NOAA 2001-R104
Contact: Gordon Helm


NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service has banned fishing for horseshoe crabs in federal waters off the mouth of Delaware Bay. The ban provides additional protection for local stocks and ensures that declining populations of migratory shorebirds have an abundant source of horseshoe crab eggs to feed upon when they stop to rest in Delaware Bay before moving north to their Canadian nesting areas. The agency published a final rule that will implement the closed area on March 7, 2001.

All Atlantic coastal states have reduced 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 had 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 area closed to fishing for horseshoe crabs is roughly rectangular in shape and encompasses nearly 1,500 square miles of federal waters off the mouth of Delaware Bay. It adjoins state waters south of Pecks Beach, New Jersey to just north of Ocean City, Md., and is designated as the Carl N. Schuster Jr. Horseshoe Crab Reserve, in honor of an imminent horseshoe crab biologist and researcher.

"The closure will offer protection for horseshoe crabs in federal waters, particularly for the Delaware Bay stock," said Bill Hogarth, acting director of NOAA 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 NOAA Fisheries regulation is a good example of how the federal government and states can work together cooperatively to manage our nation's important marine resources," said John H. Dunnigan, executive 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 implement the no fishing area for horseshoe crabs 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.

The regulations have been put in place under the authority of the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act which gives the Department of Commerce authority to implement federal measures compatible with the interstate commission's fishery management plans.

Horseshoe crabs are an ancient group of marine animals related to spiders. They are bottom-dwelling and are found in 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 1999 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 Fisheries Commission, consisting of 15 Atlantic Coast states, in cooperation with the District of Columbia, and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, is responsible for management oversight of horseshoe crab fisheries state waters. The New England, Mid-Atlantic, or South Atlantic Fishery Management Councils could develop regulations for 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.

A map of the Carl N. Schuster Jr. Horseshoe Crab Reserve is available online: