anyone from fishing for horseshoe crabs within approximately a 30 nautical mile radius off the mouth of Delaware Bay.

Today's announcement is part of coast-wide efforts to reduce the harvest of these unique animals, officials say. If adopted, the closure would take effect by October 30.

All Atlantic coastal states must reduce their horseshoe crab bait catch by 25 percent under guidelines established by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in its horseshoe crab fishery management plan. In a related move, the National Marine Fisheries Service declared a moratorium on horseshoe crab fishing in Virginia state waters. The moratorium, which will go into effect mid-September, would be lifted if Virginia complies with fishing quotas agreed to by the other 14 Atlantic coastal states. The ASMFC has also recommended prohibiting fishing for horseshoe crabs in federal waters within a 30 nautical mile radius of the mouth off Delaware Bay.

Horseshoe crabs are an ancient group of marine animals related to spiders. They are bottom-dwelling and utilize both near shore and continental shelf habitats from Mexico to Maine. Horseshoe crabs move inshore in the spring, especially into beach areas to spawn. They prefer to lay their eggs on sandy beaches within bays and coves that are protected from surf. Eggs take about a month to hatch, and upon hatching, larvae spend about a week swimming in the water column before molting and assuming their bottom dwelling life history. NOAA Fisheries estimates that in 1998 about 3 million horseshoe crabs worth about $3 million in landings were collected along the U.S. Atlantic coast for use as bait in eel and whelk fisheries.

Horseshoe crabs also are harvested for use by the medical industry. A portion of their blood is extracted for the testing of bacterial endotoxins in drugs and medical equipment that holds human blood. Once the horseshoe crab blood is removed, the crabs are returned to the sea alive. Officials also want to ensure that declining populations of migratory shorebirds have an abundant source of horseshoe crab eggs upon which to feed when they stop to rest in Delaware Bay before moving north to their Canadian nesting areas.

In May, NOAA fisheries published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking to gather input for a formal proposal to establish the horseshoe crab preserve, and the agency will soon publish that proposal and seek additional public comment.

NOAA Fisheries is responsible for the management of Atlantic horseshoe crabs in federal waters, while the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission, consisting of 15 Atlantic Coast states, is responsible for management oversight of horseshoe crab fisheries in state waters. The New England, Mid-Atlantic, or South Atlantic Fishery Management Councils could develop regulations on horseshoe crabs, but have chosen not to do so. In the absence of a federal fishery management plan, the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act allows the secretary of Commerce to implement regulations in federal waters that complement the interstate commission's management in state waters. ASMFC has also recommended the prohibition on fishing for horseshoe crabs in federal waters within a 30 nautical mile radius off the mouth of Delaware Bay.