HORSESHOE CRAB TELLS TALE – BUT WHAT?

Burlington County Times, April 23, 2001

My first reaction when I’d heard that George W. Bush had nominated Christine Todd Whitman, then governor of New Jersey, to head the Environmental Protection Agency was: horseshoe crabs.

The problem is that I couldn’t remember whether she was for or against them.

It turns out that I wasn’t alone in my confusion. In the days and weeks following her nomination and subsequent confirmation, the environmentalists seemed evenly split. Just as many praised her efforts in New Jersey – for farm preservation and open space acquisition – as denounced her for not having done enough or for actually having harmed the environment, mostly through cuts in government funding.

And now she finds herself in a dilemma. Does she obey her boss and help him renege on his campaign promises to reduce carbon monoxide emissions? Does she allow high levels of arsenic to remain in our water supplies? Or does she stand by her testimony during her confirmation hearings and work towards making our air and water cleaner?

Fortunately for her, opening the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling isn’t under her cabinet department, so she can ignore the fact that she was appointed by a man who made his money in the oil industry. But she never should have ignored the fact that he was also the governor of the most highly polluted state in the Union.

The problem with writing a column that appears only twice a month is that issues are “so yesterday” (as my teenaged son would say) by the time they’re published in the paper. But I have a good reason for rehashing this issue – spring is coming and the horseshoe crabs will soon be returning. And Christie Whitman’s handling of the horseshoe crab controversy – how she weighed the needs of commercial fisheries against her responsibility to safeguard the balance of nature – may give us a key to understanding her current quandary. How does one remain in office – whether elected or appointed – and serve constituencies that are in complete opposition to each other?

Some background: horseshoe crabs have been around for, oh, a couple of hundred million years or so, give or take a few. Let’s put it this way – they’d have felt right at home in Jurassic Park. They’re actually closer biologically to spiders than to crabs, which right away puts them on the bottom of most people’s lists of favorites. (Please, no angry letters or e-mails. I know that spiders are terrific creatures and highly beneficial in gardens. But they still give me the creeps.)

Horseshoe crabs spend most of their time trolling the mud at the bottom of bays munching on marine worms and shellfish. In May and June, they come up onto the beaches – 90% of the horseshoe crabs in North America congregate along the Delaware Bay – to spawn. They tend to be very loyal, returning to the same nesting sites year after year. Each female lays an average of 3,650 eggs per nest, and often produce several nests. During the spawning season, one female can lay as many as 88,000 eggs. If the eggs survive (more on that below), the horseshoe crabs then take 9-10 years to reach sexual maturity and can live to be 16-17 years old.

With such a long life-span and so many eggs, it wouldn’t seem as though horseshoe crabs would be endangered. And, theoretically, they’re not. It’s the shorebirds, in particular the Red Knots and Ruddy Turnstones, that rely on the horseshoe crab eggs to refuel during migration which are in danger of extinction. According to one study, after flying 7,000 miles from southern Brazil, a Red Knot needs to eat 135,000 horseshoe crab eggs to double its weight before continuing for a further 1,000 miles to the Canadian Arctic. And the only place it will find horseshoe crab eggs in such abundance is in the Delaware Bay.

One bad spawning season, caused by adverse weather conditions or heavy surfs, will not effect the stability of the horseshoe crab population. And because of their long life span, effects may not be seen for 10 years. But several decades of human harvesting of female horseshoe crabs with their eggs, to be used as bait for eels, conch, whelk and other delicacies, began to take its toll. And the effects were seen first by ornithologists concerned about the declining numbers of migrating shorebirds.

Here’s where Christie Whitman stepped in. In May, 1997, she enacted a 60-day moratorium on the commercial harvesting of horseshoe crabs. She later extended the ban, putting severe limitations on the amounts of horseshoe crabs that could be harvested and the times during which it could be done. Virginia and Maryland followed suit and have proposed complete moratoria on capturing the horseshoe crabs. This past February, despite a Presidential administration that has always been pro-business and is showing itself to be increasingly anti-environment, the National Marine Fisheries Service set aside1,500 square miles as a protected area when it banned fishing for horseshoe crabs in federal waters off the mouth of Delaware Bay.

It’s easy to say that the horseshoe crabs survived for 250 million years without special protection. But for 99.9% of that time, they didn’t have to contend with their biggest enemy – us. And, therefore, I can’t help but worry about the future of these regulations under. Will the Federal government stand firm, or will it give in to the intense lobbying efforts of the fishing industry and once again open the Delaware Bay to unlimited collection of horseshoe crabs?

And how will Christie react? If the President orders more cutbacks on environmental protections, which of her bosses will she obey: the President (she may have been confirmed by the Congress, but he is the one she must answer to) or the American people?

But at least now my original question is answered: Christie was for the horseshoe crabs.

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