Govt. Kathy Hochul last week signed into law a measure that gives the state vast new powers to regulate the commercial harvest of crabs, including measures that could sharply limit the taking of horseshoe crabs.
Under the law, the state Department of Environmental Conservation has until the end of 2024 to create new regulations for “crabs of any kind,” including horseshoe crabs, which are used primarily as bait by Long Island fishermen to catch whelk and eels. Live horseshoe crabs’ are also used in the pharmaceutical industry to make a blood-clotting agent.
But whether the new law will result in tighter rules to manage the fishery is in question. The DEC, in a statement in response to questions from Newsday, said it has been “proactively managing this resource for several years and does not plan to implement new regulations in the coming year.”
The bill was introduced by Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) and State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), at the behest of conservation groups such as the Sierra Club and the Seatuck Environmental Association. Passage of the law follows a 2019 finding by a fisheries management agency that the New York horseshoe crab population was in “poor condition.”
Under the bill, the DEC would be able to impose new size, catch and possession limits on the crabs, while instituting new restrictions on seasonal harvest and lunar cycles — key because horseshoe crabs crowd local beaches to mate during the full moon. The DEC has already instituted closures around the spring full moons. The bills could also limit the taking of crabs while they are mating, in a position known as amplexus.
The bill also would institute new record-keeping requirements for taking of crabs, limit the types of gear used to harvest them and regulate the transportation, possession and sale of crabs.
The bill also includes new restrictions on the commercial harvest of Jonah crabs, to keep the state in compliance with management plans adopted by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, an interstate fisheries management agency. Failure to set new Jonah-crab limits, the bill says, could result in the closure of the New York Jonah crab fishery.
The DEC already has extensive rules for the harvesting of horseshoe and other crabs. Currently, fishermen can take 150 per day off certain beaches (Fire Island is closed to harvesting), with restrictions around the full moon. The 2022 year-round season had two closures — from May 28 to June 1, and from June 12 to June 16, during the mating season.
The DEC said those closures and reduced daily trip limits, first implemented in 2020, “allow the crabs to spawn and lay eggs on shore without interruption.” The state,
DEC said, actively manages the resource and “adjusts harvest with extensive annual monitoring.”
One fisherman said the existing restrictions are more than adequate.
“I think we’ve compromised enough,” said commercial fisherman Tom Gariepy of Bluepoint, who uses the crabs for bait and provides to four other fishermen. New York fishermen, most of whom hand-harvest the crabs, have not made the state’s 150,000-crab annual limit for at least the past two years, Gariepy said.
“We were hoping they’d go back to 200 crabs [a day] this year, but they didn’t,” he said, noting there’s been “significantly less harvest” during the last two years. He noted that fewer fishermen than ever harvest horseshoe crabs, in part because new size limits on whelk have limited the horseshoe-crab bait market.
Still, Gariepy said, when he fishes for horseshoe crabs on local beaches, he’s often harassed by people who don’t understand he has a license to harvest. “This year was the most harassment I’ve ever experienced,” he said, of beachgoers who tell him to leave the crabs alone. May, he said, is the best time to harvest the crabs.
John Tanacredi, a professor in earth and environmental studies at Molloy University and director of the school’s Center for Environmental Research and Coast Oceans Monitoring, said while the new law may provide a “modicum of protection” to horseshoe crabs, he wants the state to instead eliminate the use of horseshoe crabs for bait.
“It’s not a bait animal and it should not be taken for bait,” he said.