Crab measure may aid endangered birds

 SANDY BAUERS – PHILLY.COM

After vetoing an open-ended moratorium on harvesting horseshoe crabs last month, the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council yesterday unanimously endorsed a one-year moratorium.

Whether it actually will take effect is unclear.

Environmentalists and bird biologists had sought the limit to help the red knot, a small shorebird that feeds on the crab eggs.

The bird, which migrates from the tip of South America to the Arctic, stops on Delaware Bay to refuel just as the crabs are coming ashore to spawn.

Heavy crab harvests in the 1990s led to a reduction in the number of crabs, and the birds have declined as well. Biologists say they could go extinct in a matter of years.

But yesterday’s action still left the question of the harvest in limbo, returning the issue to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The council only has the authority to approve or veto proposals by the DEP. It cannot initiate measures itself.

“Basically, what we did is reverse the process,” said council member Edward Goldman. “We’re saying to the commissioner, ‘This is what we like.’ ”

It’s now up to commissioner Lisa P. Jackson “to say whether she’s on board,” Goldman said.

The DEP did not immediately comment on the action.

The moratorium would last for one year, and then allow a males-only harvest of 100,000 crabs, which conforms to limits set by a multistate fisheries agency, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

The crabs are used as bait for conch and eel, which are exported to the Asian food market.

Environmentalists who had pushed for the moratorium criticized the action as too little, too late.

Since last month’s veto, the groups initiated bills in both houses of the state legislature and have been pushing for their passage before a six-week recess later this month.

They vowed to continue.

“The legislature is poised to intervene to protect the public’s interests in conservation of the state’s irreplaceable natural resources. This half-hearted measure won’t change that,” Delaware Riverkeeper Maya van Rossum said in a statement today.

The pending legislation would continue the moratorium until the red knot population has recovered or until the adoption of a fisheries management plan that guarantees a more-than-adequate number of eggs for the birds.

“Anything short of that is inadequate and unacceptable,” said Eric Stiles, New Jersey Audubon’s vice president for conservation, in a statement.

But Erling Berg, a member of the council, said the issue did not belong in the legislature. “This is a more proper process,” he said. He said the council felt yesterday’s vote would return control of the resource to them, “which is where it belongs.”

Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com.

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