New horseshoe crab rules might help migrating shorebirds
May 20, 2022 — The state of Connecticut has set new rules in hopes of protecting horseshoe crabs. The shorebirds that eat the crabs’ eggs might benefit as well.
The rules shorten the season for commercial fishing of horseshoe crabs and lower by 70% the number of crabs that can be caught.
The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CT DEEP) made the changes because horseshoe crab numbers have plummeted in Long Island Sound.
Connecticut Audubon’s network of grassroots advocates sent emails, made phone calls, and submitted testimony to help persuade officials to adopt the changes. Those advocates deserve a sincere thank you for speaking out!
Connecticut Audubon and its members also supported legislation in Hartford that would have banned commercial fishing for horseshoe crabs altogether. That bill passed the House unanimously but was not brought to the floor for a vote in the Senate, killing it for this year.
The new regulations though might be enough to help birds such as the Red Knot and Semipalmated Sandpiper, which rely on horseshoe crab eggs for food during their migration through Connecticut.
Both species have suffered huge population drops in recent decades, an issue discussed in detail in our 2021 Connecticut State of the Birds report. Red Knots are listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and Semipalmated Sandpiper populations have fallen by 80%.
Commercial fishermen catch horseshoe crabs by hand to use as bait for eel and whelk. Under the old rules, the maximum daily catch was 500 crabs a day. Now that number is 150.
The easiest time to catch horseshoe crabs by hand is when they move onshore to lay their eggs, which they do during the new and full moons in May and June.
So the fishing season has been shortened, and its dates have been linked to the phases of the moon rather than to a calendar day. That ensures that the crabs can lay their eggs on whichever dates the new and full moons occur.
The official language from the CT DEEP says: ”The opening of the horseshoe crab commercial season will move from May 22 to the calendar date three days after the last full or new moon in May. No person shall engage in the harvest of horseshoe crabs during the period beginning two days prior to the date of the first full or new moon in June, whichever comes first, and ending two days after the date of said moon.”
Here’s what that means for 2022. The last new moon of May is on May 30. So the commercial fishing season opens June 2, instead of May 22.
It closes again two days before the first full moon of June, which this year is on June 14, and reopens two days later. So fishing is not allowed from June 12 through 16.
After the season reopens on June 17, it runs through July 7, weekdays only.
And as in the past, horseshoe crab fishing continues to be banned in Milford, Stratford, West Haven, and Westbrook.
In recent years, about a dozen licensed fishermen have caught between 15,000 and 30,000 horseshoe crabs a year in Connecticut. The CT DEEP estimates that the new regulations will reduce the horseshoe crab take by about 62%.
So the new regulations would reduce the annual catch to about 5,700 to 11,400.
The hoped-for result would be more crabs coming ashore, more crab eggs hatching and growing into adulthood, and more crab eggs for birds to eat.