History Of The Horseshoe Crab Fishery
A commercial fishery for horseshoe crabs has existed since the 19th century. Early on, horseshoe crabs were harvested primarily for fertilizer and animal feed. Typically, crabs were collected by hand on beaches during the spawning season or by pound nets. Huge numbers were collected during the spawning season as the crabs became concentrated on mid-Atlantic beaches. In fact, between the 1870’s and 1920’s, annual harvests in the Delaware Bay averaged over one million crabs.
This fishery eventually declined for several reasons. First, competition from chemical fertilizers developed starting in the 1930’s. Second, the horseshoe crab population declined. And lastly, the public complained about the odor caused by large numbers of dead horseshoe crabs processed at fertilizer and animal feed factories. In the 1950’s to the 1980’s, reported commercial harvests were almost non-existent. However, no mandatory reporting requirements existed for horseshoe crabs during this period. Commercial harvesting of the crabs continued throughout this time period but not reported. These harvests appear to have been localized and limited because horseshoe crab populations steadily recovered.
Since the 1980’s several new fisheries have developed for horseshoe crabs. Horseshoe crabs are harvested as bait to catch American eel (Anguilla rostrada) and whelk (Busycon spp.), commonly referred to as “conch”. Increased demand in these fisheries led to a dramatic increase in the horseshoe crab harvest during the 1990’s and led to coast-wide management of horseshoe crabs. Horseshoe crab landing data is available from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
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Raising Horseshoe Crabs in the Classroom
- Stacy Epperson
Aquatic Resource Education Dept
Department of Natural Resources
580 Taylor Ave., E-2
Annapolis, MD 21401