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Horseshoe crab sanctuary advocates say DNREC must enforce harvesting rules

A group of horseshoe crabs along the Delaware Bay, where the world's largest population of the ancient 

come each year to spawn from May to June.
Quinn Kirkpatrick
Delaware Public Media
A group of horseshoe crabs along the Delaware Bay.

The annual horseshoe crab spawning season is approaching and a number of conservationists are urging Delaware environmental officials to step up enforcement of a ban on horseshoe crab harvesting.

The call for the First State to effectively enforce its harvesting rules comes after a handful of harvesters violated the rules at Kitts Hummock in 2023.

This week, contributor Jon Hurdle examines the response to the violations at Kitts Hummock and what to expect this year.

Contributor Jon Hurdle reports on horseshoe crab harvesting in Delaware

Conservationists are urging Delaware environmental officials to step up enforcement of a ban on the harvest of horseshoe crabs during the spawning season in May and June this year after a handful of harvesters violated the rules at Kitts Hummock in Kent County at about the same time in 2023.

Most residents of that community, together with 10 other towns along a 15-mile stretch of coastline, have declared their bayfront properties part of a sanctuary for horseshoe crabs, which come ashore in their thousands to lay their eggs every spring.

By signing up to the sanctuary, residents agree not to allow horseshoe crab harvesting on their properties, and not to “harden” their waterlines by installing bulkheads or riprap which stop the crabs finding the sandy beaches they need to lay their eggs.

Kitts Hummock has been a member of the sanctuary since 2002 but the agreement has no legal status, and exists alongside rules set by the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control which allows individual property owners to obtain permits for harvesters to take the crabs from their properties.

Last spring, about four Kitts Hummock homeowners invited hand-harvesters to take horseshoe crabs from their properties, according to several sanctuary-supporting residents, and the Ecological Research & Development Group (ERDG), a Dover-based nonprofit that leads the sanctuary.

During about two weeks in June last year, the harvesters used carts and boats to gather the crabs, which are used for commercial fishery bait.

Horseshoe crabs in wire cages on the beach at Kitts Hummock after being harvested in June 2023.
Anonymous Kitts Hummock resident
Horseshoe crabs in wire cages on the beach at Kitts Hummock after being harvested in June 2023.

But the harvesters violated their permits by also gathering crabs also from adjoining properties whose owners have signed up to the sanctuary, and from the intertidal zone on the beach, which is owned by the state, and therefore is off-limits to crab harvesting during the spawning season.

Two Kitts Hummock residents who are said by sanctuary supporters to have hosted crab harvesters last year did not respond to requests for comment.

The activity produced confrontations between residents and harvesters, and confused visitors, some from overseas, who come to Kitts Hummock each spring to watch the ancient creatures spawn, according to Glenn Gauvry, president of ERDG.

“We send people to all these beaches to watch horseshoe crabs spawn, and all of a sudden we’re on Kitts Hummock beach and there’s these watermen walking on the beach with trolleys throwing crabs in them and there’s these guys with hip waders picking the crabs out of the shallow water and putting them in their boats,” Gauvry said. “It was confusing to the public and it was infuriating to the residents.”

Sanctuary supporters fear a repetition in this year’s spawning season, and have asked DNREC to clarify its rules and send its conservation police to ensure that any harvesters operate only on the properties that have obtained permits from the agency.

“Until there is a comprehensive solution – with lucid and enforceable guidelines established by DNREC – it will be challenging for us to offer concrete guidance to other ERDG sanctuaries that may confront similar issues,” Gauvry wrote to Matt Ritter, the agency’s community relations officer, last October.

Matt Tonn, a six-year resident of Kitts Hummock who supports the sanctuary, said he told one of last year’s harvesters that he was not allowed to take horseshoe crabs but the man rejected that argument and continued to collect the crabs. Tonn said he’s concerned that the harvesters might be invited back this year, and urged DNREC to strictly enforce its rules. He said officials were responsive to his complaints last year but he then heard three different interpretations of the rules from three different officials, and so is worried that the agency won’t have the clarity to enforce its own rules.

“I would just like them to enforce the law,” he said.

The rules ban the harvest of horseshoe crabs on private land during the spawning season “unless the person is in physical possession of written permission, signed by the owner of the privately owned land with the owner's address and phone number, indicating the person to whom permission to collect horseshoe crabs is granted,” according to Title 7, section 3 of the Delaware Code.

The code also bans the harvest of horseshoe crabs from a sanctuary except for people holding permits between June 8 and July 31 on state lands to the east of Port Mahon Road.

DNREC spokesman Michael Globetti confirmed that a few crab harvesters last year “illegally expanded their harvesting range beyond property that was approved for harvest”. He said property owners have a right to invite crab-harvesters on to their land or to support the sanctuary.

DNREC police responded to complaints from residents about the harvest last spring but did not address all of them because “there were questions about property rights as well as the illegal harvest that had occurred,” Globetti said.

Since then, the agency has worked with the state Attorney General’s office to determine DNREC’s authority over horseshoe crab harvesting at Kitts Hummock. DNREC will also send letters to harvesters and residents who have permits for them to clarify that they may only take crabs from those properties, Globetti said.

"DNREC is confident that these steps taken... will address community concerns while also ensuring that any hand harvesting of horseshoe crabs in Kitts Hummock is done legally under DNREC’s authority."
Michael Globetti, DNREC spokesman

“DNREC is confident that these steps taken in conjunction with the Delaware Attorney General’s office will address community concerns while also ensuring that any hand harvesting of horseshoe crabs in Kitts Hummock is done legally under DNREC’s authority,” he said.

Statewide, the fishing industry is allowed to catch some 164,000 male crabs in Delaware waters this year, according to a quota set by the federal Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and enforced by the State of Delaware. For the 2023 season, the commission considered allowing the harvest of female horseshoe crabs to restart after a 10-year ban, but dropped that plan, and has kept the male-only harvest in place for 2024.

In October last year, the commission said the number of horseshoe crabs in the bay had risen to the highest since 2003 because of its conservation strategy. But it left the female harvest quota at zero this year in light of public concern about the population of the red knot, a federally threatened shorebird that migrates via Delaware Bay beaches each spring. The birds eat horseshoe crab eggs to regain weight and complete a long-distance migration to Arctic Canada from South America.

In Delaware, naturalists are pressing state lawmakers to introduce a bill to ban the horseshoe crab harvest altogether. They argue that it threatens the survival of species that depend on the crabs, notably the red knot.

“In spite of reports from researchers from across the country addressing the threats to the American horseshoe crab, Delaware lawmakers are still in denial about those threats,” said Steve Cottrell, president of Delaware Audubon, an environmental nonprofit. “Instead, input from fishing industry lobbyists is relied on as gospel, as is the talking point ‘there is no shortage of horseshoe crabs.’"

A boat used for harvesting horseshoe crabs from shallow water off Kitts Hummock beach in June 2023.
Anonymous Kitts Hummock resident
A boat used for harvesting horseshoe crabs from shallow water off Kitts Hummock beach in June 2023.

The number of red knots migrating through the Delaware Bay edged up to about 22,000 in spring 2023, according to an in-person count by naturalists on both sides of the bay. That was a modest increase from recent years but still sharply lower than around 90,000 that visited before an over-harvest of horseshoe crabs in the late 1990s and early 2000s caused the birds’ population to crash, and raised fears that it was headed for extinction.

But the fisheries commission, which uses a model-based method to count the birds, says about 42,000 red knots passed through the bay on migration last year.

Of the latest in-person count, only about 10 percent were in Delaware, reflecting the state’s continuing crab harvest, naturalists say. They argue that the much higher number on the New Jersey side of the bay reflects that state’s 16-year ban on horseshoe crab harvesting for bait, plus its closure of crucial beaches during the migration.

Advocates’ calls for a Delaware law banning the harvest are focused on Sen. Stephanie Hansen, chair of the Senate’s Environment, Energy and Transportation Committee, who has championed other environmental causes including offshore wind.

But Hansen (D-Middletown) said she has no plans to introduce a horseshoe crab bill this session because the current protections appear to be building up the crab population. With an estimated 30 million in the bay, Delaware’s current quota of 164,000 is less than half of one percent of the total, she said.

“Indications based on science and data are that the current limits on harvesting are working, and our vital horseshoe crab population now appears to be increasing,” Hansen wrote in an email.

State Rep. Debra Heffernan (D- Brandywine Hundred) chair of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, said she too has no plans to introduce a bill to ban the horseshoe crab harvest.

But Hansen said her position may change if the federal government determines that the crabs are threatened or endangered, or that their habitat is designated as critical. In February, 26 conservation groups including Delaware Audubon and the Delaware Ornithological Society asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to determine whether to list the crabs which the petitioners said are threatened by climate change, sea-level rise, habitat loss, and over-fishing.

Hansen said she has urged the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to take an ecosystem-wide approach to protecting horseshoe crabs; called on the pharmaceutical industry to use a synthetic product rather than crab blood to test for toxins in medical products, and met with DNREC to ensure that harvest quotas are enforced.

Her concern for the crabs’ protection is based on their prominent role in Delaware’s history, ecology and culture, she said.

“I’m not villainizing DNREC... Until the questions can be answered in a definitive way, there’s no way that code enforcement knows what to do.”
Glenn Gauvry, President of ERDG

“There is no other animal more closely associated with Delaware than the nearly 500 million-year-old arthropod whose breeding sustains a number of shorebirds as part of a fragile ecosystem that attracts thousands of scientists and tourists to our state every year,” she said.

At Kitts Hummock, crab harvesters are likely to be back during the upcoming spawning season unless DNREC clarifies its rules and does a better job of enforcing them, predicted Gauvry of ERDG.

He said that while the sanctuary worked as it was designed to, DNREC’s enforcement was enough to protect horseshoe crabs but now that the sanctuary appears to be threatened by a small number of residents and harvesters, the agency needs to find a solution.

“I’m not villainizing DNREC,” he said. “For 20-something years they didn’t have a problem with sanctuaries, and now they have a problem. They are not going to sort it out unless there’s some pressure on them to do so. Until the questions can be answered in a definitive way, there’s no way that code enforcement knows what to do.”

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Jon has been reporting on environmental and other topics for Delaware Public Media since 2011. Stories range from sea-level rise and commercial composting to the rebuilding program at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and the University of Delaware’s aborted data center plan.