NOAA 2000-116
Contact: Gordon Helm


NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service is considering banning fishing for horseshoe crabs in federal waters off the mouth of Delaware Bay to provide additional protection for local stocks, and 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. The agency has published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking and is seeking public comment on the proposal.

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. The ASMFC has also recommended a prohibition on fishing for horseshoe crabs in federal waters within a 30 nautical mile radius of the mouth of Delaware Bay.

"The proposed closure will offer protection for horseshoe crabs in federal waters, particularly for the Delaware Bay stock" said Richard Schaefer, head of the agency's Office of Intergovernmental and Recreational Fisheries. "Improving protection for horseshoe crabs will promote long term sustainability for fisheries that depend on horseshoe crabs for bait, research and medical purposes, and ensure an ample supply of horseshoe crab eggs for food for migratory shorebirds."

"The commission's actions, coupled with the NOAA Fisheries proposal, should provide protection for the resource, forage for shorebirds, maintain some semblance of historic harvest, and improve the scientific basis for management," said Dieter Busch, program director of the ASMFC's Interstate Fisheries Management Program.

Because there is little information available for coast-wide stock assessment of horseshoe crab abundance, and there have been recent increases and shifts of reported mid-Atlantic landings of horseshoe crabs from state to federal waters, NOAA Fisheries managers consider it important to propose these regulations to protect the Delaware Bay horseshoe crab population. The managers also said that they will propose permitting and reporting requirements for vessels that catch horseshoe crabs in federal waters, and dealers that sell them, along with prohibiting at-sea vessel transfers of horseshoe crabs, which are not currently counted among state quotas.

These regulations, if implemented, will be put in place through the authority of the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act which gives the Department of Commerce authority to implement compatible measures to the interstate commission's fishery management plans.

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. They are most abundant from Virginia to New Jersey with their center of abundance being around the Delaware Bay area. 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, whelk, and catfish fisheries.

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, the District of Columbia, and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, are 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.

Comments on the proposal will be accepted through June 2, 2000. Send written comments to Richard Schaefer, Chief, Staff Office for Intergovernmental and Recreational Fisheries, NMFS, Suite 425, 8484 Georgia Avenue, Silver Spring, MD, 20910.